An American In Paris (1951)

An American In Paris – 1951

Director – Vincente Minnelli

Starring – Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, and Oscar Levant

So I’ll admit it, I have a love affair with all things French.  Paris, specifically, is one of my favorite places ever.  So much so, that occasionally, I have been known to pull up the Google map of the city and street-view surf around to various places that I either want to go, or remember fondly.  Imagine my delight, when I found out that Gene Kelly, the man who was primarily responsible for the best musical ever (Singing in the Rain), was in a movie set in the romantic, free-spirited, and gorgeous streets, and hearts of Paris!  Motherfucking, Paris, son!  So did it stand up to all that hype and ballyhoo?  Almost.

Firstly, lets just get this out of the way.  I don’t think any musical is going to quite equal Singing in the Rain.  The color, the musical numbers, the athleticism, and the practical use of singing and dancing numbers to naturally advance the plot, is not only remarkable, it’s also just not fair measure upon which to hold the competition.  It’s like comparing Total Recall (the Schwarzenegger version, for gods sake) to another Sci-Fi movie.  No comparison, everything else loses.

Okay, so discounting the unfair competition, how was An American in Paris?  Very good.  When preparing for this review, I had a set number of routines in my head that I wanted to talk about, but as I tried to isolate what made each stand out from the others, I’d remember just what elements of the other routines I liked as well.  For instance, possibly my favorite dance number was the description/introduction of the many faces of the film’s love interest, Lise (Leslie Caron).  In said dance number, an admirer explains to his friend just what this siren is like using different styles of dance to illustrate different facets of her personality.  But as I was typing up how that set of mini-routines was so fantastic, I remembered Gene Kelly’s Buster Keaton-esque morning routine putting away his bed, and preparing breakfast.  Awesome, and totally worthy of its own mention.  Each routine, and each song had something like this that made it worth watching, and as such, the ranking system I originally devised doesn’t work out so well when writing about them.

The dancing and choreography were certainly fun to watch, but there were a few times where I would have liked a bit more storytelling instead of dancing just for dancing’s sake.  A prime example would be in the films final dance routine (which, by the way, lasts a full 18 minutes without any dialog of any kind).  Though I liked the tour through the famous french paintings, the stretch was a pretty long one where I found my attention wandering a bit.  By and large though, I found myself engaged (mostly) throughout.  I’m sure I’m not making any real revelation here when I say that Gene Kelly was a pretty competent dancer, so watching him wasn’t really that hard.

When it came to the secondary characters, however, the magic slipped away a little bit faster.  Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant, and Georges Guetary simply were never quite given enough to do, with the exception of accompanying Gene Kelly.  Similarly the plot for those characters seemed a little thin as well…but speaking of plot…

The story goes like this, Gene Kelly plays Jerry Mulligan, a painter.  A rather mediocre one, even by his own admission.  He and his starving artist friends live hand to mouth in a beautiful building on the left bank of the Seine, each struggling and working hard to sell their art, be it painting, piano, or dance.  While out selling his paintings, or trying to, he meets a rather well to do socialite who does all she can to seduce him, and lure him in.  While out on the town with her one evening, Mulligan doesn’t recognize their first date for what it is and finds himself captivated by the beauty at another table.

The trouble comes in when we the audience realize that this girl, the object of his affection, is in a relationship with one of his good friends and is about to be swept off to the wedding chapel with him.  So now Jerry has to pick, between a woman who is the unavailable ideal, or the woman who is the pines after, but is his  clear second choice.  Unfortunately this plot weakens toward the end and seems more like  a formula conducive to the inclusion of dance numbers than it does a reasonable plot that happens to have dance numbers in it.  We never really get a satisfactory resolution for around fifty percent of the stories, they are just left open-ended.

As with the unattainable ideal that is Singing in the Rain, An American in Paris is so vibrant, it nearly causes your brain to explode with colorful seizures.  The set pieces are all fun, especially when they rather faithfully re-create some recognizable Parisian landmarks as with the fountain at Place de la Concorde, or the nest of little book-stalls that exist along the both sides of the Seine.

So, An American in Paris is definitely my second favorite musical that I’ve watched for this list, which isn’t very descriptive considering it exists somewhere between Singing in the Rain (which, we’ve established is fantastic), and West Side Story (which is fucking awful).  That’s like saying something is between noon and midnight, or someone is between a humanitarian and a murderer.  Rest assured that I really enjoyed An American in Paris.  I’ll count myself as super lucky if all of the other musicals on the list are this good!

Paris, Texas (1984)

Paris, Texas – 1984

Director – Wim Wenders

Starring – Harry Dean Stanton, Dean Stockwell, Hunter Carson, and Nastassja Kinski

Director Wim Wenders’ (pronounced Vim Venders) other film on this list, Wings of Desire, made quite an impression on me.  It’s use and juxtaposition of color and black and white imagery to illustrate the perspectives of human beings and angels respectively was so masterfully used that I wasn’t really sure it could be topped.  Combined with the fact that Paris, Texas’ story wasn’t about something so grand and complex as the need for faith and guidance, I thought for sure it would be  a let down.  It turns out, I was wrong on both counts.

Paris, Texas tells the story of Travis, a man who has been wandering the southwestern United States and northern Mexico for the last four years.  When he stops at a farm in Texas, overcome by exhaustion and fatigue, he is brought to a doctor who promptly calls his brother, Walt, to collect him and pay his medical bills.  Once Travis is re-united with his brother he begins the long journey home, reconciling the last four years, reconnecting with his young son, and slowly putting his life back together piece by piece.

Harry Dean Stanton plays the lead role of Travis.  The audience learns about his past the same way his brother (played by Dean Stockwell) does, slowly, as Travis remembers it.  As his history unfolds, Travis eventually learns to trust again, and begins speaking more and more openly about why he vanished and where he’s been.  To tell more than just this basic plot skeleton would be to deny those who haven’t seen it the pleasure of discovering it on their own.  Needless to say, it is a fully realized story with characters that are completely fleshed out (and since it was filmed in the mid-eighties, they are also a bit naive).  I had one or more issues with the placement of responsibility at the end of the film, but by and large was completely won over by this film.

Almost more so than Wings of Desire, the visuals in Paris, Texas are so very arresting.  The world that these characters inhabit is so vivid and saturated with color.  The cinematographer, Robbie Müller, has also worked extensively with another director to come out of the surge of independent film in the late eighties and early nineties, Jim Jarmusch.  Based on his resume, it is no surprise that each scene seems like a living oil painting.  Shadow and color play together on-screen to create a palpable atmosphere, one which is as much a part of the developement of the narrative as the acting, directing, or writing.

Where Wings of Desire sought to use color as a sudden rush of emotion and passion (color does represent the human experience after all), Paris, Texas seeks to overpower your senses, so much so that by the end the real world was looking pretty drab and uninspiring (it doesn’t help that it’s winter in Chicago right now).  Texas, a pretty interesting place what with the diversity of landscape afforded to it by mother nature, has never looked so engaging or as strikingly beautiful.

Based on the two of his films that I’ve seen, Wenders has quite a knack for getting nuanced acting performances and matching them with striking visuals.  A quick review of his resume on IMDb has me wondering why he’s been so busy with films that I haven’t ever heard of.   With talent like his, I would have guessed that some of his films would have garnered more attention (despite the influx in popularity of superhero movies and TV remakes that have been so popular lately).  Unfortunately the latest film whose name I recognize is 2000’s Million Dollar Hotel, which I don’t think was received very warmly by critics or audiences.

Paris, Texas more than stands up as a film that has earned it’s place on this list, as has Wender’s other entry on the list, Wings of Desire.  Who knows, since everything seems to go in cycles, perhaps Wenders will even release a new film to the fanfare of his much celebrated classics (in a year when a Terrence Malick film is coming out, anything can happen.)