Saturday, March 27, 2010

Bigger Than Life

 [Revised 8/15/2011]

In my senior year of high school, I was sufficiently ahead in my English classes that I could take two electives broken up across semesters instead of one year-long course. In the fall, I took the invitingly named "Evil in Literature" course, where my teenage aversion to Shakespeare gave way to stormy love for Othello and I found myself surprisingly captivated by the density of Milton's Paradise Lost. In the Spring came the less-appealing -- in title, at least -- course on Southern literature, which ignited my passion for Flannery O'Connor. Strangely, though, we read little of William Faulkner, perhaps because our teacher thought him too much even for an honors class in a private school. Yet we learned a great deal about Faulkner the man, the self-immolating Romantic who always seemed to teeter on the abyss.

With increased familiarity of both Faulkner's and Nicholas Ray's work in the meantime, I always link the two, if not in the aesthetic approaches they take to their respective media then at least in the doomed, self-annihilating private lives that inform the strain of sacrificial romanticism in their art. Certainly, Humphrey Bogart's grim alcoholic and indifferently received writer in In a Lonely Place recalls Faulkner, who found himself cleaning up scripts for B-pictures to fuel his addiction in the latter stage of his career (some of those screenplays, though, rank among the finest ever produced, such as his brilliantly nonsensical The Big Sleep). Rebel Without a Cause, with its expressionistic fatalism casting a pall over its doomed characters, taps into some of the writer's Southern Gothic vibe without porting over its aesthetic.

Bigger Than Life, the second follow-up to Rebel after Hot Blood, captures the curious balancing act of Faulkner's writing, evident even in his short stories, of managing a loose, stream-of-consciousness style and a steady direction. Of the Ray films I've seen, Bigger Than Life is the most deliberately modulated and paced, building the mounting rage of its school teacher protagonist, Ed Avery (James Mason) through his increasing addiction to cortisone*. Rebel Without a Cause demonstrated that teenagers didn't need to come from a broken home or poverty to feel alienated and outraged, yet Life reveals that those "normal" families aren't quite so nice as they look.

We meet Avery as a genial man, who allows one of his thicker students to leave for Easter break instead of making the poor lad remain in the empty room struggling to come up with the right answer for a question. One of the other teachers, Pat, asks him to give her car a push, but he instead asks another teacher, his best friend Wally (Walter Matthau), to do it in order to set the two up, and he even tells Wally to bring Pat to the bridge party at Ed's house.

At that party, however, we see cracks begin to form. The guests prattle about the most insufferably banal topics imaginable, with one woman claiming that she needs to get a new vacuum cleaner to eradicate the dust in her house before she would consider having a baby. Ed walks into the kitchen to get a drink, and Mason pauses at the refrigerator, choking back his boredom and revulsion until he releases it with a deep sigh. Once the guests leave, even his wife Lou (Barbara Rush, playing the typed '50s wife, obedient and soft-spoken) calls some of their friends, the Joneses, "dull," to which Ed can only chuckle and reply, "We all are." "Can you tell me one thing that was said tonight that was funny, startling, imaginative..." Ed begins, until he suddenly collapses.

The first shot of Ed showed him nursing his head as if in pain, and we learn in the hospital that he's been suffering for six months, but this was his first blackout. A series of tests, which pile up bills for the nervous schoolteacher, reveal that he suffers a rare inflammation of the arteries, and without constant use of cortisone for the rest of his life, he will die. It's a heady proposal, yet the cortisone eliminates the pain and stops the blackouts, and Ed emerges from hospital a new man who feels "10 feet tall." This change in attitude at times seems to be confirmed; Wally later notes that he even looks taller.

But Ed's renewed vigor sours quickly. Pat comes to school in a gorgeous new dress, prompting Ed to take out Lou to buy her a designer dress and shoes before getting his son Richie (Christopher Olsen) a sleek new bike. Ed already took out a second job as a cabdriver to supplement his erstwhile thin income, yet he drops cash as if he'd walked out the hospital having made money instead of facing higher insurance payments. Ray demonstrates Ed's struggle to maintain an image of prosperity through the visual dimensions of the Avery home: the family members often stand in the foreground with long hallways in the back, a visual exaggeration of both the house's unnecessary size and the mountain of debt he no doubt incurred to acquire it. As he took the second job before the film's narrative started, we can infer that he's been living beyond his means for some time; the cortisone only weakened his resolve further.

It is in this sense that Bigger Than Life functions as a document of postwar middle-class ennui in a strikingly similar fashion as Todd Haynes' Safe explored the same subject in the post-Reagan era. Mason has a dignified persona and accent that makes him perfect to play a person like Ed, so desperate to preserve his social status; in essence, Ed strives to rise above his station as a low-paid teacher to live a life befitting the carriage of the actor who plays him. Perhaps the most complete vision of Ed's sad life can be seen in the football Ed keeps on his mantle, a trophy of the high school game he helped win. The deflated football, a reminder of the game he, a third-string substitute, managed to win despite any effort on his part, is one of the most tragic (and tragicomic) images to ever depict the sagging truth of nostalgia and the constantly re-inflated touchstones of a dull life. As Ed gives into the delusions of grandeur that the cortisone loosens in him, that football becomes an ironic counterpoint to his feelings of moral and intellectual superiority.

Ed's breakdown separates him from the society he used to try so desperately to fit into, suddenly finding the world around him distasteful. He comes to see society as a construct that promotes mediocrity, blaming outward forces for the dullness he saw in himself at the start of the film. Yet Ed's madness makes his perceived radical ideas muddied. At a parent-teacher conference, he launches into a rant of the effects of "permissiveness" and "self-expression" on the youth and calls for a return to harsh discipline and instilling of a sense of duty into kids, which naturally wins over the crowd. For all of Ed's new revulsion in society, his proposed solution will stunt any possibility for changing the status quo: he does not really want to better society, only to place himself above it. He's begun to see the truth in society, but he's mixed the good -- progressive education -- and the bad -- stultifying social codes -- into one fetid stew that requires his "fixing."

Much of the success of the film can be attributed to Mason, one of the most versatile and just plain interesting actors of his or any other generation. He had a knack for seeking out established or up-and-coming talent to work with -- he sought out the professionally exiled Michael Powell for Age of Consent and helped secure the young Stanley Kubrick for Lolita -- and he finds his greatest star vehicle in this, a film with almost no commercial prospects in postwar America, where hardly anyone would have cared to see the cultural aspirations and dreams of capitalist dominion laid bare as hollow and perverse. To match Ray's expressionistic visuals, Mason must run the gamut of emotions, from haughtiness to impotence to rage, and his performance is every bit as precisely formed yet explosive and unpredictable as Ray's design.

Mason syncs up perfectly to Ray's direction, which is as striking today as it was then. Bigger Than Life is brightly colored but dimly lit, a dichotomy that subconsciously unsettles the viewer. He constantly looks for ways to shrink the frame: even when characters stand in the exaggerated expanse of the ground floor of the Avery house, Ray segments the characters in the foreground by separating rooms via molded arch prosceniums that break up areas into sections. The lighting allows Ray to play with shadows, which he fashions into suggestive and expressionist visions of horror and dread. The stairwell that leads from the large ground floor, where guests come and marvel at how well the Averys are doing, to the smaller top floor, where the bedroom are located and where much of the conflict takes place, is occasionally filmed in such a way that the bars of the stairs form shadows on the opposite wall. It makes the stairwell into a cage, a tunnel that leads from the lie downstairs to the terrible truth above it. The sight of Ed's shadow looming over Richie as he forces his boy to perform challenging math equations, a gargantuan blackness that dwarfs everything in the room, including Lou's shadow when she enters and stands right next to her husband, is the most frightening use of umbrage since Max Shreck's Count Orlock slunk up the staircase in Nosferatu.

Ray uses his shadows and his colors to instill fear in the audience because it is fear that drives these characters. Lou, a smart, capable woman who nevertheless gave up her own career to conform to society's wishes, will not contact a doctor (and flatly refuses a psychiatrist) to deal with Ed's increasingly erratic and dangerous behavior because she fears the social repercussions that would befall the family if word got out -- notice also that, despite her initial protests at Ed's spending spree, she accepts the lavish clothes. Ed fears his own mediocrity, which gives way to revulsion, aimed at himself, his family and his friend Wally, whose gym teacher physique reminds Ed how out of shape he is. Thus, he invents himself into a guiding figure, for his family and for society. He becomes a caricature of demanding patriarchal figure, seeking to return to harsh upbringings demanding athletic perfection from his son. These are all-too-normal traits of the traditional dad, yet in Mason's hands they become grotesqueries: for all of the truth in modern complaints of the softening of kids, who could watch Ed's psychological torture of Richie -- using the very same football that torments Ed himself -- and pine for the days when children were practically expected to be the receptacles of their parents' failed ambitions and broken dreams? Like Julianne Moore's character in Safe, Ed wants nothing more than to fit back into society, despite his own proclamations of superiority to it. Moore's Carol already existed near the top of the middle class, where Ed wants to redirect himself. But the fact that he wants so dearly to make his way back to society reveals his radicalism as nothing more than a reactionary nostalgia gone horribly awry.

Ray takes the suburban malaise of Rebel Without a Cause and ups the ante: Ed's overblown masculinity and patriarchy proves far, far more damaging than the sight of Jim Backus in an apron. James Dean's Jim Stark cried, "You're tearing me apart!" over his parents' petty squabbling, but poor Richie, who often wears a red jacket reminiscent of Jim's iconic garb, must sit in the middle of the dinner table as his father berates his mother and says that the boy is the only reason he stays in the house. He's caught in a tug-of-war between his mother, who until nearly the end is willing to jeopardize herself and Richie for the sake of keeping their disintegration insular and unseen, and Ed, who literally attempts to kill the son in a mad religious fervor inspired by the story of Abraham and Isaac. But God spared Isaac, he is reminded. "God was wrong!" comes Ed's reply, and the commercial failure of Bigger Than Life is far less surprising that the mystery of how such a line ever made it into a feature in the mid-'50s.

Bigger Than Life is more relevant than ever, with its depiction of people living beyond their means in pursuit of the American Dream. Had the film been made today, Ed likely would have driven his family into foreclosure and an irreconcilable amount of credit card debt. Even the current health care debate finds a link, as Ed, before he gives into madness, considers returning to the hospital but refuses because he "can't get sick again." He cannot afford to miss more work, to incur more bills, and his prescription costs him dearly each month, a problem still facing those who require constant medication. His desperation and fear leads him to terrifying ideas and actions, many of them in direct opposition to what he wants, in the same way that sociopolitical fears have driven some in this country to lunacy and hysteria.

Like Safe, Bigger Than Life ends with false happiness, as Ed lies in the hospital after his attempted child sacrifice and awakens from a coma. He recognizes his family and they make amends, but even as the film ends on uplifting music and a shot of the nuclear family cooled from its meltdown, smiling and laughing, it reminds us that Ed will remain on cortisone, as it is the only medicine that can treat his condition. This is but a gentle reprieve, the eye of the storm, and no one can know what will happen when the side effects arise once more.

*Ray was right to regret giving the pills an official name, as their effects would be even more potent if the audience was made simply to accept them as "pills."


  1. Wow. Fantastic observations on what is probably my favorite Ray film. All one can do here is sit back and admire your keen insights and favorite being this section:

    The stairwell that leads from the large ground floor, where guests come and marvel at how well the Averys are doing, and the smaller top floor, where the bedroom are located and where much of the conflict takes place, is occasionally filmed in such a way that the bars of the stairs form shadows on the opposite wall. It makes the stairwell into a cage, a tunnel that leads from the lie downstairs to the terrible truth above it. The sight of Ed's shadow looming over Richie as he forces his boy to perform challenging math equations, a gargantuan blackness that dwarfs everything in the room, including Lou's shadow when she enters and stands right next to her husband, is the most frightening use of umbrage since Max Shreck's Count Orlock slunk up the staircase in Nosferatu.

    I like the connection to Murnau's film. This is a nicely stated passage, and this entire essay is filled with similar insights. This is one of the best things you've written on here, Jake. Kudos.

    Oh, did you by chance read "The Bear" in your Southern Lit. class? And if you did I sure hope you read the full version.

  2. Oh yeah...and Criterion is beyond awesome in the packaging of their DVD's. The image on the cover is the iconic image from the film, and it makes me want to run out and buy the disc and watch the film again.

  3. Thanks Kevin. I absolutely agree about Criterion. I nearly wrote a post yesterday about the Days of Heaven Blu-Ray. Not an update to my old review but simply a post praising the BD to high heaven. I didn't because I'm not too up on how to judge a movie's audio (my HD TV doesn't have surround sound because I don't have the money) and because I felt like I wanted to review only a work of art (be it film or TV or music or whatever) and not its presentation, I left it alone. Then I looked at how many times I've praised Criterion and just said, "you idiot" to myself.

    I think I might update my Days review soon and spend some time talking about their Blu-Ray of it, which rivals the beauty of their presentation of Che, a film shot 30 years later with innovative digital cameras. As the imagery is the focal point of the film, the film can be said to have improved from the work done on it, and I'm now reconsidering Days from its position as my least favorite Malick (which is weird because I've watched it more than the other three combined).

  4. It's a great drama and a very adequate perspective on the 1950's way of life. My favourite quote is "Childhood is a congenital disease - and the purpose of education is to cure it. We're breeding a race of moral midgets. "

  5. I love that line too. There's a lot of truth in Ed's rants, but his interpretation of and solution to those truths is as bad as the problems themselves. According to the commentary, Ray believed in some of what Ed was saying about softening education and whatnot, but he clearly does not depict Ed's terrifying, reactionary aims to be noble.

  6. Ray uses his shadows and his colors to instill "fear in the audience because it is fear that drives these characters."

    Aye Jake, aye. But you've made so many other brilliant observations in this truly extraordinary review, perhaps my absolute favorite of the lot I've read so far. But it helps of course that I just received by Criterion blu-ray of this title, and that it has always been one of my favorite Rays with ON DANGEROUS GROUND and IN A LONELY PLACE. I saw it at the Film Forum fairly recently, and I will soon look at this highly-praised blu.

    Love the comparison with SAFE and your writing flourish at the end.

  7. I've already decided that trying to pick Ray's best is going to be a fool's errand. I simply love Bigger Than Life, In a Lonely Place and Rebel (though actually I do like that a bit less than the other two) are too good to make the distinction mean much other than to choose the best among equals.

  8. I hear ya Jake!

    LOL, I'll try!!!

    Favorite Rays:

    1 On Dangerous Ground
    2 In A Lonely Place
    3 They Live By Night
    4 Bigger Than Life
    5 Rebel Without A Cause
    6 Johnny Guitar
    7 The Lusty Men
    8 Born to be Bad
    9 Party Girl
    10 The Savage Innocents