Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Bigger Than Life


Bigger Than Life by Nicholas Ray, 1956:

A strong opening replete with classic Nick Ray elements: a tracking shot toward the school, past the seesaw, past the Stars and Stripes / This elementary school does not reside far from the opening of Ray's 1955 Rebel Without a Cause; a more explicitly 'juvenile' locale in Bigger Than Life, but built around strictures not far removed from those of the police station in the previous film — the desks, the corridors, telephones, mahogany / And at a certain rewatch we have to ask ourselves: What are the "extra bills" that this particular teacher, Ed Avery (James Mason), has hanging over his head? — ...he exists in a familial situation not at all unlike those of his fellow colleagues... so...? / He supplements his income working as a dispatcher for the local cab company — he's not even a cabbie — but which is the cushier spot? / And by the way, the amount of business experienced in this workplace would seem to surpass in its degree of frenzy anything that a small town would normally, reasonably, realistically expect / In many ways the world of this film seems tailored, manufactured specifically for Ed Avery, bigger than life, or gross exaggeration of a land and a time in which a purpose might appear for every man? / In reality, or in illusion... / Possibility and want / And when is want "lack" and when is it "need"? / A land and a time in which the suburban American home takes the shape of a Gothic contraption (cf. Sirk's There's Always Tomorrow) / The bizarre modulation between the reason and the logic of Ed Avery's professorial bearing and that of his pedantic 'intellectual' athleticism, the very specimen of Man careening into a wreck of identity / The marvelous scene in which the 'very' x-ray of the Man is measured / "You've always been ten feet tall to me!" / Or Ed in the classroom, prodding his pupils: "Why did Cassius refer to Julius Caesar as 'a colossus'?" / "A cow with five legs?" "It can stand better." / The shopping scene Hitchcock stole for Vertigo the year after / (Again, Ray might have counted among his inspirations for Bigger Than Life the beautiful Sirk tragedy There's Always Tomorrow) / How 'accidental' is the quick glimmer of Nick Ray at the side of the camera as Ed's medicine cabinet mirror swings on its hinge? / All is vanity, or identification / Bigger Than Life examines medicines (of course, the bathroom mirror serves as the perfect symbolic totem of drugs and the man in their grasp) not as the pretense or artificial mechanism for the plot to exist, like a fucking sci-fi film — neither does it shade the proceedings as a cautionary tale re: the horrors of experimental treatment — but rather does so in the context of a means for amplifying the traits that exist on the surface of the specimen already, ranging from vanity to the sense that he, or any of us, 'only have so much time' (so goes the saying, and: literally, in the scope of the fatality countdown of Ed Avery's respective heart-condition), does so in the context of a means for escape from the barricade of one's own routine (note those sad travel posters hanging throughout the house, which Godard will borrow for 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her) / The precariousness of ego... the magical thinking... the fragile construction that is Persona / "Childhood is a congenital disease, and the purpose of education is to cure it!" / Scrutinize Ed's personality before his abuse of the drug cortisone, and contrast it with the 'during' — isn't all the 'archness' only latent? / Once the cortisone has him in its grip is it not too outlandish to repeatedly mishear "Ed" as "id"? / The dye on the edges of the Bible's pages suggest the dislocation of a primal wound, or gash, as Ed goes head-to-head with his wife on the dark staircase of their home / His wife Lou (Barbara Rush, who turns 84 in January) cannot rejoinder theological argument against the proposed sacrifice of Richie (Christopher Olsen, a kind of fetal Rebel-James Dean in his identical red jacket; the staircase the domestic blood-altar in both Ray films), their innocent son, with regard to the murdering parent('s/s') ostensible assumption of all the guilt and damnation circulating the lad / And It's true, hard as it might be for the players to admit, — in this 'married couple,' Ed's the intellectual superior / Yet Lou positions herself before the scissor-blades on the staircase in order to impede the husband's murderous plot / Vertigo blood-visions, Strangers on a Train calliope / Nick Ray detail: Following Ed's hospitalization we see a black janitor mopping up the hospital waiting-room — Richie remarks: "Some people work awful late, don't they?" / This Ray film really dips in and out of Hitchcock, to a more patchwork — or let's say, network-of-testings-out — effect (cf. the entire cortisone 'macguffin', the clinical diagnosis and subsequent explication of the 'pathology') / "It was only Ed's misuse of the drug that brought about this condition." / Prison-cell mise-en-scène in Ed's recovery room, — but who in this menagerie represents the jailer? (the doctors? science? Lou and Richie [cf. the banister/prison-bar trope of the household, which, again, recalls There's Always Tomorrow]? Ed himself?) / One of the most ambiguous of Ray's films, or, we might say, a film that places blame every which way and eradicates the concept / It's got a lame ending, I guess / (I hate when Abe Lincoln's referred to as "ugly") / Outsized themes and their fictional consequences... on-the-nose but beautiful and weird (B. Kite in his brilliant essay that accompanies the Criterion disc cites Ray's best films' "flailings and failings"*) but not bigger than Wuthering Heights or my own life

*You can read Kite's essay here.

Bigger Than Life by Nicholas Ray, 1956:

The frames from the film (not 'production-stills') placed above are stolen from various sites around the Internet, as no means of capturing stills from a Blu-ray presently exist on the Mac platform.


Previous pieces on Nicholas Ray at Cinemasparagus:

They Live by Night [1948]

In a Lonely Place [1950]

On Dangerous Ground [1952]



  1. The scene where Lou Avery rushes to give Ed his forgotten slippers before he embarks for the hospital is a remade version of the scene from They Live By Night where Keechie sprints outside to tell Bowie what time it is before he sets off for another stick-up.

    In this scene, Lou's collar also sticks up in exactly the same tousled fashion as Jim Stark's collar at the beginning of Rebel Without a Cause.

    We can only assume that Ray was totally conscious of this.


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