16 November 2008

BIGGER THAN LIFE (Dir. Nicholas Ray, 1956, US) - The Sickness of Suburbia

Having been salvaged or should I say rescued from being lumped into the category of unidentifiable and formulaic film making of the 1950s Hollywood studio era by the Nouvelle Vague film critics like Godard and Truffaut, Nicholas Ray's career as a director stands apart as somewhat of a strange anomaly especially when taking in to account the regimented constraints most artists had to face working under the title of director under contract. As each decade passes, the films of Nicholas Ray continue to grow in stature, underlining his uniqueness for dealing with complex psychological themes in films that were ahead of their time especially in their experimentation with widescreen composition and use of colour.

The influence of a film like 'Bigger Than Life', a studio film directed by Ray in the 50's and considered by many to be his masterpiece, can still be seen reflected in a recent film like Sam Mendes Oscar winning 'American Beauty' (1999). It is interesting to make such a connection between the two films as they both seem to share and direct their anger towards a crisis in masculinity that permeates the banality and mundanes of middle class suburbia. Both Ed Avery (James Mason) and Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) maybe patriarchal figures, but the position they occupy within the family unit is viewed as somewhat troubled, and the working out of their personal anxieties through the unspoken tensions that exist between them and the alienated affections of their children is criticism enough of the superficial nature of an embittered American dream.

Produced by James Mason, 'Bigger than Life', is a highly allegorical film about drug addiction, and for Ray to have taken on such an issue in a mainstream studio film meant that he resorted to using the idea of a miracle drug as an indirect metaphor for the consequences of drug addiction upon traditional institutions and ideologies like the family, education and religion. All these cosy, conformist elements that helped to shape the concept of suburbia - a Utopian, white middle class paradise, come under attack repeatedly in the film as Ed Avery transforms into a junkie who is prepared to go to any lengths so that he can get his regular fix.

The fact that Ed Avery is a teacher who is forced to work two jobs so that he can maintain his social status in the pursuit of the American dream makes him deeply cynical, and the affects of his drug addiction unveils further a sinister side to him that ridicules the educational establishment as being inept and regressive. Such scathing social commentary that underlines most of the film confirms the 'smuggling' Ray achieved whilst making such a frightening examination of the American dream turned sour. This is essential and brilliant cinema which once again strengthens the argument about how contradictory the Hollywood era was in terms of producing original and challenging films.

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