Monday, March 5, 2012

Signal Watch Watches: Giant (1956)

The first time I tried to watch Giant (1956) was in 1998.  It came on one of our local affiliates as the Sunday afternoon movie, and I sat down on what passed for a sofa in the living room of what passed for an apartment and started watching.  For some reason the audio was messed up, and was broadcasting too quietly.  I tried calling the station about a half-dozen times over the course of an hour, but nobody was answering the line at KTBC that day, and so I eventually gave up.

Later I'd rent the movie on Netflix and fail to watch it.  I once went to the Paramount Theater in Austin to see the movie, and had gotten my dates wrong and saw Black Sunday instead.  I didn't know I was in the wrong movie until the first frames rolled, and, boy howdy, was I confused.

Last year Jason's lady-friend, AmyD, loaned me the DVD, and somehow we just never watched it.  But it came on cable a few weeks back, and I finally DVR'd the movie.

For those of you from outside the state, living with Texas is a bit like living with a very complicated, bi-polar relative, perhaps one who is a B or C-Level celebrity of yesteryear, one who you see and love for who they are in all their awful glory.  What makes her great is often what makes this relative frightening to those who don't understand her, and while you can intuit her moods and oddities, to try to explain her to visiting friends is never worth the while.  She'll never quiet down and be polite, she'll always be gregarious, dress like she's in a show and after a couple of cocktails, she may even drop a racial epithet or two, but as you do with family, you slap your hand to your forehead and try to figure out if engaging her on this is going to just make things crazier.  But what people from the outside don't see are the lessons she teaches you, the things she gives of her own free will, and the history and stories that explain so much.

And so I understand a bit of the scene watching Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson) as he sits in the mannered East Coast mansion, politely eating breakfast only to be insulted by Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor) as she pokes Bick about Texas' history.  I may think the Texas Revolution may have been a white man's land grab, but getting up on your high moral horse with me about the how's and why's of Texas if you're not of the state is going to mean I politely attempt to end the conversation lest we find ourselves dueling with pistols at dawn.  We Texans are more than used to outsiders insisting they know what's best for Dear Old Aunt Tejas.

The movie touches upon the many forces of Texas in the 20th Century, the last days of the great ranches to the oil boom and the falling away of the ways that settled Texas in favor of the changes that came with the petroleum industry.   And while its a bit unrefined and perhaps broad, the movie broaches racial issues prevalent in a state with a large Hispanic population and some of the cruelties that were day-to-day life in Texas (and the legacy of which Texas continues to grapple).

The only other work I believe I've seen by director George Stevens is Shane (1953), a less sprawling tale but one that also had the deft character work and phenomenal camera work.  Here, Stevens captures the sprawl of West Texas, the desolate vistas, the endless brown nothing upon which a hardy few carved out vast fortunes.  He manages to take the 19th Century ranch house and see it as a lonesome fortress of prosperity, alien in the barren plains and ancient in its decor and take us closer and closer in to the jet age, the modern luxuries, etc...  from cowboy film to domestic, Sirkian family drama.

As a Texas transplant, Leslie has a sweeping character arc, from East Coast firecracker brought to the wilds of Texas to the matronly ranch mother who is part of the ranch and life of Reata.  Taylor handles the character remarkably well, taking her from privileged kid to Texan artistocracy.  And I wonder a bit about exactly how much George Stevens was trying to say about Leslie's background and desire to help those she sees as less fortunate around her with the omnipresent black servant in all the scenes from her East Coast home.

I am utterly unfamiliar with the work of Rock Hudson, including his romantic comedies, and have only seen bits and pieces of the 1980 version of The Martian Chronicles in which he appears.  But, yeah, sure!  Hudson is pretty great in a role that feels like it should be aimed to prove how "old ways are wicked and the sexy East Coaster should be dumping that guy for the bad boy wildcatter played by James Dean".  He's Texas conservative, embracing change only when it becomes part of his personal life or benefiting his day-to-day, and carries an undercurrent of uncertainty regarding his legacy in every scene.  Its a pretty remarkable job...

Especially when he's competing with James Dean, here again one of the most brilliant actors of his generation.  Man, what could have been.

Dean's Jett Rink is a singular envisioning of a character, multi-faceted and torn in what equates to relatively little screen time.  And certainly he steals the screen whenever he appears.

The movie manages to be fairly unforgiving, and rightfully so, of the conditions and treatment of the Hispanic population of Texas during the 20th Century.  But it doesn't answer its own questions regarding why the state exists, instead just suggests some generic brand of racism and injustice, which was true enough.  And, of course the presentation of the death of Angel Obregon, brings home some painful truths regarding concepts of Americanness and how it is approached.  Maybe the answers are too complex for the movie, or the book upon which it was based.  I can't be certain.  But little is mentioned of the dual sided dependency of anglos in Texas upon Hispanics and the systemic marginalization that kept Hispanics from becoming a force until after, really, the release of Giant.

Anyway, I'm glad I finally made it through the movie (with audio!), and it lived up to the reputation.


horus kemwer said...

This is a great review—I love the passages about Texas. Represent!

(I also have not seen Giant, someday . . . .)

The League said...

I recommend breaking it up into 2 or 3 viewing sessions. Its a long haul, but engaging.