Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Two Weeks in Another Town

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Two Weeks in Another Town

My fondness for - or at least fascination with - films whose sporadic artistic quality reflects (intentionally or not) the contours of their narratives, has already been well-established. Here is another film - well-known but unavailable on DVD, just like The Magnificent Ambersons - which echoes that film's structure, but inversely. The formal qualities of Ambersons decay while the narrative documents the decline of the titular family (Welles' style slowly being encroached upon by tasteless studio hacks just as the Ambersons' grandeur is swallowed up by the ugly modern world). Two Weeks in Another Town also travels a similar route with its protagonist - but this time, just as Jack Andrus (a washed-up movie star played by Kirk Douglas) progresses from pathetic depressive to manic auteur, and the film he's involved with goes from rickety to grandiose, so the real movie we're watching turns itself from a rather shoddy, muddled film into a flamboyant, thrilling melodrama in its final minutes. True, it never achieves the level of greatness which Ambersons attains, but unlike the Welles film, Two Weeks director Vincente Minnelli did not, to my knowledge, lose control of his production. Hence it seems extremely likely that he intended for the film's achievement to creep up on it, little by little.


There are quite a few references to Minnelli's previous film about filmmaking, 1952's The Bad and the Beautiful, which also starred Kirk Douglas. Amusingly, Minnelli has Two Weeks' film-within-a-film director, Maurice Kruger (Edward G. Robinson) screen The Bad and the Beautiful, ostensibly as a movie that Andrus and he made a decade earlier. The chutzpah of this gesture borders on decadence, and is wryly amusing. I first heard of Two Weeks in Another Town from William Bayer's 1973 book The Great Movies. Buried in an entry on "The Bad and the Beautiful and Other Things", which is in turn buried in a section titled "Films About Films" two-thirds of the way through the book, Two Weeks is described gleefully by the author as a "trash masterpiece."

But there are several layers of trash going on here. The Bad and the Beautiful is also referred to as trash but, as Bayer notes, "it is filled with magnificent characters and set-pieces." If Bad is trash, it's trash dressed up nice: gossip given a gloss. Whereas Two Weeks, at least initially, makes little attempt to disguise its trashiness, although it does let us know it's in on the joke. Douglas arrives in the shoddy Italian shoot to find Kruger halfheartedly directing a cliched scene between actors who each speak their lines in a different language before slapping one another. As Kruger acknowledges, the dialogue will be dubbed in later (this was indeed the Italian practice at the time - hence the joke in Day for Night when the actress asks if, instead of reading her lines, she can recite numbers like "in Fellini's films.")

This is supposed to be evidence of Kruger's decline - and possibly the decline of American filmmaking too (compare to the lavish sets and professional demeanor we see exhibited in Bad and the Beautiful). But lest we think Minnelli is standing on the sidelines, sneering at characters not up to his level of craft...this very scene is horrendously dubbed! That's right, as Robinson and Douglas discuss having to fill in all the emotion and performance later on, their voices carry the flat tone of indoor recording, of a half-hearted post-sync that barely bothers to match the movement of lips, let alone the quality of outdoor sound. I did not initially suspect this was intentional - merely an extremely unfortunate irony - but slowly it began to dawn on me that Minnelli knew what he was doing.

That the characters are so rueful about their decline, that the movie picks up visually as it goes along, and most of all, that scenes from The Bad and the Beautiful are screened and acclaimed as the highs from which these people have fallen, strongly indicate that Minnelli is in on the joke. And as Andrus comes out of his shell with a young Italian lover, and is then forced to take over Kruger's film as director (an effort into which he throws himself passionately), the scenes become less cliched, the plot more involving, the colors less garish (though no less ostentatious), and the photography and editing more inventive.

The stylistic growth culminates in the climactic sequence, as Andrus - turned out by Kruger and Kruger's vicious wife, who suspect him of intentionally sabotaging the director's work (in truth, Kruger has lost his touch and Andrus is redeeming the movie) - returns to the arms of an old flame, the manipulative Carlotta (Cyd Charisse) for some drinking and debauchery. Finally, he snaps, racing up a spiral staircase and as Minnelli's camera whirls dizzyingly around with Andrus, it's as if, rather than ascending a tower, the character is descending into the depths of his own personal Inferno. Even writing this, I am reminded of how Minnelli pulls off a similar feat in Some Came Running: totally transforming the mise en scene in the last few minutes to reflect a darker, more subjective reality which subverts the more subdued style we've been observing for two hours.

Minnelli follows this tour de force with a direct tribute to The Bad and the Beautiful: just as Lana Turner's car caterwauled through the stormy streets of Hollywood while Turner wept and screamed and Minnelli, using scarcely disguised rear projection and a furiously panning and tracking camera, echoed and amplified her hysteria with the cinematography, so the exact technique is duplicated, now on a hilly Roman road, with Douglas at the wheel. Impressive as the earlier scene was, this one tops it: in vibrant color, with a volcanic Douglas screaming at a terrified Charisse at the top of his longs, with the viewpoint shifting and spinning and shaking around itself in a way that words can't quite summarize (so I'll stop trying), the climax will leave you breathless.

Speaking of which, Godard proclaimed Two Weeks in Another Town one of the ten best films of 1963, so he most likely caught onto the film's metatextual references to itself, its predecessor, and the transformation of film production in the ten years since The Bad and the Beautiful. 1963 was a banner year for films about films, not to mention films about films set in Italy: not only Two Weeks, but the more famous 8 1/2, and Godard's very own Contempt (which features Michel Piccoli sitting the bathtub with his hat on "like Dean Martin in Some Came Running" - and also, incidentally, like Guido in 8 1/2).

These three films all feature aging, often tragic directors (though Guido is a good deal younger than Kruger or Lang, and more central to the plot, obviously). They have their wounded women and relationship problems, Italian sixties chic (Godard, the youngest and hippest of the trio, indulges the least in this aspect), and they all observe, partly in horror, partly in fascination, the new international mode of production which brings together wildly divergent personalities from around the globe. The three directors mix - again, to varying degrees - a sense of curiosity and excitement about the decadent modern jet-set world with nostalgia for something older and simpler, yet perhaps more profound.

One difference between Two Weeks and its peers is that for all their mournfulness and anxiety, Godard and Fellini are very much part of the world they illuminate, rising on its crest so to speak, while Minnelli is in decline. Though the film ends with a reinvigorated Andrus hopping on a plane to relish his new role as international auteur, something tells us that Minnelli identifies more strongly with the foolish, poignant Kruger, wasting away in his hospital bed, dreaming of the way things used to be.

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