The pandemic has drastically altered my movie habits, as it has everyone’s. The last movie I felt worthy of risking my health for was Cruella, and the performances were well worth. The performances were delicious.
I love realism, but I’m finding myself more and more drawn to things with a touch of style. Style is something that’s rare in movies today, as they’re all built with an eye to international markets. There’s nothing wrong with making money, but it feels as though we’ve sacrificed any sense of uniqueness to the great god Technology. Today, many films are just elaborate cartoons, but even in the days of Looney Tunes, the cartoons managed to be created for grown-up consumption. Kids could enjoy them too but knowing there were things in them that I didn’t understand made me feel all the more grown up. I asked questions. In some weird way, I learned from them. I’m tired of the DC/Marvel, etc. universes that explore the same theme of the outcast finding strength in one-of-a-kind super abilities. And then explosion, explosion, explosion. At this point, the explosions don't even rate an exclamation point.
Movies didn’t always used to be like this. Lately I’ve been drawn to the epic films of the 50s. Technology was busting the industry wide open in that era too, but the films that have survived have heart. Much more often than today, Broadway supplied the material for films. Epic novels – the kind they don’t really write anymore – helped fuel the desire for epics. Moral ambiguity began to creep into pop culture, and with it better stories. God, I love a good 50s epic.
Giant isn’t really one of them. George Stephens directed, and there are some breathtaking shots capturing the Texas prairie. The performances are a bit of a mixed bag. Rock Hudson, as the central figure spanning approximately thirty years, is adequate. James Dean’s performance drips with self-indulgence. Elizabeth Taylor had been a superstar for years and seems to understand the assignment perfectly. She’s utterly charming, as that’s really all the role requires, and suitably beautiful as that’s all the 1956 audiences required. Mercedes McCambridge’s performance stops just short of melodrama villain. Most, but not all, of the camera work is excellent. The art direction drips with money. From start to finish, if nothing else, the film is luscious to look at. And there’s so much of it. The monumental failing of the film is the plodding pace. Stephens is far too reverential to all of the artists involved. An epic requires a firm grasp of all elements. Without that, those elements are likely to sprawl. And Stephens is obviously proud of the Texas-sized sprawl of this film.
Still, Giant is a surprisingly modern film, tackling racism in many forms head on. Despite McCambridge’s operatic evil, Stephens does address more subtle forms of racism. In no way acting as a white apologist, the racism here isn’t found only in dumb, poor white people. The racism is found in all of the white characters – even noble, pretty Elizabeth Taylor. Some are aware of their racism, even proud of it. Taylor and Hudson can easily see the flaws in each other but are blissfully unaware of their own unexamined attitudes and beliefs. The film ends with a dawning of self-awareness in Rock Hudson, but Elizabeth Taylor is still just charming and beautiful.
With all its flaws, Giant has been one of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen in a while. When some nostalgic Boomer wistfully suggests a return to simpler times, I can support that idea in cinematic terms, if in no other. Even if it's just to look at beautiful, noble, and charming Elizabeth Taylor.