Maybe it’s just part of my Bostonian inferiority complex, but I can’t stand “love letters” to locations.
A movie that is dedicated to its setting has all of the self-congratulatory appeal of a rock & roll song about rock & roll music. Of course, this could be my own bitterness due to the fact that every movie set in New York is about the human condition and living in the center of the world, while every movie set in Boston is about accents and track pants. But the point still stands; most of the time, when filmmakers rely on their setting far too much as its own character, the rest of the movie risks feeling uneven and unfinished.
If you do make your setting a character, then it must support the story, not the other way around. Most sci-fi films use new environments to make humans feel out of their depth. Tolstoy’s War and Peace used St. Petersburg and Moscow as characters to illustrate the divide between Europe and Russia, but it never halted the story to do so (except during battle scenes). Apocalypse Now/Heart of Darkness used the jungle to represent fear of the unknown and the depths of human depravity.
And possibly the best example is Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, which uses post-9/11 New York City to heighten the sense of nihilism and agitation, but it never stops being about the story even during its flights of fancy:
Giant is great in some parts, but only when it stops being Texas: The Motion Picture and focuses back on the characters. You will find yourself caring about the fate of these people, but for entire stretches it seems that the film forgets they exist. Interesting, thoughtful characters temporarily become transparent metaphors and bring the drama to a standstill. Subplots come from out of nowhere to supplant the main plot for 20 minutes.
Don’t Texas with Texas, Cuz Texas Will Texas Your Texas Until It Texasses
Giant tells the story of a young and successful Texan cattle rancher, Rock Hudson who goes East to buy a horse and ends up falling in love with Elizabeth Taylor. They marry, he brings her back to Texas where she is forced to adjust and find her place in what feels like a foreign country to her. We follow the course of their life through trials and tribulations, changing times and sensibilities, the shift from cattle ranching to oil drilling, interracial marriage and alcoholism.
If that seems like a lot to take on in one movie, it’s because it is. Giant buckles under the weight of its own ambition.
Don’t get me wrong, Giant is, for the most part, a pretty good movie. But at 201 minutes, the ratio of good to bad is way off. 90 minutes of this movie could have been great if only it had focused on what it does well. Its greatest underused strength is its performances, chief among them James Dean in his final film appearance:
Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor don’t have much chemistry at first as a young couple, but by the end of the film they find their stride as an elderly husband and wife who have been married for 25 years. We even get to see an appearance by a young Dennis Hopper, playing the son who leaves the family business and marries a Mexican woman. The supporting cast is also excellent, full of colorful characters that never fall into caricature.
But Jesus, does this movie need to lose some weight. Its director, George Stevens, also directed #92 A Place in the Sun which, you may recall, I did not care for, and it suffers from some of the same problems. While Taylor’s character finds her own by the end, Stevens initially casts her in exactly the same role as in A Place in the Sun, as the girl that people fall in love with right away. Sure, she’s Elizabeth Taylor, but that doesn’t excuse Stevens from writing a romance, giving them a reason to be together.
The Production Assistant Doth Defend Too Much, Methinks
One of my accusations against A Place in the Sun was that you shouldn’t have to watch the special features to know why people think a movie is good. On the Giant DVD, the default option on the main menu is to watch an introduction by George Stevens, Jr. about what makes Giant so great. What is it about George Stevens films that they constantly need defending? In fact, why are they considered so great to begin with?
#69 Shane is a piece of shit, #92 A Place in the Sun was okay at best, and #82 Giant is pretty good but fatally flawed in some places. I will never understand why George Stevens is considered one of the great American directors.
If you like hearing Texans say the word “Texas,” Giant is your movie. If you like James Dean, you owe it to his memory to see one of his better performances. If you don’t care about either, take a pass.
Comments: I blame all of this films flaws on a lack of focus. Texas needed to be the background, not the star. It has great performances, but it’s too long and has too many plots, with the superfluous plots pushing out the interesting ones.
Deserves to be in Top 100: It’s pretty good, but by focusing on all the wrong things it keeps itself from greatness. It was removed from the updated list.
Inspired: Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, but Giant actually has more plots, if you can believe it.
Next Week: #81 Modern Times
Last Week: #83 Platoon
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