When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand
Esther & Ecstasy: THIS TIME FOR KEEPS (M-G-M, 1947) as Religious Experience

I’m in Houston today:  North America’s fourth largest city, frequently named an overlooked gem in the New York Times’ travel section, and home to many cultural treasures including the Mark Rothko Chapel.

I just left the Rothko Chapel, where I had a strong, cleansing meditation — sitting twixt a frail, elderly Asian woman in a floor-length dress and an African nun in white tennis shoes.  I chose to sit on a wood-hewn bench instead of a meditation cushion; and although a broad table offered copies of religious literary works such as the Upanishads, the Koran and the Bible, I chose none.  Alternatingly I closed my eyes and kept them open in amazement of the oversized canvases painted in color-field layers of grey, looking as if an overcast sky were beginning to weep.  As I left, a grounding Barnett Newman sculpture addressed me from across the plaza’s reflecting pool.  After all this, I began to consider a bad Esther Williams movie…

As a film, M-G-M’s 1947 aqua-musical THIS TIME FOR KEEPS really blows.  Even as a nostalgic, chill-out popcorn flick, it doesn’t hit the mark:  a total flyover in cinema history.  Nevertheless it is testament to what French film theoritician André Bazin called “the genius of the system.”  The ‘genius’ aspect isn’t tangible among the usual suspects:  the cast, the screenwriters, the director, the producer.  Yet the film bountifully offers carloads of transpersonal frissons and epiphanies so that watching it compares favorably with religious experience.

As with the Rothko Chapel, the movie heightens one’s awareness through a space and palette devoid of icons.  Some could argue that the movie’s star, swimming diva Esther Williams, is the sine qua non icon for whom the movie is built.  Yet it’s actually more like the reverse:  the creatives placed Esther in fields of brassy colors to exist as a design element more than (as with most classic era movie stars) as a symbol to represent an idea.

For after all what can one say, what point of view can you adopt, about a girl who swims?  Esther was used as a body instead of as an embodiment.  Her personhood — created by co-mingling cyan, magenta and yellow layers of Technicolor played upon a solidly-formed parade of restfully composed shots — created emotion, not ideas.  And the genius of the studio system, via thousands of small aesthetic choices in costume / light / space, encouraged absorption of this idealized vision of mid-century color and sound into the viewers’ psyche, delivering a necessary release for audiences who — then as now — craved and sought escape, rapture and transcendence.

No, THIS TIME FOR KEEPS isn’t a guide in how to make a masterpiece; it doesn’t even satisfy baser curiosities.  But it helps explain the captivation, comfort and proprietary relationship between movies and their fans.

Doug / PoMo Joan

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