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Tuesday, November 13, 2001

Black And White And In Color

By Kevin John

For his critic's choice at the Chicago International Film Festival, film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum selected William A. Wellman's sui generis "Track of the Cat" (1954). As was noted in the festival program, the only way this masterpiece can be readily seen today is on a hideous pan-and-scan video that Warner Bros. released in 1999. So the opportunity to view it in all its Scope fury took me 90 miles from home, and it remains the most precious cinematic experience I've had all year.

The video box yields a clue as to why this film wields such a beckoning power: "After William A. Wellman directed 'The High and the Mighty' for John Wayne's production company, Wayne enthusiastically told him he could next 'film the phone book.' " What The Duke couldn't have predicted was how far Wellman would run with that non-narrative allowance. I wouldn't want to slight "Track of the Cat" 's story here. More than even the equally neglected "Stuart Saves His Family," it's the most accurate depiction of family strife (OK — my family strife) ever to come out of Hollywood. But with a geeky ham-radio enthusiasm, Wellman and his cinematographer William H. Clothier envisioned this story as a "black-and-white film shot in color." In other words, while "Track of the Cat" is a color film, the interiors are painted black and white, and all the costumes, save for the red jacket Robert Mitchum sports as the de facto patriarch, blend in accordingly.

Without question, this crazed color scheme heightens the dysfunctional drama. But what's truly incredible is that a spectator can receive this classical Hollywood narrative as a pure study of contrasts, like an experimental Stan Brakhage short. As Ronnie Scheib wrote in the Chicago Reader, the film is "rife with abstract expressionist images, such as the solitary red slash of Robert Mitchum's hunting jacket in a horizontal stretch of white snow, black trees, and gray mist."

To give you an idea of how utterly this conceptual quirk can overwhelm most, if not all, other considerations, I showed a brief moment of "Track of the Cat" to a decidedly un-avant-garde friend. To this day, he has never seen the entire film. Nevertheless, in a sense he could enter it at any point and feel he had indeed seen the entire film, simply because he got the concept down. Unquestionably, this is how he felt after the minute (no more) of Andy Warhol's "Blow Job" that I showed him. What's the point of watching a 33-minute close-up of a guy's face while he's getting a blow job?

Don't answer that.

The point here is not to provoke a stoning of my friend for failing to explore concepts of duration or whatnot. Rather, it's the fact that one can even compare "Track of the Cat" with "Blow Job." What other classical Hollywood film could warrant such a comparison? It suggests that Wellman got away with something, and reminds us that even the nerdiest of passions can escape at the heart of the hegemonic dream machine. And thus the nerdiest of viewers (ahem) can find some refuge in the theatre.


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