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At an exclusive psychiatric clinic, the doctors and staff are about as crazy as the patients. The clinic head, Dr. Stewart McIver, thinks that it would be good therapy for his patients to design and make new drapes for the library. Mrs. Karen McIver, who is neglected by her hardworking husband (and a bit unbalanced herself), wants to make her mark on the clinic, so she orders new drapes. Miss Inch, the business manager, who has been with the clinic longer than anyone, sees this as an intrusion into her territory, and she too orders drapes. All this puts everyone in a dither, as they fight over drapes and clinic politics. Written by
John Oswalt <firstname.lastname@example.org>
A Nugget of Blackly Hilarious, Embroidered Reality That Indicates the Immediate Misanthropy About Family Life in the Flush 1950s
There is an element of escapism in Minnelli's penchant for melodrama, and joy is the voice of the escaped psyche, but he hasn't quite released himself from his frustrations with reality, as they are all over his melodramas, disparaged by the atonal brasses from composer Leonard Rosenman. Like Minnelli's Hollywood melodrama The Bad and the Beautiful, his 1955 film The Cobweb depicts the indoor routine of a secluse, insulated group of people, and like the former, it focuses on professional careers atoning for emotional hang-ups, particularly isolated, disheartened home lives. In a sense, the film follows the quest for the perfect family. The film's effect relies on the acute lucidity with which the audience can relate to the characters. The Cobweb becomes a personal film for Minnelli in more manners than one.
The psychiatric environment embodies a disparaging enthrallment for Minnelli, after years of shepherding Judy through myriad institutions. The curious scenario, and some of the characters, strike a unity, playing to the inner pretentious aesthete in us all. The animosity between the clinic's patients and the bickering personnel detonates over a presumably frivolous decorative issue, the choice of new drapes for the lounge. Though for an epicure like Minnelli, the matter is invariably not frivolous but crucial. Furnishings express not only ornamental but more deep-seated conscientious matters as well.
Richard Widmark plays a clinical psychiatrist stuck between his household family of his wife Karen and their two children, and the makeshift family that he propagates in his clinic with self-motivated staff worker Lauren Bacall, and agitated teenage artisan John Kerr. Widmark and Bacall ask Kerr to create new drapes for the clinic's library as a healing activity, not knowing that Gloria Grahame, Widmark's frustrated wife, and a stately administrator at the clinic played with bureaucratic bustle by Lilian Gish, have already taken charge of doing it. This unfolding intrigue conveys considerable labyrinthine kindred, civil, and administrative warfare. Reproach flourishes in the forms of the artist as refugee, profession as rectification for private disenchantment, the grind between cultivating one's identity at the cost of solitude and the compulsion to follow and synthesize into a comprehensive society.
The clinic on screen doesn't parallel any specific or incidentally real institution. The group scenes play out like Minnelli's usual party scenes, a neurotic congregation of loose-lipped free-thinkers and recoiling self-observers, boldly highlighted by Charles Boyer's admirably self-effacing performance. He is an actor utterly sure of himself and needs no abstract means of support. And no matter how many times one has heard thoughts expressed by however many people, Lauren Bacall always makes them sound original. Thus The Cobweb is not impaired by a lack of realism but embellished by a uniquely expressionistic blend of tones.
The movie's household scenes are more horrific than those at the clinic. Many couples will identify strongly with the arguments between Grahame, who believes her husband is implying malicious affronts, and Widmark, who never says anything to his wife that means anything but exactly what he's saying. Widmark is not giving a wooden portrayal of a sensitive man but a sensitive portrayal of a man who is not bothered by much. Conversely, Grahame famously said, "It's not how I looked at a man; it was the thought behind it." I believe her, because she plays Widmark's wife as someone unhappy with who she is and what she has because her mind is scattered and she is not content with thinking.
It's a nugget of blackly hilarious, embroidered reality that indicates the immediate misanthropy about family life in the flush 1950s, and how many American marriages persist in self-insulated conditions to this day with similar results. Note this bit between a patient and his psychiatrist: "Your'e supposed to be making me fit for normal life. What's normal? Yours? If its a question of values, your values stink. Lousy, middle-class, well-fed smug existence. All you care about is a paycheck you didn't earn and a beautiful thing to go home to every night." Or the fleeting brush between Grahame and Kerr, in which they consider the connotations of flowers.
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