Quick Takes: A Matter of Time

Is there a longer cut of A Matter of Time (1976) hiding somewhere in a vault in Italy, waiting to be restored? The last film from the masterful Vincente Minnelli feels like a film maudit, its meditations on the ravages of aging and imagination ironically foreshadowing the movie's own fate (Minnelli's original cut was over 3 hours long, but the American International/Italian co-production was snatched from the director's hands and slashed to 98 minutes by produces, including Jack Haley, Jr., then-husband of its star, the director's daughter Liza Minnelli; it's almost as if the venal producer from Minnelli's earlier Two Weeks in Another Town had come to life to haunt him). Would a three-hour cut give Time's blend of artifice and neo-realism room to expand? Would it let us see more of the film's lush fantasy sequences, and better balance them with the strikingly drab spaces of its "real" world moments? Would the snatches of earnest character development be fully fleshed out, bringing greater depth to the elliptical themes of memory, richer irony to the way a movie indebted to past cinematic models (including--especially--the director's own work) longs to sing the value of "originality"? Or can what works in A Matter of Time only function within the fracture, its highlights flashing up like h fanciful dreams of its two central characters?

What remains in the cut-up Time is a strange--in all wonderful senses--movie that ping-pongs between European art film traditions and the sorts of lavish Classic Hollywood productions Minnelli shaped the traditions of between 1943 and 1960 or so; there are moments when it looks and feels like something out of Visconti, and others when it seems quiveringly anxious to burst into song (even beyond the two Kander-Ebb numbers that do appear).
Cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, who'd previously worked with Minnelli on Cabaret, often deploys a flare-driven top-lighting that feels (in conjunction with the Kander/Ebb songs) more like a Bob Fosse film-- the Oedipal son haunting the cinematic father, a further play on the movie's looping through time and memory.  The movie makes no concessions towards consistency of visual space: the movie is set in 1949, but its various second-unit shots around Rome freely incorporate the mid-'70s fashions, cars, etc., of extras and random passerby, without worrying about how it will all blend.  At times, especially for a director whose mise-en-scene was often so controlling, it's kind of shocking in its looseness, its desire to let go and improvise (the performances balance between arch theatricality and an almost documentary casualness, as if we're watching the actors work the scene out with the director as it unfolds. It's the clearest I've ever seen the connection between Martin Scorsese's style of direction and that of the auteur he always idolized; indeed, when AIP took the film away from Minnelli, Scorsese organized a public protest in the press).  Not all of it works-- in fact, much of it doesn't work. But the chemistry between Minnelli and co-star Ingrid Bergman is wonderful, the balance of tones and styles suits the jangle of its dreamy, time-bending narrative, and when it sings, it really sings.

Or to put it another way, imagine this: Liza Minnelli, in one of the film's many flashback/fantasy sequences, says goodnight to the Kaiser and walks into a deserted 19th century ballroom in her lavish gold dress, only to find a jazz band there playing Gershwin. 

 She strolls to the bandstand and joins in with that Sally Bowles voice at its peak, her '70s Broadway style merging with the '30s swing of the band, all of it set against Vincente Minnelli's lushly detailed curtains, furniture and bric-a-brac. We no longer have to be told the movie's themes about the fluidity of time: we see them, we feel them, and we're transported to that moment when the director was the master of MGM's greatest post-war dreamscapes, and we can suddenly sense why he made this doomed film. It only lasts for a moment, but it only has to last that long (and if we believe the film's thesis on life and magic, really only should).


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