Affect and the Hollywood musical: "Another name for Paradise"

Carmen Miranda singing "Paducah" in The Gang's All Here.

Busby Berkeley’s The Gang’s All Here (1943) is a great example of how uneasily the queer priorities of the musical—its preference for style over substance, performance over essence, artifice over sincerity—sit with so-called traditional American values.  Much of the movie, filmed at set at the height of WWII, is spent in an attempt to conjure up a certain set of patriotic affects.  Songs like “Nothin’ ’Til My Baby Comes Home” articulate the loneliness of women on the home front as they pine for men overseas.  A montage sequence in which our guy, Sgt. Andy Mason (James Ellison), leads a series of victories over the Japanese, aims to invoke jingoistic pride.  The plot, such as it is, involves the staging of a Broadway spectacle in order to sell war bonds.  Etc.  But these rather traditional, conservative affects are periodically exploded by the presence of a radical, excessive pleasure that we might call queer, and that goes by the name of Carmen Miranda.

Miranda’s numbers in The Gang’s All Here are not simply queer by virtue of her status as a gay icon.  They are queer because they’re governed by a kind of outrageous anti-realism that seeks nothing more than to stun and affectively overwhelm the spectator, and that makes no attempt to disguise its own artifice.  In other words, despite their purported aim to foster good-neighborly relations between the U.S. and South America, Miranda’s numbers have no “point” in the film: they do not speak to such Important Issues as patriotism or keeping your chin up or staying true to your baby ’til he comes home.  They are about sheer spectacle, about wallowing in abstract colors and forms (see also here), which is to say the pointless pleasures of style.  The effect of integrating Miranda’s surreal and campy production numbers into an otherwise rather dull and square WWII-era musical is exhilaratingly strange, especially in numbers like “Paducah,” in which Miranda effectively hi-jacks the song—a paean to the kind of small-town America represented by the titular Kentucky city—from Benny Goodman and his orchestra and proceeds to turn it into something ravishingly absurd.  Even the sound of the word “Kentucky” coming out of Miranda’s mouth sounds wrong.  Miranda’s comic, exotic, wordly persona is about as far away from Paducah as you can get.  The “paradise” envisioned by the Broadway musical is not Paducah, Kentucky, no matter what the lyrics of the song may claim: it can be found in the queer excess of its increasingly surreal production numbers. 

A study in contrasts.  Above, style and excess: Carmen Miranda in "The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat."  Below, getting serious: Alice Faye sings "Nothin' 'Til My Baby Comes Home."

This brings us to the film’s downright psychotronic climax, which makes the ending of The Three Caballeros feel understated by comparison.  It’s here that Berkeley lets loose, experimenting freely with his trademark overhead shots and geometric pattern effects.  As we find outselves utterly overwhelmed by the dazzling weirdness of Berkeley’s images, we forget completely that this is ostensibly a film about boosting morale during a war, or even that there is a war to feel a proper way about. This is the musical at its most unapologetically escapist, which is to say at its most pure.


The Films of 2013: The Spectacular Now

There’s a lot that’s safe and familiar about James Ponsoldt’s new coming-of-age drama The Spectacular Now, in which Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley play a pair of high school sweethearts trying to plan (or, in Teller’s case, avoid planning) for life after graduation.  I was particularly let down by the way in which this otherwise thoughtful and intelligent film blasts through most of the plot developments on which its last act hinges; it feels like it runs out of the patience needed to give those emotional beats the requisite weight.  But it’s made worthwhile by the astounding naturalistic performances of Teller and Woodley, who took home a joint acting award at Sundance earlier this year for their work.  Teller’s Sutter Keeley is a good-natured joker whose outward affability masks woundedness and a fear of abandonment; he’s good at bolstering the self-esteem of his friends—he even gives friendly advice to the classmate who has begun dating his ex-girlfriend—but he’s wracked with self-doubt, drinks constantly, and fears he’ll turn out like the alcoholic father who abandoned the family.  Woodley’s Aimee Finickey meets him for the first time while on her morning paper route after he passes out drunk on a stranger’s lawn.  Aimee’s inner conflicts get less screen time than Sutter’s, but they’re no less complicated; her friendliness and optimism often shade troublingly into passivity, and we wince at the ease with which she forgives away her mistreatment at the hands of those around her.  She’s a particularly well-drawn and heartbreaking character, the kind of young person whose strengths—openness, generosity, responsibility—often set her up to be taken advantage of, an irony that the film acknowledges only glancingly. 


Affect and the Hollywood musical: "'Swonderful"

Innocent happiness: Gene Kelly and children in An American In Paris

Is it too reductive to say that happiness is the Hollywood musical’s unofficial affect?  The Hollywood musical wants to make us happy.  Its narratives occasionally dip into moments of pathos and seriousness, to be sure, and the stakes can be quite high: the “Anatevka” number at the end of Fiddler on the Roof (1971), for example, inspires feelings of strength, solidarity, and community, but it could hardly be called “happy.”  The darker and more ambiguous affects of a film like Fiddler is a sign of its lateness, and of the emergence of a new musical for the “new Hollywood” of the 1970s (cf. Cabaret, which appeared the year later).  MGM’s musicals of the 50s (An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon) facilitate purer kinds of happiness, evoking the utopian spirit of the musical as described by Richard Dyer.  But this is not to say that happiness in these films is necessarily simple.

Not all of the happiness in An American in Paris is the same.  The “I Got Rhythm” number (pictured above), in which Gene Kelly performs for, and continually interacts with, an audience of adoring French children, is about the experience of a certain flavor of happiness we might call innocent joy.  The presence of the children is crucial in communicating this particular affect.  Kelly mugs with them, they tease him back, he teaches them a series of words in English, and then he generously allows them to participate—though in a somewhat limited way—in the solo song-and-dance routine that commences.  The children find Kelly charming.  They laugh at his jokes and respond attentively to his instructions.  This is a scene of play: the “point,” if play can have a point, is to lose oneself in a kind of childlike (i.e., innocent) pleasure.  This number precisely seeks to forget about the sexual politics raised by the film’s dialogue scenes, specifically those featuring Nina Foch as a wealthy and sophisticated patroness of the arts who poses a sexual and financial threat to Kelly.  (She’s set up as the foil to the simpler, more “natural” Leslie Caron.)  In short, a number like “I Got Rhythm” wants to escape into an innocent happiness free from the taint of such adult concerns as sex and money.

Looking nervous: Gene Kelly with Nina Foch in a scene that directly follows the "I Got Rhythm" number.

If “I Got Rhythm” strives for lightness, simplicity, playfulness, all associated with the world of children, the climactic ballet sequence presents us with denser and more complex varieties of happiness.  For one thing, the ballet, which is a kind of pantomime of the film as a whole, does not try to escape the sexual or financial conflicts that drive the narrative.  Instead, it uses dance to transform these conflicts into sources of visual pleasure.  While the more frenetic portions of the ballet strive for a more abstract thrill—the thrill of seeing a mass of bodies in synchronous motion—the lyrical passages, such as Caron and Kelly’s dance on the fountain, are more erotically charged and speak to their relationship as a couple, while a section in which Kelly and Caron are spirited away into a Toulouse-Lautrec dance hall is more comic and whimsical.  Here, in this elaborately structured set piece, we’re made aware of the range of happinesses in which the Hollywood musical deals. 

The American in Paris ballet: the thrill of synchronous motion.

Kelly and Leslie Caron: an erotically charged pas de deux.

Looking comical in the "Toulouse-Lautrec" sequence.


The Films of 2013: Blue Jasmine

Looking back through Woody Allen’s filmography, it’s possible to make the claim that some of his most interesting films are about class, or, to be more specific, about the sparks that fly when blue bloods rub elbows with vulgarians.  In films like Mighty Aphrodite or Broadway Danny Rose, in both of which the straight-laced Woody tangles with cheerfully tacky, slightly dumb broads of the Judy Holliday variety, the contrast is played for broad laughs; straight dramas like Match Point, about the ruthlessness of social climbing, are more ironic.  Allen’s latest, Blue Jasmine, falls somewhere in between comedy and tragedy.  It’s a bluesy number performed with quiet desperation by the superb Cate Blanchett, playing a fallen Park Avenue socialite who moves to San Francisco to live with her sister in what she believes to be squalor.  Golden-hued flashbacks reveal glimpses of Jasmine’s former life, in which, flush with money, she wiles away the hours shopping and entertaining in the style of one of Bravo’s Real Housewives.  Then her crooked husband gets arrested and her world comes crashing down around her; she nurses mild addictions to Xanax and top-shelf vodka, and succumbs to fits of depression, often mumbling to herself or lashing out at phantoms.


Affect and the Hollywood musical: "Shadows on the wall"

The "Shadow Waltz" from Gold Diggers of 1933.

I’ll be working my way through a handful of Hollywood musicals these next several weeks, and I want to think about them in light of a claim that Richard Dyer makes in his seminal essay “Entertainment and Utopia.”  He writes that forms of entertainment such as the musical strive to reflect a spirit of utopianism in their very essence, which is to say that musicals don’t go about giving a list of instructions for how a utopia gets made (in the way that utopian novels like William Morris’ News from Nowhere do); instead, they convey the very feeling of utopia.  “The utopianism is contained in the feelings [entertainment] embodies,” Dyer writes.  “[Entertainment] presents, head-on as it were, what utopia would feel like rather than how it would be organized.  It thus works at the level of sensibility, by which I mean an affective code that is characteristic of, and largely specific to, a given mode of cultural production.”

I want to use this idea as a jumping-off point for my consideration of five or six Hollywood musicals in order to consider what affective work they do—what feelings they try to give voice to, and what feelings they try to facilitate in audience members.  Dyer, who goes on to argue that the musical is a particularly powerful example of entertainment governed by utopianism, discusses the ways in which they convey such feelings as “energy,” “abundance,” and “intensity.”  I want to shift the focus slightly in order to think about what specific sorts of affective pleasure they convey. 

I began by watching Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), directed by Mervyn LeRoy with choreography by Busby Berkeley.  It’s in the “Shadow Waltz” number that Berkeley’s talent for choreography comes through most clearly, as we see lines of chorus girls in billowing hoop skirts arranged first on tiers, filmed laterally (see top), then in a circular formation, seen from above (see below).  As they play glow-in-the-dark violins, the glowing lights form various patterns and eventually assemble to form the shape of one large violin, all to the strains of Harry Warren’s music:

It seems to me that the appeal of this shamelessly gimmicky number (glow-in-the-dark violins?) reduces to the visual pleasure of seeing abstract visual forms synchronized with music.  Berkeley’s trademark overhead shot here robs the chorus girls of any anthropomorphism; they’re simply circles that spin, contract, and expand.  The bodies are further abstracted once the lights go out and they’re reduced to nothing but a series of glowing lines.  It helps to remember that many early animated films from the 1920s and ’30s, especially those of Oskar Fischinger, but also later efforts like Disney’s Fantasia (1940), appeal to just this sort of pleasure.  The interplay of these abstract patterns invokes a feeling of satisfaction, of seeing things line up, move into perfect formation, that is different from, say, the sexual titillation that we might feel during the “Pettin’ in the Park” number.  Might this same feeling extend to dance musicals as a whole, in which bodies in motion aspire to achieve pure form?      


The FIlms of 2013: The Act of Killing

I first heard about The Act of Killing in April when it played here at IFF Boston; I didn’t attend the screening, but I saw audiences walking out in a state of shock, and I overheard them as they tried to put into words what they had just seen.  It occurred to me that this might be something extraordinary.  To say that Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary is about the Indonesian genocide of 1965, in which right-wing paramilitary forces overthrew the Indonesian government, established a dictatorship, and effectively murdered thousands of civilians branded as “communists,” fails to do justice to its profundity and its originality.  In getting up close and personal with the assassins themselves, letting them tell their stories in their own words, watching as they stage elaborate re-enactments of their crimes for the camera, The Act of Killing manages to go deeper and darker than just about any film of this kind with the possible exception of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah.