8.08.2013

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?      

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