Sunday, December 17, 2017

Singin' in the Rain (some reflections)

Popular art pretends spontaneity.  (This truism applies, in fact, to most art).  Singin' in the Rain (1952, Donen and Kelly) operates according to odd schisms, divisions, disarticulations.  The film offers us a contrast between the popular, spontaneous cantabile of the movie musical and the highly artificial affectations of the Broadway ballet exemplified by the 17 minute-long "Broadway Melody" sequence providing the first of the film's two climaxes.  Kelly's elaborate and allegorical "Broadway Melody" is supposed to provide the emotional and esthetic climax for the film.  This climax is followed by the movie's narrative denouement, a sequence that is the opposite of the intensely theatrical and expressionistic "Broadway Melody".  "Broadway Melody" is an overt contrivance; the film's narrative climax, following fast on the heels of the dance-ballet represents the unmasking of a contrivance, the demystification, as it were, of the machinery of film -- an intensely analytical and schematic behind-the-scenes shot shows Lina Lamont, the silent film star cursed with a terrible voice, lip-synching the show-tune "Singin' in the Rain" while the petite Debbie Reynolds provides the actual singign from behind the stage's curtains.  It's no accident that the song selected for the narrative climax -- a scene that results in the unmasking of the carefully contrived artifice that Lina Lamont is a great singer -- is a number that previously was defined by its "spontaneity".  The happy lover, Don Lockwood (played by Gene Kelly) walks home in the rain and "spontaneously" expresses his jubilation by dancing through puddles and bathing in the fountains of downspouts.  The sequence is staged to represent a spontaneous, flood of exuberant emotion and Kelly foregoes his more balletic choreography (with the exception of the iconic image of the dancer posed on the streetlight) for almost childish gestures involving play in the rain -- in one shot, he stomps like a four-year old through deep puddles.  The film's climax accordingly embodies the division between artifice and spontaneity that is central to almost all (with the exception of "Broadway Melody") of the film's dance sequences.

Consider "Moses Supposes", a song-and-dance sequence in which Dennis O'Connor as Cosmo and Kelly's Lockwood riff on the rhythmic tongue-twisters that an elocution coach is using to train silent actors to speak like British thespians in their new sound film productions.  The song and the accompanying dance, which is virtuosic in many respects, is supposed to spontaneously originate in the high spirits and satiric sensibility of Don and Cosmo, two rebels who see the elocution classes as high-brow hokum and can't resist mocking the pretense that cinema actors should speak like John  Gielgud or Lawrence Olivier -- again note that the premise of the sequence is the contrast between the ordinary demotic spoken in "realistic" moving pictures and the highfalutin' oratory characteristic of the stage.  But the point is that the elaborate song-and-dance number just emerges spontaneously, as a reaction of the characters to the situation in which they find themselves.  Other notable, and extraordinarily complex and intricate song and dance numbers in the film have the same character -- most notably the song "Good Mornin'" in which the trio comprised of Debbie Reynolds, O'Connor, and Gene Kelly dance with the camera climaxing the sequence by a jazz-dance run that charges toward the lens which retreats precipitously as the actors move up and over furniture that obliging flips onto its side as they approach.  Viewing these sequences, the audience is put into a divided mode of perception, consistent with the other innumerable divisions that drive the film by invoking a kind of "compare and contrast" sensibility in the spectator.  These dance sequences are, obviously, fantastically contrived and the result of the most intricate and tiresome preparation -- everything has been rehearsed to within an inch of its life and there is no room for improvisation:  the dances are literally matters in which a half foot too far in one direction or another would be calamitous, even, perhaps, life-threatening.  And, yet, at the same time the viewer is led to a fictional "suspension of belief" in which one part of our mind obligingly interprets the songs and dances as the spontaneous, improvised, wholly natural expression of strong emotion.  Thus, we find ourselves viewing the dance scenes with a double perception -- they are, at once, intensely prepared and artificial constructions involving elaborate camera motion correlating with the supposedly spontaneous motions of the actors (dozens of feet of rail on which the camera glides and vertiginous swooping crane shots) while at the same time wholly spontaneous, sudden, improvised eruptions of music and gesture that embody the emotions of the characters.  Twice in the film, the direct clash between spontaneity and elaborate preparation is made manifest -- of course, this is theme of the film's cruel, but necessary, climax and, also, the first overt love duet between Don Lockwood and the aspiring chorine played by Debbie Reynolds:  in the latter scene, Lockwood leads the ingénue (obviously much younger than him) into an empty soundstage, contrives an elaborate set with a sunset, purple skies, and wind blowing the fabric of Reynold's diaphanous dress (he sets up a wind machine); it seems that it is only after these elaborate preparations that Lockwood can announce his supposedly "spontaneous" love for Reynold's character.  Thus, the proclamation of love itself, supposedly the outgrown of a spontaneous feeling is disclosed, as being a complex and densely staged artifice.  (It's fascinating that this vast empty sound-stage and the wind machine blowing a diaphanous veil re-appears in the jazz ballet "Broadway Melody"; Cyd Charisse playing a gangster's moll dances a duet with Kelly that features the same metaphysically empty but bright soundstage, a vast abyss like the sky in the earlier love scene, through which the characters spin and whirl while a hidden wind machine makes voluptuous patterns in the woman's 60 foot long, lace veil.  How are we supposed to view the replication of imagery, although somewhat disguised, that we saw in the film's narrative in the climactic ballet?  Is Lockwood drawing upon his experiences on the soundstage with Debbie Reynold's as a basis for this ballet?  Or, are we supposed to view the experience of falling in love as being poetically expressed by certain archetypes -- the empty but vast field of light containing the lovers, the rapturous wind  (think of Dante's Paolo and Francesca) of passion?  Or is there an implication that all love is based on some kind of mutual and obsessive self-delusion -- the obvious contrivance manufactured by the lover in the sound stage is parodied and exposed, as it were, by being repeated in the ecstatic, but essentially ridiculous dance in the "Broadway Melody" sequence.  And if this latter interpretation is a correct one, then, what does this presage for Lockwood's romance with Debbie Reynold's plucky ingénue -- the scene with the gangster's moll ends in disappointment:  the woman is a vacuous illusion and she fades away.  Is this the fate of the love between Lockwood and Reynold's little chorus-girl?)

Viewed in the era of Harvey Weinstein, Singin' in the Rain embodies all sorts of queasy forms of sexism and, in fact, viewed in the light of Hollywood's sexual exploitation of women, the film's narrative climax seems wrong-headed and, even, a little bit nasty.  First, the film establishes an ambience of what we would regard as general and pervasive sexual exploitation.  Lockwood assumes that Debbie Reynolds will immediately grant him access to her bedroom -- these leads to their initial spat.  Dance sequences show crowds of willing women spinning around a single elegantly dressed and powerfully accoutered male (top hats, cane and tails).  Lockwood, like Donald Trump, blithely invades a dressing room full of half-naked chorus girls searching for Reynold's character (do you suppose it is indicative that I can't recall her name in the film?)  In the dressing room, a world-weary chorus girl bluntly propositions Lockwood.  When Reynold's dancer encounters Lockwood a second time, she is part of a sexist display of Betty-Boop-type chorines; she herself bursts from inside of a cake in a classic trope signifying female availability and male dominion -- she's provided as a delectable morsel for the powerful studio bosses at the party.  Lina Lamont (played as big, dumb blonde by Jean Hagen) is subjected to elocution exercises in which she repeatedly struggles with pronouncing the word "can't" -- of course, by the end of the lesson, she has elongated her vowels to be saying something that sounds very much like "cunt."  Later, the word "bush" is repeatedly used in a leering sequence in which a recording device is concealed in potted plant -- "I can't make love to a bush!" Lina Lamont loudly wails.   The next shot shows a close-up of her bosom with a hand groping her breasts -- the hand turns out to belong to a female costume attendant who is putting a microphone into Lamont's bodice.  In this world, all relationships are deemed to be instrumental.  Lina Lamont has no time for the impoverished, if devilishly handsome, Don Lockwood until she learns that he is being groomed as a star -- then, she works desperately to seduce him. 

Lina Lamont is clearly no novice and has been around the studio long enough to understand what men want and how to deliver the goods.  And there is a way in which she can be seen to be a kind of feminist (or post-feminist) heroine in this film.  Lamont precipitates the narrative climax by standing on her rights.  She has a contract, she declares, and she is going to sue unless she is accorded the right to control her own image.  At this point in the film, the image includes the notion that she has a beautiful speaking voice and can sing like a nightingale (these attributes courtesy of Debbie  Reynolds).  Nonetheless, it is Lamont who is empowered, if only briefly by the film's climax.  She is insists that she controls her publicity and will not be silenced.  One of the film's central themes relates to the contrast between image as a kind of speech (and publicity) and silence.  Lamont thinks her voice, which is an angular, nasal horror, is beautiful and wants to speak in her own voice -- indeed, she delivers her final defense to an audience in her own crass, sharp, and vulgar diction.  By contrast, the mousy and subordinate Debbie Reynolds, who becomes more and more a thrall to Gene Kelly's debonair Lockwood (exactly as he plotted in the opening scenes) is content to stand behind the curtain, out of the lime-light and, in effect, be silenced.  The film's narrative conclusion is, therefore, profoundly ambivalent -- the powerful woman, seen at a party surrounded by a crowd of well-dressed gents, is a "cunt"; she's reduced to a bad joke at the end of the film and dashes off-screen never to be seen again.  But, there's a distinctly uncomfortable aspect to this climax:  the woman protected by a contract is humiliated, stripped of her power, and, as it were, exposed.  A feminist reading of the film posits Lina Lockwood, who is willing to destroy another woman to maintain her power, as a kind of problematic heroine. 

(In Singin' in the Rain every movement and every gesture reveals the capacity to turn into dance.  This is evident in the final sequence in which a trio of men -- the studio boss, Lockwood, and Cosmo -- set out to expose Lina Lamont's inability to sing.  The men fall into a rhythmic walk and, literally, dance to the ropes controlling the stage's curtain.  They then hoist it with rhythmic and balletic pulling -- the whole thing is a mini-ballet and a kind of barbaric yawp of male dominance.  I say this because hoisting the curtains is a sort of "lynching" designed to punish Lina Lamont for her presumptuousness in maintaining that she has rights worthy of being enforced.)

I've been reading Virgil's Georgics particularly the fourth and some of that study has leaked into this essay.   The Fourth Georgic involves beekeeping and the poem imparts a lot of technical lore to the reader -- we learn how to make hives, what types of plants bees require, and, even, what to do when a colony of bees takes ill.  But a remarkable feature of this text is its so-called epylline -- that is, miniature "epic" -- the story of Aristaeus and his sick bees, a myth that manages to encompass both a duel with the shape-changing sea god Proteus and the sad tale of Orpheus and Eurydice.  The structure of Singin' in the Rain, accidentally of course, bears some resemblance to the narrative and mythological trappings of Virgil's Georgic.  Probably about half the film is an account of the technology and trade of movie-making --  we get all sorts of "inside dope" about how pictures are produced and how their effects are achieved.  (In one sequence, the film shows the hero on a sound stage where, at least, three or four movies are being simultaneously produced -- the sets are adjacent with their cameras and crews producing a period picture, a western, and a musical all elbow to elbow.)  The film also proposes two myths -- a broader mythology about the transition from silent to sound films and a more narrow, focused myth establishing the etiology of post-synchronized sound or dubbing.  Finally, the film, like Virgil's poem, digresses radically from its ostensible subject to present its epylline (or mini-epic) -- in this case, the "Broadway Melody" ballet, a 17 minute interruption in the narrative that seems to have only the most tangential connection to the story that supports it.  The interpretative problem for the viewer is to work out the connection between this miniature epic, the digression into an immense and complex ballet, and the rather prosaic technical details of the story presented by the main narrative.  In the case of Singin' in the Rain, the ballet seems to present in a fabulous, allegorical mode the career of Don Lockwood, and, in fact, possibly presages, in a melancholy way, the future of his relationship with Debbie Reynolds' character.  In the film's opening, we are shown a resume of Lockwood's ascent to Hollywood fame, a story that he narrates under the specious motto "Dignity, always dignity", on the red carpet while attending (with Lina) one of their films' premieres.  In images that are a counterpoint to Lockwood's pompous narrative, we see the hoofer and his buddy, Cosmo, playing some very rough gigs in vaudeville, then, migrating to Hollywood where the hero becomes a stunt man famous for his willingness to risk life and limb to get the shot.  The "Broadway melody" sequence similarly shows the young dancer, this time alone, appearing as a neophyte in the Babylon of Times Square, connecting with a raunchy agent, and, then, working his way up through performances in speakeasy saloons, then, in small vaudeville venues, and at last, appearing as a headliner in the Ziegfield follies.  (The ascent is similar to that shown in the prologue where Lockwood dances for nickels in pool hall as a little boy and is then shown with Cosmo performing in what seems to be a brothel.  Furthermore, the diction in the song repeated in the different venues where the hoofer performs becomes increasingly gentrified, the vowels becoming more and more elongated as the hero ascends in status -- this is precisely the point of the elocution scenes in the main narrative.)  After achieving professional success, the hero is seduced into the pursuit of the gangster's moll.  This is Cyd Charisse who certainly has one of the most startling first appearances in film history -- the hero's hat is knocked off and lands on the toes of her outstretched leg and she, then, draws the hoofer's attention from her feet up her fantastically long calves and thighs to her crotch (the camera makes this transit with the hero's eyes).  Charisse isn't exactly pretty or beautiful in his film -- her face is locked into expressionless Kabuki mask, a sort of bruised pouting, and she uses her body like a viper.  (She represents everything that Debbie Reynolds is not.)  The hero pursues the girl through various dreamlike sequences -- including one redolent of his courtship of the heroine in the principle narrative -- but she always eludes him.  At last, the hero abandons his pursuit of this Ewig Weibliche apparition and seems to be disconsolate.  But, then, he sees another young hoofer, dressed like a rube as he was a few years before -- the young man optimistically marches down Broadway and the hero understands that the cycle is beginning again with another new aspirant to show business fame.  The story implies two things -- that with hard work and persistence (and, of course, native talent), a good-looking tenacious kid can become a star; and that stardom doesn't bring happiness -- the hero remains romantically thwarted:  he can't seize the woman that he loves.  Finally, the story shows us that its lineaments are eternal -- the desire for show business fame, the pursuit of the loved woman and her loss at the very height of the hero's success are elements that mythically occur and re-occur.  People are fungible to the archetypes that they represent -- we fill various roles on this stage that is the world.  The effect of the ballet, therefore, is to recapitulate elements of the story's plot and to impart a sort of "dying fall" of melancholy to the proceedings -- it is desire that drives show-business and the nature of desire is that it can never be fully achieved.  (A final point:  the balletic "Broadway Melody" with its somewhat specious "beauty" and gravitas is the very opposite of the slogan that animates O'Connor's great set piece, his antic performance of "Make 'em Laugh" in which he hurls himself about with such reckless violence that he ends up knocked-out and presumably comatose when the number is over.  Throughout the film O'Connor mugs demoniacally and his eyes glitter and face seems completely malleable, rubber features that can be twisted in any way you want -- he represents the exact opposite of Don Lockwood's mantra:  "Dignity always Dignity.")

A key aspect of the "epylline" in Singin' in the Rain is to show a different aspect of the female as archet ype than those depicted in the narrative.  Debbie Reynolds is naïve, helpful, resourceful, and courageous, a good friend -- but she seems to belong to an entirely different species than the serpentine Cyd Charisse.  (She's also is very different from the grasping, vulgar, but, apparently, powerful Lina Lamont -- Reynolds has mousy brown hair compared to the Harlow blonde that Lamont sports and she seems to be about half her size; compared to Cyd Charisse, Debbie Reynolds looks squat and seems to have short troll-like legs.)  Throughout the film, there is an insistence that women are intrinsically fragmentary -- that is, no woman embodies in her own person all attractive qualities.  Debbie Reynolds is the sweet girl next door, but she isn't as beautiful or seductive as the terrifying Cyd Charisse, nor is she as ring-wise, savvy and conventionally beautiful as Lina Lamont.  Reynolds can sing but is too mousy to be a conventional movie star; Charisse is silent, a sinuous body that seeks to enfold the hero in her coils; Lina Lamont has beauty but can't speak without grating on the ear.  The female characters are all incomplete in some sense.  Their fragmentary nature contrasts with the Man in Full -- Gene Kelly who not only can sing and dance, but acts effectively, can effortlessly master the new diction required of sound pictures, and is so complete that he can even dance successfully entirely with himself (as in the "Singin' in the Rain" number.)  It's not accidental that the "Singin' in the Rain" sequence includes shots of the hero dancing in front of a window full of severed female heads -- it's a hat shop but the point, nonetheless, is made that all the women in the film are essentially fragmentary and incomplete.  Kelly's dominion over the film and all its aspects is dramatized by his close relationship with the Studio Boss and depicted in the credits for the movie -- the dances are all designed and choreographed by Gene Kelly and he shares a directorial credit with Stanley Donen.

Finally, the film is significant culturally for establishing in the minds of viewers a vast historical distance between silent movies and the talkies.  (The other film instrumental in exiling silent films to an obscure and grotesque past is 1950's Sunset Blvd.)  This movie was made less that 25 years after the silent era -- but the movie posits the silent films as existing in a sort of "fabulous, formless," and ancient darkness, as being antique ruins of a mysterious and outlandish previous world.  But the distance that separated those films from Singin' in the Rain is the considerably less than the time intervening between the first Star Wars film and this present day. 

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