Sunday, June 05, 2005

Berkeley - Welcome to the Machine

(Sorry for missing a couple days - Red Sox, sloth... but on we go.)

In our previous installment I offered some thoughts on Berkeley's big production numbers in the Warner's musicals - how they relate to the world of the film, some of their formal properties, what they look like. About the abstraction of those numbers - the way the content gives way to a pure play of line and motion. This post is about something else - it is about the mechanics of Berkeley's dance numbers - the work involved.

No matter how extravagant Berkeley's numbers get, he never lets you forget the work involved with putting these dances together. I could refer here to Jane Feuer - she argues (in the first chapter of The Hollywood Musical) that Hollywood musicals always aim to hide the work involved in making them; to create a sense of community between the audience and the performers, largely by making the performers seem to be amateurs - etc. There is merit in her argument - though I think it applies far more to later, MGM style musicals than to 30s musicals - especially the WB musicals. (A full discussion of what I think she gets wrong is a topic for another day. And the truth is, she tends to make exceptions for Berkeley's work - so using her as the departure point might be a bit of a cheat. But - for now...)

We can start to talk about Berkeley. Now - there’s no question that his musical numbers tend to efface the individual performer, in a host of ways. Many of the dances consist, more or less literally, of perfectly mundane movements - walking in circles - sprawling on your back scissoring your legs - floating in a pool: the "dance" is constructed out of the patterns formed by the dancers. His numbers often function much more as live action animation than as dance numbers. Even when the dancing is more complex, like the tap dancing in "Lullaby on Broadway," the dance steps are secondary to the overall pattern. (And in this case, as in others, the main affect is as much the sound of 100 tap dancers as the dancing.) But for all this, one of the striking things about Berkeley’s dance numbers is that you see how they work. You can see the patterns the dancers form - you see the things they represent - but you also almost always see the mechanisms, how they get there.

Take the dancing pianos in Golddiggers of 1935: on a black stage we see a host of white pianos played by women in white gowns. The pianos are moving - and under them, you can see men's legs, moving the pianos around the stage. The men are wearing black pants and black shoes - they are almost invisible on the black stage - but not invisible. It might be tempting (I don’t know if people do this or not - they didn't at the show I saw, but who knows) to mock - to think this is a continuity error - but that seems wrong. It would not have been hard to hide the legs - just drape something there... I think the legs are intentional - and that they add to the scene. One thing they add is an obvious sexual component to the scene - the pianos become men, the women playing them (and the men bent over, more or less into the girls' laps). They also emphasize the fact that the women are dancing with the pianos - you can see both partners. But I think beyond this, the legs are a reminder of the physicality of what you see - you see how things work, you see that these things are work, are being performed by people.

Something like this happens in too many of Berkeley's dances to ignore. I think this represents something of a fascination with machines, as machines. These numbers fetishize machines - they focus on the material, on the interlocking parts - it's reminiscent of 20s films, Vertov or Eisenstein or Lang, with their pumping pistons and such. But there’s also delight in how things work. Berkeley seems to want to go to some trouble to show you how the dancers are doing what they’re doing. The pool dance in Footlight Parade ("By A Waterfall") shows you the parts moving - you see the swimmers, but also the people supporting the swimmers. He tends, in many instances, to slow down the action enough that you can see the ways it is put together. And since he does not always do this - I think he is doing it deliberately.

Ultimately, this has three effects, I think. First - it shows the machinery, with a kind of pride, like an inventor showing off the way his stuff works - it has a Rube Goldberg quality to it. Second - I think it creates an interesting tension between the extreme abstraction of the dances - the way they are live action animation, the way they are so often reduced to patterns of color (black and white, in these films at least), to lines, shapes, plays of light, and so on - and the physicality of the dancing itself. And third, it creates a more abstract tension, between representation and abstraction itself. In this, it is similar to the way he shoots the city symphonies ("42nd Street" and "Lullaby of Broadway"), or big extravaganzas like "Shanghai Lil" or "Forgotten Man". There is always a stylization to these pieces - they are quite deliberate in maintaining a sense of irreality. They show realistic scenes, but in very abstract ways - they feel balletic. Partly, of course, because they are a clear precursor to Gene Kelly’s “ballet” sequences - which are also often meant to show simple enough things, but in an extremely stylized way. That’s here, too.

Berkeley’s habits of showing the machine - and the way, even in the most extravagantly impossible number, he will insert shots that refer back to the mechanics of a real stage production - seem to be meant to create the same feeling. I think that there is, in his work, a real sense of trying to transform the world. Getting back to Jane Feuer for a bit, she writes about the use of props in dancing (as well as the use of “natural” movements as dance) - these are both ubiquitous in Berkeley’s work. (The writers parody it in Footlight Parade - having Cagney complain that he’s made dances out of everything in the room). She emphasizes the way these devices are used to hide the technology required to make and film musical numbers - I don’t think that's quite what's going on in Berkeley's work. In his numbers, there is a clear sense that dance - and cinema - transforms the everyday. (Actually, I think that’s true of everyone who does this, actually - I think her argument about bricolage being part of the strategy to deny the difference between the everyday and Hollywood misses the point. First - the use of props in musical numbers derives at least as much from 20s silent comedy - Chaplin and Keaton - as from anything else; and second, I think the purpose of that kind of dancing in musicals is to imbue the everyday with the transcendent.) Berkeley’s dances routinely take everyday settings and actions and turn them into something extravagant - the sense of transformation is crucial - and it depends on the ties back to the mundane.

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