Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Mistakes were made

Well, updating last night's post on Nike's Minor Threat rip-off - apparently, Nike apologized some time yesterday - I guess you'd call it sincere. They blame the skateboarding team, not their advertising firm. Hey! they're probably telling the tuth! Still, it's nice and gutless... It's good that Nike didn't fight it, bad that Nike feels free to do this sort of thing.

Now - the truth of this is that I think copyright laws are too harsh - the Sonny Bono law strikes me as being utterly ridiculous and probably evil. It is telling, though, that these laws are used so blatantly to serve the powerful against the less powerful - to stop an individual artist, say, from appropriating Donald Duck, while leaving it very difficult (in some circumstances - not this one, apparently, which is a happy ending) for someone like Minor Threat or Dischord to stop Nike (or something like them) from doing the same. Anyway, it is good to see that this time, the bad guys backed off quickly.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Picked from a Hat?

Guardian - the 40 Best Directors - wow. 40 directors, though none of them Hou Hsiao Hsien, Edward Yang - and this isn't pure Hollywood-centric, either! I mean, Bela Tarr? It's nothing short of bizarre at ties - take the fact that Samira Makhmalbaf is on the list - and Mohsen is not. He is mentioned - her father, "one of Iran's greatest filmmakers" - though he is not named.

I can't imagine what criteria were used: living directors? Can't be that, not when Godard, Bergman, Antonioni, Altman, de Oliviera, Rohmer, Chabrol, Rivette, Resnais, Marker, Varda, Herzog are all alive. Active? Rohmer and Godard and Altman and Oliviera are all still banging them out. I don't know. They have David Lynch at #1 - which you can make a case for, though it's harder if you're factoring in the Godards and Bergmans of the world, or allowing consideration of the past achievements of Altman or Imamura, etc. - they have Scorsese at #2, which must mean they're willing to pay homage to the past. Anyway....

Found a link at A Girl and a Gun - a very nice looking movie site, linked to today by the aways interesting Lance Mannion. Today, he offers links to a bunch of movie related blogs - a type of blog I have long sought. Check it out, and check out the sites he links to.

Major Threat is Right

This story - Nike stealing a Minor Threat album cover for a new ad campaign - is - unspeakable. One of the most breathtaking acts of pure contempt I have ever seen. I mean, no one really expects companies like Nike to be exactly moral or decent - but you do sort of hope that they will follow the laws that protect them. When they act with this amount of contempt - I don't know what to say. The only justice in the world would be to strip Nike of every trademark and copyright they own. But that won't happen.

Via Pandago.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Back to Frivolity

At the risk of pushing another vital, crucial political post down the page.... It's that Time of the Week again! You know what I mean - Friday, Random, Ten!

1. Somebody Might Wave Back - The Waterboys
2. That's Not Me - Beach Boys
3. A Second Life - Damon and Naomi
4. Green Mind - Dinosaur Jr.
5. One More Hour - Sleater Kinney
6. Dramamine - Modest Mouse
7. Karen Revisited - Sonic Youth
8. He'd Send in the Army - Gang of Four
9. Pop Sicle - High Rise
10. Gates of the Garden - Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Rove Revisited

More politics, I know. Here's Steve Gilliard commenting on George Pataki's response to Karl Rove's provocation of a day or so ago. Quothe Pataki (blaming Hilary, as all Republicans must do):

In response, Pataki said Clinton hadn't voiced similar outrage over recent controversial comments from Democrats, including national chairman Howard Dean's disparaging remarks about Republicans and Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin's invocation of Nazis and Soviet gulags in a speech about the U.S. military installation at Guantanamo Bay.

Quothe Gilliard in return:

Rove who has never served anyone but his wallet, thinks its funny to mock American fighting men. We need to remind Mr. Rove and his bosses that an entire division of New Yorkers, democrats and republicans, independents and right to life, are serving in Iraq. I don't think the 9 men who died within a week in the 69th Regiment were thinking about politics. They were New York Guardsmen and they were serving their country.

Now then - admirable as Gilliard's comments are - this is pretty much exactly what Rove was after, I think. Get the democrats talking about their patriotism, instead of about torture and abuse of prisoners. Create dueling quotes - so that you can get the conversation to be about the dueling quotes, or, why what Durbin or Dean said isn't the same as what Rove said - instead of talking about the torture, or the fact that Iraq is still a disaster, and our disaster. Rove said what he said to make sure people talk about the conversation - and to get the democrats talking about themselves, rather than about the war as such.

This would be a good time for Howard Dean to go on the attack. At least - the dems should avoid playing Rove's game. If you have to talk about the conversation, start it by asking - "do you think torture and abuse of prisoners is acceptable for the United States?"

It might also be nice to have someone respond to Rove's claims that "Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 in the attacks and prepared for war" by noting that what he means is, Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 in the attacks and prepared for war with a country not involved in those attacks. That, basically, Tony Blair had to cut a deal with Bush to help him take out Saddam in order to get Bush and company to take on the people who attacked us. (Juan Cole has the story in Salon - also, see this story in the Guardian.) They might even note that they never did manage to catch the guy behind the attacks - he's still at large!

My point, I suspect, is this - Rove knows what he's doing. He's on the attack, because if you attack, you get people talking about what the other guy is doing, not what you have done. And if what you have done is a disaster....

Finally - this post from Billmon at Tom Tomorrow's blog raises some interesting points about Rove's speech. Billmon sees fear:

But, like fellow psychopath Mike Tyson, Rove isn't just telegraphing his punches, he's also displaying the depths of his fear. The rhetorical ear chewing and head butting is a clear sign the champ doesn't have the juice any more, and knows it. Rove is trying to get by on sheer intimidation. He's pushing as many primordial conservative buttons as he can -- leaning on them, in fact -- in hopes he can once again make the dreaded liberals the story, not the march of folly currently sinking into the Iraqi quicksands.

I think he's on to something - the White House has been losing on the facts since the beginning; they could carry things along on rhetoric for a while, but not forever. Facts have been battering them, and recent stories have been fought in their backyard, as it were, not ours. They need to get people arguing about what Liberals are up to, in a way that doesn't constantly remind people of our failures and sins. So you get this - an immediate counter-attack - by one of the big boys, and not the usual suspects (Cheney, Rummy) - Rove himself out there raving. It's a bluff. But you have to take the fight back to 'em to call it...

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Is Torture Anti-American?

I have avoided politics here for some time, though I have to put up something about Dick Durbin. A week or so ago he claimed that reports of American torture of prisoners at Guantánamo were the sort of thing one might hear out of Nazi Germany or some such awful place. This led to a week of shrieking from the aggrieved right - and that led to Durbin apologizing, which led to Karl Rove saying that liberals want to see American soldiers killed. (I quote: "Let me just put this in fairly simple terms: Al Jazeera now broadcasts the words of Senator Durbin to the Mideast, certainly putting our troops in greater danger. No more needs to be said about the motives of liberals." That's what he said, that's what the man said.)

But back to Durbin: It's hard to analyze what he said. Like the Amnesty International comparison of Gitmo to the Gulag, it is something of a dangerous metaphor - I myself have hammered people endlessly for comparing Saddam to Hitler, which so often proves to be their only talking point in arguments about Iraq - but the outrage Durbin kicked up is even harder to take. If style is more important than substance - what does it mean to argue against him? Doesn't that mean that you are more upset by someone comparing Gitmo to the Gulags than you are by Gitmo's abuses themselves? (See quote.) Alas - I can conclude nothing less. For while many lefties will, like I just did above, squirm a bit about Durbin or Amnesty's hyperbole and arguing by analogy, most righties do not bother to combine their stern (or foamy mouthed, depending) condemnations of Durbin with an analogous squirm about the fact that, yes, after all, we are torturing people in Gitmo, and, yes, after all, that's not something really compatible with the American Way.

But Durbin apologized (for reactions? Michael Berube is up in arms; very nice letter from Jeanne D'Arc on Tom Tomorrow's blog; the right (represented by, say, Powerline), huffs that he only apologized for a "poor choice of words". Which of pretty predictable - you'd think the dems would catch on to that trick by now.) So now what? Karl Rove - well - you read this, right?

It is hard not to fall into despair at this crap. It hurts to think that people who think they care about the United States are that willing to defend torture. Because, really - hammering on Durbin is nothing more or less than a defense of torture. His point - that countries that torture are evil - and evil countries torture - stands. He's right. How can you accuse him of attacking American troops? He is only attacking the American military is torture is the official policy of the United States. Is it? (One worries.) Still - there is something more to this, that may offer a little hope: it's that, after all, torture is Un-American. (I know that's an overused term - but shit, if torture isn't unAmerican, is anything?) And every time someone criticizes Durbin for saying so - they are reminding everyone what happens at Gitmo and Abu Ghraib. There is, just a little bit, something of the old, "when did you stop beating your wife?" routine going on. The defense - "we don't torture as many people as Stalin or Hitler or Pol Pot!" - doesn't exactly fly flags of glory for the country....

Which, undoubtedly, is why Rove went out and offered an explicit, divisive attack on liberals - there's no defense like a good offense. Especially when you're as unpolular and fucked up as the Bush White House is. They have to attack - they want the ball in our court - they want the talk shows to be arguing about whether Liberals hate America, not whether you can seriously compare American government facilities to Gulags. I am not convinced that the right can continue to brag about not being as bad as the commies without some of the fact that we are doing bad things getting through. Stories like this - however they are spun - are spun. Spin around the fact that we are torturing people long enough and people will notice it.

This is from the FBI report cited by Durbin:

On a couple of occasions, I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food or water. Most times they urinated or defecated on themselves, and had been left there for 18-24 hours or more. On one occasion, the air conditioning had been turned down so far and the temperature was so cold in the room, that the barefooted detainee was shaking with cold. . . . On another occasion, the [air conditioner] had been turned off, making the temperature in the unventilated room well over 100 degrees. The detainee was almost unconscious on the floor, with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally pulling his hair out throughout the night. On another occasion, not only was the temperature unbearably hot, but extremely loud rap music was being played in the room, and had been since the day before, with the detainee chained hand and foot in the fetal position on the tile floor.

That is what Durbin could not believe was being done by Americans.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Midweek Harold Lloyd Update

Well - I have been having ongoing internet problems here, and haven't spent much time online this week. Plus, there's that Harold Lloyd series I mentioned. When I do get back online, I might try writing about Harold Lloyd - maybe. I'm not sure what to say about him - maybe I could try to write about his persona, style, and so on, especially as it compares to Chaplin and Keaton, but I doubt I have anything all that interesting to say. His films (Lloyd's) are very funny - they are also, I think, a lot lighter than the other two - which is part of why they are harder to talk about. They do what they do - the story, the style, the themes, are right there, on the surface - clean and direct, but lacking the resonances the other two had. I don't know where I am going with that, if I even believed it. One thing I might write about, since it's geeky enough for me, is how he relates to the physical world - objects in the world - compared to the other two. The best parts of Lloyd's films are usually the chases (or sometimes the fights, or things like the skyscraper stunt) - sequences where he takes on the world in a straight fight. Keaton and Chaplin do things like that as well, but for Lloyd, that often seems to be the core of his comedy. Anyway - anything like a long analysis of any of this stuff is going to have to wait at least until the Lloyd series is done. After that - maybe. I might have something to say about early sound pictures as well - Lloyd made a couple, which fail in some odd ways. So - we might be back to this subject in the coming days.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Random Friday X!

I'm having trouble coming up with titles. Man. Anyway, 10 songs off the i-pod:

1 High Tension Wire - Dead Boys
2 Starlings of the Slipstream - Pavement
3 You Made Me Love You - Louis Armstrong and Hot Fives
4 Clap Hands - Tom Waits
5 The Blimp (Mousetrapreplica) - Captain Beefheart
6 Didn't we deserve a look at you - Shellac
7 Meeting in the Air - Carter Family
8 Sunday Morning - Velvet Underground
9 The Biz vs. the Nuge - Beastie Boys
... Wait - that's 23 seconds long: Let's try that again:
9b. Ironclad - Sleater-Kinney
10 Spread - Outkast

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Movies, Stars and Movie Stars

Lance Mannion has a post up about movie stars. I am not sure what to make of it. I quote:

Nobody's going to any movies, except Star Wars.

I haven't gone in a while. Except to see Star Wars.

Nothing else I've wanted to see. How about you?

Here's another problem I have. There's nobody I want to see either. There are no more movie stars.

This is a topic I have a hard time thinking about. I see too many foreign films, marginal films, old films, un-/half-released films to feel the angst that Hollywood feels, and apparently a lot of movie fans feel. The fact that nothing but Star Wars is making money this year means nothing to me - I have seen a reasonable compliment of films, some old, some new - and of the new films, they've been mostly quite satisfying, with a handful of masterpieces mixed in (I find to my shock that I have never posted aything about Arnaud Desplechins' Kings and Queens - that film deserves something. I will right that, in the coming days, I hope.). But other than Unleashed, Hitchhicker's Guide to the Galaxy and Crash - and Kung Fu Hustle, if that counts, I have not seen anything in really wide release. I expect that has something to do with my relatively satisfying year at the movies, compared, apparently, to the mainstream moviegoer.

Anyway: further down, Mannion asks his readers:

So, who do you go to the movies to see? Who would you call a movie star?

I'm not talking about who you think is a good actor. There is still a lot of good acting going on in Hollywood, but it takes place in out of the way corners.

Who do you think was a movie star in the last 30 or 40 years.

Who do you think could be a movie star if the powers that be in Hollywood knew anything about making movies?

Who are your favorite movie stars?

What was the last movie you saw (besides Star Wars)? What movies, in the theaters now or coming soon, do you really want to see?

What would I say? I go the movies to see Bill Murray, Johnny Depp, Nicole Kidman; Jackie Chan and Jet Li, with a good deal of trepidation... Denzel Washington, though he's in some boring films... Jim Carrey. Are they all movie stars? They might be. Gene Hackman? Clint Eastwood? Robert DeNiro? maybe - Eastwood anyway - not so much the other two - they strike me more as great actors...

Women in Hollywood are given a bum deal. Abroad, they get a better shake - though they are less active now than they were a few years ago, Maggie Cheung, Gong Li, and especially Bridget Lin were/are all movie stars in the old sense. As was Chow Yun Fat in Hong Kong, and Leslie Cheung. Going back - Gerard Depardieu of course in France. Kinski. Etc.

I'll skip to the end: last movie I saw - Howl's Moving Castle. Movies I want to see, soming soon - I'll see the Batman film... Though right now, what I'm really looking forward to is a Harold Lloyd series at the local rep house...

Monday, June 13, 2005

Some of What I've Lately Seen

This is kind of a boring post - just some quick notes on recent films:

Howl's Moving Castle is the new Hayao Miyazaki film. A girl working at a hat shop runs into a charming wizard, then runs afoul the "witch of the wastes" who turns her into an old woman. But she's a tough and resourceful old woman, and she sets out on her own, soon hooking up with Howl and his movie castle... Meanwhile, Howl is wanted by both sides of a war, and complications multiply, with somewhat diminishing dramatic impact. It is a gorgeous film, full of Miyazaki's wonderfully detailed art and machines and places, but the story bogs down - it's getting some bad reviews (See Roger Ebert, for example - a major Miyazaki booster in the past) - what he says - that fans will have to see it just to see it, others might be better off going elsewhere - isn't far off. As a fan, I enjoyed it - but got tired of the story somewhere in the middle. The art, though, holds your interest...

The Girl From Monday is a new Hal Hartley film. It's set in the near future, after the revolution - when a company called 3M took over the government, and learned to commodify sex and desire. Bill Sage stars as a declining adman (he came up with the idea for selling sexual desirability, but hasn't come up with anything new since) who happens to be running a counter-revolution at the same time. Somewhere in here, a woman from another planet - somewhere near the star system Monday - walks out of the ocean and he takes her home and teaches her to live on earth. Meanwhile, one of his colleagues has sex for pleasure and is arrested and sentenced to 2 years hard labor teaching high school. It's somewhat in the style of Book of Life - similar science fiction/end of the world/religious parable material, similar grainy video look, overtly arty photography. I don't like it as much - I love book of life, the way it looks, the performances (Thomas Jay Ryan as the devil!), the lighter touch - Polly Jean Harvey singing "To Sir WIth Love"... The new film is okay, it's clever enough, looks great )especially early), but tends to drag a bit.

Tell Them Who You Are - Mark Wexler makes a documentary about his father, the cinematographer, Haskell Wexler. Haskell is a great character for a film - a great artist, a smart, somewhat dominating presence, a political radical - Mark approaches him with some trepidation. The film covers Wexler's career and life, but it is mostly about the relationship of father and son. It is a difficult relationship - they have a difficult past, and they squabble and nag throughout the film as well - though a good deal of affection comes across. The complexity of their relationship is well conveyed.

Crash - this has garnered many a rave (here's Ebert giving it 4 stars), for reasons that I don't want to speculate about. (I'll let David Edelstein speculate I don't get it. The truth is, this is a pretty awful film. It's a string of cliches and ripoffs from better films - Magnolia and Short Cuts and Grand Canyon, and Do the Right Thing, and 21 Grams and Pulp Fiction and every fucking film where a cop has a gangbanger brother - make it fucking stop! The actors are good enough, but the dialogue is ludicris [oh! a pun!] and - damn - I had a bunch of neat Tom Servo and Crow style wisecracks stored up during the film - I've forgotten them all! Wait - Sandra Bullock is on the phone - "why am I angry all the time?" she whines to her friend, who immediately hangs up - oh, to have shouted out, "because you're in a bad film! watch your step on the stairs there - oh! too late!" Yikes... Perhaps I am overreacting - could I be? I doubt it. It's the kind of film where an insurance company can deny a claim on the spot with one phone call to an interested party - insurance companies may indeed be tool of satan, but if it were that easy, what would all the lawyers live on? It's the kind of film where a road can be deserted in the middle of the night and then full of traffic - later that same night. It's the kind of film that makes you think the entire population of LA is about 20. It's the kind of film where not every black person is a crack addict or criminal - but someone in their immediate family is! Somehow, its inanity has been mistaken for a serious meditation on race - it's inexplicable, and we mustn't let ourselves be fooled. Paul Haggis is riding high with this and Million Dollar Baby, but both of these scripts are seriously bad - cliched, hackneyed, sentimental, unbelievable. (To Counter Ebert - here's Slate's David Edelstein. That's more like it.)

Friday, June 10, 2005

Friday Routine Revisited

Yes, it's iPod Friday! No Busby Berkeley anywhere in sight! hooray!

1. Anesthesia (live) - Luna
2. Do you Realize? - The Flaming Lips
3. Songbird - Fleetwood Mac (holy crap - that's on here?)
4. Fake Contest - Minutemen (that'll counter Stevie Nix, nicely, thank you)
5. Sunrise - Magic Hour
6. Red Barchetta - Rush (uh oh)
7. Skip Steps 1&3 - Superchunk (this is such a great song; superchunk is okay overall, maybe no better than that - but this song belongs on the short list of whatever list you're making, especially the melodic puink lists...)
8. Helicopter - Bloc Party (these guys seem to have gotten to the "let's pretend it's 1981!" party a bit late - but I think I like them, more than Franz Ferdinand anyway... Maybe it's the cure influence - more cure, less gang of four helps, because - paradoxically - I worship Gang of Four and can take or leave the cure.)
9. Rat's Revenge Part 2 - The Rats (what is this? on one of Mojo free CDs, apparently the garage one - yeah...)
10. The Great Valerio - Richard and Linda Thompson (ah.) (if I were auditing myself, as Norbizness does, this would help the cause - any Richard Thompson will boost a rating of that sort, and when you get Linda's voice as clean and pure as it is here? gorgeousness and misery. I've kind of moved beyond the days I would go two weeks listening only to Richard Thompson (or Pere Ubu, or John Coltrane or Charlie Parker or the Velvet Underground or the Byrds - being some of the artists I got obsessive about at one point or another), but it's still one of the things it is necessary to hear regularly.)

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Berkeley Postscript - politics

Well - I've said, mostly, what I have to say about Busby Berkeley. I can't deny it's been mostly just a straight dump from the old notebooks to the blog - but I'm not going to pretend this blog is anything but a trying ground... Anyway, I'll try to do some summing up in time, but right now I want to make a quick aside on the political implications of the 3 1933 Warner Brothers films.

Mark Roth writes about the WB's 3 musicals of 33 as homologies for the new deal. WE see a group of people coming together to make a show - all depending on everyone else, on lining up the fat cats, enough to make things move - everyone working together for the good of all... He emphasizes the role of the strong leader in 42nd Street and Footlight Parade especially - considering Marsh and Kent figures of Roosevelt. All of this makes sense - the connections might be even stronger than he puts it. The references to Roosevelt are pretty clear in many places, and all these films - maybe most especially Golddiggers of 1933 - make the depression a central fact of their world, and are quite explicit about the mutual dependencies amongt he people working on the shows. Roth singles out 42nd Street and Footlight Parade for the stength of the directors, the male leads, specifically preferring them to Golddiggers of 1933 - that, I think, is less convincing. On two levels. The first might be the "fascism" level, occasionally remarked upon - the "strong man" can be taken that way, especially when considered in relation to Berkeley's dances. The way his routines reduce people cogs in a machine, strip out their humanity, etc., has been remarked on - and it's a reasonable observation. Roth’s praise of the dances (and the shows) is couched in the same terms. To Roth’s credit, he realizes this, and says he can’t really answer why this is good and not bad - except tautologically - that FDR did not become Hitler, even though he could have. But whether it is praise or blame, the way the films swallow the individual into the mass is - questionable.... The second problem with Roth's position is is wrong is that Golddiggers of 1933 is better for more post-modern reasons. There’s no doubt that Marsh and Kent hold the other two films together - Golddiggers of 1933 is more diffuse; the energy, the plotline, slides around among the ensemble. For me - big Altman and Imamura and Ozu fan - that is not a bad thing. You could take that a bit farther, too - point to the importance of female desire and agency (however parodied) in Golddiggers - which contrasts nicely to the emphasis on male desire and agency in the other films.

I could add a third objection to Roth's argument - he puts Footlight Parade ahead of 42nd Street because it is more triumphant - Marsh at the end of 42nd Street is exhausted - he's held off his creditors and the day of reckoning for another year, but he has to do it again, or he'll be back where he started - the cycle of woes could start up again. Roth prefers Footlight Parade because it avoids this sense of the wheel of fortune - it is hopeful and optimistic, only. But this might be why 42nd Street is better known today, and why it might be the greater film - That might be why it is a greater film - because in fact, fortunes do rise and fall. Roth argues that these films form a kind of new myth - and myths are almost always cyclical. Years later, the film that keeps an awareness of the transience of life and fortune is almost certainly the one to seem deeper.

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.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Procrastination and Sport!

Woe to those who come here seeking further ruminations on Busby Berkeley! Ha ha! After keeping on something like a schedule all week, you knew I had to fall behind eventually! If blame must be assigned, assign it here - yes, I scored a ticket....

We do have time for Friday's Random Ten:

1 Reason to Believe - Rod Stewart
2 Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except for me and My Monkey - The Feelies
3 Church Not Made with Hands - Waterboys
4 Fa ce la - Feelies (2 of em! cool!)
5 Cheers - Charlie Parker
6 Sound the Alarm - Deerhoof
7 I Had too much to Dream (Last Night) - Electric Prunes
8 Data Control (Live) - Husker Du
9 Mountain Side - Flaming Lips
10 Night Falls on Hoboken - Yo La Tengo

That'll do. Out about the blogosphere, the Friday top ten seems to have become a source for anxiety - as long as old Feelies, old Flaming Lips, Charlie Parker, Husker Du, Deerhoof keep coming up, I can sleep at night...

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Berkeley - Stage and Screen

So - building on my last post, where do Berkeley's films, particularly the Warner Brother's films, fit in that schema? How does his choreography relate to the rest of these films? And - what does his choreography, and its relationship to the stage, say about film itself? For that is what these scenes seem to me to be about....

On one level, these films (42nd Street, Golddiggers 33 and Footlight Parade) are all backstage musicals - more than that - they are all strictly performance based. That is, all the music in these films is presented as if it were being performed, for an audience, even if just an audience of one. At the same time, though, the big production numbers completely abandon the stage - the "real" space of the performance. They do this without establishing any sort of fantastic space, however - the films don't present these numbers as anything other than literal stage performances. (And in fact, Berkeley occasionally seems to be deliberately reestablishing the stage as the space for these performances, often by detailing the mechanics of the dances [that will be the subject of yet another post! still to come!]... The exception, though, is Golddiggers of 1935 - which does introduce framing devices into the big production numbers, as we will see below.)

Berkeley's productions get more and more extravagant with each film - and often within each individual film. This is most obvious in 42nd Street, I think. The first number ("Shuffle off to Buffalo") is quite spectacular, with its chorus girls and sleeper cars, but perfectly believable on a stage - Berkeley even keeps the camera in a position to represent the audience, to some extent. The next big number, "Young and Healthy," still seems possible to mount on a stage, but the camera has abandoned the audience and headed for the flies - and the dance itself, with its spinning girls (and wheels inside of wheels) forming patterns only discernable from above - would be utterly pointless on a stage. The choreography here is aimed exclusively at the camera, even if the staging is sort of possible within the "real" space. This kind of choreography is, of course, already something of a Berkeley trademark - the overhead camera, the girls making patterns on the floor.... Usually, though - in the Cantor films I've seen, for example - these scenes are part of the first type of musical - they are not meant as performances as such. In 42nd Street, they are performances - for an audience that couldn't possibly see them. And in the third big number, "42nd Street" itself, the stage space is completely exploded - oh, the dance may start on a stage, but the camera goes diving into the set, and the editing, sets, camera work, choreography, everything is used in a purely cinematic way - creating a number that could exist only on film. It uses space cinematically - in ways that seem deliberately to negate the stage.

In the subsequent films (including, with some variation, Golddiggers 35), this obliteration of the stage continues. Golddiggers of 33 starts, like 42nd Street, on the stage ("We’re in the Money" is completely stagebound), but that's all - the rest of the film takes full advantage of the camera - changing sets on the fly, having the dancers go through multiple costume changes, using editing tricks, and of course making art out of the camera movements and angles and lighting. The usual array of Berkeley devices can be seen - cameras going between the dancer's legs, the overhead shots, the live action animation (dancers forming patterns and pictures), abstract use of light and dark, shapes, tricks with depth and angles of perception, his customary practice of superimposing things - dancers, objects, etc. - on top of one another (the lines of dancers peeling off, revealing another dancer where the first had been. This is often interpreted politically (and another subsequent post will discuss politics, in relation to Mark Roth's essay on the New Deal and Warner Brothers musicals) - as a way of erasing the individuality of the dancers. There's something to that, though I don't know quite what - what's clearer, I think, is the abstraction of these devices. They take on a pure graphic quality - the dancers' faces or bodies replace each other on the screen, creating a kind of flicker - creating constant movement, yet without changing the image. (There might be some who read another metaphor for the cinema here. I will not dispute that interpretation - there doesn't seem to be much of anything in Berkeley's work that can't be read as a figure of cinema.) The graphic quality of Berkeley's work is always very powerful - all the pictures, shapes and such his dancers created - all the lines and circles and curves and patterns of light and dark they made. In dances like "Shadow Waltz", when the lights go out except for the electric violins the dancers are carrying - everything dissappears except the play of light and dark, the streaks of neon violins, arcing around the screen like, well, frames in a strip of film...

Now - in Footlight Parade there is no attempt to even pretend the big numbers are possible on a stage. They are short films - unabashedly. "Honeymoon Hotel" is set in a hotel, with multiple sets, elaborate camera movements, multiple camera angles, editing, and more; "By a Waterfall" - I mean - really*: sure, Dick and Ruby start out on a set that might, sort of, be doable on a stage (but on a stage shared by a movie screen? Though if you say, in front of a movie screen - so that Ruby Keeler leaves Dick Powell and goes into the movie - well - yeah... and symbolically, that's what all of these dances are doing, when you get down to it.) And "Shanghai Lil" looks like a movie set - it is staged like a movie - the sets change, the angles change, the thing is edited - everybody changes costumes half way through... it is pure cinema, without any pretense at anything else. It is as if Berkeley is seeing how far he can take this idea.

The answer is probably given in Golddiggers 1935 - though there are a couple differences in this film. One (stepping back a bit) is that there are musical numbers of the first type - Dick Powell offers up a couple songs out of the blue in this one. And one number - the opening dance by the hotel workers - is something - I don't know where it fits. Everyday life turned into a dance - it turns up in films often enough (like the dancing peasants in Beat Takeshi's Zatoichi, of all places), but it's hard to fit into my scheme, andI'm not sure it's common enough to justify adding a category of musical number. It's a variation on #1....

But Berkeley (who directed this film) also treats the big numbers differently. Specifically, he uses clear framing devices. For "The Words are in my Heart", we start with Dick Powell crooning to Gloria Stuart in a garden. The camera pulls back, and there is a dissolve to a shot of the garden as a model; the camera moves to show the model on top of a piano, with four women reprising the song; the camera then dives into the piano and comes out on a spectacular stage with an army of women in white playing white grand pianos - which start dancing with them, forming typical Berkeley patterns. When it ends - the camera dives back into one of these pianos, coming out to the four women and one piano - then it dives back into the garden model and comes out to reveal Dick Powell and Gloria Stuart again. There is nothing like that in the '33 films - Berkeley's numbers in those films always start by showing a dance performed on stage - and just shifts to the cinematic production number without any transitions of frames.

"Lullaby on Broadway" also has a framing device - it begins with a woman (Winifred Shaw) singing -we only see her face, small and white in a sea of black - the camera comes in closer and closer until she is in closeup as she ends the lyric; the camera spins, so her face is upside down, and there is a dissolve to an map of New York City in place of her face (more graphic matching, if you're looking for that) - the camera then dives into this map and we get the full number. I must drop the pose of studied neutrality here to agree with the critics, and Berkeley himself - this is the peak of Berkeley’s career: this is his best work. "Lullaby on Broadway" is a city symphony - it has all the elements - the dawn to dawn structure, the attempts to show all aspects of the city - the pacing, the musical style. It is also explicitly cinematic - the framing devices ensure that, as do the sets, the story line, the whole structure of the piece. There is a fairly explicit sense of leaving the stage behind and dreaming about the city. It is, thus, the closest of all of Berkeley's numbers (that I have seen) to the third type of musical number - the fantasy sequence. This is true even though it contains one of the best sustained “real dancing” numbers in Berkeley’s career, the tap dance in the nightclub. It's notable that even here, the dancers are subordinating to the camera. Even at the beginning, the two dancers, descending a staircase like Fred and Ginger, are subordinated to the set, the staging, the camera. The camera pulls back as they dance down a huge winding staircase, and they are swallowed by the set, and - more importantly - the full design is revealed: a huge multilevel stage, stairs in the background, and platforms to the left (with a group of revelers - or the orchestra - my memory fails me), and right - where Dick Powell and the girl sit, alone, high above the floor, looking down on the dancers. Then, of course, a veritable army of dancers come out and do an extravagant tap dance - and the camera goes giddy with excitement, and starts shooting from everywhere - even through the floorboards. (And that has to be one of the high points of American cinema.)

When it's done - the camera returns to the map of New York, which dissolves to the singer's face, then pulls away, leaving her, again, a receding white face in a dark field....

And that's a good place to leave it, for tonight. Coming up next - something about the "machinery" of Berkeley's dances, and a postscript on politics and meaning.

*For those looking for a description: Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler are lounging on a riverbank, "By a Waterfall" - they croon the song... then Dick takes him a little sleep, and Ruby sneaks off for a swim - plunging into a series of ever larger pools, full of more and more bathing beauties, who end up enacting a number of common Berkeleyisms - the camera goes between their legs while they're swimming, they form a giant zipper, which someone dives into and unzips, then zips back up - etc. You sit back and enjoy the ride along about here somewhere, wondering what he could do to top it....

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Types of Musicals

Before I dive into Berkeley proper, I think I have to say something about musicals in general. There are, I think, three main types of musicals* - defining them by how the music is integrated into the rest of the film.

1) Music as expression of emotion: This is what most musicals seem to do. Characters will break into song in the middle of a scene, in the place of "normal", representational interaction. This is usually a means of expression the ineffable - when the emotion gets to be too much, they start to sing or dance. Sometimes these performances are rationalized as performances - or combined with performances, on stage, etc. - this happens in most Fred Astaire films - he is usually a professional dancer - but one who, when he meets that right girl, will break into a spontaneous bit of hoofing. This is what people tend to think of when they think of musicals - especially when they are inclined to make fun of musicals. It requires some suspension of disbelief, as we are expected to accept the fact that people start singing and dancing in the course of their daily lives. But it is a very powerful way of expressing emotion, especially - well, love, joy, desire, sex - it works as an intensification of the emotions, a realization of emotions in movement and sound. And hell, most of us, when we are happy, are inclined to do a jig or croon a bit... aren't you?

2) Performance-based musicals: this is the premise of the backstage musical - that the musical performances in the film (as film) are also performances in the story in the film. People in these films do not start singing when they start falling in love - they sing because they are on stage, or rehearsing, or to impress someone with their singing or dancing. In these films, music remains subordinated to the representationalism of the film - the musical numbers are always naturalized in the story. Films that are not always taken as musicals do this - Marlene Dietrich's films - Blue Angel, Morocco, Blonde Venus - do this. She never sings to express her inner being as such - she sings because she is a professional singer. Obviously, the songs can be expressive of what she really feels - but they are still presented as performances in a realistic (in this sense at least) story. Documentaries also do this, of course - as do mockumentaries, and musicals about rock bands, biopics, and the like.

3) The Singing Detective style musical: this type of musical number is not very common in the 30s. Here, the musical numbers are presented as imaginary. That is - in the performance-based musicals, the music is shown as a more or less realistic performance in a diegetically consistent world. In "expressive" musicals, characters start singing in places they would not in "realistic" films - their singing and dancing is not presented as a performance in the film - but as an extension of their normal behavior. It is, however, completely, literally real, in the world of the film. This third type of musical, on the other hand - represented by films like The Singing Detective, The Hole, etc. - depicts the musical numbers as imaginary - it creates a second order of reality, a fantasy world. In The Singing Detective, the characters don’t literally get out of bed and start crooning - they only imagine it. I'm not sure what the original of this is - but it has a clear precursor in the “ballet sequences” in some of Gene Kelly’s films. They are set apart from the main diegetic world of the films (which in most cases does include "expressive" singing and dancing, and usually performances to boot) - either as explicit dream sequences, or as deliberately non-diegetic inserts.... This kind of musical is much more common now, in the 80s-00s, then it was in the classic days, and it occurs in a much purer form now. Kelly's films, even if you consider the ballets to be the ancestor of this kind of film, always contained conventional performances, of both types. Films like The Singing Detective do not - the music is always fantasy. They also tend to make these kinds of musical numbers functions of their characters' psychology as well - rather than as formal devices, dropped in by the director, say, to comment on the material, or just for the hell of it.

These types are interesting to Berkeley for a couple reasons. First - the 33 films are strictly backstage musicals - characters do not start dancing or singing to express their emotions - they always perform. (There may be a couple exceptions but I don’t remember any.) Now, these performances often carry the same function as the other kind - but they are still naturalized. Take Dick Powell singing to Ruby Keeler in Golddiggers of 1933 - he’s obviously pitching woo to her, but he does it in a completely diegetically plausible context. He is demonstrating his latest song, which happens to be about her. Second - though the singing and performances are always naturalized in the film - always presented as performances - the actual dance numbers are completely impossible. This is one of the things that makes those films so striking, formally. It gives them (among other things) some of the affect of the third type of musical number - it creates another world, existing purely in the film. This effect is particularly strong in numbers like "42nd Street" or "Lullaby on Broadway" - these pieces create imaginary worlds, that only refer to anything in the film outside them obliquely, maybe symbolically - they are self-contained, and primarily self-referential.

Next up - turning to the films themselves, and seeing what we can find there.

*Actually, that's silly - there are a lot more than three - what about, oh,
Umbrellas of Cherbourg? Forgive me for oversimplifying... The three are the ones useful for talking about Busby Berkeley.