Friday, August 05, 2011

Notes on Musicals

The wonderfully strange Depression-era musical Hallelujah, I’m A Bum (Lewis Milestone, 1933) reminds me that there was a time in mainstream Hollywood cinema when you could have a character who was a self-proclaimed socialist and revolutionary, one treated with affection and sympathy by the film. (He’s played here by silent film comedian Harry Langdon.) A further anti-Americanism: the film centers on a community of “hobos” who live in Central Park, and vigorously extol in song the values of not working. Al Jolson is their leader, a pal of the Mayor of New York played by Frank Morgan who utters here the line “There’s no place like home” — a full six years before The Wizard of Oz! Much of the film’s dialogue is in rhyming couplets, which, along with the songs, were written by Rodgers and Hart. (Both have cameos in the film.)

* * *

Richard Dyer, in his classic and influential essay on musicals, “Entertainment and Utopia,” divides musicals into three broad tendencies: (1) A clear separation of narrative and songs (e.g. a backstage musical like 42nd Street in which the songs occur in rehearsal or performance within the story); (2) Transitions from story to numbers, often cued, when characters 'unrealistically' break into song or dance (e.g. Funny Face); and (3) An attempt to dissolve the very distinction between narrative and numbers by means of something that strongly unites and binds them both together. He gives the example of On The Town, in which a transforming energy runs through every scene, every shot, linking up the story with the songs, the musical and the non-musical moments alike. This energy transforms the city — New York City — into a utopia.

In most musicals, we find two distinct worlds: a ‘real’ world of the ‘here and now’ and a ‘utopia’ into which to escape through song and dance. But films in the above third category don’t permit such easy differentiation. They give us the real world (the weary dock-worker’s refrain at the beginning of On The Town: “I feel like I’m not out of bed yet!”) and simultaneously an emotional utopia that pervades the entire film (the sailors’ limitless “energy of leisure” as they plunge into the city to explore it).

Jonathan Rosenbaum has also remarked on this quality of certain musicals. In explaining the co-existence of “strangeness and intensity” in Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort, he identifies two Rodgers and Hart films, Hallelujah, I’m a Bum and Love Me Tonight, as displaying a related impulse — “to perceive the musical form as a continuous state of delirious being rather than a traditional story with musical eruptions.”

The blurring or outright erasure of the distinction between the tone, mood and atmosphere of the ‘story’ world and that of the ‘song and dance’ world can result in a complex and ambiguous impact on the viewer. Rosenbaum’s response to Rochefort is one of “powerful, deeply felt emotions — an exuberance combined with a sublime sense of absurdity, shot through with an almost constant sense of loss, yearning and even tragedy.”

If it’s the idea of energy that suffuses On the Town and determines the tone of the film, it is community that does this for Hallelujah, I’m A Bum. Bumper (Al Jolson) and his hobo pals live together in a common space (Central Park), share equally their discoveries (like the $1000 bill Bumper finds), interrogate each other’s decisions and moral positions, and, in every way, make each other’s business their own. Individualism is suspect; the individual is accountable at every turn to the community.

Lewis Milestone’s style finds witty, startling devices to convey this theme. An example: Twice in the film, an army of hobos sets out with great urgency to see Bumper, their leader. But instead of chaotically swarming en masse across the park to get to him, they approach him in geometric formations in four groups — one each from south, north, east and west! — in musical fashion, their steps in time, the editing participating equally in the musical performance. It’s one of many moments in this film when the reality of the homeless during the Depression becomes inextricably linked with their representation — stylized, musically joyous, and utopian in feeling. It’s a poignant, bittersweet touch in a film full of them.

Your thoughts on musicals? Any particular favorites in the genre, and why you like them so? I’d love to hear them.

* * *

A few links:

-- "Obscure Objects of Desire: A Jam Session on Non-narrative," with Jonathan Rosenbaum, Raymond Durgnat and David Ehrenstein (originally published in Film Comment in 1978).

-- A lengthy profile of Raúl Ruiz by A.O. Scott in the NYT.

-- Catherine Grant has a video essay that uses Gilda to offer a primer on gender, sexuality and movement. Also: Catherine rounds up for us the new issue of Jump Cut.

-- Adrian Martin and Conall Cash interview Eve Heller and Peter Tscherkassky at the Melbourne Film Festival.

-- Here are some interesting posts at Jon Jost's blog on avant-garde filmmakers: Leighton Pierce; James Benning; Nathaniel Dorsky; Letters from Dorsky to Jost (part 1, part 2).

-- An interview with Shelly Kraicer about Chinese independent cinema.

-- The BFI's "Most Wanted" list of missing British films.

-- Ignatiy Vishnevetsky on Mysteries of Lisbon at MUBI.

-- At Moving Image Source: Richard Porton defends the "talking-head" documentary.

-- Male Archetypes in the Movies," by A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis in the NYT.


Anonymous Marilyn Ferdinand said...

I am taking part in "Wonders in the Dark"'s Top 75 Musicals countdown later this month. All the judges struggled to fine some overarching definition of musical, and this becomes particularly hard as we move out of the classic era of the 50s. Fewer and fewer musicals were made as the audiences for them dried up, and I identified the mantle being picked up by ethnic minority audiences, with films like "La Bamba," "Dance with Me," and "Honey." Most of these films were aimed at young audiences who liked dance (especially hip hop) and music ,and included, like many of the 30s musicals, dance and music as part of the plot, not a heightened state of emotion as we might get in a classic film like "Carousel." But even films that fall into the "Rochefort" example Rosenbaum describes, like "A Hard Day's Night," are arguably not musicals, but more like soundtrack films.

August 05, 2011 2:35 PM  
Anonymous Trevor L. said...

I love musicals (on stage and on screen), and I love that Richard Dyer essay. In fact, it's one of my favorite essays about film by anyone, and it's worth mentioning that it's available in its entirety on Google Books. Like my other favorite Dyer essay, "In Defence of Disco," it exemplifies what it is about Dyer's thought that I've cherished so much, particularly his rigorous engagement and defense of entertainment. In my opinion, we need more people like Dyer, thinkers coming from the left who neither dismiss nor absolve popular culture but instead critically engage it and tease out what's valuable, and in many ways radical, in it. For many, the default response to what's harmful or objectionable about pop culture is to chuck the whole thing out, but Dyer makes you realize how silly that is (and how much you'd lose in the process).

That particular essay made a big impact on me in the way he discusses the conflict between the actual world and the utopian world imagined in musicals. This is a very complex understanding of the utopian (which I think is a key idea for film in general, given its essentially imaginative nature); it's not just a better or perfect world: musical numbers actually embody very precise qualities that we simultaneously lack and desperately need. He discusses a number of forms this dichotomy takes, but I think the very simple notion of "expression" is pretty essential. Musical numbers are utopian because unlike nearly everything about lives from day to day, they feature people expressing themselves clearly and perfectly.

In a lot of ways, this idea extends far beyond the musical genre, and I think you can see directors like Vincente Minnelli (master director of musicals that he was) applying these ideas in a film like Some Came Running, one of my favorite films. Frank Sinatra's character is so conflicted and alienated, you imagine he just wants to stop everything and sing you all his troubles, but there's that one scene where he kisses Martha Hyer's character: it's so perfect an expression of romance that it feels in tone and texture like a musical sequence (especially due to Minnelli's artificial, non-naturalistic use of lighting). Of course, this utopian feeling is later destroyed, but like a lot of films in the melodrama/romance genres, these intense, unreal moments of pure expression feel like a glimpse of utopia. It's almost like Frank Sinatra's character is someone exiled from the musical where he really belongs, forced to cope in the real world that doesn't really have a place for him.

One of my favorite musicals is the fairly recent (1997) On connaît la chanson / Same Old Song by Resnais. Instead of characters singing the songs, they lipsync to recordings of famous French pop songs. There's a lot going on (on a number of levels), and again, one theme is expression, here rendered as the desire for individuals to transcend their isolated, individuated perspectives (a very Resnais theme) and connect with one another. This is intensified by how the song sequences are closed, individual moments where a character expresses thoughts and feelings in a way that's not interactive with the other characters. The fact that the actors are not the ones doing the singing adds a twist, slightly deferring the complete fulfillment of the musical's utopian wish but also grounding this wish in a reality recognizable to all of us, reminding us of the ways we use pop songs every day as surrogates to express our feelings (singing along so that we feel the singer's voice and persona are our own). Of course, it's also simply lots of fun and a total joy, which all musicals should be.

August 05, 2011 2:54 PM  
Blogger Jonathan Rosenbaum said...

I once programmed "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum!" at the Buenos Aires Festival of Independent Film during Argentina's economic crisis--not just as a simple provocation, but as a basis for a discussion. It turned out to be pretty interesting, even with the necessity of having a lot of translation between English and Spanish.

August 05, 2011 2:56 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Marilyn, that's a great observation about the musical being picked up, more and more, by minority ethnic audiences. I hadn't thought of that...

Jonathan, thanks for turning me on to this film. I've been using your Essential 1000 list as a guide and filling in many "viewing gaps" this summer -- which is how I encountered this film.

Trevor, I love your ideas on "expression" in musicals and beyond (and the Minnelli/Sinatra example you use). You should write that up as a full essay sometime: it's rich in potential! ON CONNAIT LA CHANSON (which I've watched compulsively a dozen or more times) is simply one of my favorite films.

August 05, 2011 3:52 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

If you have the time and inclination, I recommend Red Garters, directed by George Marshall. Intended for 3D release, but released as a regular release, this is a western obviously filmed on a sound stage with no pretense about being realistic. The missing link between Brecht and Lars von Trier? Maybe you'll just settle for Rosemary Clooney's finest hour and a half.

My post from last year.

August 05, 2011 3:58 PM  
Anonymous Bobby Wise said...

Anthology Film Archives is doing a series called "Hollywood Musicals of the 1980s." I love them programming "Beat Street" but I'm not sure that it's a musical. If we're doing hip-hop films I would have much rather preferred them to program "Krush Groove", which is in the true form of a musical. "Wild Style" is probably more of a musical than "Beat Street" is.

They're also programming "The Blues Brothers". I haven't seen many musicals overall but I can feel comfortable calling this one my favorite for now. Endlessly repeatable, endlessly enjoyable. A masterpiece.

August 05, 2011 4:37 PM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

I'm in that funny position of not knowing what to contribute because this is a topic I have thought about, taught courses on, and written a bit about for many years (including one vain attempt to summarize the genre for a reference work). So my simple response is: where to begin? I also adore Richard Dyer's endlessly suggestive essay, but can't think about the musical without the work of my former teacher and colleague Gerald Mast, or the work of my current colleague Rick Altman (who put Dyer's essay in the volume he edited on the musical before his own ambitious study appeared). Rick's attention to the "folk musical" has interesting to things to say about the role of community in the genre as well. I also have a strong interest in the "minority" musical, and would cite Arthur Knight's excellent book on African Americans and the musical as a starting place for that topic.

I will just add this topic for now: we have tended to concentrate critical and even fan attention on far too few musicals, but there are distinct pleasures in Fox musicals (overshadowed by the near-exclusive focus on Warner Bros. and MGM) or the work of now somewhat neglected musical stars like Eleanor Powell (as skilled in her way as Fred Astaire). It would be good to see discussion extend beyond the usual suspects when people take up the musical.

Oh, perhaps one more thing, from my work on another favorite genre: it seems to me there are more musical Westerns (or Western musicals) than any other genre hybrid. (That is, if you don't think of musical comedy as a blend of the musical and what we otherwise mean by comedy.) There are few horror or science fiction or war or noir, or -- you name it -- musicals (some, but not many): but we have RIO RITA, GIRL CRAZY, ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, PAINT YOUR WAGON, OKLAHOMA, CALAMITY JANE ... and others. Why was it relatively common to pair the musical and the Western? (Not to mention singing cowboy films, usually not viewed as musicals, but also disregarded by fans and scholars of the Western ...)

Darn it, one more, more thing: a great many of the recent "minority" musicals would in fact qualify as biopics, another genre with a long cross-bred relation to the musical. What's the focus of LA BAMBA, RAY, WHAT'S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT, or even pseudo-biopics like DREAM GIRLS, the biographical or the musical, or their intertwining?

August 05, 2011 5:50 PM  
Anonymous Bobby Wise said...

"I also have a strong interest in the "minority" musical..."

It's the 21st century and the days of us being minorities are long gone, and they ain't coming back anytime soon. You need to re-think your qualifiers, whether you put them in quotation marks or not.

"It would be good to see discussion extend beyond the usual suspects when people take up the musical."

I agree wholeheartedly. If anyone cares to continue with hip-hop musicals I'm here. In addition to the afore-mentioned films another brilliant example is "House Party" (1990, Reginald Hudlin). This is a musical hybridized with the comedy, and in particular the sub-genre of the teenage comedy. "Krush Groove" (1985, Michael Schultz) is a musical hybridized with the biopic. There are numerous other interesting examples and the hip-hop film seems particularly suited to the form of the musical because of the elemental importance of music to the culture.

"What's the focus of LA BAMBA, RAY, WHAT'S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT, or even pseudo-biopics like DREAM GIRLS, the biographical or the musical, or their intertwining?"

I'd say the focus is their intertwining, if only because you can't separate the biographical from the musical when the subject is musicians. Perhaps the equivalent would be biopics about the lives of filmmakers. This sort of self-reflexivity is inescapable.

August 05, 2011 6:18 PM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

Bobby, I agree -- I picked up the term (which was actually "ethnic minority") from the earlier comments, and lazily tried to do some critical work by simply putting it in quotes: but it's not a term I would be prone to use now myself.

It's worth recalling that many classical Hollywood musicals were biopics, but more often about composers than performers (although there were these too such as THE HELEN MORGAN STORY or LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME, as well as among the most self-reflexive films ever made THE JOLSON STORY and JOLSON SINGS AGAIN, the latter in large part about the making of the former!). But musicals about Cole Porter, George Gershwin, and Jerome Kern were common sources for musicals, which then had the catalog of these composers to string into a narrative.

Another rich area for further research is the Hong Kong musical, which dominated that industry just before the martial arts films that made their way into larger international markets. These were almost unknown outside of Asia until recently, but now can be easily seen, and are often remarkable. I'm thinking of MAMBO GIRL and THE WILD, WILD ROSE (a remake of THE BLUE ANGEL with music from Bizet's CARMEN, sung in Cantonese), among many others.

August 05, 2011 7:31 PM  
Anonymous corey Creekmur said...

If I may be so crass, I'll slip in an announcement of a book I co-edited (with Linda Mokdad) called THE INTERNATIONAL FILM MUSICAL, which should be out later this year from Edinburgh University Press. It's the first book that attempts to account for the presence of the musical in almost all national cinemas, with chapters by experts on about a dozen national contexts, some unsurprising (but neglected in English language criticism) like Brazil, Egypt, or Germany, and others less expected: the Japanese musical, the Soviet musical, and the French musical.

August 05, 2011 7:34 PM  
Blogger David said...

Had musicals on my mind a lot recently. Sorry to redirect comments toward mainstream.

-- Been watching Busby Berkeley's Garland/Rooney high school musicals, which give a good challenge to the above categories of reality and utopia. The films are supposed to be set in everytown high schools that turn out to have the most extraordinary bands/theaters/dancers in the country, thanks to the pluck of showbiz-saavy kids. In other words something like the most utopic version of a possible reality: a notion subtended by MGM getting the most talented kids in the country to perform in the film, so that in a lot of ways the films are a documentary take on a fantasy high school c. 1939-1941 (a bit like modern day reality tv, but with significant talent). Berkeley's direction is intimate and rarely spectacular; there are occasional minutes-long takes in the dance scenes to let the camera follow the actors where they go, and a lot of the dance sequences are semi-Brechtian as spectacular talent overwhelms a banal stage of middle-class America. The "Nell of New Rochelle" in Strike Up the Band, which seems like an inspiration to the Rushmore theater pieces, features so many layers of parody and actors playing actors that it becomes a pretty recognizable, cutting take on small-town musicals (I remember a lot of these myself). It gets funnier as it goes along:

But I think this is the most amazing, with a three-minute opening take (I think) before montage hits:

-- Another favorite musical that could challenge these categories—deliberately—is Cukor's Let's Make Love, which, like a lot of Cukor, takes a frivolous, somewhat gloating script, and treats it with complete seriousness. The film sets up its two worlds—the reality and the musical—neatly on class lines, so that a billionaire checks out a basement revue parodying him, only to find they'd like him to play himself in their show. The premise gets more ridiculous in ontological contortions: the actual Marilyn Monroe is placed next to a mock Elvis and mock Maria Callas and mock version of a fictional billionaire who's really himself. Milton Berle plays Milton Berle who plays a role in the billionaire's own plot... as Milton Berle. But more importantly it's the stage half of the film—the troupe's performances—that is filmed as a kind of musical documentary, as a singing/dancing news revue plays a singing/dancing news revue, parodying the latest headlines, while the reality of the film—the billionaire's world—is a gross Hollywood fantasy replete with somewhat smug cameos by leading talents of the day. (Rivette territory). Cukor indulges all these fantasies at the same time he seems to see right through them—a sharp class-consciousness—as commedia della arte disguises over two actors, Yves Montand and Marylin Monroe, who could feel anything about each other, yet always seem to be themselves (Monroe especially) no matter what role they're playing.

As the film goes on, those categories of "story" and "song and dance", reality and fantasy, converge closer and closer, until an ending that's as miraculous in its way as Rossellini: a totally frivolous moment at the same time a testament to Cukor's belief in the genre's seriousness.

August 05, 2011 9:06 PM  
Blogger David said...


-- However much WB dominated musicals, as Corey indicated, their early non-musicals often use recurring songs and dances to give the film a cohesive rhythm and sense of structure that isn't necessarily there. With WB's wonderful stinginess, Female uses Shanghai Lil from Footlight Parade throughout in a number of iterations: not just background soundtrack, but a number the heroine plays, her butler organist plays, at at one point plays on a record, so that whenever we hear it it's unclear whether or not it's diegetic.

-- Probably the mainstream Hollywood director today most inspired by musicals is Michael Bay, who's discussed West Side Story rapturously at length for its color and cuts:

""What I like about musicals is that they break the rules of cinema," Mr. Bay said. "You know what I'm saying? The old rules of editing where, it's said, you must cut from this to this. You can't cut from here to there. You can't place the camera there; you have to place it here. When I do my action movies, I break the rules, too. That's one thing musicals and big action movies have in common. With both of them, you can break the rules. One of the things that can make them exciting is that you are breaking the rules.""

"Three members of the Sharks, dancing forward, swaying from side to side, move toward the camera and seem to run right into it. There is a cut as one of their bodies covers the lens and, just as suddenly, they are moving away from the camera down the street, their backs to the camera. "That's great; it's like the camera moved right through them," Mr. Bay said. "I love dynamic things like that."

I take the scene in Transformers III as a thug robot circles his prey on roller-skates as a great parody/hommage of WSS.

August 05, 2011 9:06 PM  
Blogger Ian said...

I wish I could add a worthwhile comment, as there are many musicals I adore. But musicals are not a subject I have studied much in spite of how interesting they are.

Though I am impulsively drawn to early American musical comedies, I do find that most other musicals rather bother me. (For example, Corey mentions Western musicals -- I need but think of the few I've seen to send shivers down my spine.) I am not sure why this would be, but I think it has something to do with the way musicals break with reality. For whatever reason, the disjunction between reality and musical fantasy in a depression era comedy enchants me while that break in other contexts gives me the jitters. I find the fantasy too bizarrely unreal. I think this may be the case with many other people; while certain musical types will appeal to their sensibilities, others will throw them through a frightening loop.

On the subject of international musicals: having seen Jolly Fellows from the Soviet Union and Singing Lovebirds from Japan -- both countries I never thought could produce a musical -- I would be much interested in reading more about the contexts in which these films were created. I look forward to seeing The International Film Musical published.

As a final note: I continue to be most fascinated by the way romantic musicals (Astaire & Rogers in particular) use musical scenes to represent an emotional event between the romantic pair. Flirtation, seduction, quarrels, apologies, anxieties, reunions, farewells, &c. are all expressed in song and dance much more eloquently than they can be expressed in dialogue. It is because of this, perhaps, that certain musicals have so captured my heart.

August 05, 2011 9:35 PM  
Blogger Jonathan Rosenbaum said...

Peter, thanks so much for reposting your thoughts on "Red Garters"--which, I agree, is a fascinating, neglected, and highly eccentric work.

August 05, 2011 10:29 PM  
Blogger Nathan said...

Am not at home so can't give a precise breakdown of the articles, but a few years ago Positif did one of their Dossier about the "Eastern Musical", with articles about Egyptian cinema, Indian cinema, Korean pop idols in the 60s and the Japanese musical. And probably much more. It's something I'd love to hear/read more about, but especially see the films!

August 05, 2011 10:58 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, everyone: Lots of great reading here!

If I may muse for a second here, I'm wondering: What were some of the earliest musicals? And some of the filmmakers who first worked in the genre? And which of these early musicals still have a reputation as good or great cinema? I'm assuming Lubitsch would figure on this list with his earliest sound films like MONTE CARLO...

Corey, wonderful to hear about THE INTERNATIONAL FILM MUSICAL. I had no idea. I'm reminded that the first essay I ever read about "international musicals" was Adrian's piece in MOVIE MUTATIONS.

David, I must see LET'S MAKE LOVE immediately. Likewise, Bobby, with KRUSH GROOVE.

August 06, 2011 5:01 PM  
Blogger Adrian said...

In the KRUSH GROOVE era and by the same director, I also recommend the wonderful THE LAST DRAGON. Michael Schultz is a very overlooked filmmaker (many don't realise he is African-American) with a quite intriguing career, from CAR WASH and COOLEY HIGH through several Richard Pryor vehicles to DISORDERLIES and a whole lot of TV in recent years (COLD CASE, L.A. LAW, etc).
In Russian cinema, almost EVERY Boris Barnet film I have seen - regardless of nominal genre - has a musical sequence somewhere in it. They are sublime moments - such as the woman walking on the beach and singing the main song used in BY THE BLUEST OF SEAS.

August 06, 2011 7:29 PM  
Blogger Adrian said...

I am all for expanding the working definition of 'musical' to focus on virtually any film that includes singing and/or dancing in-scene. For instance, today I re-saw a film that is most definitely a very modern kind of musical, ATTENBERG - even though it has no references to the Hollywood Musical per se. But look at all the dancing/choreography in it (including the girls' animal steps, and the 'BeBop Kid' shake-out before the father's corpse), and especially the wonderful Françoise Hardy 'Boys and Girls ...' sequence, which goes from the girls practising it (with unplugged-in bass guitar), to the Hardy version accompanying a tracking shot along a sports complex, to the very moving take of the girls at night singing along to the Hardy track, walking and looking into the camera as a bunch of guys line the footpath next to them ... it's a virtuosic musical !

August 07, 2011 11:59 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Sounds wonderful, Adrian! I missed seeing ATTENBERG on the film festival circuit last year -- this makes me look forward to the DVD release!

August 07, 2011 12:08 PM  
Anonymous Bobby Wise said...

Schultz is definitely an interesting filmmaker and could use some more attention. He's one of the rare transitional figures in African-American cinema, whose career spanned the Blaxploitation era all the way to the hip-hop film era.

"The Last Dragon" is wonderful and I have fond memories of it as a kid. Actually, I probably haven't seen that movie since I was a kid. But when I did, I watched it a hundred times. This film is the missing link between 70s kung fu cinema and the Wu-Tang Clan.

"Kiss my Converse!"

August 07, 2011 5:48 PM  
Blogger Jeremy Nyhuis said...

First-time poster here, but some are touching on the subject of international musicals, I'd like to recommend Peter Chan's very moving Chinese musical, PERHAPS LOVE. For some reason the film has received little-to-no acclaim in the U.S. (I myself didn't discover it until I moved to China last year), but it's a pretty memorable example of the genre, featuring a nice variety of musical styles--ranging from pop to opera--and some lovely cinematography by Christopher Doyle. The plot, which uses its central love story to touch on more substantial issues of memory and the past (such as accepting and becoming reconciled with one's working-class roots), is especially moving, especially in context of China's current future-oriented focus on economic development. Highly recommended, especially to those who love Chan's equally affecting (but non-musical) COMRADES, ALMOST A LOVE STORY.

August 08, 2011 3:43 AM  
Blogger girish said...

There's a new issue of SCREENING THE PAST, guest-edited by Adrian Martin.

August 12, 2011 10:17 AM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

Girish, I see no one has taken up your questions about "first musicals" and their directors: you ask:

"What were some of the earliest musicals? And some of the filmmakers who first worked in the genre? And which of these early musicals still have a reputation as good or great cinema? I'm assuming Lubitsch would figure on this list with his earliest sound films like MONTE CARLO..."

I actually have an affection for the earliest musicals, which are usually quickly dismissed in studies of the genre. Many were non-narrative revues, such as KING OF JAZZ or PARAMOUNT ON PARADE, and for me they remain a curious instance of a mainstream non-narrative cinema. (It's often noted, comically, that by the time Warner Bros. took up the musical with 42ND STREET in 1933, the trades and fan magazines had already declared the musical a virtually dead genre, since there had been so many in the conversion to sound.) The best treatment of them is Richard Barrios's book A SONG IN THE DARK: THE BIRTH OF THE MUSICAL FILM, but its focus is exclusively on Hollywood, whereas I think it's safe to say that most of the first sound films in most national cinemas were musicals. So one has to venture further to find information on the first British, Chinese, Argentine, etc. musicals.

I suspect you are right that the first regular director of musicals still well-regarded is Lubitsch, with perhaps Mamoulian the other key figure (if you count APPLAUSE as a musical, which some do not, but in any case his masterpiece LOVE ME TONIGHT should qualify him). But I think it's safer to say that directors were not the key figures for early musicals (and even the Warners films are defined more by choreographer Busby Berkeley than their directors, as the RKO Astaire-Rogers films are defined by songwriters, choreographers, and of course the stars more than their directors). My overall sense is that it's a genre so fully defined by collaboration that few auteurs are strongly associated with it (Minnelli and perhaps Cukor seem the major exceptions).

August 12, 2011 11:11 PM  
Anonymous Yusef Sayed said...

I think Adrian's essay of dispositif is one of the best things I've read recently, thanks for putting the link up Girish.

And Adrian, many thanks for translating Nicole Brenez's work in the same issue.

August 13, 2011 9:34 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, Corey, Jeremy, Yusef!

August 13, 2011 3:43 PM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

A new essay by Adrian Martin and a new translation of Nicole Brenez?!? Formidable!

August 14, 2011 8:20 PM  

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