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The musical (genre study)

for intro to film class

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The musical (genre study)

  1. 1. INTRODUCTION TO FILM GENRE STUDY: THE MUSICAL
  2. 2. WHAT IS A MUSICAL? A musical is simply a film or play that includes two registers: a narrative reality and a spectacle that requires audience members to engage in a willing suspension of disbelief in order to accept the story as credible.
  3. 3. NARRATIVE REALITY The term CLASSIC REALIST NARRATION or NARRATIVE REALITY should not be understood as meaning simple realism. It refers to a narrative world that is consistent and coherent; that world obeys a stated or unstated set of rules that gives it credibility. That world may contain unrealistic elements, such as aliens or time travel portals (as is often the case in the science fiction and fantasy genres), but as long as the characters in these films obey the laws of those worlds, audiences will summon the necessary willing SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF to grant those characters and their world a certain VERISIMILITUDE; in effect, these films produce their own reality – a reality that is whatever those films want that reality to be – and, by adhering to that reality’s laws, make it credibility.
  4. 4. SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF In the world of fiction you are often required to believe a premise that you would never accept in the real world. Especially in genres such as fantasy and science fiction, things happen in the story which you would not believe if they were presented in a newspaper as fact. Even in more real-world genres such as action movies, the action routinely goes beyond the boundaries of what you think could really happen. In order to enjoy such stories, the audience engages in a phenomenon known as SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF. This is a semi-conscious decision in which you put aside your disbelief and accept the premise as being real for the duration of the story. The genre will determine the lengths to which a film can push believability. Audiences will be willing to believe an action hero can perform super-human feats, but the same feats performed suddenly in a romantic drama would result in confusion and a lack of credibility. One important area of belief is in human actions and emotion. People must act, react, and interact in ways which are believable. In cases where such interactions do require suspension of disbelief, the normal rules of consistency apply. Audiences are very unforgiving if they think a character is behaving in an unbelievable fashion.
  5. 5. VERISIMILITUDE In a literary work or a film, VERISIMILITUDE is likeness to the truth -- resemblance of a fictitious work to a real event even if it is a far-fetched one. Verisimilitude ensures that even a fantasy must be rooted in reality, which means that events should be plausible to the extent that readers and viewers consider them credible enough to be able to relate them somehow to their experiences of real life.
  6. 6. MUSICAL REALITY Musicals, however, differ from classic realist narrations in that they have (at least) two sets of books. They operate according to two different sets of laws –and they alternate back and forth between them. Musicals rupture the fabric of traditional narrative VERISIMILITUDE by suddenly shifting from narrative to musical spectacle –to song and dance –that the narrative fiction is unable to naturalize. This is precisely what makes a musical different from a film that uses music, such as Eminem playing an aspiring rapper in 8 Mile. In a musical, there’s a shift from one level of reality to another that involves a rupture or break; in a film with music, the music is part of the narrative, a window that opens into the psychology of the character.
  7. 7. MUSICAL REALITY In the musical, the shift from narrative reality to musical reality (or spectacle) is what produces the lift or experience of ecstatic pleasure that we associate with most musical numbers; this lift involves a movement out of and away from the laws that govern the mundane world of the fiction. Musical sequences interrupt the linear flow of necessity –the narrative –and release the actors from their duties and responsibilities as credible identification figures for us, permitting them to perform for us, to display their exceptional talents as singers and dancers. We suddenly shift to a world of pure spectacle.
  8. 8. SHIFTS IN REGISTER Musicals operate on two different dramatic registers –that of the narrative and that of the spectacle. Their movement can be charted according to the shifts they make from one register to the other, that is, from narrative to song, and back again. It’s an essential duality of the genre. The integration of the two registers has become a dominant trend in the musical’s evolution. Total integration of story and spectacle is sometimes considered a threat to the gap that gives the musical number its affective power to enthrall audiences. Once the distinction between narrative reality and musical reality is erased, the energy that drives the musical will disappear, because there will be no lift, no ecstasy, no movement out of one mode and into another.
  9. 9. MOTIVATION FOR SPECTACLE It is not easy to incorporate song and dance into musicals. One way is through plot. If there is a reason intrinsic to the plot, for characters to break into song, the shift is seamless. Other ways to incorporate song and dance into musicals is through emotional character development. In this case, the spectacle numbers are not necessary for plot. The characters are instead driven to song by a melodramatic intensification of feeling. The songs are deftly integrated into the dramatic action and function to loosen the characters from traditional narrative bonds. These spectacle numbers celebrate an explosion of feeling, and it is this sort of technique that lies at the heart of the musical.
  10. 10. TRANSFORMATION OF REGISTERS How do films shift from narrative reality to musical register? 1. Use of Props: Incidental props that are placed merely to create a realistic atmosphere are frequently appropriated by the performers in their numbers. Their initial status is transformed. What was once a mere coat rack suddenly becomes a dancing partner, for example. In these cases, the shift from narrative to music takes place almost magically before our eyes, providing a smooth transition that disguises the radical shift from one reality to another. 2. Stylistic Registers: Other devices often used to mark a shift in register involve increased stylization or a change from one style to another. In a handful of films, the shift from black and white to color changes the gears of the film’s relations with its audience. Some films use color more subtly in that the movement is not black and white to color, but there is use of variations of color – pale to vibrant tones, grouping of shades of color, the use of monochromatic costuming or set design. 3. From Noise to Music: In some films, the editing imposes a rhythmic pattern providing a musical order to the various noises occurring in the narrative reality. For example, the sound might shift from the noise of streets in Paris to music implied by that noise. Editing can transform the noise of the city to music. In this case, this ‘city symphony’ leads smoothly into musical numbers.
  11. 11. TRANSFORMATION OF SPACE, PERFORMER, PROPS, AUDIENCE There was a time when song and dance were integral features of our culture’s lived experience and the presence of musical numbers in films set in these times was motivated by that experience. Before the invention of radio or television, people entertained themselves at home. Films set in time periods a century ago, incorporate music in this way. In such instances, the home is transformed momentarily into a theater. The performers emerge through curtains, that resemble theatrical drapes. Party guests become an audience. Musical films set in more modern and contemporary settings also incorporate this technique. The successful transition from a narrative situation to a musical sequence depends on the transformation of narrative space into performance space; ordinary settings are rearranged into a stage, lit differently, or shot differently to suggest this transition. Such settings are either theatricalized (made to look like theaters) or emotionalized, producing a sentimentalization of space that is just as transformative as the film’s other musical numbers.
  12. 12. SUB-GENRE: THE BACKSTAGE MUSICAL Every musical exists in the tension between its narrative and its musical numbers. This tension is most strongly felt during the moments of transition from narrative to musical number. For the integrated musical, the musical that tries to cohere narrative and music, musical numbers emerge as something of a problem, which the narrative must somehow solve. Screenwriters try to solve these problems by providing motivation for the musical numbers or by constructing bridges from nonmusical to musical sections. The shifts can be motivated in a variety of ways. One way to naturalize song and dance within the realism is to incorporate song and dance into the plot. In this case, the film’s characters are identified as professional or amateur performers whose normal activity involves song and dance. One of the staples of the musical, and one of the most popular sub-genres, is the BACKSTAGE MUSICAL, in which various characters are brought together to put on a show. Thus the song and dance has solid justification in the plot. Even if the central action around which the plot hinges is not the putting on of a show, the profession of the central character can often be that of a performer, thus motivating the presence of musical numbers.
  13. 13. SUB-GENRE: THE OPERETTA The operetta, unlike the backstage musical, makes no attempt to motivate musical numbers realistically. Operettas tend to situation their characters in exotic 19th century European settings. The narratives of operettas borrow extensively from fairy tales and romantic melodramas. Often, these stories are populated by ‘real’ or figurative royalty who live in faraway kingdoms where love conquers all obstacles. In the operetta, the shift from narrative to musical number is often marked linguistically by stylization of dialogue. Characters seque into the musical numbers by suddenly introducing a pronounced rhythm into the delivery of their lines; or their prose may suddenly turn into poetry.
  14. 14. SUB-GENRE: THE INTEGRATED MUSICAL The development of the fully integrated musical is generally attributed to Arthur Freed, producer of a series of musicals at MGM Studios from 1939 (The Wizard of Oz) – 1960 (The Bells are Ringing). These films consist of musical numbers that tend toward a fully integrated interplay between musical spectacle and narrative. In these films, narrative space opens up to incorporate musical space; musical space invades narrative space. Gene Kelly’s iconic title number in Singin’ in the Rain provides a strong example of this interplay.
  15. 15. SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN
  16. 16. SCENE ANALYSIS In this scene, the beginning and ending of the number, characters from the narrative space (the limo driver, a pedestrian, a policeman, and the man to whom Lockwood gives his umbrella) pass by him and stare at him incredulously as he sings and dances in his musical space; the two spaces acknowledge one another; yet characters in the narrative space remain unable to understand why the hero is singing and dancing in the rain. The number depends on this interplay for comic effect. Here, one register interacts with the other. The number explores the boundaries between the two and ultimately takes on those boundaries as its subject. In this interaction, it is possible to see exactly what makes the number work. Lockwood and those around him respond differently to the same set of conditions. The rain dampens the spirits of the passersby, whose emotional states seem governed by the harsh weather. As the lyrics of the song make clear, the joy that Lockwood feels in defiance of the gloomy weather. Or, from another perspective, the stormy weather serves as a foil to magnify, through contrast, Lockwood’s ecstatic transcendence of it. In this particular instance, the surrounding world does not shift to another register to permit song and dance; rather, the hero transforms that world through his responses to it. Puddles become a source of childlike pleasure. Torrents of water cascading down a drainpipe drench his head, but the water only broadens the enormous smile on his face. His spirit is reborn in the baptismal font of musical rejuvenation, leaving him no alternative but to express his joy.
  17. 17. IDEOLOGY AND THE MUSICAL The musical is considered an exemplary instance of entertainment that creates a UTOPIAN SPACE in which the problems we regularly encounter in our lived experience in the world no longer exist. Instead of poverty, there is abundance; work-related exhaustion is replaced by limitless energy; the dreariness of everyday routine is exchanged for excitement and intensity; our actual isolation and alienation within mass culture is transformed into a heightened sense of our uniqueness as individuals within a close-knit community of unique individuals. The purpose of such entertainment is to manage the basic contradictions generated by the gaps and inadequacies of capitalism by creating a UTOPIAN VERSION of a capitalist society. In this world, energy and initiative is recognized and rewarded. Men find, fall in love with, and win the women of their dreams, and women find their dream lovers in a similar fashion.
  18. 18. IDEOLOGY AND THE MUSICAL Conservative musicals (like Grease, for example) effectively manage the contradictions inherent in capitalism, producing a utopian escape from an imperfect society. In the final sequence of Grease, Rydell High School is transformed into an amusement park where formerly alienated individuals become part of a community of carnival celebrants. And the final number, “We Go Together,” the two main characters – Danny and Sandy –ride a souped-up hot rod into heaven, leaving the trials and tribulations of typical teenage angst behind them.
  19. 19. IDEOLOGY AND THE MUSICAL Progressive musicals tend to expose or undercut the utopian nature of the musical number. Pennies from Heaven (1981) is an adaptation of a BBC miniseries about Depression-era characters trapped in unfulfilling lives who escape through the fantasy of song. But the film consistently qualifies the escapism of the musical numbers by making it quite clear that the performers, including Steve Martin, are lip-synching to popular songs originally recorded by Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, and others popular in early days of musical film. The obvious lip-synching severely limits the extend of the hero’s flight into another world; he can only escape his oppressive existence through the popular recordings of his era. The resolution comes at the end of the film, when Steve Martin sings the title song in his own voice. But this resolution, in which his voice replaces the false, is undercut by the quality of the performance; Steve Martin’s real voice is just not as good. Instead of transporting us into the never-never land of musical fantasy, the final number forces us to acknowledge our own kingship with Martin’s unexceptional ordinariness.
  20. 20. SCENE FROM PENNIES FROM HEAVEN
  21. 21. IDEOLOGY AND THE MUSICAL The musical was very popular in the 1950’s – the mid-1960’s. During this time, people were in need of an escape from their own reality. America was coming out of two world wars, and the Great Depression; it was entering a time of widespread fear regarding future warfare. Poverty struck many. There was a clash between the American Dream, as it was presented to Americans, and its reality. People embraced escape. They were looking for a utopian vision to remove them from the fears of contemporary times, the existential angst many were experiencing in modernist America, and the contradictions between expectation and reality. The shift from American film noir to American musical film was drastic and quick. After the 1960’s, the big Hollywood musical era came to an end. As values changed, and American interests changed, so did the film industry. People no longer wanted to escape reality, but to face it. More recently, however, there is a bit of a comeback in musical film. Many contemporary films pay homage to the traditions of the musical genre, evoking its most celebrated forms and dedicating themselves to its original social mission. Films such as Moulin Rouge, attempt to construct utopian solutions to real needs created by real social inadequacies within contemporary society. Such films’ musical numbers lifts us into a world of abundance, energy, intensity, and community. They satisfy our needs by managing our desires. In short, they entertain us.
  22. 22. ASSIGNMENT: A. Please view the following clips (1) from the film 500 Days of Summer and (2) from the music video for Bjork’s song “Oh So Quiet.” The clips are on the following slides A. For each, please identify various terms, techniques, and concepts outlined in this powerpoint and discuss how they are present in the clips. Do so by using a three column chart (column #1 = description of portion of the clip, column #2 = term/technique/concept, column #3 = effect, message conveyed, etc.). NOTE: You should also identify past terms and techniques employed in these scenes that you think are significant. B. NOTE: You may complete this assignment individually or with a partner. It is due at the end of class on Wednesday (tomorrow).
  23. 23. 500 DAYS OF SUMMER
  24. 24. “IT’S OH SO QUIET”

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