Sunday, June 29, 2008

Vincent Minnelli: The Band Wagon

A major gap in my film history education so far has been my relative unfamiliarity with American movie musicals. I also feel somewhat reluctant to do anything about it since I am not particularly fond of this genre. Recent death of one of the great stars of MGM musicals Cyd Charisse and reading all the eulogies prompted me to see the classic 1953 musical The Band Wagon by Vincent Minnelli. (An appreciation of her in new york times here.)

To call it inconsequential, I realize, will itself be a totally inconsequential complaint. One is supposed to admire the craft and the skill, the way bodies move gracefully through the space and the way it manages to express a feeling, though in this case, it is true only for one dance sequence in the film, "Dancing in the Dark" (copied below). Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse enter the central park (created on the studio sets) as colleagues in an upcoming dance musical and leave as lovers. The dance sequence captures this progression beautifully, the effect couldn't have been the same if it had used any other narrative means. Rest of the song and dance pieces are also very skillfully done. Specially the last one in which Fred Astaire parodies a sleazy hard-boiled detective from one of those film-noirs, complete with blonde and brunette femme fatales. (The blonde in trenchcoat will remind of Kiss Me Deadly. The youtube only has a section of the whole sequence.) My eyebrows were raised at the way the film seems to offer an apology (or defence, depending on one's point of view) of populist mass entertainment but then again it is, as I understand, totally missing the point. Anyway here is the "Dancing the Dark" sequence...


puccinio said...

That's called the "Girl Hunt" ballet, the one at the end. It is considered the world's first parody of Film Noir style(even before the name went across the pond) and essentially proves the existing of a separate style came to be called Film Noir.

Musicals to me are not inconsequential. Incidentally Ludwig Wittgenstein loved Hollywood musicals. Was enamoured with Betty Hutton and Carmen Miranda.

Musicals are really about adventure, escape. It can be called inherently conservative but so can any other genre. It's really a totally creative art in that you have to do it from scatch and it's appreciation isn't limited merely to form either.

Like ''The Band Wagon'' is about Broadway folks trying to put up a major comeback for Fred Astaire's character and the like but it's also about "life on the road" about the difficulty of living an itinerant life with very little chance to settle down and the like. The only fun coming from the work itself. About the stasis of that kind of life. Of course them being musical artists doesn't mean they'll make other people look at themselves hence the final refrain of "the world is a stage...the stage is a world...of entertainment"(I personally dislike that song but i like the refrain).

In fact many musicals deal with serious themes in their own fashion. Like ''The Pirate'' by the same director, Minnelli stars Judy Garland and Gene Kelly. The film is a strong satire on puritanism and is quite feminist and also essentially a celebration of sex and art.

Then ''It's Always Fair Weather'' is one of the great films about the post-war America made by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly. Really moving. Even ''Singin' in the Rain'', the most uplifting of all films is really a highly nostalgic satire for the Hollywood of Old. The working-class origins that Hollywood lost in the bourgeois 20's and which the film argues was recaptured by the creation of the musical with the coming of sound.

Then there are musicals which are directly dramatic, ''Love Me or Leave Me'', ''A Star is Born''.

And the musicals of the early 30's with Busby Berkeley are really quite serious. Take ''Gold Diggers of 1933'', a film which parodies patriarchal views about women being gold-diggers and then when the film has it's cliched commercial plot of essentially marrying rich guys for does it backstage. Joan Blondell them comes on stage and sings ''Remember My Forgotten Man'', the most devastating indictment of war and the Depression in Hollywood.

Alok said...

I need to catch up with all these musicals you mention. I just realized this was my introduction to Vincent Minnelli! I will try to do something about this soon.

I have seen Singing in the Rain and like it quite a bit... The one musical I really love is The Umbrellas of Cherbourgh...

One reason for my feeling blase about these films might be the fact that I grew up watching those bollywood films with their over-the-top song and dance pieces.

puccinio said...

I'm quite familiar with that. Many Indian movie buffs talk about Bollywood musicals where practically every film must have songs even if they have little dramatic purpose and the like and they explain that as their reason for staying away from it.

I've seen a couple of those numbers. I remember one very good one on a train. The entire song was performed on an actual train and the music wa edited to fix with the rhythms of a moving train and coming tunnels. Well shot too. The film was about a reporter getting caught up in terrorism in Kashmir but hey...that number was great.

The thing about musicals in Hollywood is that with very few exceptions the songs themselves don't stand apart from the film. Like ''Singin' in the Rain'' isn't a bad song but it loses a great deal when heard on it's own. On screen it has Gene Kelly and that great set. But then on the other hand the music is so integrated that it can't work with any other song. Even in ''Singin' in the Rain'' some of the songs especialy ''Good Morning'' the one where all three dance in the house isn't really good as music.

I had reservations about musicals too. Reason : I was forced as a child to see ''The Sound of Music'' many times because it was a family film. Listening to that truly awful music and seeing what I am fairly sure is the worst film ever made made me take to musicals at a later age. Which I think is a good thing because it gives you a great perspective on popular art as well as serious art. Dance, choreography, music and also the timelessness of really catchy music. American musicals are really the perfect synthesis of high and low art to create something really popular.

''Les Parapluies des Cherbourg'' is a great film. Save it's more a operetta than a straight musical. Like ''The Tales of Hoffmann''. Demy only made one real American-style musical - ''Les Demoiselles des Rochefort'', starring sisters Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorleac(the only time both worked before the latter's tragic death) and having a cameo by resident American in Paris, Gene Kelly. Really great. The genius of that film is that it was shot on location but shot in such a way that it looks like it's on a soundstage.

Another really great musical, quasi-musical actually is Jean Renoir's trilogy of Technicolor films made after he came to France after the war. They aren't musicals in the American sense but they are in a very metaphysical sense. ''The Golden Coach'', ''French CanCan'' and ''Elena and Her Men''. The middle film ends with what is probably the greatest symphony of dance, colour and music in film history, besting the ballet of ''The Red Shoes''.