Month: October 2009
How GLEE Taught my Students to Stop Worrying and Love the Musical
This week in Introduction to Film was musical week — my favorite week. I adore musicals because they are designed to be loved. As Jane Feuer has argued, musicals, particularly the backstage musicals released by MGM’s Freed Unit, function to affirm the necessity of the musical genre in the lives of its audience (458). Forever striving to recreate the sense of liveness lost when the musical left the Broadway stage and became a mass-produced product, classical Hollywood musicals wish to break down the barriers between the performer on screen and the audience sitting in the theater. These films want to merge the dream world of song and dance with the mundane real world where we trip over our feet. Musicals achieve this goal by making song and dance appear natural, effortless and integrated into every day life.
My Intro to Film students are generally put off by musicals, finding their song and dance numbers to be “awkward” or “cheesy” (their words, not mine). And so I usually devote lecture time to explaining how many musicals attempt to integrate song and dance naturally into the diegesis — to ease this transition for the viewer. We look, for example, at one of my all time favorite musical numbers, “Someone At Last” from A Star is Born (1954).
Aside from the crude ethnic stereotyping, I find this number to be completely enchanting every time I watch it. I point out Garland’s skillful use of bricolage, that is the way she “happens” to find certain props around her living room — a smoking cigarette, a tiger skin rug, a table resembling a harp — at just the moment that she needs them. The “mundane world” of the living room becomes, through the joy of performance, a Hollywood set (which, in reality, it is). Bricolage creates a feeling of spontaneity, which is central to the appeal of the musical. As Feuer argues “The musical, technically the most complex type of film produced in Hollywood, paradoxically has always been the genre that attempts to give the greatest illusion of spontaneity and effortlessness” (463). The more natural a performance appears, the more we enjoy it. As we watch this routine we momentarily forget that Vicki Lester/Judy Garland is the most famous female musical star and (both within and outside A Star is Born) and is instead a devoted wife who loves to sing and dance for her husband (James Mason) and for us.
When I show this scene I usually have to put on quite a show myself, explaining to my students exactly why this performance is so satisfying, so joyous. But this week when I showed this clip I heard my students giggling (appropriately) at Judy’s jokes and expressing amusement at her clever use of props. They were enjoying it. The same thing happened when I showed them another one of my favorites, the iconic title number from Singin’ in the Rain (1952). In this scene, Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) has just shared a kiss with Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), and is consequently filled with joie de vivre. It is pouring rain outside but he dismisses the car that waits to drive him home. Don wants to walk and luxuriate in this moment of romantic bliss. Then, he just can’t help himself. His steps down the sidewalk turn almost involuntarily into dance and his dreamy, romantic thoughts become song. Here dancing and singing truly emerge out of a “joyous and responsive attitude toward life” (459).
As this scene played on the big screen I turned to look at my 100 students and was delighted to see the enchanted looks on their faces. They were enthralled, as I am every time I watch this number. They were enjoying themselves. At last!
But why? Why now? The answer is Glee. When I began my lecture on the musical earlier this week I told my students that by the end of the week I was hoping to have some musical converts in the class. “If you are watching the show Glee right now” I said, “the convention of breaking into song and dance shouldn’t be that foreign to you.” A large portion of the class nodded their heads in reponse to this. As it turned out, more than half of the students in my class are watching the show. And I think this has made all the difference.
Though I have not always been happy with the politics of Glee, I have always been satisfied with their adoption of the conventions of the backstage musical. Characters sing when they are in love (“I Could Have Danced All Night”) or lust (“Sweet Caroline”) and they sing when their hearts are breaking (“Bust The Windows”). And the most successful (i.e., the most passionate) group performances in the series arise, as they do in the classical Hollywood musical, when the show’s characters are working together and cooperating (“Don’t Stop Believin’,”Keep Holding On”). Resolution in the narrative equals resolution on the stage. The classical Hollywood musical incarnate.
So while Glee may not be breaking any new ground in its use and depiction of homosexual characters or ethnic minorities, it has, to my delight, given my students license to love the musical and to revel in its joy. And that’s something to be gleeful about.
Feuer, Jane. “The Self Reflexive Musical and the Myth of Entertainment.” Film Genre Reader III. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003. 457-471.
Ironic Muppets and Horny Houseplants: SESAME STREET’s Dual Address
This week I was two-timing my blog by posting on another, far more critically incisive site, In Media Res. If you are not familiar with this site, here is its basic mission:
In Media Res is dedicated to experimenting with collaborative, multi-modal forms of online scholarship.
Each day, a different scholar will curate a 30-second to 3-minute video clip/visual image slideshow accompanied by a 300-350-word impressionistic response.
We use the title “curator” because, like a curator in a museum, you are repurposing a media object that already exists and providing context through your commentary, which frames the object in a particular way.
The clip/comment combination are intended to both introduce the curator’s work to the larger community of scholars (as well as non-academics who frequent the site) and, hopefully, encourage feedback/discussion from that community.
Theme weeks are designed to generate a networked conversation between curators. All the posts for that week will thematically overlap and the participating curators each agree to comment on one another’s work.
Our goal is to promote an online dialogue amongst scholars and the public about contemporary approaches to studying media.
In Media Res provides a forum for more immediate critical engagement with media at a pace closer to how we typically experience mediated texts.
This week’s theme is “Kids TV” and several wonderful scholars are curating clips including: Michael Z. Newman (on The Wizards of Waverly Place), Heather Hendershot (on Ernie and Bert slash), Elana Levine (on Aaron Stone), and Jason Mittell (on Yo Gabba Gabba). My clip and curator’s note, entitled “Ironic Muppets and Horny Houseplants: Sesame Street‘s Dual Address” can be found here.
I hope you’ll check it out and possibly join the conversation!
WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE review
My husband does not like to go out to the movies. But after viewing the trailer for Where the Wild Things Are a few weeks ago he changed his mind. “That,” he told me, “I would see in the theater. We can bring the 3-year-old.” Here my heart sank: I was ecstatic that my husband was willing to venture out of the house for a movie. But after looking into the film’s production history and reading early reviews, I knew that this film was not for 3-year-olds.
Seeing the film this past weekend only confirmed my hunch. It’s not that Spike Jonze’s vision of Maurice Sendak’s classic 1963 book is too violent for children (though there are scenes in which lives are threatened and limbs are removed). Rather, the problem is that the movie is simply not for children. Case in point: when I went to see the film a girl about the age of 7 or 8 was seated in front of me and she continually asked her parents questions like “Why was that funny? What happened? Why did you guys take me to a 9:30 pm movie?” Okay, that last question was mine.
This child was frustrated and my guess is that the film will also frustrate audience members who were hoping to share the movie with their children, much as they shared the beloved book with them. But, I for one am completely satisfied with Jonze’s re-visioning of Sendak’s work. I’m glad it’s not for kids.
BORED TO DEATH: Why It’s My Favorite New Show
I first started watching Bored to Death because I was desperate to fill the “quirky film noir” void in my TV diet since Veronica Mars went off the air in 2007. And the pilot episode seemed to be headed in that vein: we meet a frustrated novelist named Jonathan Ames (Jason Schwartzman) just as his girlfriend, Suzanne (Olivia Thirlby), is moving out. She is tired of his drinking, his pot smoking and his overall immaturity. Jonathan confirms Suzanne’s decision when they meet for coffee in a later episode and he is only able to articulate why he misses her in terms of concrete material needs: “I’m living like an animal. I have no toilet paper, no food, no toothpaste.”
Jonathan’s solution to his heartache and his writer’s block (he cannot write his second novel) is to moonlight as a private detective (he gets the idea after reading some Raymond Chandler). What follows is a series of anti-noir cliches. As Jonathan stakes out his first case we see him standing in the rain in the moonlight, his childish bowlcut dripping onto his khaki trench coat. When he goes to a bar to pump the bartender for information he orders a whisky and promptly chokes on it. “I’m on a white wine regimine,” he explains. And he ends up spending more money on bribing people for information than he makes on his first case. No, Jonanthan is not Sam Spade.
However, after the pilot the series shifted genres. It became less about noir and more about Jonathan and his best friends Ray (Zach Galifianakis), a whiny, infantile comic book artist, and George (Ted Danson), the equally whiny and infantile editor-in-chief of an unnamed New York magazine. In HBO shows about male friendship, like Entourage, there is a clear alpha male (Vincent Chase) and a clear buffoon (Johnny Drama) but no so here. The three male leads in Bored to Death are each buffoonish in their own way. And although Jonathan’s neurotic Jewish character invites comparisons to Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Larry David, or even further back, to Woody Allen in Manhattan (1979) or Annie Hall (1977), he is somehow more…likeable. Yes he is selfish and self absorbed but it is also clear that he is kind and even moral. After Ray is bullied into getting a colonic and must endure a long subway ride home, Jonathan seems genuinely concerned, offering to massage his friend’s shoulders. Sure, he’s stoned at the time, but he cares…about his friend’s colon.
As for the women in the series, well, the women aren’t all that important. Or maybe it’s that they’re too important? Jonathan pines for his ex-girlfriend Suzanne, Ray is nagged by current girlfriend Leah (Heather Burns), and George moves from one young conquest to the next (his current fetish is armpit hair). For these men women provide pain, torment and delight, but ultimately these men seek out the company of other men. This is certainly a recipe for misogyny and for stereotyped female characters, but this doesn’t happen in Bored to Death. Rather, women are a force to be reckoned with: they are inscrutable, independent and appear to function perfectly well without men (except when they need to borrow some sperm). There’s a running joke in the series in which Jonathan and Ray find themselves tripping over trendy baby strollers whenever they want to kvetch together in their favorite coffee shop. By the time they reach their thirties, many men have started families, so for Jonathan and Ray these strollers are a threat, a mystery, a symbol of the responsibility they cannot take on. Indeed, Ray complains that Leah’s children have no respect for him. “They call me fat. And hairy,” he complains. And he is. In this show the men are the problem, not the women.
So far the reviews for this new show have been tepid. The word “precious” and “self indulgent” have been bandied about. But I don’t see Bored to Death as a Curb-derivative or as a “low-stakes version of Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery“. Larry David and Woody Allen are so eccentric, so enveloped in their own worlds, that I find them difficult to relate to (and isn’t that part of their appeal?). Here’s the thing: I do find Jonathan relatable. As one of those “responsible adults” with the baby stroller in the coffee shop I understand and empathize with Jonathan. He’d like to be like me: write his novel, help his ex-girlfriend shop for toilet paper and stop smoking so much pot. But, sometimes I’d like to be like him: to play at being a private detective and have a glass of white wine while standing in the rain in my khaki trench coat.
So am I the only one who loves this show? Share your thoughts below.
THE BERMUDA DEPTHS: One Cinephile’s Movie Memories Finally Reach the Surface
Randall Martoccia has graciously agreed to write the first guest post ever for Judgmental Observer. Having a guest writer makes me feel important, like I’m too busy to write for my own blog. So while my servant boys feed me grapes and massage my feet please enjoy this guest post:
Thanks to Amanda for letting me guest write. I’m sure the rest of you will appreciate the break from the usual insight on this web site. Intelligent ideas can be so daunting.
This tale begins in the late 1970s. I was 7 years old, scared of girls, and infatuated with sea creatures. My parents, either through a desire to encourage my passion or due to negligence, let me see any marine-related movie, even though these tended to be thrillers. They took me to Jaws (1975, Steven Spielberg) (when I was 6-freakin’-years old), and then to Orca (1977, Michael Anderson) and Tentacles (1977, Ovidio G. Assonitis).
When I was 8 years old, my parents let my brother and me stay up late to watch another one of these creature features that followed in Jaws’s wake. This one was a network TV movie. A scene in which the turtle rises up and swamps a boat is pretty much all I remembered—and all that are left of that scene are fragments: A boat in rough seas. An ominous sky. A seven-story-tall, pissed off turtle.
Over the ensuing three decades, the patchy memory of the turtle kept coming back to me, but I had come to wonder if the scene was from a movie or a recurring dream. My memory never really nagged me so much for me to look into it. Any impulses to identify the movie were swept away by the usual business of life—or my lame version of it.
About two years ago, for one reason or another, I decided to find out for sure about this movie. Blessed be Google—it only took about ten minutes to find with the key words “giant sea turtle TV movie.”
It turns out the movie exists. It’s called The Bermuda Depths, directed by Tsugunobu Kotani and starring Connie Selleca and Carl Weathers. What is astonishing about the movie is the odd community that has formed around it. Here are some typical posts on the movie’s IMDB discussion board:
From yihaa2: Wow. I’m not crazy, it is a real movie, after 25 haunted years of dreams and fragmented memories, I really wasn’t imagining it.
From lilbearlovr: I had the same problem since I was a little kid. I was beginning to wonder if it was just some silly little kid dream.
From barbiegrrl: I have been telling people for years about the fragmented memories I had of seeing this movie as a kid, and no one ever knew what in the heck I was talking about!
From lamsaes: This is extraordinary. I thought I was the only one to remember this film. I saw it on TV when I was just a little kid. For a very long time, I thought I had imagined this film.
From traceymermaid: Holy smokes. Is this coincidence that so many of us are not only remembering this movie but are also taking action, such as writing on this message board? Maybe it is a symbol of something.
From Demarkov-1: My own experience with this movie is so similar to all of you…this is incredibly creepy and wonderfully comforting.
From newtondkc-1: Wow…so I’m not the only one in the world that remembers this flick…. I remember seeing this and I too was scared but strangely drawn to it. I remember the girl with the glowing eyes standing on a boat – I think she came out of the water? And the kids on the beach, carving their initials into the poor turtle’s shell – and then seeing the distorted initials on the back of the fully, fully grown giant turtle as well as a guy caught in the net that the turle was dragging into the depths.
Strangely enough, I have no memory of the oft-referenced girl with glowing eyes, but she would explain my fear of girls.
Michael Summers compares the Bermuda Depths phenomenon to the shared vision of Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977, Steven Spielberg), and I do wonder how many of you–like the skeptics in Close Encounters–are thinking that the authors of those posts and this blog entry are, well, nuts.
But I doubt all of you think this. While I was doing my sea-turtle research and reading The Bermuda Depths’ posts, my wife Christie (I got over my fear of women—or most of them) piped up and said that she had a similar experience with a different movie, making me think that this kind of experience was fairly common. I’m willing to bet that many of you—being movie junkies, scholars, or makers—have your own version of a giant sea turtle haunting you.
By the way, Christie’s fragmentary memory was of a short called “All Summer in a Day,” based on a Ray Bradbury story, which left her with little more than a image of the sweep of the sun’s ray under a closed door. But that image stayed with her for more than two decades.
Do you have your own haunting movie or television experience? An image fragment that you can’t shake? If you share them below, then perhaps I can help you to identify your movie or to discover a community of like-minded inviduals. Or, if you prefer, you can just call me “nuts.” With lilbearlvr, yihaa2, and barbiegrrl getting my back, I feel secure.
About the Author: When Randall Martoccia isn’t grading stacks of freshman papers he writes screenplays and makes short films. His “Pub of the Living Dead” and “They Shoot Zombies, Don’t They?” can be found on YouTube—though (alas) few people have found them. You can checkout his faculty profile here and you can e-mail him at: MARTOCCIAR@ecu.edu.
Shopping in the City: Recap of THE CITY Premiere
Since the earliest days of moving pictures the cinema screen has functioned, whether intentionally or not, as a department store window. In his essay “Carole Lombard in Macy’s Window,” Charles Eckert writes:
The short dramas and comedies of the first decade of this century, especially those that pictured the contemporary lifestyles of the middle and upper classes, presented innumerable opportunities for product and brand name tie-ins. But more than this, they functioned as living display windows for all that they contained; windows that were occupied by marvelous mannequins and swathed in a fetish-inducing ambiance of music and emotion. (103)
This tradition continues on with television. Hordes of young women (this author included) got the “Rachel” haircut in the mid-1990s in order to emulate the famous tresses of Jennifer Aniston’s character on Friends. And, as Elizabeth Affuso has discussed, MTV programs like The Hills offer a “comprehensive lifestyle brand for viewers.” However, viewers need not speculate about where the girls are buying their clothes or enjoying their cocktails. Affuso explains that “the show enables participation by labeling all of its locations onscreen, so viewers can easily tell where the women are eating, shopping, or partying, providing all the information necessary to replicate this experience if desired.” MTV has a vested interest in identifying these spaces of consumption since it has corporate partnerships with entities like Teen Vogue, Bolthouse Productions, and Epic Records, all of which are featured on the show in some form. Clever indeed.
The City partakes in this tradition, though I would argue that the show functions less as a commercial for specific clothing items, musical groups and eateries than it does as a “look book” of contemporary fashions, as a style to model. As many have noted, Whitney Port, the “star” of The City is a dull heroine (this is not a criticism, by the way — in the world of reality TV the “boring” characters are usually the most normal, mentally-stable characters). As a result, the plotlines on the show are fairly dull as well. I never felt invested in Whitney’s romantic entanglements — they feel even more forced than those on The Hills (which is really saying something). For example, in the premiere episode of Season 2, Roxy Olin, a new addition to the cast who really really wants us to think of her as “the bitch” asks to crash at Whitney’s apartment until she gets her bearings in NYC. See, Roxy doesn’t know anyone in the city. Yet, miraculously, Roxy is able to throw a massive party in Whitney’s apartment a few days later. Huh? And when Whitney returns home to see the mass of revelers in her apartment she can barely suppress her smirk as she “reprimands” Roxy. Didn’t Roxy remember that Whitney was recently issued a citation for having her music up too loud? That she capped the guest list at 10 people? Oh, Roxy remembered all right — so did the show’s writers. It’s like they’re not even trying anymore.
That’s why the real allure of The City is its aesthetics. It is fashion pornography. Scenes in The City frequently open with establishing shots of decadent decors and expensive consumer items, generating desire on the part of the viewer. The difference, however, between The Hills and The City, is that the latter blatantly fetishizes fashion as opposed to commodities in general. Fashion calls attention to itself — when Whitney and Olivia are choosing the right “look” for Jessica Alba’s Elle cover shoot or when one character calls attention to another’s fashion choices. In this week’s episode Kelly Cutrone points out that Whitney looks great in her outfit (and she does).
One of my favorite fashion fetish moments came in the last shot of the Season 1 finale, dramatically titled “I Lost Myself in Us,” just after Whitney decides to end her fake relationship with her fake boyfriend Jay Lyon. As she enters the doors of Diane von Fürstenberg’s store, a visual rendering of her decision to choose a career over love, we are given a close up of her purple, high heeled booties. It is significant that we do not see Whitney’s face here — what is most important are these shoes, rather than Whitney’s emotional state. This moment seems to be saying, who needs a man when you can wear these fabulous purple booties? Hell, I might leave my husband for those booties…
Of course, there is some fashion on the show that confuses me. First, there’s Kelly Cutrone, founder of People’s Revolution, which is not an actual revolution of the people, but a PR firm. Because a lot of Kelly’s job entails producing fashion shows and fashion shoots one can assume that she spends her days surrounded by beautiful pieces of couture, stylish models, and some of the most talented hair and make up people in New York. And yet, Kelly looks like shit. Come on, people, you know it’s true. I get that Kelly must wear black every day to match her coal black heart, but must she wear shapeless black crew neck shirts? And would it kill her to brush her hair? Or put on some blush? To go out into the sunlight? Has anyone told Kelly that she’s on TV? A lot?
And then there’s Olivia Palermo, “noted socialite” and daughter of real estate developer Douglas Palermo. Olivia is filthy rich and unsuprisingly, a horrible bitch. And according to her wikipedia entry, Olivia is “noted for her sense of style.” Wha??? Methinks Ms. Palermo is penning her own wikipedia entries.
I can almost forgive Kelly for looking like shit because clearly, Kelly doesn’t give a damn. But Olivia? Olivia cares very deeply about her appearance. This is evident in her 10 plus layers of make up and her carefully curled hair. That is exactly how I would do my hair and make up … when I was 13.
And then there’s her clothes. I have seen photos of Olivia online in which she actually dresses like a stylish woman in her early 20s. But on The City Olivia dresses like one of those “real housewives” from Bravo. Blazers, costume jewelry and SO MUCH BLUSH. Blech. Don’t get me wrong, Olivia would look stunning in a paper sack — she is a beautiful young girl. But I am mystified by the fact that she works in the world of cutting edge fashion but dresses like the old yentas at the country club. Someone get this woman her gimlet!
So, what do you think? Is Olivia’s “sense of style” just way too hip for provincial old me? Will she and Roxy end up mud wrestling in the season finale? Is Kelly Cutrone actually a vampire (the non-sparkling kind)? Discuss…
Affuso, Elizabeth. “ ‘Don’t just watch it, live it’ — technology, corporate partnerships and The Hills.” Jump Cut 51. http://www.ejumpcut.org.
Eckert, Charles. “Carole Lombard in Macy’s Window.” Fabrications: Costume and the Female Body. Eds. Jane Gaines and Charlotte Herzog. New York: Routledge, 1990. 100-121.