Musicals, Michael Bay and Utopia

I met my friend and colleague Bruce Bennett yesterday, and the subject of Michael Bay came up.  Bruce is interested in the excessive hyper-kineticism of Bay’s work as diagnostic of contemporary American culture, and in the course of our conversation, Bruce mentioned Bay’s interest in the musical.  This made a lot of sense to me: spectacle cinema tout court, as is well known, has strong structural affinities with the musical, in its generic ability to ‘suspend’ the narrative and enter into different conditions of cinematic time and space, privileging spectacular and/or performative elements (a song or dance routine, or sfx sequence).  What makes these affinities particularly striking is the spectatorial affect: viewers do not (if trained in the genre’s visual grammar) ‘pop out’ of the cinematic experience when the films shifts into song or dance or effects spectacle, and in fact the ‘wow factor’ of bodies doing impossible or extraordinary things in space is one of the pleasures of this type of cinema.

One of the things that the musical, or indeed spectacle/sfx cinema is able to produce is a kind of cinematic jouissance (as Roland Barthes describes in The Pleasure of the Text), a kind of ecstatic en-joy-ment of the cinematic technology itself, a joy which is produced by the shifting appreciation of the visual spectacle (excitement produced by a chase sequence for instance) AND of the imaging technologies that bring it to the screen (starships zooming about in ‘free’ space); of story and technology, to put it simply. This jouissance could then be differentiated from the ‘pleasures’ (plaisir) of classical Hollywood cinema (akin to those Barthes identifies with the ‘readerly’ text of bourgeois realism in S/Z), the musical excepted. The concept of jouissance would help explain the rather gleeful, playful tone of Michael Bay’s work, its knowing or parodic strategies, the performance styles of Bay’s actors (think of Steve Buscemi’s turns) and the excessive or overflowing energies of its hyper-genetic editing which, I must confess, tend to make my head sing.

One of Bay’s more unusual films is The Island, which starts off as a classical utopia, with mise-en-scène clearly indebted to 1970s dystopian films such as George Lucas’s THX1138 (1970) or Michael Anderson’s Logan’s Run (1976).  After about an hour, with the escape of the protagonists from the dystopian Island of the title, the film generically and topographically overflows and becomes a chase film, only finally returning (spatially) to the utopian/dystopian paradigm for the narrative closure. What is particularly interesting about The Island is its multiple occlusions of the machinery of utopia: the true nature of the utopian society is hidden from the protagonists; the society is itself hidden from the real world, buried in underground bunkers in the American Desert; the protagonist becomes hidden in the identity of someone else; and towards the end the very plots mechanism – when Scarlett Johansson is ‘recaptured’ by the corporation – is hidden from viewers.  The idea of hidden machinery is a recurrent one in science fiction of course, and in the techno-utopian imagination (such as in Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backwards from the Year 2000) the very structures of utopian society itself are enabled by the smooth running of a technologically-advanced machinery which are largely runs ‘in the background’ (or literally underground).

The rhetorical strategies of ‘the hidden’ would seem to run counter to the imperatives of spectacle, of joyful visibility, that one finds in sfx cinema and in the musical.  However, the appearance of effortless mobility is always produced by a hidden labour.  This is most overt in music and dance sequences, when ‘spontaneous’ eruptions of dance and song are, of course, built upon the hard labour of choreography, rehearsal and direction.  In the musicals of Fred Astaire, the hidden labour of the dance routine is most striking. Astaire, with his elegant, effortlessly persona, his dance style which seems barely to touch ground at all, is a body in space (a material thing: he is clearly doing the steps himself), but one which appears weightless.  This gossamer connection to the real conditions of space, work and weight is exemplified in the famous sequence in Royal Wedding where, through the pro-filmic trickery of a rotating room, Astaire defies gravity by dancing on the ceiling. In the service of cinematic jouissance, the joy of the dance, the multiple machineries are hidden.

If Astaire is weightless, then Gene Kelly is all materiality, all masculine physicality. (Not for nothing does he wear tight-fitting trousers, unlike Fred Astaire’s elegant line of leg.) Kelly is, of course, associated with the so-called ‘integrated’ musical produced by MGM in the late 1940s and 1950s, directed by Vincente Minnelli or Kelly himself (with Stanley Donen), produced by the Arthur Freed unit.  The high-water mark of this mode is, in my mind, Singin’ in the Rain (1952), an extraordinary compendium and playful articulation of the film of musical’s own history.  In an early sequence, where Don Lockwood (Kelly) speaks to a crowd outside a film premiere, the film undercuts Lockwood’s voice track (a sentimentalised version of the ‘rise to stardom’) with shorter vignettes which showed his and Cosmo Brown’s (Dennis O’Connor) ‘real’ history, the machinery of labour which lionises Lockwood’s tagline, ‘dignity, always dignity’.  While seeming to offer the ‘truth’ of Hollywood’s productive machinery (don’t forget that Kathy Selden, played by Debbie Reynolds, is ‘hidden’ behind the curtains at the film’s conclusion, singing for Lina (Jean Hagen)), Singin’ in the Rain in fact offers a cinematic sleight of hand where the machinery is still hidden (completing the ‘gag’ of Kathy singing for Lena, it is actually Betty Noyes' voice singing on the soundtrack ‘for’ Reynolds).

The film’s title song is justly famous for its jouissance, its inhabitation and representation of joy, and the wonderfully integrated cinematic means by which this is presented (in terms of movement, editing and soundtrack).  When I teach film, I usually find a reason for showing this scene, if nothing else to demonstrates the expressive and affective potential of Hollywood cinema. The scene itself shifts in its use of space subtly as the song progresses.  After Don kisses Kathy goodnight on a ‘real’ street set, music begins on the soundtrack and Kelly begins to sing and dance.  From continuity-style time and space, the film shifts fluidly into longer takes (to give time for Kelly’s expressive choreography) and, as Kelly dances past the storefronts, orients a front-on, to-camera, proscenium-style performance space familiar from an older style of on-stage musical (one which is still present in the later form, but which is literally integrated into a broader range of technical and spectacular strategies). This scene, in a sense, plays with ‘dimensionality’: sometimes the space is perspectival, ‘3-D’, and sometimes it is shallow, stage-like.

The point at which hair stands upon my head, and a smile always appears on my face, is when the song moves to a crescendo, the full orchestra comes flowing in, and Kelly dances circles in the wide street, the umbrella held like a dance partner.  At this point, Kelley abandons the shallow ‘stage’ of the sidewalk, and to emphasize the spatial shift, the film uses a crane shot, moving vertically and looking down on Kelly gyrating in ‘free’ space.  This shift back to three-dimensionality is meant to impart, I think, that ‘this is real’: the performance space has been broached, boundaries overflowed, jouissance spills out of the screen itself into the ‘real’. It is temporary, of course; the appearance of the beat cop re-establishes behavioural bounds (and the sequence ends).  But the moment is expressive and emotional centre of the film, and epitomises the capabilities of the musical like no other.  That it takes place in the rain, in the element of flow and overflow, is a symbolic bonus.

In a sense, I feel this moment is the most utopian in cinema, because the jouissance is willed, fabricated, achieved by the hidden machinery and labour that brings it to the screen.  It seems the most ‘natural’ thing on earth, but is, of course, multiply artificial. It offers the most benign, joyful view of human beings, one in which love reigns o’er all. The dream to live in that moment is properly utopian. This is, perhaps, the imperative behind the kinetic spectacle of Michael Bay’s films: they want to express that hair-raising moment, to stretch it out for two hours or more, which can ultimately be wearying. Going back to The Island, when the two protagonists escape from dystopia and enter Bay’s territory, the kinetic chase film, they are not escaping into the ‘real’ (as the freed clones seem to do at the end of the film); instead, they are escaping into cinema, for it is that which is the true expression of Michael Bay’s utopian dreaming.

*Bruce has alerted me to the half-unconscious debt this piece owes to Richard Dyer's essay 'Entertainment and Utopia' in its connection between utopian desire and the musical; I should also say that the brilliant work of Steven Cohan on Gene Kelly should be acknowledged as a deep influence. 

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