Monday, February 9, 2015

i think i hear a footstep

A couple things...

First, back in my Day 52 - if you only had one day to live entry, I explained how this blog is about me as much as it is about... then, I was talking about Groundhog Day, but I suppose whatever movie I’m watching this particular week fits. So, today, this blog is as much about me as (if not more so than) it is about Singin’ in the Rain. I’m of two minds about blogs at the moment (and only at the moment, future me, looking for something to quote in your master’s thesis): 1) blogging is an entirely selfish enterprise. Clearly, I don’t do this for the audience, though I know there is a small group of dedicated folks who check in regularly or semiregularly. If I wanted a bigger audience, I’m sure there would be some way to promote this blog much more than I do now. Just last week, my numbers jumped for a couple days; between Schulman’s “The Accidental Swami“ and it being Groundhog Day, people were looking up my blog. And, maybe they were intrigued, but that doesn’t mean they’ve got the time to be interested. Hell, a friend of mine who rather appreciates movies and has specifically mentioned insightful things I’ve said about some movies in this blog, doesn’t check in every day because, well, it’s a daunting task. Picture if you will a novel. You don’t know how long it is. Maybe it’s a multivolume work or something; I don’t know, but you just don’t know how long it is. And, you can read it and you just might like it but you must start on page 557 (or page 550 last week on the holiday). And, the gimmick that got your attention—that’s over. Has been for more than six months (or nearly 200 pages to continue the metaphor). The new gimmick, it’s not as predictable so you don’t know what to expect.

(Backtrack to my theory on relationships... have I mentioned this before? So many days, I don’t know if I can even remember everything I’ve written about. Anyway, my basic theory—and I recently saw some research that used similar terms, so that’s cool—on why we form relationships (romantic or otherwise) with the people we do boils down to a couple things: expectation and familiarity. Regardless of meet-cutes in movies like Don just now jumping into Kathy’s car, a first impression does not a relationship make. Relationships need more, and my point with the expectation and familiarity thing is that we need to be familiar with the person; that is, love at first sight is not a thing. Friendship at first sight is not a thing, either. We need to know something about the other person, peel back the layers of the onion, and we need to have some expectation of that same person being around again. Now, we could act deliberately to force the issue a bit; find someone attractive, purposely spend time where you know he or she will be, become familiar by design and cause him or her to become familiar with us by that same design.)

You cannot tune in (to mix metaphors) if you don’t know what I’ll be talking about. I mean, sure, when I was watching Groundhog Day every day, you still might not have known what the specific angle was on a given day but at least you could guarantee I would be talking in some way about that movie. But now, I don’t always announce ahead of time what movie I will be watching over a given week. Once a month is underway, you will have a general type of film—this month musicals, not that you can tell if this is the first time you’re here—but you don’t know what I will be saying. You don’t know what my thesis will be. Hell, I don’t always know what my thesis will be. Take last month for instance. Action movies from the 1980s. Originally, I had planned to include a different film instead of Top Gun, but as I got started (plus, knowing what I already knew from researching Rambo back in ‘09) I realized it didn’t fit. Hell, Die Hard almost didn’t fit. The reason the unnamed (because I may watch it in a later month, within a different category) film wouldn’t fit was that it was not American, so while my thesis for the month may have held true, it would have been much more difficult to argue as much. Or, so I assumed, anyway. My thesis, by the way, boiled down to a single statement: popular American action films in the 1980s served as a response to the impression of decreasing American hegemony after our loss in Vietnam, and did so by sublimating the political angle for a gendered one, masculinity for hegemony. Similarly, back in October I argued that slasher films were a response to the rise of feminism. There’s not always such a singular thesis to tie the films together, of course. The Thanksgiving films in November and the Christmas films in December, when grouped together, were not necessarily making much of an argument beyond what was clear on the screen.

My point here is that I choose the movies I choose, not because my readers, or more aptly, my potential readers, expect it, but because I came up with some grouping of four films and jumped right in. I’m starting to get an idea of a thesis for this month with musicals already, but I don’t know how well it will hold up just yet, and I will come back to that thesis below. For now, though, I could find a more consistent gimmick—watch another Bill Murray movie every day for a year perhaps... But, I don’t want to, because, well, that would defeat my personal reasons for doing this blog, the therapeutic, structural bit I will be exploring in my master’s thesis. And, as I said, blogging is selfish.

2) ... (Since I’m already at over one thousand words today, and have barely touched Singin’ in the Rain—even though “Beautiful Girl” just now made me want to skip ahead to my second thing today—I should point out that this #2 is my second thing about blogs, not the second thing for the day.)

(But first, an interruption. I only just noticed the newspaper headline: BIG BONANZA FOR DICTION COACHES. That’s funny.

Also, I really wish I had time to deal with religion in Singin’ in the Rain. If you’re familiar with the film, you probably don’t get that. But, there’s an interesting juxtaposition between lyrics in “You Were Meant for Me” and “You Are My Lucky Star.” The former suggests angels brought Kathy to Don and the latter suggests that she has opened a portal to heaven for him. I’m not sure how seriously I would approach religion using these two songs, but it seems worth something.)

2) Blogging is quite selfless, and necessary for the advancement of ideas. And, I don’t strictly mean blogging, but the general, and regular, sharing of ideas, especially when guided within specific parameters. Day 113 - not today, in answer to the question, “Why am I doing this?” I began with this: “Because someone needed to. Because every piece of art deserves to be dissected until we know not just what it means but what it can mean...” (stress new). I tell my students that every bit of communication, even phatic communication (hello, good bye, thank you) is not only trying to convey a specific idea to another person but trying to persuade them to do something, or at least think something, feel something. Every interaction induces change. And, every piece of art does the same. And, even a movie we might not initially call art—I can hardly wait for my month of “bad” movies to really drive this point home—tells us something about ourselves. For producing it. For watching it. For being a part of a world in which it was made. Exploring art, exploring film, exploring the stories we tell and are told—this can only ever add to us. I write this blog for me, but I also write to explore and expand on whatever idea comes to mind, whatever argument a particular film is presenting to us, to me. Groundhog Day is, on its surface, a family friendly romantic comedy, but it turned out to be so much more than that when I just kept coming at it again and again and again. Arguably, my life took a turn when I sat down on Day 1 to write about that film. I don’t think I can ever stop doing what I am doing now. And, I don’t mean that I will forever be blogging about movies (though, that would not be so bad) or that I want a career as a movie critic (which my Media Theory teacher asked me if I wanted to be after he heard I write a thousand words (plus) a day about movies). I mean that I intend to always break down ideas, to grow them, to repeat them, to expand them, to build them, to share them. As a teacher, I can quite literally do these things, but I must do them in all walks of my life, because what else is there if we do not keep thinking and talking and growing and trying our darnedest to make ourselves better in the process? That’s what Phil Connors learned in Punxsutawney and, though I’ve suggested that none of the main characters in Singin’ in the Rain really change between the beginning and end of the film, that is also what, say, Don Lockwood learns, what Kathy Seldon learns, what each and every character in each and every film learns... well, except for maybe some postmodern movies with real downer endings and antiheroes at the core, but then we learn something. Besides, Hollywood changes in the process of Singin’ in the Rain and Hollywood learns something, and we learn something about Hollywood.

Which brings me finally to the second thing for today. I’ve already written about gender in regards to Singin in the Rain. And, I spent a whole lot of time—as noted above—talking about gender while exploring those ‘80s action movies and a few decades worth of slasher films. I’m pretty sure it even came up when writing about Thanksgiving movies and Christmas movies, and it definitely came up when I watched romantic comedies for a month. Now, I will not go so far as to say that every movie is about gender, but every movie does indeed tell us something about gender. Every film offers up some of Butler’s performativity, that “repetition or citation of gender norms [that] compel some appearances of masculinity and femininity while prohibiting others” (Brickell, 2005, p. 26).

(And, I almost made it to two thousand words without citing an outside source.)

In 1952, gendered expectations for women had changed. World War II—and prior social changes—had brought women into the workplace more. Young women were enjoying more freedom, though not as much as they would another decade on as the sexual revolution really got underway. Men had come back from World War II altered by the experience. Way back in my first film class more than 20 years ago, we talked about the male melodrama and how it emerged after World War II because what it mean to be a man was changing. Gene Kelly exists on a strange brink of what we probably think a cinematic male should be, athletic, commanding, but also a little vulnerable, sensitive. On the flip side of that coin is Debbie Reynolds as Kathy Seldon, a woman who does what she wants and expresses her views openly. She’s not the sexualized goddess the Kelly dances with in the ballet sequence of “Broadway Melody” for a reason—similarly, neither is Jean Hagen’s Lina Lamont. Kathy is too much the classic Hollywood cinema’s girl next door to be so... refined, and Lina Lamont is too.. vulgar. For that ballet to work, we need a third woman, one who can be openly sexualized and sensualized, to remind us that we’re watching a story that has something to say about men and women, about relationships and love, about artistry and honesty, about Hollywood and about life.

There is one part of the “Broadway Melody” sequence that I rather like, even though mostly I still don’t care for the sequence (though, I am starting to see how it fits not the content of this film but the idea of it as it relates to, say, the career of Gene Kelly or the continuum of movie musicals. The part I like is when the despondent Gene Kelly/Don Lockwood/Pierre emerges onto the streets of New York, having lost the sexualized woman and his dancing dreams (the two things effectively treated as equal if not representative of one another), and from offscreen we hear the refrain, “Gotta dance.” And, there, coming into town is a younger man, dressed just as Don was dressed when he arrived in town. He’s both an echo and a reminder of Don’s past, a symbol of youth and perseverance and and getting up and trying again when things don’t go your way.

Which loops me right back to Groundhog Day again.

And to just about any movie, really. Take Butler’s performativity and widen it beyond gender into any and all behavior and any movie is a presentation of what we are and what we could be. Either by showing us just that, or by showing us the opposite. In the margins of Brickell’s (2005) piece, I wrote the following:

In a more complex, complicated view, isn’t all performance a branch of performativity (barring perhaps a few rare extremes)? Even our individualistic attempts to be unique, to act up or act out, are defined in terms of normative behavior. Homosexuality, for example, can only be accepted inasmuch as it DOES NOT interfere with heterosexuality—hence the fear of the homosexual agenda and gay marriage destroying the family... and marriage. as long as the latter can survive, the former can be allowed, and even abnormality, when kept in check, becomes normative, a measure by which normal can be defined and weighed.

Whatever we are, whatever we choose to be, is defined by what is normal. Aberrant details are accepted when couched in aspects of normality—(a man in drag is still a man—this is a comfort to those who are threatened by such things; a dress does not change the understood “reality,” it just disguises and perverts it.

All that normative behavior I reference—that comes from every story we tell, every book, every movie, every TV show, every podcast, every song, every painting, every sculpture, every truth and every lie we tell one another each and every day. We constantly create the reality we... expect because it is what is familiar, and familiarity is comforting. And, in perfect timing, the audience at The Dancing Cavalier just demanded that Lina sing because her speaking voice did not match what the movie had just given them. The preferred her screen voice, and sought it out by denying reality in favor of something... better. Something familiar.

The most popular of films will deal in familiar tropes, familiar ideals. Only the rare film can manage to be timeless, rather than fleetingly popular, by touching on universal ideas about who and what we are, and what we want out of life. Singin’ in the Rain plays on ideas about love, about male/female pairing, about male/male camaraderie, about dreams, about performance and doing what you want to be who you want to be.

So many movies do. Not all of them do it well.

Works Cited

Brickell, C. (2005). Masculinities, performativity, and subversion: A sociological reappraisal. Men and Masculinities 8(1), 24-43.

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