Several weeks ago, I tried to articulate some of the despair that can infuse Hollywood, both for people who've had success here and for those who haven't. At some point I'd like to return to this topic, but I also think it's important to voice a corrective to it, or if not quite a corrective, then at least an expression of the beautiful side of Hollywood, its siren call, its social value.
By "Hollywood" here, I'm trading in abstractions, of course; the name indicates something larger and more diffuse than just images on a screen. Something magical.
This word is perhaps overused but it's the right one, I think, if we remember that the origins of magic are the attempt by human beings to discover and use unseen forces to influence the otherwise uncaring world. Magic, that is, originated as a way of trying to control the uncontrollable, to sway fate in our favor. This describes the ambitions of many aspiring actors and filmmakers in this town; it also touches on something of the feeling of sitting in the theater and being transported by what you’re watching, maybe with the hope that some of it may rub off on you.
There's something very American about this. Something that goes to the old transcendental roots of our thought, to the physicality of our orientation, the suspicion of haughty refinement matched with the dream of some greater, loftier, more noble thing out there to be found. Sounds a bit like Walt Whitman, you might be saying. And you're right. At its best, Hollywood reminds me a lot of Walt Whitman.
In Canto 6 of Song of Myself, Whitman investigates one of the metaphors that runs through the whole long poem: grass. In the simplicity and feel of ordinary, green grass, in its representation of a gently enveloping nature and continual verdancy, he finds a kind of naturalistic symbol for American life. It's a vision of a communal, interwoven existence, and this interweaving stretches not just from one person to another, but from one generation to another. He writes:
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?
They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the
end to arrest it,
And ceased the moment life appeared.
The older generations are not gone, that is. They are "alive and well somewhere," out in that vast joyous cosmic cyclone called life (or perhaps enveloping that cyclone, insofar as it exists inside of us), which is an energy that cannot be ended by death, because death does little but lead us forward into a new life.
For Whitman, perhaps the most important element of this effusion of living is communication and connection between people. Through his poetry he invites his readers to participate in him, and he in them, and them in each other; it is the function of that poetry, in other words, to allow us to tap into the mysterious, magical interconnection with one another that defines our participation in existence itself.
Or, as Cosmo Brown says in Singin' in the Rain: "In the words of that immortal bard Samuel J. Snodgrass as he was being led to the guillotine, make 'em laugh." Making us laugh, and feel, and experience that strange magic of connection that is for Whitman the essence of life – this is the goal.
Singin' in the Rain, from 1952, tells the story of Hollywood hoofer Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and his sidekick Cosmo (Donald O'Connor), who grew up as impoverished scamps singing and dancing in vaudeville theaters before eventually finding their way to Los Angeles. There, after a stint as a stunt man, Lockwood made it big as an actor in silent films. He was paired in a publicity relationship with Lina Lamont (Jean Hagan) and they became a sensation.
But this magic carpet ride comes to an end because of a new development in the industry: movies with sound. This overturns the entire business, and to keep pace with the other studios Lockwood and Lamont have to turn their new picture The Dueling Cavalier into a talkie. This has humiliating results. Because of difficulties with the audio recording technology, the test screening of the picture is a disaster: the audience finds it hilariously bad. Beyond this, the writing is on the wall for Lamont's career, because she has a squeaky voice and cannot master the rolling, languid intonation that people want from their movie stars.
Enter Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) a struggling young actress whom Lockwood meets when he climbs onto the top of a moving trolley to escape a horde of fans and leaps down into her car. Although their relationship is initially disputatious, eventually Lockwood realizes that he needs Selden’s help: by dubbing her voice for Lamont's and turning the picture into a musical, they can make The Dueling Cavalier a success. The plan works, the two fall in love, and Selden becomes a star.
There are any number of extraordinary things about Singin' in the Rain, but what I'd like to focus on here is the transcendental, Whitmanesque vibrancy and physicality of it. In other words, some of the sources of its magic, insofar as these things can be put into language.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the film is that it gives off the feeling of having been made much more recently than seventy years ago. In part, this comes from its strange, almost post-narrative visual attempts, including resplendent montage sequences and high-concept dance numbers that run from the extraordinarily athletic to the visually abstract. Some of this does feel dated – there is, for example, a break in a musical number for brief fashion show – but for the most part the sense of innovation comes through clearly. The effect is of a movie that’s probing the boundaries of what the form can do.
This is fitting, of course, in a film about a technological leap in the industry, but it's also pulled off with such elan that it imbues the whole with a feeling of continuing relevance. This is not a necessarily a relevance of association: it does not give us the sense that the world of the movie is our world. It is instead a relevance of continuity: the way the film presents the ever-existing push by Hollywood to present the new and the spectacular reveals something true, and continuing, about the place itself. The struggle remains the same, then and today. The move to sound (in The Dueling Cavalier) and to technicolor theatrics in Singin' in the Rain itself are exact representations of similar moves to digital or to CGI dominance in our own time.
This effect is reinforced by the loving but acerbic nature of the film's relation to its birthplace. The Hollywood of the late silent era is here, twenty years after that heyday, presented as a place to be both lauded and gently parodied, full of daffy personalities and gimmicky films, but also of moments of real moviemaking transcendence (one thinks of the wonderful sword fight sequence in The Dueling Cavalier). In this smiling appreciation, the film shares the same view of the period it's representing that we do of the 1980s or '90s, which again enhances the particular way in which Singin' in the Rain feels relevant, or timeless.
What I'm searching for here is an articulation of a Whitmanesque notion that the film, and the people in it, are still "alive and well somewhere," and that for a film like this one, "there is really no death, / And if ever there was it led forward life."
The magic of Hollywood, I believe, comes at least in part out of its ability to sweep us into a majestic world that still exists after more than a century, one that has a rich, manifold continuity. This continuity exists not simply because we can still relate to the narrative predicaments of the characters, but also because the attempt of cinema itself: its struggle to delight through sounds and images we have not experienced before, the venue it has given for accomplishments of people like Don and Cosmo, starting as vaudeville entertainers, and Kathy, starting as a chorus girl, as well as the actors who play them.
What Singin’ in the Rain brings out as well are the visceral, physical possibilities of this magic. It is a world of bodies in space, of a celebration of the extraordinary power of human bodies in motion. This as well is very American. As the bard notes in Canto 24:
I believe in the flesh and the appetites,
Seeing hearing and feeling are miracles, and each part and tag of
me is a miracle.
The notion here that there is a connection between the miraculous and the physical is easy to translate to a film as full of phenomenal dancing as this one. From the almost unbelievable performance of O'Connor in "Make 'em Laugh" to the operatic staging of "Broadway Melody" (in which Kelly and Cyd Charisse dance with the accompaniment of a forty foot diaphanous extension of Charisse' dress) to the sequence where Kelly clambers up onto the trolley, the movie praises the body through movement.
But this adulation extends beyond just large-scale physicality. The number "Moses Supposes" – set when Don Lockwood is taking diction lessons – connects dancing to elocution, subtly raising the idea of the physical difficulties involved in silent-era actors moving to sound. Talking on screen is not just a matter of saying words; it's a matter of the flesh as well, a training of the voice and mouth and lips.
One sees this effect in the small details as well. On rewatching the film to write about it, I was struck by the way Kelly smashes his feet down into the puddle in the famous "Singin' in the Rain" scene itself: joyfully, exactly as a child does when they are caught up in that same gesture. It is a thing of pure curiosity about the physics of the universe: what will happen if I stomp in this water? And how will it feel? The water will splash magnificently, is the answer. And it will feel amazing.
Like Kelly or the child in that moment, Whitman "believes in the flesh and the appetites." Belief is a key word here. It’s a spiritual word and one of potentiality, of thought extending into an unknown future. To believe is not to know, but to be certain just the same. It is a word intimately connected with magic.
And what about appetites? Our cultural history has loaded that word with negative connotation; something like the phrase "appetites of the flesh" conjures images of sin, of the notion that bodily desire is something to be repressed, stripped from us. Whitman was on a mission to reverse those connotations, of course, to stake out the idea that it is in the body we reside most fully and it is thus the body that we ought to celebrate most spectacularly.
It is precisely this celebration that something like Singin' in the Rain engages in. Of the body, yes, obviously. But also of the senses more broadly, of the visual and auditory. There is a deep magic in this. It creates the foundation for a connection between us – between them on the screen and us in the audience, as well as between all of us in the audience together – a celebration of life itself as a thing extending past the boundaries the grim world tries to set, a whirlwind in which we are all caught up. This is important, and vital, and all of the cynicism in and about Hollywood can do little to tarnish it.
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