Monthly Archives: September 2010

READING: Narrative and Spectacle…Busby Berkeley and 42nd Street

After reading this article, I immediately wanted to return to 42nd street, which I had watched a day before. I had not watched  it noting the importance of choreography to narrative or even knowing who the choreographer was. Now I can say confidently that the choreographer was Busby Berkeley, but I am still unsure of the choreography’s effect on the narrative. Patullo posits that Berkeley choreographies for realistic movies and have narratives that call for numbers set in said realistic contexts. Berkeley “suggests that impossibility is an inherent feature of the musical” (83), as does Kelley, in that he stylizes the numbers through camera movement and film editing. An example of this stylization in 42nd Street is when the camera glides between the showgirls’ bare legs. An audience member watching theater would never be able to take on such a perspective, although many male members might like to do so. So how does this aspect of Berkeley’s choreography affect the film’s narrative and therefore the audience’s experience? I would hypothesize that it provides the viewer with a momentary lapse, a break away from the film’s true narrative and a gateway into a world otherwise inaccessible for most viewers. I.e., it provides spectacle that is not necessarily pertinent to the plot. At the same time, however, the characters’ performance in the numbers, whether they perform the numbers well and whether the editing style reinforces this degree of success,  relate to the narrative and its overarching character arcs. Thus, although Berkeley’s numbers are certainly considered spectacle, the editing style can also be narratively important.

SCREENING: The Reflexive Gaze

As Lucienne attracts the public gaze, she notices her own appearance more readily and, as a result, her gaze is drawn away from André. While, yes, the public gaze objectifies her, it is also liberating. It allows her to break free from Andre’s narrow viewpoints, his jealousies and his cage-like philosophy of what is a proper role for a woman. At the same time, while André loses her gaze, he gains the public’s negative gaze, which looks onto him recognizing that he is an overprotective boyfriend. The gaze and the foreshadowing of its future progression are introduced to us in the beginning of the film when Lucienne is dancing by the pool. A crowd of men looks onto her and admires her physique. Upon noticing this development, André reprimands Lucienne and thus attracts the men’s gaze unto him. They note he is “jealous.” The gaze’s negative transference onto André allows Lucienne to retrospectively look back upon what she was doing and how she must have appeared from the men’s perspective, making her want to take on their point of view. Later, Lucienne and André go to a fair, and André performs a weight-throwing game in front of a crow while Lucienne looks on indifferently. André prefers this relationship: to be looked upon by his girlfriend in front of the whole world, but to not have anyone notice her attractiveness. A similar scene takes place in the end of the film in their dining room. André and Lucienne eat and face each other. André decides to relent and give Lucienne her fan mail and, upon doing so, the fan mail steals Lucienne’s look away from him and directs it downwards at the photos she is signing.  This is troubling for André because Luciene is looking at photos of herself and is gaining too great a degree of self-recognition. She is beautiful and is able to see she is beautiful. It reminds André of the self-recognition she gained as Miss Europe. On the way to the beauty contest and upon arriving, she was the figure who was not only surrounded by the crowd and looked at, but was the one looking back onto the crowd, glorifying their gazes with smiles and turns. So what are the ramifications of Lucienne’s gaze back onto herself? For one, as mentioned, it liberates her, helping her recognize her beauty. But secondly, it exemplifies and embodies the America’s public’s desire to be movie star. The American public, and especially women, wanted to be watching themselves on screen as Lucienne does in the end of the film. A third point which is more difficult to prove without the help Hastie’s article, is that Louise Brooks was not only aware of her star persona, but manipulated it to her own desire and pleasure. In the film, Lucienne’s character has a more demure relationship with her screen image; she does not play around with her sexuality to the same degree, but she still analyzes her own image so she can modify it and adjust it within the public’s gaze.

READING: The Silence of the Silents

The article’s argument is clearly laid out throughout. Silent films were actually sometimes one hundred percent silent. There was a period of time in which music was not an inherent accompaniment to the cinematic image. What I found especially interesting was Altman’s conclusion that the existence of pure silence meant a lull in theatrical music accompaniment, therefore debunking the theory that music underwent a linear progression from Vaudeville to theatre to the movies. Altman instead claims that film music did not immediately develop from its predecessors but instead had to reinvent itself from silence. It may have been influenced by the past, but was not a growth budding uglily from its body of works, or a mere elaboration upon its former themes and tunes. Another aspect of Altman’s discussion which I enjoyed was the idea of ambiance music versus sounds that Mickey-moused the onscreen action. In other words, Altman viewed film’s period of true silence as influencing our eventual use of diegetic and non-diegetic sound. Although probably primitive at first, I can imagine the excitement that must have come along with the development of this new narrative balance, between silence and sound, an audience that is accustomed to silence and yet comprehends musical cues, and, lastly, the balance between story and the on-goings of real life and what must have been going on in these nickelodeons. Looking back upon the time period, the prospect of being a music accompanist would have been an adventure and an experiment well worth the passing silence.

READING: Fuller Chapter 2

At the end of Fuller’s chapter 2, she mentions that some, “exhibitioners, however, rated Sunday one of their most profitable business days; they continually fought to stay open, incurring fines and even jail sentences” (46). Along with cinema’s development, times were shifting and people’s values were changing. It’s interesting noting where and how people were willing to adjust their personal and cultural values in reaction to film’s rise in popularity. In this example, in the mid-Atlantic, exhibitioners were willing to give up their Christian values to make an extra buck and, if it were not for the law, it appears as if many an audience member would also have been equally willing to spend  their Sundays leisurely watching movies instead of attending church. In the south, on the other hand, exhibitioners were not willing to make this sacrifice, but still dealt with the division between entertainment’s handling of vulgar subject matter and the church’s criticism of film. Again, we see the persistence of the conflict between church and town policy. But it is not only this religious quandary and its variations throughout the country that interest me. It is also the moral quandaries that arose and called out to be answered. A prejudiced south was forced to ask whether their biases and segregated theaters  were more valuable to them than the black man’s nickel. In the north, a conglomeration of ethnicities came into contact as a result of cinema’s attraction, but, as Fuller says, women and girls amongst others were still sectioned off from the communal viewing experience. In sum, early film intersected with a cultural crossroad in which the country had to reevaluate its identity and morals.


Early Edison Shorts versus Youtube

Watching the screening on my own and not knowing which Edison shorts we were supposed to watch, I happened upon a series of shorts that reminded me of the apex of the Youtube craze of a year or two ago. These shorts did not seem to be as focused upon appealing to a credulous viewer as much as taking a knowledgeable viewer, one who had entered the theatre aware of film’s artifice, and transporting him or her to a location or spectacle that most viewers never would have seen before. Continuing with this idea that these audience members were well informed yet curious, a question to ask is how did these viewers react to these shorts? How were they engaged and to what degree? How does their engagement relate to modern-day’s use of homemade videos on Youtube? One aspect of their reaction might have been wonderment towards the subject matter. One of the films was of a body-builder flexing, standing in a medium-long shot.  Even if the viewer had seen a body-builder before, having him positioned larger than life and centered so close probably would have been a new experience. It is even possible that viewers forgot that they were seated in a viewing room and momentarily filled in the visual and auditory gaps not supplied by the film, creating the colorful setting of a fair and all its noises and on-goings, but such immersion is almost too inherent in cinema.  It is common to hear a modern-day filmgoer complain when he or she is incapable of suspending disbelief. But even though I say it is possible that these viewers had these reactions, I suspect that it is more likely that they were engaged with the material more objectively. Knowing that they were going to see an interesting and surprising variety of subject matter, they might have reacted as a Youtube viewers would: by being amused and delighted by the rarities presented on screen. Instead of being shocked and awed, scared back to their primal instincts, they probably saw the films and wondered how the filmmakers were lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time. How did they happen upon a car chase? Wasn’t it dangerous to go to San Francisco and capture the aftereffects of the great earthquake? What made them think of putting boxing gloves on a pair of cats and having them fight? The last example makes me think of the infamous piano cat, forced into a blue smock and made to play those beautiful tunes. Is it not this same creativity that is exemplified in these early shorts? And is it unrealistic to suspect that early filmgoers reacted comparably to modern-day Youtube surfers, calling family members to gather round and watch this amazing clip they just found? I suppose what I’m arguing is that early viewers and early filmmakers are comparable to modern day ones because they too were looking for visual gems to share with the world, and that they too had an understanding of the medium.  They knew they were not sharing an actual occurrence, but a replication of the original.

My original plan was to illustrate all my visuals electronically. That was taking way too long. The above images are from the following sites. They can also be found very easily by googling Purple Rose of Cairo or Buster Keaton:


It was interesting reading the Laterna Magika article and noting all the strategies they came up with to combine film with theatre: multiple screens, screens shaped differently from normal, being curved or angular, having actors on stage, having the actors interact with the juxtaposed images on stage or having the actors ignore the visuals’ presence… The list goes on. One thing that I cannot recall the article ever mentioning is how the audience was seated and where they were seated. For, just as much creativity that was put into the design of the performance’s visuals, an equal amount of attention could have been placed in seating arrangements and how one’s perspective affects one’s viewing experience. Perhaps, if you sat in one seat or on one half of the audience, you’d be able to notice one particular aspect of the performance better and therefore gain a new interpretation of its story. But this not only holds true visually. One’s aural experience could also be affected by one’s POV. What if two audiences saw the same performance, but with two different audio tracks? Somewhere in the article, I believe the author doubts that film and theatre can mix well (sorry,  if I misinterpreted that part, but I couldn’t relocate it), but I don’t see why they can’t. I can imagine a perfectly functional world in which film audiences gain something valuable by viewing a film untraditionally— not in a big auditorium with stadium lighting and the lights off— but instead in a way in which an audience’s physical presence would affect narrative meaning. That world wouldn’t have anything to do with Hollywood, obviously, and therefore does not have a realistic future, but I could still imagine it and would enjoy its possibilities.

READING: Fuller, Preface and Chapter 1

Before reading this article, I imagined early filmgoing merely as an urban phenomenon. My mental image of early film was solely based upon Nickelodeons, and even that was confused by my modern experiences with internet cafes and computer labs.  I envisioned viewing stations housed in showy store fronts, and top-hat wearing men passing by curtain-draped store windows, glancing in. Reading Fuller, helped me realize how mistaken my preconceptions were. Early filmgoing was not merely an urban experience, but was more comparable to itinerant theatre troupes and the vaudeville circuit. It was a competitive business and a predecessor to the Nickelodeon, and not nearly as much its contemporary (I’m saying with the upcoming Nickelodeon came the downfall of the itinerant exhibitor). Here are a few of my favorite  realizations I noted while reading:

1.  I was impressed by how early on exhibition of content was separated from production and distribution, and taken on by private entrepreneurs like the Cooks (although Fuller notes that the Cooks may have filmed one or two short reels of their own).

2. I was also surprised by how early on the film industry decided that imitation was profitable. The Cooks sure did copy aspects of Howe’s billing. What mustaches those men had! At the same time though… although they copied Howe’s genteel appeal, they tried to differentiate their offerings, emphasizing entertainment over Howe’s educational lectures (pg. 9).

3. Lastly, it intrigued me that the clergy was so heavily emphasized in approving what films were shown and whether films being shown were acceptable. I suppose this only foreshadows what is to come in Hollywood.