Thursday, August 23, 2012

today might be a good day to watch Singin' in the Rain

After all, Gene Kelly would have been 100 today.

The movie is worth watching anyway but, really, today might be a good time to watch a Gene Kelly movie.

Maybe not that one with Olivia Newton-John, though.

When I was in my teens I sang in the choir at my high school.  That was fun, though looking back the choir director had a penchant for ...schmaltz.  I don't regret singing motets by William Byrd, though, and that kinda offset singing stuff like "O my love's a red, red rose".  I'm never going to get over "Of Love", though.  Oh how I hated that piece.  I'm not going to sit down and rest for that treacle ever again if I can help it.

Where was I?  Ah, yes, well sometimes the choir director would put on musicals to entertain us kids while he graded papers or whatever.  Generally the selections were either Oklahoma or The Little Mermaid. Let's say I know a boy who spent a year in Oklahoma and he did not like it so much there excepting the time his dad took him and his brother to see The Empire Strikes Back.  That's a fond memory, though it's a fond memory that has no essential thing to do with the state. The musical is sorta meh.

Then there's that Disney princess, about which the less I write the nicer I'll be.  This was the beginning of the end for any artistic credibility Disney might have possibly had in my book.  Yes, they made mountains of money and began to announce every movie as they're newest masterpiece while a little studio called Pixar was in the works and Studio Ghibli was actually making masterpieces.

But those were the two options.  Joy.

So I hated musicals ardently in my teen years.  I resolved that there was nothing interesting or appealing about the whole awful genre.  If there ever was a bright golden haze on the meadow I don't recall that meadow actually being in Oklahoma, ever. And, again, the less I attempt to say anything about Ariel and her story the better.

In college I learned that there were, in fact, other musicals.  I knew of some other musicals but I'd never recalled them.  So I came across musicals from time to time over my life that I didn't mind watching.  As my brother once put it, "I'll watch The Sound of Music if children are present." No argument there.  Some fun songs but I don't own it.

The thing about an art form is that even if there's very little that you like in it, even if you hesitate to call something an art form, there's likely to be something so remarkable in its ingenuity, so deft in execution, and so resplendent with discipline as well as genuine sentiment and thought that you can say, "Well, that's okay." in your gruffest and crankiest mood.

Gene Kelly pulled that off with musicals.  Singin in the Rain was the musical that changed my mind about whether the entire genre of musical theater of film had any right to even exist.  Where DIsney's 1990s films got me to loathe the entire genre Gene Kelly's legendary film got me to concede that at some point in the distant past the genre produced some truly lovely film.  Having spent my teens determined that the musical was terrible the second DVD I ever bought in my life was Singin' in the Rain.  (The first was Zoolander.  You may disagree, but t's a funny movie, okay? David Bowie showing up out of nowhere for a walk-off is funny)

I can also admit that there were a couple of extenuating factors that got me to consider watching Kelly's most famous film.  One was that Jackie Chan and John Woo both admitted that Gene Kelly was one of their heroes.  The other, well, I was a guy in my earlier 20s and admit that seeing the film in the video library of a breath-takingly gorgeous woman did influence my judgment.

Years ago when a certain local theater got back in business I made a point of seeing the classic film.  It was not far from my home at the time.  So I went and saw it and quickly realized I was the only single person in the theater.  Don't read that as no one else was in the theater, read that as I was the only person in that entire theater who didn't have a date.  The movie was amazing and funny and beautiful and by the time I was ten minutes into the film I wasn't thinking about whether or not I had a date.  I went from my earlier view of hating musicals on principle to deciding that this one was great.

A crucial part of its greatness, for me, was that when the dancing started THE PLOT AND CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT DID NOT COME TO A SCREECHING HALT.  I get that songs are supposed to be moments for expressing the feelings of a character and all that but when those dance routines kicked in during that state movie I defy you to explain why some of those routines were in there.  Really, you can mount a defense but I ain't buying it (I don't own that movie even now, if you want proof).

Meanwhile, the dance routines in Gene Kelly's classic always did at least one or both of two things 1) uniquely express the character of the parties involved in the dance routine 2) played a role  in commenting on the NARRATIVE.  That huge sequence with "Broadway Melody", there was an actual story in there.  After the assault and battery of those other two musicals I was crying tears of joy just seeing a musical in which SOMETHING HAPPENED while the song and dance stuff kicked in.   I'd spent time like Crow T. Robot on Mystery Science Theater 3000 thinking, "For the love of God would something PLEASE JUST HAPPEN."  Singin in the Rain delivered. I own it and I love the film even though I am still not exactly what I'd call a big fan of musicals.  I've got a handful of them.  I've got Fiddler on the Roof, South Park, and Singin' in the Rain. You may note, if you've seen those musicals that the song and dance routines in those films also establish either points 1 or 2 or both.  When Cartman sings about what he thinks about Kyle's mom we're getting both, though the second doesn't hit Cartman until the very end of the song.

Now sometime, years later after first seeing Singin' in the Rain, I saw a documentary on Kelly's work on TV.  It was exceptionally late at night and I couldn't sleep so I just watched some TV hoping I might get sleepy.  That didn't happen but I saw a documentary in which Kelly, at some point, was asked what he most wanted to express and explore through his art.  He said the first was love and the second was joy.

Love and joy are not necessarily what this blog is read for, this I know.  You've probably seen me refer to Dostoesvsky and Batman and Solzhenitsyn way more often and that would be true.  This year's been a year of blogging about things like Roy Baumeister on sadism and abuse or Daniel Kahneman on heuristics, cognitive biases and the human brain's capacity for self-delusion.  It's not lost on me that probably 90 percent of the people who come read this blog are reading about Martian stuff.  That's why once in a while I set aside a week to blog only about things like an obscure Austrian composer of chamber music you've probably never heard of and will never listen to because he wrote a few sonatas for oboe and guitar.

But when I do blog about stuff for which I realize I get most of my traffic it may be necessary to clear something up.  Nobody in their right mind has a problem with love and joy being pursuits in life.  Life is, so the axiom has it, nasty, brutish and short.  To the extent that love and joy can be found in this life (even if we do not discuss the possibility of a next) it is a pursuit and consideration about which nearly all fighting occurs.  The fights occur about how and why this or that love or joy is pursued.  What love and joy do we choose to pursue and why, and what costs and sacrifices are we willing to accept in the pursuit of that love or joy?

Now here is where I, as I inevitably would this year, bring it back to Batman.  Sorry, I just went there. What appeals to me about Batman is that this is a guy who has seen the people he loved most killed right in front of him at the age of eight.  He's caught in a moment where he'll never get his parents back and they can't be replaced, he can't be with them even in death.  His thoughts turn to revenge but ultimately how he works out that thirst for vengeance is what makes him unique in superheroes.  By the time someone shrewdly determined that Batman doesn't kill we were shown a clearer insight into the character.  The villains Batman continually faces are all, in their way, pursuing their own ideas of love and joy.  See an earlier blog post this week where I refer to Roy Baumeister on power as a motivation in sadism.  Batman is Batman because he fights those people who pursue their ideas of love and joy predicated on what may be called human sacrifice.  Now lots of superheroes fight bad guys in that way.

What makes Batman distinct is that at a personal level he could have chosen to embrace the path of doing the same kind of vengeance his adversaries have.  He was also better financially and personally situated to exploit his standing in order to obtain those things.  Bruce Wayne may never be able to experience unalloyed joy or unmitigated love the way he dimly remembers those things as a child but he remembers them just clearly enough that he's willing to risk his own life to fight sociopaths like the Joker so that a bunch of people who may not even deserve his help do not have what joy or love they have taken from them.  It's okay to sacrifice yourself out of love for neighbor it's never okay to sacrifice your neighbor on the altar of your own dreams of greatness or legacy.  I suppose that gets at why I like Batman but what, if anything, does that have to do with Gene Kelly.

Love and joy, though all the more conspicuous by their apparent absence.  It doesn't mean they aren't ever there.

But they're easier to spot in a Gene Kelly movie.  And you might want to consider watching one today. :)

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