Tag Archives: musicals

Link Dump: #90

This week’s kitty is from The Sessions, a movie that doesn’t take many creative chances but is unusual by virtue of being about disability and sex. And now, a whole bunch of links:

And here are our recent search terms, which read like a window into some sad Google user’s erotic nightmares: “fat firl uteras pics,” “www.real-virgil-pussy-ukraine.com,” “she bends on her four ready for deflowring her stories.”

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Beautiful Wickedness

Nothing much happens during “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Judy Garland leans against some hay, then walks, leans against this wheel, walks some more, then sits down. Five shots, about two and a half minutes, and that whole time we’re listening rather than watching because hers is the most wistful voice in all of human history. But minimalism or no, this shot is still surprisingly dense. It’s cut in half diagonally by Judy’s arms and by that wheel, whose arc across the frame guides our eyes toward the upper right—the same off-screen space Judy’s gazing at and singing about. Furthermore, the wheel gives her something sturdy to rely on as she sings her heart out, and its spokes work with the fence in the background to make her look especially imprisoned by Kansas farm life. But of course, like my favorite shot in Easter Parade, this is all about Judy’s eyes, and the sepia is even lightest around her head to accentuate them. Yes, The Wizard of Oz (1939) is this week’s pick for “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” and this is one of my three favorite images in the movie.

This is another of them, though about as far removed from Auntie Em’s farm as you could get. It’s a matte shot of the Wicked Witch’s castle that’s only onscreen for about two seconds, yet can have a colossal impact on the psyche of a child watching it. The Wizard of Oz overflows with marginal details that suggest sprawling, untold stories: What was the Witch of the East like? Where did the red brick road go? What exactly are the Winkies chanting, and why? Similarly, this shot suggests an impossibly tall fortress sprouting out of a chasm that threads its way around a mountain range, none of which ever actually existed. It’s just a single painting by the uncredited Warren Newcombe that nonetheless arouses the viewer’s curiosity and imagination, with reverberations that are tangible decades later in fantasies like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. This shot is visual magic, expanding the film’s already epic scope. (Speaking of camera tricks, I was surprised to realize on this rewatch of Oz that several of my favorite shots involve lap dissolves.)

Finally, sticking to the Witch’s castle, here’s my favorite shot. I really love Margaret Hamilton’s somewhere-over-the-top performance in this movie, and although she’s facing away the camera right now, she’s still oh god so terrifying. Here she’s at the height of her magical authority, screaming “Fly! Fly!” and gesturing broadly to whole squadrons of her simian slaves. This is one woman giddy with unbridled power, using it to exact revenge for her sister’s death. Like that matte painting of the castle, this shot suggests a gray vastness beyond the Witch’s fingertips, but here it’s framed within a picture window. Here we’re privy to the Witch’s war room, whose foreground is dotted with objects—vulture statue, candle, crystal ball, gyroscope—that call to my mind Hans Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors. This shot is an intimate portrait of evil, the kind the Witch herself might hang on her wall, with the camera stationed on the inside and gazing out. It’s a vantage point scarier than any lion, tiger, or bear.


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Link Dump: #88

This week’s kitty is gazing ominously at the title character of Edward Dmytryk’s The Sniper, which I wrote about recently. Never have I seen a cat with more accusing eyes. And now, some links:

This week’s sexual search terms include “slippery teen twat first time with looney toons” (ewww…?) and the amusingly self-censoring “bondage mind-effing.” Mind-effing!


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Fruit Salad

Alice Faye performs "Journey to a Star"

Alice Faye doesn’t demonstrate much dramatic range in Busby Berkeley’s The Gang’s All Here (1943). But then, she’s not asked to: Faye is here mostly for her songbird’s voice, and between numbers her starring role is reduced to romantic white noise. She falls for a soldier, then misses her soldier, then (through a series of transparently contrived misunderstandings) perceives a betrayal and feels stung by it. Of course this is all patched up with ungodly speed during the film’s climax, but in the meantime Faye wrings some teary pathos out of it all. She’s really good at that, too. Her drama may be strictly interstitial, but she nails every last note of homefront yearning.

Miranda and her infinite Tutti Frutti Hat

The film’s true star, second-billed though she may be, is Brazil’s own Carmen Miranda. Whether she’s dancing the samba or stealing scenes, everything about her is exaggerated: her fruit drag, her comic mugging, her accent. Women of color were nearly nonexistent in the films of 1940s Hollywood, but Miranda’s flamboyance and exoticism make her a one-woman spectacle; an excessive mise-en-scène unto herself. Her performance is a racialized manifestation of Berkeley’s own over-the-top visual style, and as such it eclipses the work of the white leads. It taps into the seeming obsession with Brazil that seized the country in wartime—in fact, Miranda’s “Dorita” could be the distaff counterpart to José Carioca, the fast-talking parrot introduced in Disney’s Saludos Amigos (1942). (Like Dorita, José is tightly associated with the song “Aquarela do Brasil.”)

The film's bizarre "floating head" climax

Miranda acts as the centerpiece for Berkeley’s Technicolor circus, a world that contracts and expands, that drifts between physicality and abstraction. His camera amplifies the already expansive choreography, often beggaring belief with the fluidity and duration of its crane shots. (Only a pair of cuts in the film’s first seven minutes!) As always with Busby Berkeley, the dance routines start out implausible and quickly ditch narrative altogether for the joys of pure geometry. They become macrocosms, sometimes literal kaleidoscopes, lacking purpose or explanation but still so weird, so ambitious, so beautiful. The Gang’s All Here may acknowledge the realities of war—the rationing, the heartbreak—but these impossible dances let the viewer disappear into the unreality of art.

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Paradise Lost

Nothing else is quite like Brian de Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974). It’s a gothic horror story, showbiz satire, and pastiche-heavy musical that somehow fuses camp and pathos; a movie whose style I can only describe as “everything and the kitchen sink.” Phantom draws us into a parallel world, a warped vision of 1970s decadence that’s as hellish as it is seductive. And although De Palma’s manic visuals may lay the foundation for this world, it would all fall apart without the tragic heft of Paul Williams’ music.

Therefore, I’ve written an encomium to Williams’ Oscar-nominated score for The Film Experience. It’s hard to overstate how much Williams’ songs, which double as catchy pop ditties and incisive autocritiques, do for this movie. Not every song is a keeper—I’m lukewarm on “Special to Me” and “Life at Last”—but several of them (e.g. “Goodbye, Eddie, Goodbye,” “Faust,” “The Hell of It”) are damn near sublime. They’re as pleasurable and eclectic as De Palma’s camera technique, each one flying off in its own lyrical directions but all of them rooted in the same Nixon-era cynicism. Frankly, they’re awesome.

A few more scattered thoughts on Phantom:

  • “The Hell of It” invariably calls to my mind “Movin’ Right Along,” which Williams wrote for The Muppet Movie. The pacing, structure, tune… really, everything but the subject matter.
  • In addition to De Palma’s usual Hitchcock homages (like a shower scene), Phantom contains probably my favorite Touch of Evil homage, which even uses a split screen to compound the tension.
  • Another of De Palma’s auteur trademarks that pervades Phantom: screens within screens (within screens). I recently caught up with Snake Eyes, and it’s startling how similarly the Paradise and the Atlantic City Arena function as panopticons. Every space lies under layers of surveillance.
  • Lastly: Phantom is cleft, up to its closing seconds, by a crowd/spotlight dichotomy. This visual motif recurs at the climax of my other favorite De Palma movie, Carrie. The spotlight translates to power, to an escape from anonymity, and of course to death.

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Oh, the many joys of Singin’ in the Rain (1952)! All the self-deprecating meta-comedy, the forays into gargantuan spectacle, the violent kineticism of numbers like “Moses Supposes” and “Good Morning”—it’s goofy, it’s bold, and as an actress says of the talkies, “It’s vulgar!” It’s also this week’s pick for “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” over at The Film Experience, forcing me to single out one of its luminous Technicolor images as “the best.” I mulled this over for a while, flitting from the guy who shouts “Zelda!” to the trippy Busby Berkeley-ish choreography that lead into “Beautiful Girl” to pictures of Gene Kelly’s perfect ass. (In fact, let’s go ahead and call that last one runner-up.)

Eventually I settled on the one above. Yes, it’s just Cosmo (Donald O’Connor) making a bizarre face in the middle of “Make ‘Em Laugh.” But it gets at everything I love about Singin’ in the Rain. It’s a guy demonstrating his physical prowess for the audience, reveling in his own showmanship while wearing an oversized hat and floppy gray coat. Nothing remotely sophisticated about it, which is exactly the film’s point: consider Don’s “Dignity, always dignity” monologue, the disconnect between Lina’s personality and public image, Kathy’s performance of “All I Do Is Dream of You,” and especially “Make ‘Em Laugh.”

Show biz is not sophisticated. In fact, it’s crude. It’s stupid. But per Singin’ in the Rain, it’s a glorious, outrageous, beautiful kind of stupidity. Donald O’Connor scrunches up his face, jumps off of walls, and has weird mock-sex with a dummy because 1) he can, which is impressive enough, and 2) it’s hilarious. The film industry, as practiced by Monumental Pictures, works more or less the same way. It’s a collection of professionals being paid to evoke pleasure through performance because they have the looks and the talent to pull it off. Cosmo’s wonderful, ridiculous face is Hollywood in microcosm.


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Easter Eggs

Ah, Easter Parade (1948). It’s one of those Arthur Freed musicals that exists as a delivery mechanism for singing, dancing, and Technicolor. Here, narrative becomes the cinematic equivalent of packing peanuts: kinda squishy, cushioning the goodies inside, but totally disposable. We get an abundance of love stories, with Judy Garland pining for Fred Astaire, who’s still tangled up with ex-partner Ann Miller, who’s chasing after charisma vacuum Peter Lawford. But these subplots only get cursory resolutions, because the movie knows why it’s there—i.e., to look and sound pretty.

Thankfully, it succeeds at both, because it’s this week’s pick for “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” over at The Film Experience. When the film heaves aside its obligatory romances, it becomes a pure performance showcase draped in rich purples, yellows, and greens. Just look at the gorgeous image above, from Astaire’s “Steppin’ Out with My Baby” dance. After running through a series of partners, he takes the foreground alone in his gleaming suit and, cane in hand, sways in slow-motion. With anyone else, this might be showing off. With Astaire, the shot plays like a physics experiment, an attempt to figure out how the hell he does it. But he’s not the only one doing magnificent work here, as demonstrated by my favorite shot.

Frivolous as Easter Parade’s backstage story may be, Judy really wrings the pathos out of it with “Better Luck Next Time.” She belts out the whole song in a single two-minute take, passing through false hope and frustration before concluding that “There ain’t gonna be no next time for me,” and breaking into tears. It’s one of the film’s least lavish scenes, but still one of the most effective thanks to the precision of her every plaintive gesture. Her eyes take over the screen, searching for that elusive “next time,” but after the line “That can never be…”, she shuts them for a second.

It’s as if she’s overwhelmed. As if she has to close her eyes to retreat, to gather energy, to brace herself for the last line of the song. As if she’d decided to personally make up for all the emotional intensity that the film’s screenplay lacks. Easter Parade has plenty of spectacular numbers—Astaire’s high-energy performance of the title song, for example, or Miller’s salacious “Shakin’ the Blues Away”—but I’m a sucker for a confessional solo. She may think there ain’t gonna be a next time, but I’ll watch her sing it again and again and again.


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