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Monday, March 26, 2007

of self-reflexivity, myths of entertainment, and utopia

There are various questions about self-reflexive films like “Shadows of the Vampire,” “Gods and Monsters,” “Being John Malkovich,” “Pleasantville,” and cinema in general regarding their form as production process. First of these questions is, “Does creativity equate productivity?” This question arises for it seems to me that as long as the creative imagination does not get sterile, there will always be films to produce. This question also begs to tell that the only death mentionable in the process of film production is the physical death of people involved, while cinema lingers on as new people engage in the organic cycle of production. The way the aforementioned films was produced was a twist in creativity: instead of films commenting on life, these are films that comment on themselves. Another question is, “Are the films an end to the production process in themselves?” for most films, when the credits roll, that is the signal that the film—thus, its production—is ended, but there are self-reflexive films that pretend to be ending but suddenly change their supposed ending. While the films screened in class did not exhibit this film-as-a-work-in-progress, I discovered some self-reflexive film that in their awareness of their film being produced, they literally turn to their script right in the filming to check if the ending was faithful to the original production. An example is the film “Robin Hood: Men in Tights” wherein the characters argue while the camera was rolling whether the ending should have Robin Hood lost an archery tournament to Prince John, only that he complained that the losing was not part of the script, which Robin produced from out of his costume. The film was conscious of itself as being produced, so its characters were likewise conscious of the parts, of the ending that not necessarily signals the ending of production itself.
In the name of reflexive cinema, it is valuable to watch films like “8 ½” and “Hollywood Ending” to assert the point that no disability should ever come in the way of production. Always and always, especially for the pure genius, a film may be created, giving us viewers the idea that everything may be mined, whether from life or from cinema itself. “8 ½” conveys the point that an artist’s block can become the whole point of a film, so a film director may not stake at validity if he/she uses the alibi that an artist’s block gets the better of him that’s why he cannot produce a film. Meanwhile, “Hollywood Ending” transmits the message that it does not take a pair of eyes to envision a film in current production. Even if the director is blind, that disability should not hinder him/her from projecting the movie the way his mind, not his eyes, visualizes it. Both films praise the many-splendored genius of the director, who has the natural talent for creating from something or, especially at this juncture of post-modernity, even from nothing.
Musicals, especially those that revolve around the plot of putting on a show, are indeed inherently reflexive. They are aware that they are supposed to be watched, so they exhibit production numbers. They show the process by which they can call themselves an illusion in order to reassure the importance of the illusion and necessity of entertainment. As they are, these musicals can be metaphors for the artistic or creative process. For instance, in “Singin’ in the Rain,” Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) depicts to his surprised producer the extravagant finale this film star carries in his mind for his new movie. The production number, termed “Broadway Melody,” stars an excited young provincial who comes to New York, shrieking “Gotta dance!” and rising through the ladder of musical comedy to become a star, only to be left heartbroken by a nightclub attendant. Kelly does not picture it for the whole routine was exhibited, with its riotous collection of singers and dancers. The sequence is shown through various visual and dance styles of burlesque and ballet by Kelly and Charisse. After the big production, all that the producer says is that he cannot quite visualize the number so he has to see it on film. The whole sequence is a necessary comment on the power of cinematic imagination. Other self-reflexive comments by real and imagined musical comedy by “Singin’ in the Rain” include the sequence wherein that lavish production number was to be incorporated in a 1927 black-and-white film entitled “The Dancing Cavalier” but in living technicolor of 1952. The whole joke, of course, was a dream-like improbability. The more ambitious intention of the film was to comment on musical itself, tracing the history of Hollywood wherein the silent drama transformed into an ideal, comprehensive form of cinema: the MGM musical. The script itself was a comment on the development in film history, since the silent-screen pair of Lockwood and diva Lina Lamont was about to be displaced from their career with the coming of sound. One whole routine emerged out of a piece of a technological detail when there were tries to record voices in the studio. Another routine transformed a swordfight romance into a musical. Every opportunity to manifest intricate artful musicals was mined, such as in the scene wherein Kelly leads Reynolds on an abandoned sound stage and turns on switches to throw light on his beloved, was self-reflexive in that they continuously flaunts its art form. If only for “Singin’ in the Rain,” musical has the inescapable characteristic of self-reflexivity. The musical productions are all trends of the artistic and creative process in that each shows a perfect performance of sing and dance in between a narrative that is otherwise flawed for the plot conflict that must be resolved. They exhibit the significance of illusion of perfection with the perfect singing and dancing, on top of feeding the audience’ ultimate requirement of entertainment with the elaborate production numbers within the film.
Jane Feuer’s “The Self-Reflective Musical and the Myth of Entertainment” shows how self-reflexive MGM musicals of the 1950s flaunt their own value as entertainment. Meanwhile, they take away the mystery of bad, usually non-musical entertainment and also create myth out of musical entertainment by relating the musical with the myths of spontaneity, integration, and audience. The myth of spontaneity darkens the work of performance to imply that musical performance comes out of a joyful and responsive attitude toward life, and is available to everyone. With the myth of integration, successful performances are closely tied up with success in love, with the combination of high and low art, and with the assimilation of the individual into a community or group. The myth of audience implies that successful performance will be sensitive to the needs of the audience. “Singin’ in the Rain” fits the mold of these ideas by Feuer: it is a self-reflexive MGM musical in 1952, so unlike the “bad” movies that does not share its musical genre. More than that, its created myth of spontaneity sets the labor of performance secondary only to the musical performance of Kathy whose revelation as the true singing voice of Lina is a cause of celebration for the audience. The myth of integration was manifested when the premiere of the first talkie proved to be a tremendous success; it suggests that the romance between Lockwood and Kathy succeeded the leading lady’s sabotages. Finally, the successful performance of the test screening—Lockwood’s venture from silent movies into the world of talking pictures—responds to the audience’ necessity for development.
On the other hand, Richard Dyer’s “Entertainment and Utopia” takes into account the frequent dismissal of entertainment as “escape” and “wish-fulfillment” to imply that entertainment responds to the real needs of the society and offers that the musical puts forth a non-specific utopian vision—what it would feel like instead of how it would be organized. The musical fights off social flaws through utopian views like scarcity through abundance, exhaustion through energy, sluggishness through intensity, manipulation through transparency, and fragmentation through community. In which case, “24-Hour Party People” fits the entertainment and utopian picture in that it may be dismissed as just another biopic dedicated to the cannibalized themes of sex, drugs and rock-n-roll but in actuality, the director was brilliant enough to raise the musical standard by offering the viewers with an insightful and strong musical melodrama that may be wild but all the same fresh and informative. This label of entertainment, the director points out, is the very vision that must be achieved by our society: a 24-hour celebration (party) of life because despite the difficulties, the seeming meaninglessness of life, we humans manage to survive. The foremost social inadequacy that may be perceived in the film was the boredom musicals are unfairly associated with; in “24-Hour Party People,” the music is zesty, as if to say how very much alive is the biographical movie.
Strange and unrealistic it may be, “Being John Malkovich” is laudable for its rendition of reflexive cinema with extreme originality, especially in the light of present Hollywood productions which seem too obsessed with superficiality, i.e. special effects, superstar cast, to the detriment of the point being conveyed by art forms like film. In the film, the bankable Hollywood stars were deglamorized, the risks were taken in presenting a non-mainstream, abstruse film and, most importantly, it bounces on itself to make a comment that by ignoring this film, the viewing audience does not have enough maturity to decipher a difficult film and that by watching it, the viewing audience plunges in on a mockery that the film feels different because too many popcorn movies have assailed the audience’ sensibilities. Among the self-reflexive films screened, “Being John Malkovich” is an easy favorite of mine because of its exemplification of “allegories of spectatorship,” wherein I can say sway and identify the film the way I want to interpret it, so it can be social, psychological, religious, philosophical, any field I can align it with. Besides drawing parallel of this viewers’ control with Craig’s puppeteering, it seems to me now that as a self-reflexive film, “Being John Malkovich” comments on the dangerous puppeteering capacity of Hollywoodization over the people: viewers the world over are inexorably drawn to the current crop (or crap) of Hollywood movies that are mostly inferior in art form versus Euro films, but Hollywood does to the puppets that we are whatever it wants the outcome to be, which is to achieve box-office hit.
It is noteworthy too to comment on the recurring theme of escapism in “Being John Malkovich.” The entire length of the film showed an unsatisfied Craig longing to escape his plight. When he saw an opportunity to be someone rather superior in the embodiment of Hollywood actor John Malkovich, he instantly grabbed it and wished he could remain trapped in his body forever. As viewers of the film, the character of Craig is a mockery of our own streak of escapism in the form of film watching. About two hours of our lifetime, we are ushered inside the theater and into an entirely different world altogether. The movie we watch empowers us by making us forget the present cares of the world and by leading us into the world wherein a major problem gets neatly resolved in an hour or so. We escape the world of problems and through the film we watch, we encounter a utopian world so unlike the one we will again emerge to after the credits have rolled.
The self-reflexive film that is “Being John Malkovich” says so much about our own obsession to be somebody else just because we feel uncomfortable with our own selves. Similarly, the film is aware of itself as a production in that it could be some other film, an epic with gorgeous special effects and divine Hollywood superstars, but the greater need to be true to itself it has fulfilled first than the lesser need to be just beautiful and blockbuster, sacrificing artistry, creativity, the good and the true.

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