Love and Formalization
/1/ – Exaltation of the Ordinary
What is so terribly strange about the musical film? Musicals, on one level or another, seem to sensationalize the mundane (to borrow a phrase from a friend), they galvanize the sad pointless tidbits of existence. Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg goes even beyond this in that instead of having musical numbers weaved into the narrative, the entire narrative is musical, every single piece of dialog is sung. Whereas musical numbers tend to appear to highlight a particular event or feeling, the sing song quality to every moment in Umbrellas suggests a celebration of the very attempt at normalcy, of the necessity of formalization, the need, despite potential tragedy and disaster, to keep the world at a proper distance.
The truly odd and amazing accomplishment of the film is that it refuses to explode in a typically tragic event – every step that would allow, and even demand, a kind of horrible occurrence is muted, the characters refuse to raise it to the level of the tragic proper. Yet, at the same time, Umbrellas is nowhere close to being a comedy – if anything the film is tragic in that it never reaches the heights to allow a tragic fall, it’s fall is from itself, from it’s own inability to elevate itself. In a sense Umbrellas is tragic in the same way Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation is romantic – it is the circling of the frame of its given genre which gives it it’s power, the magic of the motions devoid of the common ‘material results.’
This elevation is mirrored in the very formal frames of the film itself. In the opening shot we see Cherbourg in the distance and then we move upwards and then look down as the rain starts (seemingly falling right from our point of view) as people begin to pass by. If one watches closely the scene tends to alternate between people with umbrellas and those without – most of those with presumably being female whereas most if not all the males are walking bikes (let it be known that the gentleman of the story, Guy, bikes to meet Geneviève who works at an umbrella shop) only in the last few seconds does an umbrella user and a bicyclist pass by one another ever so briefly. The crane shot is repeated near the end of the film, where after Geneviève and Guy see each other for the last time we ascend awkward backwards into darkness. The very shot itself echoes the larger feel of the film – a kind of ‘calculated charm’ as the reviewer Johnathan Rosenbaum puts it.
Is the formality of love then a kind of required misery – as shown in the character of Roland Cassard? Geneviève’s mother points out that he is a real man who ‘has lived and suffered’ (and, in fact, Demy’s previous film Lola, focused on the Cassard’s disastrous relationship.) This point seems to be raised any time a character emphasizes anyone of the particular bon jours or au demains in the film – the devastatingly casual just seethes under every surface. The last point to be made here as just as Guy and Geneviève lay in bed to have their one and only night together we get three shots of places they had stood previously and kissed. The places are doorways and hallways (a similarly odd technique is used when Cassard is describing his failed romance with Lola – the camera cuts away to an empty stair case and we get a long unbroken shot of the shops that stand at the top of it) again speaking to the feeling of simply ‘going through the motions’ in that they literally progressed to that point (Guy’s bed, that particular point in space) as well as following the ‘next step’ in a relationship – that of sexual intimacy.
/2/ – The absence of Dance
If the music of Umbrellas is a performance, something that is purposefully staged and set apart from the rest of the narrative, it should be no surprise then that the film is also devoid of one of the musical staples – the dance. Maybe dance has become too casual, the cerebral weight of it has dimmed a bit, it’s sunken into a crassness, in Marla Singer’s terms via Fight Club “A condom is the glass slipper of our generation. You slip one on when you meet a stranger. You dance all night. Then, you throw it away… the condom, I mean, not the stranger.” Alain Badiou’s spectacular text “Dance as a metaphor for thought” in his collection Handbook of Inaesthetics, argues for a relatively complex look at dance as a form of art. In a proper Nietzschean fashion, Badiou places dance as a kind of pure becoming, the art of ‘the body before the body’ the art of innocence. If one follows Badiou in this way, if dance is the ‘wheel which turns itself’ as well as a thought ‘before it is named’ than where do the massive displays of Busby Berkeley sit with us?
Berkeley’s extravagant and geometrically determined displays, have, in the eyes of many cinematic scholars, spoken to a kind of underhanded socialism, a proto-communism akin to the writings of John Steinbeck, where during the great depression the socialist/communist temptation was at its strongest. Badiou argues that, in regards to dance, that the music doesn’t necessarily support the dance, as the common perception might be, but instead that music marks the silence of the body. In other words, the music simply contrasts the nameless, silence of the dancing body, the music covers over the intense silence of the innocence of the dancing form.
Badiou makes an important distinction which is pivotal for our discussion here, a difference between theater and dance. Whereas dance completely disregards time in the wake of space, theater is utterly considered with time, the structure of the narrative. (Isn’t tragedy proper, as we’ve mentioned, always possible only through bad timing, the missed opportunity, the tragic miscommunication?) Badiou goes on to quote the poet Mallarme who states that dance is ‘a poem set free of any scribe’s apparatus’ and also that the ‘dancer does not dance’ simply because the dance is subtracts form itself, it is utterly formless. Badiou beautifully explains Mallarme’s statement in a passage that I will quote at length here:
“the ‘true’ dancer must never appear to know the dance that she dances. Her knowledge (which is technical, immense, and painfully acquired) is traversed, as null, by the pure emergence of her gesture. ‘The dancer does not dance’ means that what one sees is at no point the realization of a preexisting knowledge, even though knowledge is, through and through, its matter or support. The dancer is the miraculous forgetting of her own knowledge of dance. She does not execute the dance, but is this restrained intensity that manifests the gesture’s indecesion. In truth, the dancer abolishes every known dance because she disposes of her body as if it were invented. So that the spectacle of dance is the body subtracted from every knowledge of a body, the body as disclosure” (p. 66).
If music can be said to cover over the horrible silence of existence, (here is the safety of love, the comfort of its twoness) then dance is about the very invention that love brings, that which emerges as the very feeling of emergence itself – that which creates despite the familiar framework which love exists in. Here is the oddness of Badiou’s ‘scene of two’, the twoness that defines love. But first let us move outwards to a larger kind of formalization dealt with by the musical genre, that of economic difference.
/3/ – Class and Love
In the aforementioned Rosenbaum review of Umbrellas, there is a very interesting observation:
“The name of the Esso station is Escale Cherbourgeoise; this means literally “Cherbourgian Stopover,” but if we consider that escalader means “to scale or to climb” and escalier means “stairway,” we can read traces of a buried pun: “a bourgeois step up.” Guy has become comfortably middle-class, Genevieve has become upper-class, and the class difference between them seems even more unbridgeable than it was before. And as for the Esso sign that gave me so much trouble, what better indication could there be of the Americanization of small-town France, a simple fact of everyday life that this movie treats like any other? Product placement or not, it has the ring of absolute truth.”
It seems almost unnecessary to mention how pivotal class difference plays into the role of the musical though at times it may seem secondary to familial/racial difference a la West Side Story. The notion of class difference in the musical can be seen in at least two major ways – in the literal level with My Fair Lady and as the dominant metaphorical undercurrent in The Wizard of Oz. In My Fair Lady, the pompous linguist Henry Higgins shows that he can raise a poor flower girl with a Cockney accent to the status of the belle of the ball. The ending of the film and the play differ in that Eliza, the flower girl, leaves Henry and does not return to him originally but in several versions, including the film version pictured above, Eliza and Henry seem to reconcile. The original ending is important to maintain and it places the work alongside Dickens’ Great Expectations.
In both works it is the very failure of the lower class characters (Pip and Eliza) to become ‘great’ or ‘upper class’ that makes them praise worthy. (Here we have Mladen Dolar’s argument apropos Althusser, and contra Butler, that the subject emerges not through interpellation but it’s very failure. The unique qualities of a person emerge at the point they fail to become a particular kind of person, or embody an occupation, role etc.)
In the musical film The Wizard of Oz the themes of class are submerged and do to some changes from the book to the film are almost erases altogether. The largest issue here being the change from Dorothy having silver shoes (supposedly representing the virtues of silver coinage) to ruby read (to appear more brilliant in contrast to the yellow brick road). Many folks have commented on how the text represents the crisis of the gold standard (oz standing for ounce) and how economic depression had hurt the farmer (the scarecrow, unable to think his way out) the worker (the tinman, dehumanized, without a heart) and the average naive folk (Dorothy, just trying to find her way home). Both historians and economists have argued that Dorothy attempts to take silver down the path of gold (the slippers down the yellow brick road) to get silver coinage to help the poor and, at the same time, to show the fradulent meaninglessness of paper money (the emerald city and the Wizard).
The strange feeling of the music in The Wizard of Oz seems to have that familiar effect of covering over the horrible. In a similar fashion the dancing in the film seems so stilted and robotic that in the wake of their situation it all seems to painful – it’s a film about all those caught in between the horrid industrials of the East and West. How do we bring this all back to love? The role of class in the musical illustrates the danger of love falling too far into the greater realm of society. Although all our existence is inherently social (looking at Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, Freud etc.) there remains a severe danger for love to fall too far outside, to become an outside looking in. My thoughts on this have been expressed thoroughly here. Let’s begin our descent into the morass of love and the musical.
/4/ – Amorous procedures as dance numbers
In his difficult but breathtaking text Metapolitics
Probably the most beautiful notion of love that Badiou discusses is that it is an ‘investigation about the sharing of the universe’, it is a questioning of a shared disjunction. That is why love is never about ‘how is it that we are here together’ but more importantly ‘how is the universe how it is with us together, what does our twoness (which is a One but never a one without disjunction, disagreement) say about the world?’ Whereas in the psychoanalytic realm love is a sort of retroactive construction to give consistency to our desire, Badiou’s definition is an infinite striving towards an impossible consistency, an understanding of the world through the long march of love.
So what about the musical? The theater, as Badiou notes in The Handbook of Inaesthetics, is an amalgamation that is the ‘positive opposite of dance.’ Whereas dance is about subtraction, the theater (the musical here) is all about excess. Someone must of said love is a dance – while the motions are so familiar and rehearsed, every formation of love appears from out of nowhere, descends either clumsily or angelically from the void. The theater, the musical then, is about this gesture of unique singularity (the approach, the encounter of chance) being caught in the mess of the world – we compensate for its potential loss with music, we fear for the larger monsters that may claim us (economics, distance, time etc) but then why does the musical so often seem so happy, so unfettered by the gloom of potential impossibility? Isn’t this what Badiou means when he says dance is not an art but the very possibility of art embodied? The body, in dance, exhibits an ‘exact vertigo’ as he puts it, completely free but free because of its intense restraint. Isn’t this the same in the encounter, in that moment where all seems possible when the glance is exchanged, the other examined from far, isn’t it necessary that we proceed with caution, that we act as if we know nothing of the possibilities?
/5/ – To end incompletely
So let us return to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. If the film is a kind of self abortive tragedy (in that its great fall is its very own inability to achieve that height which to fall from) then does it really exhibit the excess of the theater that Badiou so lavishly illustrates? The film seems to celebrate not just the frame of romance, the sing song quality of polite conversation, the motions of living, but more the tension between the weight of the world and the strange and intense possibility that arises from our own hope and resolve. Because the film refuses to show us the proper beginning of Guy and Geneviève’s relationship as well as a definitive end (of sorts) we should take the film to be romantic in its very attempt at trying to be romantic. While the motions of dating (or how ever you wish to call the escalation of intimacy) can be trying and tired, the point is that the mode of transit is purposeful indirect, intentionally askew and sideways.
Neither the chance of the initial encounter nor the potential infinite and shared interpretation of the world can be encapsulated by the frame of formality, but they are insistently pointed towards, suggested and outlined through such frames. On one level, perhaps, it stops us from getting too carried way but on the other hand, it allows to speculate and it highlights our own romantic and wonderfully foolish inclinations every time we shake or shatter that framework. The formality, whether or not it is as colorful as it is in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, ultimately serves as the ground from which to divide ourselves in the start of the dance which leads us to the flurry of the musical, the theater.
The formalization of love stands as the island which allows us to tip ever so precariously towards the impossibility of the encounter which allows the potential labor of love on the one hand, and towards the endless two headed dive towards the future on the other.
Filed under: art, Badiou, film, marxism, music, psychoanalysis | 1 Comment