What’s “Diegetic”?

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Richard Brody was very kind about yesterday’s post, written after his tweet about the great dance scene in PHFFFT inspired us to watch the movie. But since then, more than one person has asked me to define the word “diegetic.”

In film criticism, diegetic refers to things which are part of the world of the movie, like the music coming from a radio in a scene. Whereas non-diegetic refers to things like the film’s score, which is imposed on the action from somewhere outside the characters’ reality. We can hear it but they can’t.

(However, in my most recent watch, Arthur Penn’s THE CHASE, the main theme of John Barry’s splendidly bombastic, rambunctious score gets taken up by the little tune whistled by Jane Fonda, James Fox and Robert Redford as a secret code signal, raising the fascinating possibility that their characters CAN hear the film score — it’s loud enough, heaven knows — and have cribbed from it.)

So what does Brody mean by a diegetic dance sequence? One that is really occurring in the world of the film, as in PHFFFT, where Jack Lemmon and Judy Holliday have both been taking rumba lessons and attempt to show off what they’re learned on the dance floor of a New York night club. This implies that other dance numbers are non-diegetic. This might certainly apply to the would-be showstoppers in Lars Von Trier’s DANCER IN THE DARK, which are explicitly positioned as fantasy sequences (because Lars treats us like idiots, he has Bjork EXPLAIN first of all that she likes to imagine musical numbers while working in the factory, and then he shows this happen). I would call this a fantasy sequence rather than a non-diegetic one. It seems to me that it’s coming from the world of the film, since Bjork’s imagination is within the film.

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In SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, are the dances diegetic? Clearly, those which represent musical numbers in films in which Gene Kelly’s character is appearing are diegetic as heck. But is Singin’ in the Rain itself diegetic? I would allow that the opening title rendition is gloriously non-diegetic — our three principles splash about in raincoats in a featureless set composed of pure Technicolor and rain machine rain, completely disconnected from the plot and before two of them have even met. In this respect, the title sequence is like many, many other title sequences, whether we’re talking GOLDFINGER or THE PINK PANTHER — the action portrayed is abstract and not part of the story or the characters’ reality.

Singin'_in_the_Rain_trailer_(1952).webm

But most of the numbers are, I would say, diegetic. When Gene Kelly dances down the street with a happy refrain, he is witnessed by a policeman as he dances. If you can’t trust a cop, who can you trust? (It would be interesting, however, to imagine that Gene isn’t singing and dancing and then ask, What is the cop reacting to? A man flailing about in puddles, grunting and yodeling? I personally would pay to see that, but I’m not sure it would be wise to base an entire genre on such spectacle.)

The singing and dancing in these sequences — Good Mornin’ is another good example — is certainly happening as a somewhat stylised form of reality. Arguably even more stylised than the studio confection that is the rest of the film. And we have to admit that the musical score here is non-diegetic. But the characters’ ability to apparently make up great lyrics on the spot, and harmonize perfectly, and pick up from each others’ lines in a manner that rhymes and fits the melody, is diegetic. It’s just really, really unrealistic. Life isn’t like that. Sadly.

If you have any more bits of film criticism terminology you want explained, I’m here to help!

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14 Responses to “What’s “Diegetic”?”

  1. I am really struggling to come up with an obviously non-diegetic song and dance sequence from the golden age of Hollywood musicals (admittedly not my area of expertise). It seems to me that Fred and Ginger are always dancing in their movie world for real (certainly often with non-diegetic music). Gene Kelly does use more fantasy dance pieces, but, as you said, those are still kind of diegetic.

    Musicals by their very nature seem to render the definition of diegetic irrelevant. I think Richard Brody is perhaps using “diegetic dance sequence” to describe a dance scene in a non-musical that could plausibly occur in the “real” world.

    There are countless examples of non-diegetic music, but I would love an example of a non-diegetic dance that isn’t a fantasy or dream sequence. Images of Sally Field dancing around the shop floor in Norma Rae come to mind (that didn’t happen).

  2. As I say, the closest I can think of is the titles of Singin’ in the Rain, though it’s arguably not quite a dance.

    Maybe the Merry Widow waltzers in Shadow of a Doubt count. They are arguably a fantasy… but whose?

  3. Oh, good one! Personally, I see that as a childhood memory of Uncle Charles since it fits in with his fondness of 1888 (no coincidence that is the year of Jack the Ripper), but then it pops up when Charlie finds the Merry Widow Murderer article as though it is in her mind, apparently playing on that mental telepathy angle. In any case, still feels diegetic/fantasy to me.

    Crazy theory for that dance: it is the dance where the Lodger’s (Ivor Novello) sister was murdered.

    Did you see my equally crazy post in your Lifeboat essay I left the other day?

  4. Yes, and I loved it!

    I agree that the dancers are a vision shared by the pair of Charlies via their psychic bond.

  5. Musical comedy bridges and blurs the diegetic and non-diegetic. “You were Meant For Me” in Singin’ in the Rain finds Gene wooing (by singing and dancing) Debbie to an entirely non-diegetic track. In The Object of My Affection (a film I greatly love ) Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston dance to this track from Singin’ in the Rain thus rendering it diegetic.

  6. At the end of the opening section of Heaven’s Gate the new Harvard graduates and their girls dance to the “Blue Danube” played by a full – non-existent in the film – symphony orchestra. In fact, we see no musicians at all playing there, so is the waltz itself diegetic? It has the effect of a dream-scene.
    In Hangover Square George Harvey Bone is a composer (unlike in the book). The music for his piano concerto and the rest of the film was provided by Bernard Hermann, but there is the question of whether the background music is Bone’s own and diegetic or commenting on Bone’s state and non-diegetic. In fact, as Bone is a disturbed obsessive, perhaps all of the music is diegetic and exists in Bone’s mind.

  7. Vanwall Green Says:

    I worked in a warehouse once with the owner’s burly, ex-high school fullback of a son, who seemed sly, but mostly stolid…until one morning after a rainstorm, with light drops still landing, but plenty of puddles were left. I was in the shadows and heard someone outside the loading dock and looked up to see the big guy look around for anyone, and not seeing me, he started striding and stomping in the little pools while he performed a creditable “Singin’ in the Rain’, splashing about heedlessly, then he noticed me and grinned, He sang the last line about singin’ and dancin’ in the rain, then he strolled off, both of us chuckling. Diegetic as hell in real life, that was. I think about that big lug every time a musical number ‘erupts’ from nowhere in a film.

  8. “I am really struggling to come up with an obviously non-diegetic song and dance sequence from the golden age of Hollywood musicals” said GS Pegger…..would the Gotta Dance/Broadway Melody section of Singin’ In The Rain do ??? I assume it’s all happening in Don’s head; no characters from the sequence overlap into the “Real” film that I recall, and everything from the decor to the outlandish costumes suggest that actually, this isn’t happening. And I wish it wouldn’t; it stops the film dead in its tracks, and just isn’t as inspired as the rest of the film. At least the Red Shoes Ballet, wherein Kelly got his inspiration for this format from, is integral to, and comments on, the film that surrounds it. I fast forward through it, I’m afraid.

  9. Who’d have thought a meandering consideration of diegesis would get so many diverse and wonderful responses!

    Kelly’s ballets were a bit of a problem, I agree. I find the undeniably beautiful An American in Paris one more of an issue because it kind of takes the place of a resolution which happens offscreen without the hero doing anything. See The Apartment for a perfect solution to this problem.

    I find the ballet in New York, New York both awesome and problematic for similar reasons.

    Gotta Dance is a diversion but it doesn’t bother me half as much. It has that nice joke at the end: “I’m not sure, I’ll have to see it on film first,” which is a gentle dig at Arthur Freed. In a way, ALL musical numbers stop their films dead, because they freeze the plot in order to celebrate the emotion of one instant in it.

  10. Musical numbers often overlap with “The Look.” Sometimes throughout; sometimes fleetingly. In “Singin’ in the Rain”, Kelly finds things to look at and react to, such as the travel agent’s window display, rather than play always to the camera or something in space.

    You sometimes get “real” performances (a show within a show) played to the camera as if the camera were the audience. To wit: the customers in Cabaret, the opening night crowd in every backstage story, and occasionally a specific character. O’Connor’s “Make ‘Em Laugh” is supposed to be cheering up Gene Kelly; thus the occasional insert of Kelly grinning.

    In the Bandwagon, Astaire is playfully interacting with a shoeshine man in “Shine on Your Shoes”, and then with everybody in the penny arcade. Is he actually performing an impromptu number for amused bystanders (excepting the one woman who panics and runs when he goes uptempo)? Or is he just radiating good cheer that they’re picking up on? That the shoeshine man falls in with the dance at the end hints at the latter — this is natural expression in this world.

    Then you have stage-like soliloquies where a character’s thoughts are being helpfully revealed to the audience. ‘Singin’ in the Rain” goes here. The cop wouldn’t have noticed Kelly just singing and tapping under his umbrella, but he will express society’s disapproval of acting in a way parents told us not to. Most love songs that aren’t being sung to the beloved or a patient sidekick fall in this category.

    In My Fair Lady, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” plays both as revealed thought AND as Higgins breaking the fourth wall to demand the audience share his outrage at Eliza and accept his insistence that he’s the mature one. Then, he admits to us (and himself) that he’s grown accustomed to the that trace of something in the air, etc.

  11. You can feel the diegetic slip away most clearly in that great first dance move as the Jets strut down the street in West Side Story. It looks for all the world like we’re going to be seeing a juvenile delinquent gang movie and then one of the Jets kinds pirouettes out of the pack and ….. diegetic and nondiegetic float off and we’re free.

  12. Doesn’t West Side Story complicate things further with transitions from location to studio, at one point occurring on a finger-click? It isn’t used consistently to distinguish musical reality from spoken word reality, but maybe it suggests that there’s more than one kind of “real”

    I woinder if it was a strategy in My Fair Lady and elsewhere to save the direct address to the audience until the story was well underway? Or did nobody worry about that, then? A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, being a comedy, can open with Pseudolus addressing us directly because it doesn’t want anything to be too real.

  13. Going back a little earlier, what about something like the musical numbers Busby Berkeley staged in “Gold Diggers of 1933” or “Footlight Parade”? They begin as something that might theoretically be performed as part of a stage show, but by the end, they defy the laws of logic, physics and time itself. Are they an example of diegetic sliding into non-diegetic?

  14. Good question. They certainly defy all rational analysis, being situated neither as theatrical reality nor any particular character’s fantasy (as in The Red Shoes, where the imagery that couldn’t fit on a stage is justified by the subjective experiences of the prima ballerina).

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