Archive for Dancer in the Dark

What’s “Diegetic”?

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , on August 6, 2016 by dcairns

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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.

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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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Here come the waterworks

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on December 13, 2011 by dcairns

What the hell is wrong with me? I never used to cry all the time — well, I was a crybaby kid up to the age of about 16, but that was bawling for entirely selfish reasons. I fell down, grazed a knee, wanted attention. Eventually got that under control — if you’re bullied at school, you don’t also want to be a hysteric — and didn’t cry once until the age of about 28, in which I had a dream my mother died and woke up teary. Floodgates opened? I then became somebody who might blink furiously at a moment of high emotion, suppressing the urge to blub with manly dignity — actual weeping was still practically unheard of.

But lately I’ve been more and more a soft target for sentiment — this was brought home to me spectacularly when I screened THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK for students. Now, Sturges uses schmaltz almost shamelessly, that is he ladles it on with barefaced cheek, but he also peppers it with humour, declaring that he’s really above that sort of thing. When I first discovered his work, I felt like he was making fun of the sentimentality of Hollywood movies, and I was completely with him on that. Any set-up to a moment of emotion in a Sturges film is likely to be savagely punctured by the pinprick of laughter.

There are exceptions in the noirish crime stuff in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS and the social conscience stuff in that same picture (a social conscience film parodying the impulse to make social conscience films), and certainly in the screenplay of REMEMBER THE NIGHT, maybe my favourite Christmas film, and THE GREAT MOMENT, but neither of those were executed by Sturges alone: the first was directed by the great Mitchell Leisen, who was compelled to shorten Sturges’ script, and the second was subject to egregious studio interference by Paramount boss Buddy DeSylva, whose talents as songwriter did not transfer to his productorial or narrative activities.

I still feel that, in a major sense, Sturges’ use of pathos is all part of the set of tricks he uses to bum-steer the audience before hitting them with gags. And yet there I was, blinking back great salty globules of eye-water as Trudy Kockenlocker and Norval Jones are brought together by an outrageous narrative contrivance which ought to achieve the heights of Brechtian alienation by virtue of its sheer implausibility.

It’s a very real problem. If this goes on, I may require a Perrier drip just to stop me dehydrating from the leaking of clown-spray eyeballs. A dog-weepie like the terrific DEAN SPANLEY would make me shrivel to Angelo Rossetti size, a wailing wrinkled dwarf saved from complete desiccation only by the fact that I would be unable to see over the heads of anybody in front of me in the cinema. If I attempted to watch Jack Clayton’s sublime THE LONELY PASSION OF JUDITH HEARNE again, I would probably dry up and blow away like so much dandruff. As it is, handkerchiefs may soon become hopelessly inadequate, as if one stood in the path of a bursting damn or DeMille’s Red Sea, holding up a tiny swatch of fabric before the tidal onslaught. I would need to carry a couple of buckets everywhere to wring my face out into. Or attach suction pumps to my tear ducts to drain off the excess fluid into a plastic bag strapped to my leg, maybe. Perhaps a Fremen stillsuit, as modeled by Kyle MacLachlan in DUNE, would be the ultimate answer.

Can you see me in one of these?

What’s more worrying about this than the idea of evaporating mid-sniffle is what it may do to my critical acumen, such as it is. It seems to be quite hard to take against a movie that makes you cry, and if all movies make you cry, where are you? I’ve had conversations with people who cried at DANCER IN THE DARK, and they seemed to think that proved it was a good movie, or at least suggested that it might be. I wanted to say, Your emotion is real, you had a genuine emotional experience, and I don’t intend to belittle it. But that movie is a turd, a giant unspeakable shit, as thick as a kettle, taking 140 minutes to emerge into the light, unspooling on the floor in great drooping coils, hissing noxiously to itself the while, reeking of effluent and paraffin. No wonder your eyes watered. But I didn’t say that.

I felt coolly superior to those saps then. Not anymore. Not anymore.

Tick Tock

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 10, 2008 by dcairns

TIME WITHOUT PITY continues my exploration of the work of Joseph Losey — pith helmet on, machete in hand.

The plot — Michael Redgrave is an alcoholic novelist newly emerged from a sanatorium to discover his son convicted of murder and due to be executed. Armed only with an unshakable faith in his boy’s innocence, Redgrave attempts to redeem his dissolute life and failed parenthood by finding some “tangible evidence” to save the son from execution.

The script is faintly derived from Emlyn Williams’ play Someone Waiting, but screenwriter Ben Barzman  (a fellow blacklistee of Losey) has completely exploded the plot and reassembled it in a radical new shape: Williams’ play takes place entirely AFTER the son’s execution. Despite completely remodelling the narrative trajectory, Barzman retains most of Williams’ characters, and some of the clues by which the murder is cunningly solved, including a very unusual alibi.

The film boldly begins by revealing the true killer, in a starkly lit murder scene that certainly catches the attention, with Tristram Carey’s clamorous score blasting at us, swaying lights and looming shadows, a sexy victim, and the bulbous form of Leo “Number Two” McKern. Nevertheless, I felt it may have been a mistake to discard any mystery at this early point. It’s true that Leo McKern turning out to be the killer would be unlikely to surprise anyone, but perhaps a solution might have been to recast the part with someone softer and rewrite the character to make him less of a shouty caricature of capitalist vulgarity. Without someone as blazingly guilty as McKern, naturally shifty performers like Paul Daneman and Ann Todd would have moved into prime suspect mode. But then we wouldn’t have McKern, which would be kind of a shame.

As Redgrave begins to investigate, Losey lets rips with some mirror-maze visuals and allows us to see just how pathetic a figure the hero is. This really works. Not only is the man faced with a horrific deadline (like THE BIG NIGHT, this film compresses its narrative into a tight frame), but he’s hopelessly ill-equipped, both physically and psychologically, to tackle the task in hand. All he has going for him is utter desperation.

Redgrave is the perfect man for the job — in his youth, the kind of light comedian Britain abounded in, as demonstrated in Hitchcock’s THE LADY VANISHES, by middle age Redgrave was our finest neurotic, able to make weakness of any kind both sympathetic and compelling. He’s perfectly fitted to this role, and makes one wish the film were about, say, 15% better to bring it up to his superb level. 

Guest stars! Peter Cushing as an expository plot function; Joan Plowright as a showgirl (!); Renee Houston as a drunken Scotswoman surrounded by clocks. Houston, a recent discovery of ours, brings a welcome touch of music hall grotesquerie to any film. Here she’s in full harridan mode, with Bride of Frankenstein hair, but brings enough nuance to her role to justify the excessive symbolism of her cacophonously ticking, ringing and chiming flat. Hefting a clock, she slurs:

“One of the little pleasures in life, Mr. Gage, I can now give myself: just to hear it ring, and know you don’t have to go anywhere.”

Good scenes like the above, and each of Redgrave’s painful visits to his son (each starting with calm and reconciliation, degenerating into despair and recrimination, driving home more fully each time what a failure our hero is), are somewhat let down by bad ones. A visit to the offices of an MP campaigning against the death penalty allows for some dramatically redundant and boring speechifying, delivering points which should be illustrated dramatically by the plot. (But is that a frivolous Dirk Bogarde cameo, or just some cut-price Dirkalike?)

Losey’s artsier moments are enjoyable, but his more restrained ones are excellent too. Tracking from a wide shot into an over-the-shoulder, moving his actors out of frame to have them rediscovered by the camera seconds later, he choreographs the film with economy and elegance, with impactful cutting and subtly emphatic framing. British producers hoping for a bit of Hollywood dynamism from their blacklisted Americans got their money’s worth from Losey.

Not to spoil the end, but of course Redgrave must stake his own life to save his son’s — here there’s evidence of censorship and mucking about, with unlikely carelessness with guns and lip-flap from a major character, who presumably said something politically or morally questionable (the more you look at censorship practice the more it always seems to have a political point to limit thought). But the main thrust of the conclusion is excellent, even if the details are weakened — it confirms Lars Von Trier’s verdict on capital punishment: a very bad thing, but excellent for drama.

(But before you ask — I LOATHE Von Trier’s DANCER IN THE DARK.)