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.
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.
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!