Four Theses on Entertainment

Phil Ford

The last couple of posts have touched on what I’ve called, not really seriously, the Theory of Pop Culture Complementarity. But while I haven’t yet come up with a good name for the idea, I’m actually serious about developing it a little. I’ve only ever once posted a passage from an honest-to-goodness professional work-in-progress at Dial M, partly because I think that highly-concentrated academic writing doesn’t work so well on a blog (though that’s an argument for another blog post), and partly out of a superstitious fear that I’ll be giving too much away if I do. But what the hey, time to try something new. I’ve written a little thing for the students in my film musicals class that I might as well share, because it deals directly with the issues I’ve raised in the last few days. So, herewith my “Four Theses on Entertainment.” My thoughts here owe a large and obvious debt to Richard Dyer, who has done so much to take a category that seems self-evident and in need of no further contemplation — entertainment — and show it to be not such a simple thing after all.

So . . . .


Americans take musicals for granted because we do them so well and like them so much. Because they are so close to us, we simultaneously take their enjoyment and dismiss their art. The ruse that musicals are supremely unimportant is the masquerade that gives them their power to move and amuse. A musical paradoxically proclaims its own worthlessness and the importance of its own worthlessness. To take the musical seriously is a self-conscious act of cultural subversion, in which musicals themselves are often engaged.*

1. Entertainment is a particular code of historically-locatable professional practice— the “old honky-tonk monkeyshines” that Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Conner) sings about in “Make ‘em Laugh” from Singin’ in the Rain. Entertainment is a self-consciously cultivated repertoire of “bits,” routines, stories, jokes, and so on: professionalism as an entertainer means knowing these things, and having paid your dues in a professionalized environment within which the norms of success and failure in the execution of them are well-known and pitilessly exacted. Entertainers famously give audiences what they want, but this is not all they do, because, as Richard Dyer notes, their professionalization places them at a level of discernment above that of their audience. And so entertainment has a pedagogical function: it also teaches the audience what it wants, or might want. A routine like “Make ‘em Laugh” makes a point of “getting back to the classics,” which in this case means old vaudeville routines executed at lightening speed, one after the other, to the accompaniment of a song that in effect instructs the audience to find this sort of thing funny. It is funny, but both the song and Donald O’Conner’s virtuoso physical performance make an implicit argument that you should find this funny, because the audiences of the past thought it was funny, and future audiences will to. (After all, the narrative point of this routine is for Cosmo to reassure his friend of how to win audiences over in the new medium of sound film.) The sphere of professionalized entertainment is thus both historicist and pedagogical. “There’s no school like the old school” is its motto.

2. Professionalized entertainment therefore relies on a sense of its own history, expressed as myth. The film That’s Entertainment! is especially explicit on this point. Past performers are crowned as “royalty,” and bygone production and management teams are thought of as “dynasties.” The succession of genres, styles, and stars is given as a monarchical succession; Hollywood’s mythos of crowns passed on in an orderly procession, keeping the peace and prosperity of the realm, would have pleased Louis XIV. (Vis. Jack Black to Ronnie James Dio: “You must give your cape and scepter to me.”) The idea embodied in the phrase “the King is dead; long live the King” is never so well illustrated as in showbiz, where the radically different personalities, styles, audiences, and historical/cultural/social backgrounds of successive stars are papered over in a historicist myth of continuity. In That’s Entertainment! stars anoint their own successors—Bing Crosby introducing Frank Sinatra, for example. The practice sometimes stretches credulity, as when Fred Astaire tries to install Liza Minnelli in the firmament alongside her mother, and it is at such moments we understand that myth is being made before our eyes, for our edification and pleasure. This is a part of what entertainment is.

3. And yet this practice of myth-making is taking place within a historical period of mass disenchantment. This is something that everyone agrees on, from hard-nosed Marxist culture-critics to hard-nosed studio executives to the audience to the stars themselves. The fundamental incongruity between the willful myth-making of musicals (which we, like Richard Dyer, will take as the ideal-typical exemplar of professionalized entertainment) and American society as a whole is understood in terms of “escapism.” Everyone understood that the world of the 1930s Hollywood musical and Depression America were completely different, with the former an escape from the latter. Marxists critics are more apt to see this as a bad thing and to value art that “tells the truth” about society, while those in the entertainment industry are apt to wave away all such concerns with appeals to “entertainment”: both sides are indulging in a certain ideology, and each ideology adopts its own strategy of self-protection. As Gerald Mast points out, musicals always insist on their fluffiness, their lack of substance—they protest, a little too much, that they are “only entertainment,” which places them outside of critical argument and into that realm protected by the words de gustibus non est disputandum.

But what this means, among other things, is that the audience for the musical is an audience that is fully capable of understanding the distance between the idealized world on the screen and their own lives. The musical makes myth in an age when the act of making myth is fully visible and fully understood for what it is. The musical audience has complete hermeneutic liberty—the privilege of seeing things in these films that are unintended by their creators. (This is doubtless one of the reasons for the gay camp appeal of musicals—it is the appreciation of the dissonance between public myth and private knowledge.) This, again, is a part of what entertainment is. More specifically, it is part of that area of entertainment devoted to the appreciation of stars. In a well-known passage from the introduction to Heavenly Bodies, Richard Dyer writes about a photo of Joan Crawford, her back to the camera, her face reflected in two mirrors. Our eyes shift from one reflection to another, studying the photo for clues. “Which is the real Joan Crawford, really?,” he asks. “We can carry on looking at the Arnold photo like this, and our mind can constantly shift between the three aspects of Crawford; but it is the three of them taken together that make up the phenomenon of Joan Crawford, and it is the insistent question of “really” that draws us in, keeping us on the go from one aspect to another.”** This process of sifting the media world for clues to the “really” of each star is tremendously complicated and personal. It allows for an extraordinary latitude for each interpreter to look “behind” of “beneath” or “through” the veil of myth. The very visibility of the veil practically demands it. Musicals, while always insisting that they are the least interpretable of artworks, are in fact represent the total democratization of hermeneutics.

4. Entertainment is fully able to reabsorb any revisionist narrative back into its own narratives. The musical is a tougher animal than we once thought, because it can metabolize the foreign matter of its fans’ cynical and secret knowledge. Judy Garland is fired from MGM, and it becomes more and more widely known that Judy Garland is a pill-popping emotional wreck—and a few years later we get A Star Is Born, which transmutes the revelations that had shattered her youthful myth back into . . . myth. Perhaps the famous self-reflexivity of film musicals is simply the process of demythologizing counter-narrative becoming assimilated back into myth.

*Gerald Mast, Can‘t Help Singing: The American Musical on Stage and Screen (Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 1987), 2.

**Richard Dyer, Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society (New York and London: Routledge, 1986, 2004), 2.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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6 Responses to Four Theses on Entertainment

  1. Kip W says:

    Footnote: Judy Garland was also in “A Star is Born” in 1942.
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  2. “And yet this practice of myth-making is taking place within a historical period of mass disenchantment. This is something that everyone agrees on, from hard-nosed Marxist culture-critics to hard-nosed studio executives to the audience to the stars themselves.”
    I’m not sure I buy this–I think it might be more accurate to say that we live in a historical period when the audience _believes_ it is disenchanted, which actually simply means that the acceptable vehicles for enchantment have to cater to this belief. “Reality” TV provides an ideal example — its appeal lies in its assertion that it is a portrayal of “reality” but it remains an artificial construct. By populating Reality TV with people who are not acting, the producers introduce a powerful signifier of “reality” which they can then encase in artificial, controlled situations, and which they can manipulate through the power of editing. Furthermore, the participants themselves are selected for their representation of character archetypes and for their likely personality compatibilites and incompatibilites.
    Ultimately, the mythologizing forces of entertainment are mustered to create the appearance of non-artificiality for a public that fancies itself as jaded. And in fact, the mythologization _instructs_ the public to be “disenchanged” because the “disenchanted” perspective is the most appropriate frame of reference for the entertainment that is being produced. The success of a show like “Flavor of Love” relies on a sort of pact between the viewers and the producers that the producers are creating a “real” documentaion of a spectacle being created by Flavor Flav and his admirers, who themselves are attempting to discern who among them is “real” and who is “fake.” Flav himself is presented as the embodiment of a “real” version of the spectacular — the freak rather than the clown.

  3. Phil Ford says:

    Hey Galen —
    In a sense, I don’t really disagree, but then your point of view here is already a canonical one within pop culture. Every TV critic in America has said much the same thing, and so has pretty much every intelligent TV viewer. It’s just another recursive level to the pleasurable experience of watching. In effect, what you’ve just said is that, in the game of seeing the “really,” seeing past or through the veil of entertainment myth, you just do it better than those who are watching reality TV uncritically. You are asserting that you have secret knowledge, or at least knowledge not widely shared. And this is fun. It’s part of the entertainment. When you notice that, say, reality TV editing is phony (which it is), in a sense, you’re supposed to notice that. Maybe not “supposed to,” exactly — maybe the TV producers didn’t count on people being able to figure this stuff out, at first — but people did, very quickly, and now my wife will say “do you think Trick stole Fantazzie’s rice, or did they do that in editing?” And so will others in the viewing audience. And my point about entertainment is, this isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. People start mining something like editing for secret gnosis, then the producers are going to make the editing ostentatiously tricky, self-consciously deceptive — another, higher form of giving ’em what you want. This is what I mean when I say that professionalized entertainment is able to assimilate all counter-narratives back into itself. (Although this doesn’t necessarily happen all at once.)

  4. Galen says:

    I agree that we pretty much agree — my only serious quibble is with your choice of the word “disenchantment” to describe the phenomenon. I can see now that what you mean by “disenchantment” is the ability to see artifice and incorporate the perception of artifice into the aesthetic reception of the work. And I would suggest that there are two fundamentally different modes of this sort of appreciation: outsmarting and being outsmarted. When we are aware of the artifice being created by the editors of reality TV, or when we can see the strings that make Peter Pan fly, the satisfaction comes from feeling that we outsmarted the producers. On the other hand, we relish being fooled into believing that the CGI of the Lord of the Rings is real — we never actually believe it, of course, but we derive pleasure from knowing that Peter Jackson et al were able to create a world where we can’t tell where the real ends and the artificial begins. The Lord of the Rings is a sort of Artificial Sublime; I’m not sure what to call Flavor of Love, other than Cop Show to the Max.
    But the word “disenchantment” implies that we were once “enchanted,” and I don’t think we were. What is acting of not the Artificial Sublime? — I know it’s not real, and yet it seems so real. And why does Shakespeare lace his plays with oblique literary references if not to show the strings and give the audience a chance to congratulate themselves on getting the reference? Or Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” where the only way to get the message is to understand that the apparently sincere is in fact artifice. “Disenchantment” sounds to me like a form of the Wordsworthian “Oh, to be a child again” fallacy — of course if I were actually helpful, I’d suggest a different word, but I’m not sure how helpful I am. The best I can come up with at the moment is that what you’re really talking about is how entertainment exists in the context of meta-awareness — we’re experiencing the entertainment, and we’re experiencing the experience of the entertainment, and the experience of experiencing is part of the entertainment value.

  5. Mark says:

    “I think that highly-concentrated academic writing doesn’t work so well on a blog (though that’s an argument for another blog post)”
    I look forward to this post. My opinion is that academic writing needs to lighten up, without losing its rigor.
    I think that writing can be totally serious, dense, intense, without being laden with jargon and only for the initiated. I think that academic writing should take something of blogs’ lightness.
    The question is, what is lightness? (besides the way Joe Henderson takes a solo)?

  6. Squashed says:

    “a new hypothesis in American popular culture: we might call it Theory of Pop Culture Complementarity. You can’t have just the smart without the dumb, the tasteful without the vulgar,”
    I hope you will pursue this in open blog so I can fallow, sounds like fun project that will give me endless idea to create blog post. It makes me ask question what is “dumb/smart”
    my tiny contribution:
    a masterfully executed ukulele rendition of “Super Mario” theme music. It is definitely fun to listen to. (Even metrically measurable from youtube click count) The original tune of course is mechanical, a computer game soundtrack.
    Is this dumb/smart?

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