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 . . . .
FOUR THESES ON ENTERTAINMENT
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.