(1952) dir. Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly
viewed: 01/01/09 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA
It seemed like the right way to kick off the new year, seeing the Hollywood classic (which I had not ever seen but had been wanting to for years) on the big screen at the Castro Theatre. A bright, happy, energetic movie to get 2009 off to a good start. And it worked. And I was far from alone in thinking it a good idea. The line was pretty long.
I’d never seen the film before, but certainly had seen many sequences and segments. How many people haven’t seen the famous titular song and dance scene of Gene Kelly, singing in the rain, dancing joyously and smiling his grand smile? I mean, it’s the stuff of pure, unadulterated Hollywood joy.
When I was in film school, we spent a lot of time working on analyzing film, breaking down meaning, deconstructing the devices of narrative to get to the codes, languages, and ideologies at work beneath the surface of the grand entertainment. It’s sort of like taking the fun out of movies, but it’s also an excellent experience for approaching the world in a critical way, parsing, understanding, and questioning. But that’s critical studies for you. Anyways, one day, right after the Oscars in which they gave aging director Stanley Donen a lifetime achievement award and showed the full “Singin’ in the Rain” segment, the professor we were working with showed that clip to his larger class. He said something like, “If something this wonderful can come out of Hollywood, then it can’t all be bad.”
And I think what he was saying whether I summed it up correctly or not is that this is Hollywood at its best: charm, magic, pleasure, just sitting the viewer down in his/her seat and just looking up, smiling, and taking it all in. Which is how narrative cinema is supposed to work. It’s pure pleasure.
And the film has many segments and stretches in which that is exactly how I felt sitting there.
The film is more than that, though. Being about the film industry, in particular the shift from the silent era to the sound era, the film operates in many self-reflexive ways, behind the operations that “make the magic”, showing the facade of film, even the mechanisms that can break down in the process (as when the sound synching fails in the initial showing of their first sound picture). And even in an odd way in the imagined dance sequence “Broadway Melody”, which is a long word-less break from the narrative that really has nothing to do with the rest of the film too directly, but moves from modern set designs to the downright surreal. The film is certainly not just wrapping you in a narrative and riding you along, the film does have higher levels of critique or perhaps primarily humor in regards to the business of entertainment and the world of Hollywood filmmaking.
But Donald O’Connor, Gene Kelly, and Debbie Reynolds are sublime. They carry the best sequences to that noted elevation where it’s hard not to want to move your feet and even harder not to smile. But why fight it? It’s the reason for going to the movies, to have a good time, to enjoy things, to be moved, to feel good. And it’s wonderful. O’Connor nearly steals the show as the sidekick to Kelly’s film star. And the dancing is vivid and energetic, thriving with power.
It is Hollywood at its best. I agree with my old professor on that one. And why be cynnical? Even for an afternoon.