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Postmodern Village
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Proto-Postmodernity and the Music of Recursion: a Case Study
By E.W. Wilder

A recent Google search of “postmodern definition” yielded around 1,990,000 hits. Aside from the sites that simply reference each other or refer back to the inevitable Wikipedia entry, this search represents possibly as many definitions as there are hits. It’s a very postmodern problem, this: the definition of what has come after what was unfortunately labeled “Modernism” should be both simply defined and impossible to define. William Harmon and Hugh Holman’s A Handbook to Literature 11th edition (2009) notes the term “postmodern” appearing as early as 1914, so it is easy to see what we’re up against (430): Modernism, as we currently understand it, was barely even formed by the time its successor was already named.

Sources note the definition of postmodernity variously as works involving decentering, fragmenting, fracturing, and either a slavish devotion to objective reality or a slavish devotion to utter subjectivity. Postmodernism is defined both as the rejection of symbol and metaphor in pursuit of total truth and the use of symbol and metaphor to undercut meaning itself. Postmodernism in the visual arts cuts as wide a swath, from complete abstraction to performance art to photorealism. In other words, to meta-define it (meta-art being one of the hallmarks of postmodernism, according to some), postmodernism is a cipher and a tabula rasa, a null-set referencing itself in a recursive spiral of meaning/non-meaning. In other words, we can’t define postmodernism because we’re living in it, and we can’t live it until we’ve distanced ourselves enough from it to define it.

Its terminological difficulties aside, most commentators place the beginnings of postmodernism as a practice at about 1965 and lump the likes of Tom Stoppard, Thomas Pynchon, and Donald Barthelme into it. This is as fine a place to begin as any, I suppose. But as a way of demonstrating its precursors, and in typical postmodern fashion reading cinema as text, there’s an even better place to start: Singin' in the Rain, the Gene Kelly/Stanley Donen musical of 1952.

The narrative begins fractured, with a flashback and proceeding to the diegetic present of 1927 Hollywood. The timing is important, as the advent of talkies is at hand, and with it the displacement and decentering of silent movie actors. This also sets the stage (puns intended) for Singin' in the Rain’s recursive nature. Arguably, the recursive nature of a Modernist text such as Finnegan’s Wake or, before it, Heart of Darkness, is a precursor to the utter narrative collapse of something more solidly postmodern, like Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. The latter example is a relatively clear one: the governing concept has become as familiar to us as the title of the book, another form of life/art recursion that plagues Singin' in the Rain (see also the career of postmodern performer Andy Kaufman). In a similar vein, and of similar subject matter to Heller’s novel, Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is recursive and self-referential from beginning to end, with the author interjecting himself as part of the fictive storytelling and, indeed, sutured into the narrative as a minor character and as the narrator, appearing as he does in the book’s first and last chapters, which, numbered as chapters, are clearly not meant to be read as foreword and afterword.

Similar techniques can be seen in the later films of Godard and in Fellini, notably in 8 ½, but Singin' predates them all. From the opening scene, the musical moves apace in a way we might expect a showbiz musical to proceed. The star, Gene Kelly’s Don Lockwood, falls in love with an ingénue, Debbie Reynolds’ Kathy Selden, and at first they don’t get along, but soon they acknowledge their love. Naturally, there are complications, in this case Lina Lamont as played by Jean Hagen, Lockwood’s longtime co-star. In a pre-Marshall McLuhan moment, Lamont has become convinced by the Hollywood tabloids that she and Lockwood are, in reality, in love. Thus the mediated experience of reading the tabs is shown to be, in some sense, real, and a decentering takes place in Lamont’s mind between the loveless actual relationship with Lockwood and the one reported to her by her preferred medium. But this is also a recursive decentering, one that literally revolves (and eventually devolves) around the relationship on screen.

Likewise, Lockwood’s actual love interest, Kathy Selden, expresses, early on, her disdain for silent movie actors such as Lockwood by calling it all a bunch of “dumbshow,” at which point she strikes various melodramatic poses parodying the acting of the (diegetic) time. In so doing, she references the subject of the film in a miniature play-within-a-play mummery similar to the silent play-within-a-play-referencing-a-plotpoint-in-a-play of Hamlet’s The Mousetrap in the film version of the undeniably postmodern Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. But Selden’s character is soon to be revealed as just as decentered as Lamont’s: her “stage” career is actually as a burlesque performer who jumps out of a cake at Monumental Studio’s reception after the premiere of the latest Lamont/Lockwood blockbuster. Selden also reveals, later, her devotion to the very fan magazines that Lamont allows to create her reality for her, and thus to her assumption that Lamont and Lockwood are, in fact, an item.

But this aspect of the film's recursion is actually indicated at the beginning as Don Lockwood is interviewed by a society reporter at the premiere of the latest Lina/Lamont venture. In the interview, Lockwood recalls his past career as “dignity, always dignity” while flashbacks reveal anything but: Lockwood and his best friend Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) busking as children, the two as a cut-rate vaudeville act, and finally Lockwood's stint as a stuntman prior to breaking into film. The flashback also reveals that Lamont's interest in Lockwood only occurs after Monumental Studio head RF Simpson (Millard Mitchell) takes an interest in him as a film star. In order to do Hollywood and believe in it as “real,” Lamont must have Hollywood's blessing, either through the tabloids or through a VIP like Simpson. Lockwood's flashbacks are self-referential but again decentered; they are the “real” versus the Hollywood “real” which, despite his move from an undignified beginning is then revealed as actually undignified when later in the film talking pictures show a picture that is, indeed, more “real.”

That historical touchpoint, the premiere of The Jazz Singer in 1927, serves as a backdrop of the revelation and provides one of the main conflicts of the film. Thus, the Hollywood of 1952 comments on the Hollywood of 1927 through the eyes of the created characters of 1927. When RF Simpson feels forced by the success of The Jazz Singer to turn the Lamont/Lockwood film that is then in production into a talkie, Lockwood is thrust into an identity crisis. His old, improvised dialog will no longer suffice as it is revealed through sound to be absurd. Worse, the voice of his co-star, Lina Lamont, is revealed in all its squeaky, high-pitched, undignified, untrained squeal. The problems faced by Monumental Pictures' first talkie are the actual problems that plagued early sound pictures: heartbeats being picked up by microphones placed close to bodies, exaggerated sounds on the set marring dramatic moments, loss of synchronization, loss of vocals when actors' faces are not in the line of the mic.

Up to this point, I have studiously avoided writing about the song and dance numbers that make up so much of Singin' in the Rain. Once we have established the more subtle elements of recursion and self-reference, the sense in which Singin' is parody and commentary on the genre but also a prime example of the genre can be more easily explored.

In a scene in which Don Lockwood and Kathy Selden bare their hearts to one another, they find themselves conveniently next to a studio soundstage. Don feels it is easiest to express his adoration through the use of the materials he finds on the stage. Thus he creates for her out of the elements of stagecraft moonlight, a soft breeze, and a “balcony” out of a ladder. Don cannot be “real” without being of the stage; he himself is a product of recursion, of using the elements of film to comment upon/stand-in for his actual life. In this sense, Lockwood is no different than Selden or Lamont: all of them exist only in that they see themselves reflected as products of film. Thus the following pas de deux is more than just a stand-in for sex; it is a revelation of recursion: the medium of filmmaking is the message of their love. It can only exist as an extension of the studio.

This is echoed in a later scene in which Don, Kathy, and Cosmo figure out how to make the in-production Lamont/Lockwood talkie into a success despite Lamont's impossible voice: they turn it into a musical. This musical is revealed, later still, to be “about a young hoofer” making his way on Broadway, thus referencing Lockwood's own career, the beginning of the film, the subject of the film, and the film's genre, and, in the end Gene Kelly's own career as well. (But more about that later.) Cosmo's brilliant idea is to dub Kathy's more cultured voice over Lina's post-production, thus creating a more “real” effect through the magic of filmic fakery and stagecraft, echoing again the way Don Lockwood is only able to express the “true” feelings of his love through the illusioneering of Hollywood's studio toolkit.

But the film gets even more weirdly self-recursive. Because the voice of Debbie Reynolds, who plays Kathy Selden, was, in reality, not considered as cultured as that of Jean Hagen, who plays the squeaky-voiced Lina Lamont, in those scenes in which Kathy is shown dubbing Lina's lines, it is actually Jean Hagen dubbing Debbie Reynolds dubbing the character being played by Jean Hagen. All this happens in the film-within-a-film, the in-production Lamont/Lockwood talkie (The Dancing Cavalier) within the film Singin' in the Rain.

But back in Don Lockwood's house, as Don and Kathy and Cosmo hatch this plot, the inevitable song and dance number ensues (this is a musical after all) which reveals, as it moves through the house, that the house itself is a set; the walls are clearly false. And so the film Singin' in the Rain, through a song and dance number, reveals quite self-consciously that it is in fact a film called Singin' in the Rain, a musical that makes fun of musicals and that is unafraid of the fact of itself as a musical. Since this takes place through revealing filmic fakery it decenters the characters as diegetically “real” and shows that the viewer herself is an active participant in the deception of all fiction, the willing suspension of disbelief.

This movement to include the audience in the self-referential cycle of recursion is hinted at before in a slightly more subtle way, and in so doing, the recursion is revealed to be decentered; as it goes along it gets more and more self-referential, more and more obviously a film aware of itself as a film. Cosmo Brown, in an attempt to lift the spirits of Don Lockwood during his identity crisis, uses the tools of filmic fakery, stripped of their deceptive qualities, in his “Make 'em Laugh” song and dance routine. Donald O'Connor, who plays Cosmo, dances with a dummy, runs up walls painted to look like tunnels, and, eventually, crashes through a fake wall painted to look solid and real. All the while he is providing the stuff of an actual comic routine: pratfalls and weird faces. The “Make 'em Laugh” sequence is, in reality, a tour-de-force of physical prowess masquerading as physical comedy; at the same time, it is physical comedy, and as the song that he sings (dubbed in later, of course) reveals, it is also a self-referential number revealing Cosmo's character to be, in essence (if “essence” even makes sense in this case), comic relief. The number acts as comic relief in the film, and it also acts as comic relief to the character of Don Lockwood in the funk of his identity-crisis. It also references Don and Cosmo's vaudeville days, referencing the beginning of the film, parodying the decentered (and decentering) notion of “dignity, always dignity,” the expression of reality through stagecraft, and the reliance of silent films on physical humor through the further decentering framework of a musical number.

Likewise, the “Singin' in the Rain” sequence, which, significantly, follows the scene in Don Lockwood's house, is a product of filmic fakery: the buildings in it are all fake; set at night, it was filmed during the day; and the “rain” that falls is a mixture of water and milk, as that showed up better on camera. As the film's title sequence it alludes to the film on the whole. It also embodies the film's title as Don Lockwood/Gene Kelly “sings” in the “rain.” But, in the recursive nature of the film, which is about Hollywood and the movies, the song “Singin' in the Rain” is not even from Singin' in the Rain but from Hollywood Music Box Review of, significantly, 1927 (“Singin' in the Rain (1952)”). Recursively, the song was used in four other movies before becoming the title song for this one, Singin' in the Rain.

All of this adds up to the wickedly recursive and self-referential “Broadway Melody” number to which I alluded earlier. As previously mentioned, it involves a “young hoofer” who makes his way to Broadway during the 1920s. Note the subtle reference here to Kathy Selden’s concerns about stage versus screen actors in the film’s opening scenes. But this sequence is not a stage play; rather it is a filmic version of the pitch Don Lockwood gives to RF Simpson of the re-creation of the in-production Lamont/Lockwood talkie as a musical. That earlier picture, now titled The Dancing Cavalier, becomes a part of the film about the “young hoofer” at his point being pitched, in fact a dream-sequence within it (a plot device thought up previously by Cosmo Brown). In theory, then, the filmed sequence the audience of Singin' in the Rain is watching is actually the dream of Don Lockwood that exists as a cinematic recreation of his description to Simpson. That sequence, the “Broadway Melody” sequence as far as the film Singin' in the Rain is concerned, is then instantly obliterated after it takes place when RF Simpson, in response to the sequence we have all just seen says “I can’t quite visualize it,” and in so doing also comments on the in-production Lamont/Lockwood talkie, The Dancing Cavalier.

Lockwood describes the “Broadway Melody” sequence as a “modern” dance number, one concerning a love triangle between our young hoofer, a gangster, and the gangster’s moll. But the singing and dancing therein are not modern for 1927, when the story of both the “Broadway Melody” sequence and Singin' in the Rain are set, but modern for 1952, when the film Singin' in the Rain was made. By using the word “modern,” Kelly/Lockwood actually comments on the film Singin' in the Rain, not The Dancing Cavalier, weaving self-reference solidly into the plot (however, into a notably unstable plot). Inside the “Broadway Melody” sequence are several dance numbers set as stage shows, referencing the “Beautiful Girls” sequence of earlier in the film, which was itself a parody of the Busby Berkeley movies of the 1930s and to the vaudeville beginnings of Don Lockwood shown (in flashback) at the start of Singin' in the Rain. All the sets in the “Broadway Melody” sequence are painted and in differing levels of abstraction, a “Modern” touch for an era of abstract art, 1952. They reference the film’s “reality” as stagecraft, as stuff of cinematic fakery, here, as in the sequences in Don Lockwood’s house, laid bare.

Within the “Broadway Melody” bit, the young hoofer fantasizes about a pas de deux with the gangster’s moll with whom he has fallen in love. In this sequence-within-a-sequence, which is itself a description of the imagination of Don Lockwood about a movie-within-a-movie, the young hoofer/Lockwood/Kelly dances as an idealized version of himself with an idealized version of the gangster’s moll in an idealized version of reality. The set design is spare and mainly white, with a few lines suggesting stairs and soft shadows. There is a faint glow of a reddish hue. The gangster’s moll, played/danced by Cyd Charisse, is a somewhat idealized version of Kathy Selden, her character decentered here through the use of the many-layered imaginings. In this way, this pas de deux represents an idealized version of the previous one between Selden and Lockwood, but instead of stagecraft laid bare, this is bare stagecraft, with only the most basic elements necessary to give a sense of space. This dance sequence is balletic, and therefore an idealized version of the modified tap of the Selden/Lockwood sequence, but also one more timeless; as the level of idealization increases, so decreases the references to specific spaces and times. Thus the idealized is essentialized into the “real,” and only when the various loops of recursion collapse in upon themselves can this happen: this is singing and dancing, finally, for its own sake, no longer a plot device, but two masters of the form doing what they do best unencumbered by story or scene.

But as we pull back, the sequence gets even more complex. Most of the dance numbers in the “Broadway Melody” bit are references to previous Gene Kelly works (notably Summer Stock, The Pirate, An American in Paris, and Words and Music), and the original pas de deux with Kathy Selden is lifted almost entirely from prior Kelly numbers (“Singin' in the Rain (1952)”). Thus the film parodies not just talkies but allows Kelly to parody himself, adding a layer of self-reference that extends beyond the theater walls into the reality we know. The “young hoofer” is Kelly.

Towards the film’s end, and in order to quash Lina Lamont’ s attempted takeover of Monumental Studios, RF Simpson, Cosmo Brown, and Don Lockwood raise a stage curtain at the premiere of The Dancing Cavalier, the instantly successful Lamont/Lockwood talkie, to reveal that Kathy Selden is the voice of Lina Lamont. Of course, the song being sung at this point is “Singin' in the Rain,” and thus the film becomes again a film; having collapsed within the vortex of its own recursion, it is now spinning back outward, toward the audience, who are now symbolically sutured into Singin' in the Rain by being shown as a movie audience in reverse-shot to the stage reacting to the revelatory sequence of which I write. The themes re-form into something seeable: Singin' in the Rain the film uses its medium recursively to reveal movies for what they in fact are: stagecraft. But they remain that: in this singing sequence and others, Debbie Reynolds, playing Kathy Selden dubbing Lina Lamont, is actually being dubbed by the unaccredited Betty Noyes.

Naturally, when all is said and done, in the film’s closing shot, Kethy Selden and Don Lockwood admire a billboard with their faces and names on it, aptly advertising the first Selden/Lockwood extravaganza, a movie musical starring Selden and Lockwood called Singin' in the Rain. Thus we are left with the self-referential image and the opening scene in the postmodern age.

One could argue, I suppose, that this popular film is not, as the “high” art we usually associate with postmodernism, intentional in its experimentalism. But it would be more accurate to say that those pieces of high art are intentionally postmodern. Pablo Picasso and Juan Gris did not intend to create cubism; it just was what they were doing, and their critics labeled it. Clearly, Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen were aware of what they were doing and intentional in collapsing the distance between high and low art, as the fantasy-within-a-film-pitch-within-a-film sequence with Cyd Charisse demonstrates. Whether or not Kelly and Donen considered this film cutting-edge is immaterial: it is. And in being what it is, it ushers in postmodernism, ironically, from stage right.

Works Cited

(Note: the facts about the film that I reference here that are commonly referenced in reference materials are not cited, even though, as one has come to suspect, they are no doubt simply instances of self-referencing recursion within all the reference materials referenced.)

Harmon, William and Hugh Holman. “Postmodern” A Handbook to Literature 11th ed. Upper Saddle River: Pearson, 2009. 430-1. Print.

Singin' in the Rain. Dir. Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly. Perf. Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Jean Hagen, Donald O’Connor. MGM, 1952. DVD.

Singin' in the Rain (1952) – Hollywood’s Greatest Musical!” The Picture Show Man. Key Light Enterprises, 2004. Web. 20 Nov. 2009.