Books by Jane Feuer and by Rick Altman Preview

Throughout the second part of the twentieth century, most film critics used to refer to the cinematographic genre of the musical from a strictly utilitarian perspective – that is, they would often imply musicals being nothing but rather mechanistic fusion between genres of theatre and cinema, meant to provide audiences with a low-class entertainment. Nevertheless, while analyzing musicals from a utilitarian perspective, only a few critics were able to gain an insight on why, during the course of thirties, forties, and fifties, Hollywood musicals were enjoying such immense popularity with moviegoers. The reason for this is simple – while analyzing musicals within the framework of genre-classification, critics were automatically depriving themselves of a chance to get a three-dimensional clue as to what represented musicals’ emotional appeal.

This also explains why many movie critics that share the same genre-interpretational methodology, often come to different conclusions, regarding the extent of every particular musical’s affiliation with a genre. As it was rightly pointed out by Altman (1984, p. 7) in his article A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre: “Because there are two competing notions of the generic corpus in every critical scene, it is perfectly possible for a film to be simultaneously included in a particular generic corpus and excluded from that same corpus”. The validity of this suggestion becomes especially self-evident in regards to musicals – the fact that, up until recently, no comprehensive research has been conducted on the genre of music as ‘thing in itself, explains interpretational vagueness of a term more than anything else does. Nevertheless, in recent decades, at least two attempts have been made to uncover the essentialist nature of a musical from psychological and structuralist points of view. We refer, of course, to the publishing of The American Film Musical, by Rick Altman and The Hollywood Musical, by Jane Feuer. In this paper, we will aim to provide readers with a critical preview of both books.

As we have implied in the Introduction, it became a commonplace practice among well-established movie critics to explain the popularity of musicals by the intensity of entertainment, they used to provide to specifically those moviegoers that never suffered from being overburdened with intellect. In her book, Feuer parts away with these types of suggestions rather drastically. According to the author, the reason why musicals have been enjoying a steady commercial success with audiences, within the course of given historical periods, is that the socio-political dynamics of the time favored such a state of affairs. The ideas, contained in Feuer’s book, can be generalized as follows:

  1. Musicals used to provide viewers with an illusionary sensation of being a part of staged performance, as opposed to being strictly such performance’s unengaged consumers, as it is the case with people who watch conventional movies: “The Hollywood musical becomes a mass art which aspires to the condition of a folk art, produced and consumed by the same integrated community” (1993, p. 3). And, those who think that they actually participate in entertainment, are being largely deprived of their critical ability to think of such entertainment as simply the instrument of extracting money out of ‘participants’.
  2. Due to a variety of socio-political and demographic circumstances, during the course of the thirties, forties and fifties, the ‘folkish’ sentiment in American society was particularly strong, which explains why many moviegoers of the era had felt an irresistible urge to act as society’s integral elements – even if such their ‘act’ accounted for their willingness to be exposed to ‘folkish’ motifs in musicals.
  3. Communally minded individuals are being necessarily endowed with a collectivist mentality, which holds the values of emotionally intense entertainment particularly high. In its turn, this explains why the themes of an egoistic individual suffering a fiasco, as the ultimate price for his or her willingness to confront recreational needs of a community, have been exploited in musicals rather extensively: “Over and over again in these backstage films we see the ‘kids’ triumphing over greed, egotism and all those puritanical forces which would, in the name of the community, conspire against entertainment” (1993, p. 17). Unlike what was the case with conventional films of the time, musicals used to prompt viewers to think of entertainment as representing an objective value of ‘thing in itself, because institutionalization of communally-based entertainment increased the extent of society’s inner integrity.
  4. Hollywood musicals in the thirties, forties and fifties were semiotically self-reflective – that is, watching these musical films did not result in viewers becoming more socially or politically aware, as they were prompted to think of the very concept of entertainment as representing the foremost virtue of an American lifestyle: “(Musicals’) function was to glorify American entertainment while at the same time being itself a form of entertainment” (1993, p. 90). In other words – musicals were specifically designed to correlate with the workings of collective sub-consciousness.

Thus, it would not be an exaggeration to suggest that in The Hollywood Musical, Feuer strived to do something that has never been done before – namely, revealing the psychological subtleties of musicals’ emotional appeal to the public. And, it would have to be said that the author was able to succeed with such her intention, even though she failed at remaining politically neutral while working on this book – throughout The Hollywood Musical, there is plenty of subtle evidence can be found as to Feuer’s strong affiliation with left-wing political agenda. Therefore, while recognizing the fact that The Hollywood Musical contains a number of truly innovative ideas as to how the genre of music came in being, in the first place, and how it was able to gain popularity with American moviegoers, we still cannot refer to Feuer’s book as being fully objective.

Even though in The American Film Musical, Rick Altman had embarked upon the task of analyzing the genre of music from a structuralist perspective, the main thesis of his book appears to be essentially correlative with that of Feuer’s – the application of genre’s structural framework to the work of literature/movie alone, cannot provide critics with the full insight onto the extent of this work’s generic affiliation: “A group of texts may be recognized as constituting a genre if and only if they constitute a semantic type and if that semantic type is matched by a corresponding syntactic type as well” (1987, p. 115). According to Altman, even though it is a truth that many critics do indulge in the fallacy of associating a particular cinematographic genre with the quality of actors’ performance – for as long as the genre of music is being concerned, such practice should not be thought of as altogether inappropriate. It is specifically the qualitative subtleties of film’s semantic content, in their relation to film’s structural framework, which should be seen as such that can provide us a better understanding as to what represents this particular movie’s genre-affiliation.

Moreover, it is only when a few films that allegedly belong to the same genre are being compared with each thoroughly, that we might be able to define the varying extent of each movie’s genre-genuineness: “The categories operative in a given text can be made visible only by the conflation of numerous films of the same genre” (1987, p. 108). When Altman applied this thesis to the genre of musical, it had brought him to conclude that the utilization of linear logic, in order to define structural elements of musical narrative (as such that constitute film’s semantic wholesomeness) can hardly be applicable. Instead, the author suggests that the three-dimensional value of a particular musical can only be accessed through the methodological framework of a so-called ‘dual focus’.

That is while dealing with a particular musical, critics must primarily emphasize the analysis of musical numbers, contained in it, and also on how these numbers relate to the plot – as opposed to being solely concerned with analyzing the plot’s semantic integrity. In other words – critics must be willing to address musicals from the viewpoint of the watching audiences: “Dual-focus structure requires the viewer to be sensitive not so much to chronology and progression… but to simultaneity and comparison” (1987, p. 19). This Altman’s suggestion had naturally led him to a conclusion that the objective quality of a musical’s narrative has very little to do with logical comprehensiveness of its plot, as it is usually the case in conventional films, but rather with perceivable genuineness of a staged performance: “Whereas the traditional approach to narrative assumes that structure grows out of the plot, the dual-focus structure of the American film musical derives from character” (1987, p. 21). Thus, just as Feuer, in his book Altman offers rather an innovative approach to the structurally-semantic analysis of Hollywood musicals.

Nevertheless, just as it is the case with The Hollywood Musical, Altman’s book appears to be politically engaged, but the worst of all – it features a variety of self-contradictions, the main of which can be defined as the author’s failure to stick to his own idea as to what should represent methodological appropriateness, within the context of conducting a generic analysis of a musical. Although throughout his book’s entirety Altman never ceased stressing out the importance of shifting the focus of such an analysis from text to performance and music, The American Film Musical assesses the quality and historical significance of Hollywood musicals through analytical lenses of essentially textual methodology. As Maltby (1988, p. 235) had rightly pointed out in his critical review of The American Film Musical: “Altman’s book it is not free of its own paradoxes. The American Film Musical is, despite itself, a history of texts”. Therefore, even though Feuer and Altman’s books should be highly recommended for reading by those who take a professional interest in the subject matter, it would be wrong to suggest that the ideas, contained in both books, represent an undeniable truth-value. Given that fact that in their books, both authors had made a point in exploiting emotionally-charged political terminology of clearly Marxist origin (‘petty bourgeois’, ‘tyrannical’, ‘capitalist exploitation’), it would only be natural for us to conclude that, despite being professionally written, The American Film Musical and The Hollywood Musical are best described as ideologically biased.

This, however, does not lessen both books’ apparent strengths, which can be outlined as follows:

  1. The American Film Musical and The Hollywood Musical provide readers with comprehensive insight into the fact that musicals are nothing but Hollywood–based byproducts of an American folkish spirit. This is the reason why musicals have traditionally appealed the most to America’s rural population – apparently; rural folks were able to draw parallels between semantic motifs contained in musicals and semantic motifs, contained in farmers’ singing and dancing.
  2. Both books promote a subtle idea that the popularity of musicals in the thirties, forties and fifties reflected the fact that, during this time, the unity of American nation was particularly strong. Only citizens that belong to a young and continuously developing nation might take pleasure in being exposed to the ideological optimism of musicals. Just as singing and dancing can be thought of as behavioral attributes of youth, Hollywood musicals can be thought of as cinematographic attributes of America’s former geopolitical strength.

References:

Altman, R 1984, ‘A Semantic/Syntactic approach to film genre’, Cinema Journal, vol. 23, no. 3, pp. 6-18.

Altman, R 1987, The American film musical, Indiana University Press, Bloomington & Indianapolis.

Feuer, J 1993, The Hollywood musical, 2nd edition. Indiana University Press, Bloomington & Indianapolis.

Maltby, R 1988, ‘Review: [untitled]’, Popular Music, vol. 7, no. 2, pp. 233-236