Tag Archives: film

He just wants to sing

[An incredibly long, rambling, and probably flat-out boring meditation on the Broadway show An American in Paris.]1)Some movie adaptation context: On the Town (1949), a ridiculous and frothy Gene Kelly musical based on a 1944 Broadway show, was revived at the Lyric Theatre in 2014, and Gigi (1958), directed by Vincente Minnelli and also starring Leslie Caron, was adapted for Broadway in the 1970s and briefly revived in 2015. Of the three, An American in Paris has met with the most success.

“Well see, the thing is, I thought your son was a lady,” says Sir Launcelot. “I can understand that,” replies the king.

Of course there’s gender confusion, we’re expected to see: after all, Prince Herbert’s dream is to sing.

Still of Prince Herbert declaring his love for singing in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, 1975.
He just wants to sing. (Monty Python and the Holy Grail, 1975.)

Recently, with some trusty and incredibly patient companions, I went to see the Broadway production of An American in Paris, having recently taught the 1951 film. The musical is billed as “inspired by” the film, and that’s about right. Like the film, the stage musical takes a premise (the Gershwin tone poem An American in Paris and its title) and a cluster of Gershwin tunes (all established hits, strung together well after Gershwin’s death in 1937) and hangs them on a fairly flimsy plot whose only real requirement is that, in the end, the American GI, Jerry Mulligan, gets the French girl.

Film poster for An American in Paris, 1951.
Film poster for An American in Paris, 1951.
(Why else would you go to Paris? “Art,” Jerry’s initial motivation in the film, is fully substitutable by romantic love, or at least so we are told.)

How to establish that Lise (Bouvier in the film, Dassin in the musical), the aforementioned girl, does not belong with her dorky French fiancé is a question that each production must address. Like the film, the stage musical resists making any of the decoy lovers (whether Henri Baurel, Lise’s fiancé, or Milo Davenport, Jerry’s rich American sponsor) into enemies; the musical goes further still in attempting to complicate the film’s economy of value (American/French, modern/old-fashioned, “jazz”/waltz, matches of convenience/matches for love). I found this one of the most interesting and complicated, as well as troubling, aspects of the stage play. It definitely complicated the bright American modernity represented by Gene Kelly’s tap dancing, but in doing so, the musical also added an incoherent layer of masculinity panic, one that was particularly flatfooted in the context of Broadway.

The film (1951)

In the 1951 film, Lise (Leslie Caron, in her film début) is engaged to Henri Baurel (Georges Guétary), out of an affection based in obligation: Henri hid her in his home during the war, which emphasizes their age difference (Lise is only nineteen), although we are also reassured in dialogue that they did not “fall in love” until after. Henri, here, is a mature, successful, attractive, and confident adult, a music hall singer and basically pretty good guy. He’s much more successful than Jerry (Gene Kelly), who paints kitschy cityscapes and sells them on the street in Montmartre. Well, “sells” is putting it nicely—he never sells anything until a wealthy American heiress, Milo (Nina Foch) “discovers” him. (This is part of the reason we will so strongly suspect that Milo’s desire to support Jerry’s “talent” has an ulterior motive.) There’s no clearer indication of Henri’s superior position than the fact that basically the first thing he does upon meeting Jerry is lend Jerry 300 francs.

Film Henri: a bit square

There is one reason only that Henri is not perfect for Lise: he’s a bit square.

Georges Guétary, Gene Kelly, and Oscar Levant sing about Strauss.
Henri loves the melodies of Strauss.
Not even square—tricornered, as he announces in a song sequence with down-and-out Americans Jerry and Adam, the latter being a pianist and Henri’s on-and-off accompanist. “This isn’t music! It’s uncivilized!” Henri yells as Adam plays a lick of “Fascinatin’ Rhythm.” This names the danger that the film’s France faces: that in clinging to “civilization,” it will fail to meet modernity. Obviously, we’ll need a jazzy American to save the day.

Notably, neither song nor composer is named; instead it is categorized as (American) “jazz”:

JERRY: Evidently the man doesn’t like jazz.
ADAM: He’s against it.
JERRY: What else is there?
ADAM: I know what he likes; he’s strictly a three-quarter man.

Then, in a a trio with Jerry and Adam, Henri will go on to declare his allegiance to the Viennese waltz, in contrast with Jerry and Adam’s American love of (Gershwin’s) jazz. This is the Henri song: “jazz is too hot for me but I super duper love Strauss.”

Film Jerry: has rhythm

Jerry, an American ex-GI of no money and pretty meager talent, is, as marriage material goes, no Henri. But he has one thing going for him: his postwar American modernity, displayed in the exuberant set-piece “I Got Rhythm.” This is Jerry’s song. He’s got music (jazz, of course, and he doesn’t have to aspire: he’s got it), he’s got rhythm (tap dance, virtuosically displayed); it follows that he’s got the girl as well.

The scene begins with Jerry’s arrival in Milo’s car (French—a Delage—but a symbol of American luxury all the same).2)Kristin Ross has written famously, and brilliantly, about “la belle américaine” in French films of the same period. See Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1995). Remarkably clean children flock around Jerry, excited by the car and the potential for bubble gum. The encounter turns into pedagogy, as a child translates his promise of “demain le bubble gum pour tous!” into an English “tomorrow.” Jerry then initiates an English lesson by ostensive definition, pointing to and naming various objects, with the children imitating his words. This segues into “une chanson américaine,” with the children singing (or rather yelling) the repeated, charmingly dialectal “I got” of the song, and then “une danse américaine.” At each stage, a pedagogy of Americanness is explicitly marked. The music is jazz, the rhythm is tap, the girl will come later.

Joel Dinerstein has pointed out how tap, in its heyday, signified the modernity of what Kristin Ross has called “fast cars, clean bodies,” a technological modernity strongly associated with Americanness, especially in postwar France, where it was construed specifically as “Americanization”:

Just as the streamliner represented a light, fleet version of the nation’s foremost symbol of industrialization, the tap dancer was a vision of the industrial body retooled for a rootless, mobile future. Streamlined design appealed to the popular imagination by transforming heavy, clumsy, dirty, smoke-pouring industrial machinery into a vision of aerodynamic sleek lines emphasizing fast horizontal flow and metallic sheen. Similarly, the tap dancer took the speeded-up machine-driven tempo of life and the metallic crunch of cities and factories and spun it all into a dazzling pyrotechnical display of speed, precision, rhythmic noise, continuity, grace, and power.” […]

Tap was the dominant professional and commercial dance style of the 1920s and 1930s, and arguably the most popular (and most participatory) American Machine Age art form. Le Corbusier caught the repetition and rhythmic flow in tap: “silent Negroes, as mechanical as a sewing machine, inexhaustible, holding your interest by beating out a rhythmic poem…with the soles of their shoes.” Marshall Stearns made the techno-dialogic connection long ago: “To his own people, Bill Robinson became a modern John Henry, who instead of driving steel, laid down iron taps.” 3)Joel Dinerstein, Swinging the Machine: Modernity, Technology, and African American Culture between the World Wars (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003): 221-23.

Though a few decades late, Kelly’s Jerry Mulligan confirms tap’s embodiment of modernization in the “I Got Rhythm” dance sequence, which replays symbols of American expansion in tap sequences variously called “cowboy,” “choo-choo train,” and “aeroplane,” not to mention the American film industry, as represented by Charlie Chaplin. When, at the end of the sequence, the children demand “more!” of an exhausted Jerry-turned-John-Henry, he keeps dancing even as he begs off and leaves the scene.

It’s worth pointing out that “jazz” in this film signifies Gershwin, while “rhythm” is virtuosically displayed in the tapping feet of a white dancer, Gene Kelly (dressed in white, no less). American modernity, in this film, is ideally executed through African American art forms as reinterpreted by white artists; indeed, the postwar Paris of the film is counterfactually whitewashed, featuring neither American nor French people of color. 4)At one point a band at a Montmartre boîte, occasionally appearing in the corner of the frame, contains African American musicians—they play Gershwin songbook standards from the 20s. Contrast this with Miles Davis’s utterly contemporary score to Louis Malle’s 1958 Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, only seven years later.

Lise (Leslie Caron), performing in illustration of Henri's description of her to Adam.
Lise (Leslie Caron), performing in illustration of Henri’s description of her to Adam.
Although Caron is unmistakably a ballet dancer, first featured in a series of dance vignettes set to variations on Gershwin’s “Embrace Me,” and although the film famously features a seventeen-minute “ballet” fantasy sequence just before the conclusion, the film is Kelly’s film, and its primary dance idiom is tap, the dance of American modernity (with the undercurrents of immigrant and African-American appropriation that it entails).5)Of the ballet in the film, Albert Johnson writes: “It is, in many ways, not a ballet, but a sort of choreographic essay, undisciplined, and savagely insistent that the spectator should at some point gasp in amazement at the technical achievements.” Albert Johnson, “The Films of Vincente Minnelli: Part I,” Film Quarterly 12.2 (Winter 1958): 33.

The Broadway show (2015-present)

This is the biggest and most obvious change that the stage production, directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, makes.

Lise Dassin (Leanne Cope), now diegetically a ballet dancer, in the Broadway musical.
Lise Dassin (Leanne Cope), now a ballet dancer as well as played by one, in the Broadway musical.

Screen shot from official Broadway video. Ensemble dancing at the Galeries Lafayette.
Seriously, they are good dancers. Another interesting change from the film: Lise no longer works in a perfume shop, but rather at the Galeries Lafayette; the ballet of commodities that Wheeldon sets in the store is basically right out of Zola. Also, I wonder if the Galeries Lafayette paid for the #brandexposure?
The role of Jerry Mulligan, originated to Tony-nominated acclaim by Robert Fairchild (who has recently left the show) and now played by Garen Scribner, is no longer a tap role: mercifully, no one has to be Gene Kelly. Instead, the show’s primary language of movement is ballet, filled with a continuous smooth motion not only in the bodies of the soloists and company but also in the stage design: stage pieces sail in on smooth rollers, controlled by just-hidden people, often whirling as fast as the dancers, simulating cinematic pans and zooms, while the projected stage background is frequently thickly animated in constant, continuous motion.

In this sense, the stage production is faithful to the hypercinematic quality of the motion picture, which is enormously self-conscious about its camera angles and point of view, offering cinematic tableaux that (notionally) could never be staged.

After a series of variations on "Embrace Me," each danced in a different costume and style, Lise (Leslie Caron) is displayed five ways at once.
After a series of variations on “Embrace Me,” each danced in a different costume and style, Lise (Leslie Caron) is displayed five ways at once.
The stage production does not reproduce the tracking shots of the film’s opening, or the split-screen sequence in which we first meet Lise, but it does offer a number of split-screen moments in which actors are placed next to each other onstage and sing duets, yet clearly are unaware of one another; we are offered views of the café that Adam and Jerry live above from at least two different angles, and in the climactic ballet—preserved, reimagined as a diegetic performance rather than a fantasy sequence, and, in my view, the absolute high point of the stage production—we are at first, and at the end, offered a view from the back of the dancers’ stage. The stage show creates and points out its own camera angles. I found this cinematic quality one of the most impressive and interesting aspects of the show.

Impressive, too, was the dancing. The “American in Paris” ballet sequence, trimmed by about four minutes, is stripped of the wacky props that crowd the film version (a gigantic motionless fountain, several dramatic costume changes, a live-action Toulouse-Lautrec painting, a giraffe, etc.). The ballet, in the musical, is Lise’s début as a ballet star, following in the footsteps of her ballerina mother who has, it is strongly implied, been killed in a concentration camp during the war. Its sets and costumes are designed by Jerry (with no small amount of meaningful mentorship by a renovated Milo, who remolds his knockoff-Cézanne tendencies), and instead of the cityscapes that Jerry paints in the film (often suggested by the projected animations that continually outline the city), these designs are the recognizable modernist abstraction of line, shape, and saturated color. (Peter Bürger would have wept, but really, this was “modernist style” rendered as pure spectacular pleasure.) The ballet, beautifully choreographed, lit, and danced, is breathtaking. (An excerpt from the ballet, sadly sans original set, can be seen in Fairchild and Cope’s performance at the 2015 Tony Awards.)

Leanne Cope and Robert Fairchild in An American in Paris.
No giraffes here. Lise’s fantasy version of the ballet, with Jerry’s abstract, color-soaked design. (NYT photo.) Jerry is danced by Robert Fairchild in this photo.
In contrast, the film's version is filled with props and costume changes. Gene Kelly is in red; Leslie Caron is the female dancer in the middle foreground.
In contrast, the film’s version is filled with props and costume changes. Gene Kelly is in red; Leslie Caron is the female dancer in the middle foreground.

This video offers very short snippets of the dancing.

Yet I cannot but concur with Brian Seibert’s point in a April 2015 review: in a ballet of continuous motion, the big “Broadway number” fails because its antiprogressive force cannot be accommodated.

Where Mr. Wheeldon’s choreography falls short is in the traditional function of the Broadway showstopper. The numbers that seem to be playing that role — “I Got Rhythm,” “Fidgety Feet” and especially “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” — only gesture toward real excitement. Part of the trouble is Mr. Wheeldon’s desire to maintain flow and finesse transitions: he doesn’t want the show to stop, even for ecstatic applause.

The only showstopper is the “American in Paris” ballet itself. And even the ballet—experienced in the film (with its disjunctive giraffes, dudes with canes, etc.) as a genuine interruption in plot, a seventeen-minute interlude between Jerry thinking he’s lost Lise and climactically reuniting with her—serves, in the Broadway show, to forward plot. In the film, while Jerry is fantasizing the ballet, Henri is working out that Lise really belongs with Jerry and, like the solid dude he is, takes her back to him.

In the Broadway show, in contrast, the realization is Lise’s, and the ballet is the engine of this realization, not something we watch while plot happens offscreen, as in the film. The real performance, Lise’s stage début, metamorphoses into a fantasy in which Lise realizes her greatness as a dancer by imagining herself dancing with Jerry, the only way she can draw out her passion as an artist. (The longest stretch featuring Jerry’s dancing, then, is one in which his dancing is fictional—imagined.) Dance and narrative progression thus work in concert in this show, rather than tangling in the opposition that Laura Mulvey so influentially noted.

Broadway: who’s got rhythm?

That’s probably why the Broadway rendition of “I Got Rhythm,” early in the show, is—how can I put this? Disappointing and bad? Or perhaps just incoherent. Adam, borschtbeltedly proclaiming that everything is terrible and art should reflect this, begins to plunk out a lugubrious minor version of “I Got Rhythm” in 3/4. It is a song that he is writing for Henri, who argues (and the hamfistedness of the “art should speak life’s difficulty”/ “art should recuperate life’s joy” debate in the show’s book is truly eyerollworthy—I think my trusty companions and I actually rolled) that the piece needs more snap, and leads Adam into a chipper 4/4 version of the tune we all know. (You can hear audio in the original cast recording.)

“I Got Rhythm” becomes Henri’s song, precisely through a repudiation of 3/4 time—the time of waltz. Jerry joins in (as does the entire company, eventually), but it is no longer Jerry’s song.)6)Nobody has much of a character in the film; in the musical, Jerry doesn’t even have a national ideology. (All he has is “Beginner’s Luck,” sung to whirling umbrellas that nod toward both Kelly’s performance in Singing’ in the Rain and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg—ok, clever; I chuckled, but maybe fix the bigger issues with the book before adding visual witticisms.

Immediately, the film’s economy of modern (jazzy, tapping, aeroplane-embodying) American versus waltz-loving, backward-looking, stairway-climbing Frenchman is broken, even reversed. It is Henri who is now the voice of a futurity wholly tied not to modernity (of which we audience-goers are now suspicious) but to optimism, resilience, which by the way will also equal romantic love, which will turn out to be precisely the reason Henri must renounce any claim to Lise in the end. (He bounced back from that whole Nazi occupation thing; he’ll bounce back from this too.) Henri’s aesthetic optimism is explicitly marked as French: “I hate it when the French are right!” Adam grouses as he concedes Henri’s aesthetic vision near the end of the show.7)This quotation is probably inaccurate…it’s hard to take notes in the dark. But it’s something like that; the Frenchness of Henri’s optimism is explicitly marked. But Henri is not right enough to get the girl, not even with all that (ballet) music and (ballet) rhythm.

Broadway Henri: wants to sing

The Broadway musical wants to complicate the narrative of American modernity swooping in to bring lovely Paris into a future of fast cars and clean bodies, and perhaps, since it’s no longer 1951, it must. But what structuring logic will take its place and ensure Henri’s disqualification from the game of romantic love, now that being a bit of a square is no longer enough?

Look at that dorky bow-tie. (Max von Essen and Leanne Cope as Henri and Lise; screen shot from official video.)
Look at that dorky bow-tie. (Max von Essen and Leanne Cope as Henri and Lise; screen shot from official video.)

It’s all too clear: the musical puts Henri (Max von Essen)’s heteromasculinity in question. From the first we see that Henri is overly attached to his parents, especially his mother (excellent fellow Hampton Roads escapee Veanne Cox)—parents who do not exist in the film, and whose very presence makes Henri into a child (whereas in the film he is, relative to Lise, a quasi-parent). Worse, he cannot work up the courage to propose to Lise, as his mother repeatedly pressures him to do, and attempts at first to propose to her by writing her a letter. Is it a lack of courage or, indeed, a lack of desire? While the musical insists that Henri really does love Lise (albeit like a “puppy,” as Jerry puts it, infantilizing Henri once again), its winking and nudging around gayness is entirely unsubtle. In fact, his mother asks Henri flat out (albeit—naturally—euphemistically) if he’s gay; the expected denial, required by the show’s structure, is basically the definition of compulsory heterosexuality. One reviewer even reads the show as presenting Henri as unequivocally gay. It doesn’t do that, but on the other hand it does, kind of the way The Picture of Dorian Gray isn’t a gay novel but also completely and obviously is. (The undergraduate essays I’ve read about Dorian Gray‘s “strong homoerotic undertones”! Are they strong or are they undertones? Obviously they’re both: that’s how open secrets work—the more undertone, the stronger.)

Henri, you see, wants to sing. He dreams of being a cabaret performer in New York, a dream that he conceals from his overly respectable parents. Adam repeatedly makes cracks about Henri’s singing ability, casting further doubt on this unsuitable dream.

Of course, it cannot be. When he makes his début at a little Montmartre club, where a gigantic simulacrum of Marlene Dietrich’s face is plastered to the backdrop, he is frankly and rehearsedly terrible. I wish I had an image or clip with which to show you how sad and inept his performance is. You can tell Max von Essen is a good actor because his Henri is so convincingly a bad singer, until the performance metamorphoses into a fantasy in which he is successfully taking Radio City Music Hall. (Adam shows up to join him. “What are you doing in my song?” Henri asks. “I wrote it!”) In the Broadway musical, Henri has to be made a certain kind of pathetic, and the diegetic badness of his showstopper moment is the best, perhaps the only, way to do this.

In his brilliant long essay Place for Us, D. A. Miller outlines a subtle and probing theory of just what it is that makes the musical show tune “gay.”8)D. A. Miller, Place for Us: Essay on the Broadway Musical (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1998). Miller’s objects are the Broadway stage musical and, in the right circumstances, the original cast album (vinyl, of course) and the rendition at the piano bar. He has little to say about film musicals, and it is far from clear to me where a musical like An American in Paris, which originated as an insistently cinematic film musical, fits into his theory. In the economy of the classic postwar Broadway musical, in Miller’s analysis, the star performer is always female—a “diva” or (as he names her in a bravura reading of Gypsy) Star Mother, who is gifted with permission to give voice to (feminine; is it not by definition feminine?) need and be celebrated for it.

Cutting off at the pass the charge of emotional dishonesty that the show tune must always meet, Miller adds that

to charge this rhetoric with dishonesty is itself dishonest for refusing to recognize how little our social order likes to confront the suffering that is paying its installation costs. The rankness of bad faith supposes the availability of more direct, honest ways to express need, whereas everyone knows that the only socially credible subject is the stoic who, whatever his gender, obeys the gag rule incumbent on being a man.9)Miller, Place for Us, 13.

Lauren Berlant’s description of melodrama’s femininity, its ability to express unbearable need, however cheesily, in The Female Complaint echoes this scenario from another direction: “Everybody knows what the female complaint is: women live for love, and love is the gift that keeps on taking.”10)Lauren Berlant, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008): 1.

And like Berlant after him, Miller is not under any delusion that the woman’s place as Star and rightful vocalist of need is a position of power: “the utopia of female preeminence on the musical stage ends up bespeaking the reality of its opposite off that stage, in the musical theatre as well as nearly everywhere else….a woman had better imagine being the star of the show; she could hardly become one of its creators.”11)Miller, Place for Us, 89. Yet the abjection of femininity at least means escaping “the gag rule incumbent on being a man,” and that escape, into a male femininity, which is to say a male expressivity, is what, Miller argues, the Broadway musical offered gay men of a certain period. “[E]laborating, indulging, and closeting a homoerotically charged fantasy, wistful and aggressive by turns, of taking the Star Mother’s performing place,” the Broadway musical makes (or rather, made: it is the musical of a certain era) a “place for us” in plain sight. 12)Miller, Place for Us, 134.

And yet, of course, this régime also means that while the Star Mother (Judy Garland, say, or Liza Minnelli) may be worshiped and periodically, at the piano bar or while listening to the original cast album, usurped, any diegetic attempt by a male performer to take up her spotlight must be punished. So it is, in An American in Paris. As Miller puts it,

A man who did take the place of a woman could hardly be more abhorrent here than one who appears lacking in sufficient assertiveness to take it from her. It follows that whenever such a regime detects a man—and in particular a young man or boy [as the stage version of An American in Paris makes Henri—NC]—in the ambition or even mere wish to perform on the musical stage, it will be as brutal as it is necessary to make a lesson of him: branding him with the repulsive character of Nerd, Sissy, or Snot, and maiming him so that he can hobble no further than the restricted mobility of these roles permits.13)Miller, Place for Us, 80. Speaking of hobbling, we’ll get to Adam in a minute.

Georges Guétary as Henri, singing "Stairway to Paradise."
In the film, Henri’s stage act is old-fashioned but completely successful.
Contrast this with the “Stairway to Paradise” sequence in the 1951 film. In it, Georges Guétary’s Henri is as assured and successful as can be, with lush if old-school filmic sets and chorines for miles, and a large and appreciative audience. Dorky? Old-fashioned? Sure.14)Obviously, the degree to which Henri’s performance should be read as “old-fashioned” in contrast with Gershwin tunes from the 20s and 30s is a matter of ideologies of style: after all, acts like Henri’s are perfectly contemporary in midcentury Hollywood film. But not abject, not a gaping wound bleeding need. He’s a professional; a showman. In fact, the performance’s success secures Henri’s American tour.15)Maybe this is the place to point to the semi-documented belief that the film’s director, Vincente Minnelli—husband to Judy Garland and father of Liza Minnelli—was bisexual, and possibly even had an affair with Gene Kelly. As Miller observes, “Just think: the golden-age musical that best persuaded the general public of the artistic ‘seriousness’ of the form—and did so, naturally enough, on the basis of a virility so sure of itself, or at any rate, so truculently put forward, that it could even get away with the jetés of classical ballet, without anybody daring to say, though anybody might have seen, from their first cigarette, that the Jets were leaping straight out of the pages of Genet—this was entirely the conception of four gay men who must have been, in a strict sense of the phrase, nothing if not brilliant.”

Let me add, too, that in the 1951 film, Henri’s “Stairway to Paradise” number in and of itself has no narrative function whatsoever. Sure; it lets us see (as if we didn’t know, ever since that Strauss confession) that he’s a bit square, and sure, the offer of an American tour speeds up the plot by moving up his proposed wedding with Lise. But the number itself is just that: a number.

In the 2015 musical, the number’s plot function is much stronger. Several reviews have complained that the songs in this show are shoehorned in and don’t make sense, and that’s probably true for several of them, especially “Fidgety Feet.” What this complaint misses is how much more the songs in this musical forward plot than do those in the film.

Like the ballet, which offers up Lise’s interiority (she achieves her professional success by wanting a man and thus accessing that most neoliberal of values, her “passion”),16)For real, don’t get me started…incidentally, it goes completely unremarked that Sad Cougar Milo doesn’t just get Jerry his job as ballet designer—she also secures Lise’s success. “Stairway to Paradise” offers up Henri’s interiority. Surprise; it doesn’t include Lise—he doesn’t want a woman; he wants to take the performing woman’s place, be the star.

The number is also the means of his uncloseting, as Milo inadvertently takes the Baurels (mère and père) to a club to “hear some jazz” (what?), only to find that the performer is Henri. Henri’s outing as a singer is met by shaky acceptance by his parents, who take his embrace of singing as an embrace of a postwar optimism, a future.17)The future—i.e., basically the opposite of those classical readings of queerness. In its place, there is openness, sunshine, supreme uncloseting. “No gay man could possibly regret the trade, could do anything but be grateful for it,” Miller writes, “that is, if it actually were a trade, and his old embarassments…had not been retained.” Miller, Place for Us, 26.

It is obviously literally about singing. And yet, just as obviously, it’s also a teen selfie away from being a very special episode of Glee in which your parents might struggle to understand you but they always love you no matter what—no, in fact, they are learning from you, are inspired by you.

The film: between men

As usual, the problem with so hamfistedly thematizing homosexuality is the disappointingly unqueer ecology of meaning that results.18)It is of course worth asking, as Halperin does, whether an older generation of critics—Miller, but also Edelman and in his own way Halberstam—are perhaps invested in a rather generationally specific and closet-centric account of the right way to be queer. See Halperin, How to Be Gay, 116-118. See also Michael D. Snediker, Queer Optimism: Lyric Personhood and Other Felicitous Persuasions (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009). As with femininity, so with youth: it can be difficult to theoretically tease neoliberalism away from the forms that it has so successfully made its vehicles. Is it that the young bypassed the closet the way they bypassed email and went straight for Snapchat? Or is their love of the closet: bad/out: good binary actually down to the fact that they just haven’t read Foucault? This is hard to say. The relentless outings of the post-Stonewall musical, as D. A. Miller puts it, dissipate the earlier (let’s say, closeted) Broadway musical’s “double operation: not only of ‘hiding’ homosexual desire, but also of manifesting, across all manner of landscapes, an extensive network of hiding places—call them latencies—apparently made for the purpose….to glimpse, even as it was being denied, the homosexual disposition of the world.19)Miller, Place for Us, 132-33.

In its place is a “knowingness” about “an entity called ‘the gay man’…whose only aim is, by reducing him to a set of signs, to display, amulet-like, its own mastery in reading them.” Henri wants to sing; of course he’s (wink wink nudge nudge we’re all very sophisticated you see). In the same way that, as David Halperin points out, Lady Gaga’s ostensibly straight “Poker Face” was a much better gay anthem than her intentional gay anthem “Born this Way,” the 1951 film seems to make more room for queer possibility than does the 2015 Broadway show.20)David M. Halperin, How To Be Gay (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012): 115-16.

Henri and Jerry begin to sing "S'Wonderful" in the 1951 film. Meanwhile, Adam (Oscar Levant) has just worked out that both are in love with the same woman, and nervously pounds coffee and cigarettes.
Henri and Jerry begin to sing “S’Wonderful” in the 1951 film. Meanwhile, Adam (Oscar Levant) has just worked out that both are in love with the same woman, and nervously pounds coffee and cigarettes.
Or, in other words, to make Henri the closet-coded holder of secrets is to refuse the possibility of other secrets, other latencies. For example, it refuses the classic “between men” scenario of the film, wherein Henri and Jerry, as rivals in love, bond over the love-object that they do not seem to realize they share.21)Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985). Having ecstatically established that they are both in love, the rivals join in a swooning rendition of “S’Wonderful.”

Henri and Jerry sing "S'Wonderful" in a swooning duet.
Henri and Jerry sing “S’Wonderful” in a swooning duet.
The standard version of the song is addressed to a lover: “S’wonderful, s’marvelous that you should care for me.” Jerry and Henri substitute “she” for “you,” but as only Adam, in the film, at that point knows, it’s the same she, one that binds them together. As they sing, they are gazing into one another’s eyes and finishing one another’s sentences. Is this a “gay” song? Not really, but it’s just these kinds of latencies as latencies that the 2015 show refuses.22)See also Miller on A Chorus Line: “the unflinching disclosure that as many as three of the men auditioning for Zach are gay is hardly less fanciful than the naive idea, which it pretends to counter, that none would be. What it really counters, of course, is the widely suspected fact that, where the chorus of a Broadway musical is concerned, gay men do not form a minority at all, and even the true minorities are likely also to be in this same majority. Three gypsies come out so that the chorus as a whole may remain in the closet.” Miller, Place for Us, 130.

An American in Paris: The gritty reboot as epistemology of the closet

“What do you think of when you think of Paris?” asks a solitary Adam, the stage musical’s Greek chorus, at the opening of the show. The stage is bare. He names some stereotypical things—the Champs Elysées, cheese. But Paris wasn’t always the lovely City of Light, he informs us. While occupied during World War II, he says, it went dark. (I’m paraphrasing from memory, but you get the idea.) Very Serious War Things alert! Suzy Evans’s 2015 piece for the Hollywood Reporter describes the change from film to stage, and Wheeldon’s psychologized account of it:

The first thing they decided to do, along with director-choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and book writer Craig Lucas, was move the story up a few years right to the end of World War II. Although the film never explicitly states its exact timing, the story seems to take place a few years after the Nazi-occupation of Paris. Kelly’s character Jerry Mulligan opens the film with a gushing monologue about the City of Lights, whereas the musical starts with a dark opening ballet echoing the lingering effects of the war.

“They would have done that themselves had it not been five years after the war,” Wheeldon guesses about the film’s director Vincente Minnelli and writer Alan Jay Lerner. “It was still an extremely raw and difficult thing for people to face and talk about, certainly in Paris. They couldn’t have written a truthful musical about that in the early ’50s; there was no way. That’s one of the things that was exciting to us. Now we could do that and we could really honestly explain why Jerry Mulligan decided not to go home, and what was going on with Lise Dassin and why she was being protected by this bourgeois family.”

Still from An American in Paris.
Dissolve from one Paris icon (the Arc de Triomphe) into another (the Seine) in the opening sequence of the 1951 film.
The change is framed as a turn to authenticity, somewhat patronizingly hypothesizing that Minnelli was too traumatized by war to be authentic (never mind that Minnelli has typically been characterized as an almost obsessive master of stylized mise-en-scène, or that the entire musical was made in Hollywood, not France).

In the Broadway musical, in the opening ballet that illustrates the immediate postwar moment, three Nazi flags fall, to be replaced by the French tricolor. Weirdly enough, the audience clapped when that happened, at the production I saw, as if to illustrate that there is nothing as roundly consensus-making and prone to letting Americans pat themselves on the back as the notion of defeating Nazis in general and of liberating Paris in particular. Like a kind of reverse Godwin’s Law, saving French people and especially Jewish French people from Nazis is flagged as the mark of virtue toward which American military power will always tend.23)Just to be clear: I am not at all saying that war and the Holocaust are not serious. I am saying that their use as a signifier of seriousness, and of American military virtue, can be questioned. (“I did things during the war,” the Broadway Jerry confesses to Lise at one point. Lise has traumatic memories too. The point is, their war trauma—one performing violence, the other its victim—like, she is literally the target of a genocide—is framed as reciprocal and equivalent. Mimi Thi Nguyen has written brilliantly about this move’s post-Vietnam vintage and the ideological work that it does. Is this more “truthful” than half-sweeping the war under the rug?)24)Mimi Thi Nguyen, The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Other Refugee Passages (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012): 114-16. On American GIs in France during World War II, see Mary Louise Roberts, What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013). In the musical, Americans also defeat the Nazis in the arena of culture, as the wealthy Milo’s patronage of the ballet where Lise will make her début is explicitly said to replace Nazi funds.

In other words, despite its thematic and completely unsubtle endorsement of resilience and optimism, the Broadway musical is a gritty reboot, endorsing the contemporary ideology that Serious Themes make a serious show. In fact, this is what the resilience and optimism are really about. It can’t be an accident that in the musical’s official trailer, the opening title is “FROM THE ASHES OF WAR.”

You need the ashes of war in order to rise from them. Marilyn Stasio, in her review for Variety, is right to call this move “contemporary”:

What really makes the show feel fresh is the context in which [book writer Craig] Lucas has reconceived it, keeping in mind that reworking any beloved musical or movie can land you in a sandtrap. The writer (“The Light in the Piazza”) aged this show backwards, deepening and darkening the material so it now seems genuinely relevant for our own war-torn age. There’s still plenty of light and laughter in the story of a G.I. who helped liberate Paris and then fell in love with the city and its colorful artistic community. But this isn’t Vincente Minnelli’s Technicolor vision, which was set in the postwar 1950s when Parisians weren’t quite so shell-shocked from the German Occupation.

In her characterization, 1951 was a carefree time, not like our “war-torn age,” which calls for something deeper and darker. This is basically the thinking behind all gritty reboots.

What this gritty reboot does, then, is bring into much stronger relief what was only barely hinted in the film, and in doing so, structures the narrative around closets and outings. The “seriousness” of the war context is exactly the same as the “seriousness” (and, as I’ll discuss, the plottedness) of the love story.

In the film, Henri is only helping out a friend, and it is not a secret, just a fact, narrated in run-of-the-mill exposition almost as soon as we meet Henri in between bouts of a comic bit in which Adam keeps ordering coffee and not getting it.

HENRI: Ah, poor Jacques; he was caught in the Resistance. I took care of Lise all through the occupation; she lived in my house.
ADAM: Your house? Shocking, but generous.
HENRI: Oh, she was a little girl then. We only became in love after she left.

There’s no hint of concentration camps here, no whiff even of trauma, despite the fact that “poor Jacques” (Lise’s father) was presumably jailed or executed. There’s no secret here; it’s just backstory, offered to show the origin of Lise’s relationship with Henri and the fact that Henri is pretty much a mensch, and in case we were concerned, also not a creep toward young women in his care. There’s essentially no psychology to it.

Contrast this with the dramatic reveals of the Broadway show, all relating to a war framed primarily in psychological rather than political terms. Lise is Jewish! Her parents were probably killed in a concentration camp! The Baurels worked for the Resistance! Each of these revelations is staged precisely as revelation, as (dramatic, and of course healthy) confession.

When Jerry and Adam show up at a party that the senior Baurels are throwing for the ballet theater, they cheerfully greet Henri, who is horrified that their acquaintance might alert his parents to his singing practice (Adam is his accompanist). “Don’t let them know my secret!” he begs Adam and Jerry. In unison, they reply, “which one?” It is a laugh line, and the audience laughs.

And in fact Henri does have two secrets, one that he is keeping from his parents (the singing) and one that he has been keeping from the rest of the world because, up until now, it has been politically dangerous: he and his parents were active in the French Resistance, and hid Lise because she was Jewish. But at this point in the play, Jerry and Adam don’t know the second secret, and assume that he is gay, or at least inadequate with respect to Lise—that’s the “which one?”

But of course, these are all the same secret in the end. The secret is the only secret, the closet. Consequently, Robert Hofler’s review for The Wrap, slapdash as it is, is not wrong to bundle the two secrets together:

Perhaps Lucas and director-choreographer Christopher Wheeldon sensed they’d lost too much conflict, because they overload act two with exposition on Lise’s being Jewish, her family’s extermination in the holocaust, and the Baurel family’s involvement in the French resistance. (In the movie, Lise handles her own backstory in about two sentences.) Oh, and Henri Baurel (Max von Essen) is now gay, and so in addition to his loving jazz and wanting to be a stage performer, which his parents (Veanne Cox and Scott Willis) don’t like but then they do, you have to worry if there’ll be a big gay-disclosure scene.

Ok, Hofler is wrong in that the show doesn’t really (technically) make Henri gay, but only because the revelation of Henri’s desire to sing is a proxy uncloseting that doesn’t so much raise the possibility of “a big gay-disclosure scene” as simply substitute for it.

By announcing, gritty-reboot-style, that this is a show with psychological depth, the show has to invest in depth as such, a depth of disclosures and unclosetings that always, in the end, mean the same thing.25)Yes, yes; I’m well known for my adherence to #teamdepth, but this is another matter. This is why, in the Broadway show, Henri’s uncloseting as a member of the Resistance does nothing to counter the real aim of Jerry’s masculinity-shaming. (Jerry accuses Henri of sitting the war out, essentially calling him a sissy.) Being uncloseted as really brave (really masculine) does not recuperate Henri’s right to pursue Lise; instead, it confirms the structural (that is, political) nature of her attachment to him and all the further disqualifies Henri from the scene of heterosexual romantic love. As Eve Sedgwick argues, the free-floating appropriability of the “closet” as a metaphor for secrecy in general does not leave the closet “evacuated of its historical gay specificity.” On the contrary, the epistemology of the closet has instead suffused a range of “epistemologically charged pairings,” including secrecy/disclosure and public/private, but also, as she puts it, “masculine/feminine, majority/minority, innocence/initiation, natural, artificial, new/old […],” with the valences of “homo/heterosexual crisis.”26)Sedgwick, The Epistemology of the Closet, 72-73.

The Showstopper: He’s going to tell (or, Appropriately enough, a digression)

The scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail in which an effeminate prince declares his love of singing does an oddly good job of illustrating Miller’s point about the Broadway showstopper.

The king has a plan, or, let’s say, plot—a patriarchal plot; the patriarchal plot: inheritance, heterosexual marriage, lineage, all hinging on the prince’s impending wedding to a wealthy landowner’s daughter. Prince Herbert’s desire to sing is both the occasion for his uninterest in this patriarchal plot (“But I don’t want any of that…I’d rather…I’d rather…just…sing!”) and the thing that literally puts a stop to it by constantly threatening to, so to speak, stop the show. At one point Prince Herbert’s threatened singing explicitly cites the generic conventions—and sentiments—of the (female) Broadway showstopper: “I know,” he replies to his father’s list of the bride’s purported charms, “But I want the girl that I marry to have…a certain…”—and the music swells. How often have we heard that song?

When the absurdly overmasculinized Sir Launcelot eventually comes swashbuckling through, killing wedding guests willy-nilly without so much as bothering to ascertain that his damsel in distress is technically a damsel, the king attempts to whack his son and commandeer Launcelot into the heterosexual marriage plot to which Prince Herbert is so patently inadequate. It’s not clear how the legalities of land acquisition would work, but for the king, it seems that the most important thing is that there be a wedding.

Even then, Herbert manages to survive a fall from the castle tower and close the sketch with a big company number (“He’s going to tell”). When the prince finally succeeds in getting his song, the show is well and truly stopped, and so is the wedding—not just his own wedding but any wedding.

The showstopper is thus a loophole, a way out of emplotment. And even if the postwar Broadway musical takes on what Miller calls the “protective coloration” of plot-related reasons for singing, in the end it retains

not the integration of drama and music found on the thematic surface, but a so much deeper formal discontinuity between the two….As often as it had numbers, every Broadway musical brought him [the boy who loves to sing] ecstatic release from all those well-made plots for whose well-made knots no one who hadn’t been a boy scout could possibly have a taste.27)Miller, Place for Us, 3.

Coherent narrative itself functions as propulsion toward an inevitable heterosexual conclusion that is relentlessly framed as logical. The Broadway show An American in Paris, in contrast with the 1951 film, breaks the (ideological, certainly) economy of American industrial modernity versus a sophisticated but backward-looking France, and it does so by itself moving forward as purposefully as Kelly’s tap-danced aeroplane, unable or unwilling to stop the show, or put a damper on a story about futurity that is all about opening up closets—a Dansavagesque “it gets better.”

Broadway Henri: Being Alive

Consequently, the Henri of the Broadway show, who’s in all the closets, also has in the end to be the the aesthetic and political optimist, the endorser of futurity. He might as well be singing “Being Alive” at the end of Company. The loser in love, he still has to endorse the couple form. It’s the way forward, and there’s nowhere else this show can go.

Broadway Adam: But Not For Him

There’s one loose end that I feel like I ought to tie up here, and that’s Adam. Because Adam, in the Broadway show, has ostensibly been elevated to a main character, and yet also profoundly is not one.

Essential to the “gritty reboot” logic of the stage version of An American in Paris is the amplification of the Nazi occupation of Paris and the dynamics of secrecy and revelation that this entailed. This plays a major role in the new drama between Lise and Henri, and constitutes one of Henri’s closets (his role in the Resistance). And Adam, it turns out, is a curious lynchpin in this structure.

In the film, Adam Cook (Oscar Levant) is a sarcastic, comical narcissist, a winner of eight piano fellowships to study in Paris, to the point of feeling like “the world’s oldest child prodigy.”28)In a rather long scene, Adam fantasizes that he is giving a solo performance of Gershwin’s Concerto in F…and in addition to being the piano soloist, he is also the conductor, the entire orchestra, and the audience. He once worked for Henri as an accompanist, but “had to give it up, because I was starting to like it and I didn’t want to become a slave to the habit.” Adam in the film is a mediator, the means of Jerry’s acquaintance with Henri. In fact, when Henri loans Jerry those 300 francs in that early scene, he really loans them to Adam, who then loans them to Jerry, after Jerry has protested to Henri that “I never touch a guy unless I’ve known him for at least fifteen minutes.” “I’ve known him fifteen years; lend me three hundred!” Adam says, and the loan is made.

"Did I ever tell you about the time I gave a command performance for Hitler?" Adam's desperate attempt to change the subject does not succeed.
“Did I ever tell you about the time I gave a command performance for Hitler?” Adam’s desperate attempt to change the subject does not succeed.
In the film, Adam is the repository of his friends’ private business, which is private but not at all secret—hence the casual way in which Adam learns it. Adam knows who Lise is and that she is engaged to Henri long before Jerry even meets her. And Adam knows about Milo and her sponsorship of Jerry, too, long before Lise does. In the film, Lise and Jerry explicitly agree not to talk about their everyday lives, not because they are secrets but because they complicate the happiness that they find with each other.

That’s why, when Jerry comes to Adam with his dilemma about feeling caught between Milo and Lise and casually tells Adam Lise’s name, and then Henri drops by to announce his engagement (to Lise, obviously, but Jerry doesn’t know that as we and Adam do), Adam tries to stop the revelations precisely because they’re so very likely, because they’re not secrets. Adam ridiculously tries to change the subject by dropping the film’s only mention of actual Nazis: “Did I ever tell you about the time I gave a command performance for Hitler?” It does not work. Yeah, Hitler, whatever: these bros want to talk about their feelings.

Adam (Oscar Levant) drinks and smokes his nervousness while Henri and Jerry discuss their personal lives all too openly.
Adam (Oscar Levant) drinks and smokes his nervousness while Henri and Jerry discuss their personal lives all too openly.
Poor Adam, who knows far too much about both of his friends, has to sit there nervously, pouring brandy and coffee down his throat and down his shirt front and smoking multiple cigarettes at once as Henri and Jerry bond over both being in love.

Brandon Uranowitz as Adam, the show's framer and narrator. He and his piano are often shown tiny on an otherwise bare stage.
Brandon Uranowitz as Adam, the show’s framer and narrator. He and his piano are often shown tiny on an otherwise bare stage.
The Adam of the Broadway show could not be more different. He is funny, but he is no longer a comic figure. I can’t even quite say that he’s a tragic figure. He’s…negated. In the show, Adam (Brandon Uranowitz, in a Tony-nominated performance) is no longer Adam Cook but a self-consciously Jewish Adam Hochberg. In this way, the Broadway show thematizes what is, again, only hinted in the film (Oscar Levant, who plays Adam in the film, was, like his friend George Gershwin, the child of Russian Jewish immigrants). And while the Adam of the Broadway show is a pianist and composer, he is also (like Jerry) a former GI, left with a limp from a war injury and burdened by darkness.

Adam (Brandon Uranowitz), Jerry, and Henri sing "S'Wonderful" at the 2015 Tony Awards.
Adam, Jerry, and Henri sing “S’Wonderful” at the 2015 Tony Awards.
He is also, in the Broadway show, another contender for Lise, turning the Henri-and-Jerry duets, including the once-intimate “S’Wonderful,” into trios.

Adam is the show’s narrator, announcing the show as gritty reboot at the beginning and offering its moral near the end—that “love is more important than art”—and at the end of the show, Lise tells him, “you’re my American in Paris.”

Well, swell, I guess. The thing about the newly disabled and Jewish Adam, though, is that he was never a contender for Lise. You don’t put a contender in that vest, and I’m being a little facetious, but not a lot. What is secret for other characters (Jewishness, like Lise; being haunted by war, like Henri) is worn absolutely on the surface for Adam, who self-identifies as Jewish and points out his own limp in the very scene in which he meets Jerry.

Adam accepts his defeat, singing "But Not for Me." Honey, we all knew.
Adam accepts his defeat, singing “But Not for Me.” Honey, we all knew.
Adam’s only secret—which he tries and fails to out—is his attraction to Lise. When he interacts with Lise, he stumbles and Woody Allens his way through the awkwardness. Singing “But Not For Me” at the end of the show, he both affirms that “love is more important than art” and sublimates his desire for Lise by putting her “in my music, where she belongs—at least for me.” It seems incredibly overdetermined that this extra competitor (who was never a competitor) be shunted off in just this way, into (what else?) a newly redemptive art, his disability all too stereotypically a a warrant for “transcending” the body.

Alone he stands on that stage at the beginning of the show, and alone he stands at the end. It’s not so very different from the Adam of the film, except that this Adam too has been made to affirm the centrality of the couple. And if you can’t get that, you can at least recycle your thwartedness into your music, turning damage into profit, as Robin James argues in Resilience and Melancholy.29)Robin James, Resilience and Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism (Zero Books, 2015).

Broadway: back to the future

Adam, then, is the final confirmation of the show’s break with the film’s economy of value. American industrial modernity is no longer what’s celebrated; instead, it’s a transnational resilience (relying, of course, on the French Henri’s optimism and Lise’s ability to serve as…well, basically, a muse, even though she is an artist in her own right) that depends first of all on closets of all sorts out of which one can emerge triumphant.

It would be difficult to read either structure as other than politically retrograde, of course, but more importantly for me, what each production reveals is its own conception of futurity.

For one, futurity lies in the fantasy of an ideological escape from the rat race into Paris’s Bohemian paradise (as Jerry says in the opening voiceover, “if you can’t paint in Paris, well, brother, you’d better give up and marry the boss’s daughter”) that everywhere bears the mark of its interdependency with post-Marshall Plan American technology and American money, from Milo’s art sponsorship to the unnamed rich American woman from Milwaukee who buys perfume from Lise’s counter.

For the other, the Broadway show, however, futurity lies in something much more like compulsory optimism. “It’s got to be a celebration!” Adam yells, in what is meant to be his artistic breakthrough. The vacuousness of the realization—basically, cheer up—is what this futurity is about: it’s not for him, but he must still be for it.

References   [ + ]

1. Some movie adaptation context: On the Town (1949), a ridiculous and frothy Gene Kelly musical based on a 1944 Broadway show, was revived at the Lyric Theatre in 2014, and Gigi (1958), directed by Vincente Minnelli and also starring Leslie Caron, was adapted for Broadway in the 1970s and briefly revived in 2015. Of the three, An American in Paris has met with the most success.
2. Kristin Ross has written famously, and brilliantly, about “la belle américaine” in French films of the same period. See Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1995).
3. Joel Dinerstein, Swinging the Machine: Modernity, Technology, and African American Culture between the World Wars (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003): 221-23.
4. At one point a band at a Montmartre boîte, occasionally appearing in the corner of the frame, contains African American musicians—they play Gershwin songbook standards from the 20s. Contrast this with Miles Davis’s utterly contemporary score to Louis Malle’s 1958 Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, only seven years later.
5. Of the ballet in the film, Albert Johnson writes: “It is, in many ways, not a ballet, but a sort of choreographic essay, undisciplined, and savagely insistent that the spectator should at some point gasp in amazement at the technical achievements.” Albert Johnson, “The Films of Vincente Minnelli: Part I,” Film Quarterly 12.2 (Winter 1958): 33.
6. Nobody has much of a character in the film; in the musical, Jerry doesn’t even have a national ideology. (All he has is “Beginner’s Luck,” sung to whirling umbrellas that nod toward both Kelly’s performance in Singing’ in the Rain and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg—ok, clever; I chuckled, but maybe fix the bigger issues with the book before adding visual witticisms.
7. This quotation is probably inaccurate…it’s hard to take notes in the dark. But it’s something like that; the Frenchness of Henri’s optimism is explicitly marked.
8. D. A. Miller, Place for Us: Essay on the Broadway Musical (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1998). Miller’s objects are the Broadway stage musical and, in the right circumstances, the original cast album (vinyl, of course) and the rendition at the piano bar. He has little to say about film musicals, and it is far from clear to me where a musical like An American in Paris, which originated as an insistently cinematic film musical, fits into his theory.
9. Miller, Place for Us, 13.
10. Lauren Berlant, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008): 1.
11. Miller, Place for Us, 89.
12. Miller, Place for Us, 134.
13. Miller, Place for Us, 80. Speaking of hobbling, we’ll get to Adam in a minute.
14. Obviously, the degree to which Henri’s performance should be read as “old-fashioned” in contrast with Gershwin tunes from the 20s and 30s is a matter of ideologies of style: after all, acts like Henri’s are perfectly contemporary in midcentury Hollywood film.
15. Maybe this is the place to point to the semi-documented belief that the film’s director, Vincente Minnelli—husband to Judy Garland and father of Liza Minnelli—was bisexual, and possibly even had an affair with Gene Kelly. As Miller observes, “Just think: the golden-age musical that best persuaded the general public of the artistic ‘seriousness’ of the form—and did so, naturally enough, on the basis of a virility so sure of itself, or at any rate, so truculently put forward, that it could even get away with the jetés of classical ballet, without anybody daring to say, though anybody might have seen, from their first cigarette, that the Jets were leaping straight out of the pages of Genet—this was entirely the conception of four gay men who must have been, in a strict sense of the phrase, nothing if not brilliant.”
16. For real, don’t get me started…incidentally, it goes completely unremarked that Sad Cougar Milo doesn’t just get Jerry his job as ballet designer—she also secures Lise’s success.
17. The future—i.e., basically the opposite of those classical readings of queerness. In its place, there is openness, sunshine, supreme uncloseting. “No gay man could possibly regret the trade, could do anything but be grateful for it,” Miller writes, “that is, if it actually were a trade, and his old embarassments…had not been retained.” Miller, Place for Us, 26.
18. It is of course worth asking, as Halperin does, whether an older generation of critics—Miller, but also Edelman and in his own way Halberstam—are perhaps invested in a rather generationally specific and closet-centric account of the right way to be queer. See Halperin, How to Be Gay, 116-118. See also Michael D. Snediker, Queer Optimism: Lyric Personhood and Other Felicitous Persuasions (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009). As with femininity, so with youth: it can be difficult to theoretically tease neoliberalism away from the forms that it has so successfully made its vehicles. Is it that the young bypassed the closet the way they bypassed email and went straight for Snapchat? Or is their love of the closet: bad/out: good binary actually down to the fact that they just haven’t read Foucault? This is hard to say.
19. Miller, Place for Us, 132-33.
20. David M. Halperin, How To Be Gay (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012): 115-16.
21. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985).
22. See also Miller on A Chorus Line: “the unflinching disclosure that as many as three of the men auditioning for Zach are gay is hardly less fanciful than the naive idea, which it pretends to counter, that none would be. What it really counters, of course, is the widely suspected fact that, where the chorus of a Broadway musical is concerned, gay men do not form a minority at all, and even the true minorities are likely also to be in this same majority. Three gypsies come out so that the chorus as a whole may remain in the closet.” Miller, Place for Us, 130.
23. Just to be clear: I am not at all saying that war and the Holocaust are not serious. I am saying that their use as a signifier of seriousness, and of American military virtue, can be questioned.
24. Mimi Thi Nguyen, The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Other Refugee Passages (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012): 114-16. On American GIs in France during World War II, see Mary Louise Roberts, What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).
25. Yes, yes; I’m well known for my adherence to #teamdepth, but this is another matter.
26. Sedgwick, The Epistemology of the Closet, 72-73.
27. Miller, Place for Us, 3.
28. In a rather long scene, Adam fantasizes that he is giving a solo performance of Gershwin’s Concerto in F…and in addition to being the piano soloist, he is also the conductor, the entire orchestra, and the audience.
29. Robin James, Resilience and Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism (Zero Books, 2015).

Theme and variations

I focus here on The Female Complaint not because it is Berlant’s most recent book (it is not) or her best book (though it may be) but because in it she has so much to say about what makes women such agile practitioners of criticism at the present time.1)Lauren Gail Berlant, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008). The book maps the intimate twists and turns by means of which genre as a mode of cultural creation and interpretation becomes indistinguishable from genre as a shaping force in lived experience. Since “femininity is a genre with deep affinities to the genres associated with femininity,” it makes sense that for Berlant women would be skilled in the genres (both literary and lived) of romance and (particularly heteronormative) sentiment — writing them, reading them, and living them. But it turns out that even though The Female Complaint is mostly about those especially feminine genres, women have a knack for genre theory as well — for what Arnold would have called criticism — because genre is the stuff of which women, like criticism, are made.

Virginia Jackson on Lauren Berlant at LARB

Virginia Jackson’s recent piece on Berlant’s criticism beautifully draws out some of the things that were striking me about Lili Loofbourow’s tv and film criticism, which, too, is so often about genre and women’s relation to it. The premise of The Mindy Project, one of the first shows Lili wrote about for Dear Television, is that Mindy Kaling’s character is a woman raised on women’s genres, who interprets the world through them and who constantly performs them. Her writing on The Mindy Project is one of the first places I saw Lili describe the collocation of gender and genre:

If you’re a girl, the romantic comedy has been one of the few places in film (besides indie movies, and usually not even there) where female protagonists a) exist and b) are allowed some kind of interiority. One result of this is that the Mindys of the age — which includes, I think, a hefty percentage of early-thirties American women — have developed a viewing practice that precisely opposes the aforementioned over-generalizers: where the latter see sameness everywhere, the former have become experts at spotting slight, apparently irrelevant variations in romantic comedies and savoring them.

Mindy is one such expert. For Emma Bovary, connoisseurship of female genres is a source of disappointment and ultimately misguidedly melodramatic suicide (Andreas Huyssen’s gloss on this move in “Mass Culture as Woman,” which I felt compelled to teach this term in my Novel seminar, is pretty undeniable), but for Mindy, it’s a disappointment-management system in the way that melodrama is a disappoint-management system in The Female Complaint.2)Andreas Huyssen, “Mass Culture as Woman,” In After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986): 44–62. The disappointments of genre create space for making the disappointments of gender livable. Even for Emma, female genres are an attempt to manage the disappointments of gender: a stupid husband, a tedious town, an unwanted child, and no escape. As Jackson glosses the situation:

The thing is, genre is a heartbreaker. The plaintiveness of The Female Complaint and the cruelty of Cruel Optimism (2011) both turn on the turn that genre takes when its utopian promise breaks down, when our experiments in living can’t remain or become experiments in genre, since, as Berlant writes in Cruel Optimism, “genres provide an affective expectation of the experience of watching something unfold, whether that thing is in life or in art.” If that generic expectation is too starry-eyed, genre will fold up its fragile tents: “A relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing”; “Everyone knows what the female complaint is: women live for love, and love is the gift that keeps on taking.”3)Lauren Gail Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).

References   [ + ]

1. Lauren Gail Berlant, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008).
2. Andreas Huyssen, “Mass Culture as Woman,” In After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986): 44–62.
3. Lauren Gail Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).

And now for something very slightly different

Reading Lili Loofbourow’s new profile of Tatiana Maslany, I’m struck again by Lili’s consistent attention to the relationship between female reading and genre:

In its subject matter, “Orphan Black” broods on the nature-nurture debate in human biology, but in its execution, the show cleverly extends the same question to matters of genre. What does the exact same woman look like if you grow her in the petri dish of “Desperate Housewives” or on a horror-film set in Eastern Europe? What about a police procedural? The result is a revelation: Instead of each archetype existing as the lone female character in her respective universe, these normally isolated tropes find one another, band together and seek to liberate themselves from the evil system that created them.

By structuring the story around the clones’ differences, “Orphan Black” seems to suggest that the dull sameness enforced by existing female archetypes needs to die. Early in the first season, there is a serial killer hunting down the clones ­— it turns out to be Helena, the Ukrainian — who ritualistically dismembers Barbie dolls after dyeing their hair to match that of her next victim. It’s a creepy touch, but one that can also be read as a metacriticism of how women are used on TV: the punishing beauty standards to which they’re held, the imposed uniformity. (Need a new sitcom wife? Grab the prototype and change the hairstyle.) Our low tolerance for difference among female characters means that they will almost always be less interesting, less memorable and less beloved than their male counterparts. In this context, Helena becomes a kind of hero, slaughtering televisual conformity and constituting, in both her savagery and her warmth, a radical expansion of what women on television can be.

Here I was reminded of Lili’s 2012 review of Pixar’s Brave for The New Inquiry, a meditation on the detection of small differences when every female character is a stereotype.

Barring some truly wonderful exceptions, you get used to eating the same three meals over and over, forever. Without thinking about it too hard I’ll approximate them as spunkiness, pathos, and transformation. Working Girl, He’s Just Not That Into You, Grease. Again, some of these are great. Most are derivative. Given the sameness of the flavors on offer, you become a sort of expert at spotting slight variations.

In the land of small differences, she points out, a princess movie in which the mother is actually alive constitutes a major departure. Stereotype and repetition, the constitution of the feminine as generic, means an attention to the kinds of “slight variations” that we might recognize elsewhere as “gender parody.”

Naomi Schor asks, “Is the detail feminine?” and Lili’s criticism gives an alternate, mass-cultural account of why it might be.1 I hope to see this strain of thinking elaborated further in her future work.

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     1 Naomi Schor, Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine (1987; New York: Routledge, 2007): 4.