Sunday, June 03, 2007

How "300" Helped Me Understand Musicals

That's right. The film version of Frank Miller's 300 led me to an understanding about musicals.

I'll say that even with my fresh understanding of them, I'm still not so much a fan. But the obstacle, the same thing that many people have with musicals now makes sense to me. And it came thanks to one of the least musical movies ever.

Or is it?

300 is a fantastic telling of a real story, to a degree. And it's in that degree that I found my understanding.

Miller or director Zack Snyder is not leading us to believe that the Persians had giant men chained up as a secret weapon, or that King Xerxes was 9' tall and sounded like the bad guys from Stargate. For comics it has been common for quite some time. Comic books, because of the medium, has always had a degree of impressionism to it. (Footnote on this to follow)

But one of the age old arguments for film was whether or not it represented 'reality,' or what was the real. "Seeing is believing" has guided the audiences expectation in film, or that has been the conventional wisdom of film theory, at least one side of it. The other, springing from the Melies films vs. Lumiere and Edison films that were more or less documentary.

The realism restriction, that expectation of audience, has pretty much dominated. But I think thats selling audience short by making excuses for when the audience doesn't seem to follow that need. All the way back to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari there have been impressionistic films. Audiences are more than willing to accept fantastic setting, from the films of Tim Burton or Terry Gilliam or Jean-Pierre Jeunet. These are theatrical pieces, magical reality.

Theater has never really had a problem with this and since the inception of the musical has churned them out non-stop. But for film consetions like "it's a dream" in films like Chicago or The Wizard of Oz, or the "Backstage musical" (there's not even a Wiki page on that...weird), essentially a music set 'backstage' at a musical hall so people singing was proper. Never mind that Busby Berkeley's numbers couldn't take place on any stage. Or that musicals became popular as soon as films got sound. But the wisdom was that the audience still expected the film to be 'real.'

It doesn't even hold true if you look at the body of films made that a film has to be a story of what happened in the literal sense, that notion of 'reality.'

So if I can accept a 9' King Xerxes why can't I accept people breaking into song? My problem was trying to establish the 'reality' of setting. Trying to understand a 'world where people suddenly break into song.' That's not it, anymore than the family is supposed to be feasible in The Royal Tenenbaums. With all the fantastic things that we will allow in a film, song seems mild considering the other extravagances of film. The trick is not trying to relate it to what 'really' is happening. Nothing, it's a story. Even when it 'really happened' it's not a matter of what really happened.

Footnote On Comic Adaptations

300 had another discovery for me in it. That was with its obvious comparisons with the other comic book movie out at the time, Ghost Rider. One, as already discussed, abandoned the notion of reality almost all together, shot entirely on a set with the style and look of the film stamped on every frame. Ghost Rider instead took the chopper riding flaming skeleton demon and shoe horned him into 'our world.' It's actually a bit surprising that this mistake is still happening. The film that jump started this rather long run of comic book films, Tim Burton's Batman, created an art deco out of time Gotham, an impressionistic world in which a man in a bat costume could emerge and not be out of place. The mistake that happens in Ghost Rider type adaptations is trying to bend as few rules of realism as possible. However, they should be looking at once you've crossed a certain threshold all bets are off.

There are degrees. Spiderman has as part of his identity New York as his backdrop, and to that he is anchored to a degree of the 'real.' But really, they should be looking with the barest amount of real they need. After all, audiences seem to follow Wizard of Oz just fine. And I think more of the audience than to excuse it as, "It's just a dream."


  1. Amy and I have often said that contemporary film needs more song and dance numbers. Ferris Bueller in Chicago, the dancers who appear out of nowhere to jam to "ABC" in Clerks II--why the fuck not? There are a number of films which come out on any given weekend that could do with something like that.

  2. I was talking to Sous Rature about this and he brought up something that seems pretty obvious about audience expectation-Bollywood. There the audience actually expects the unreal, they expect the song and dance routine no matter what the rest of the movie portrays.

  3. It occurred to me this morning that there's another dimension to all this. I read an article once, and just spent twenty minutes trying to track it down unsuccessfully on the interwebs, that talked about how villagers in Africa couldn't initially follow educational documentaries because Western film is loaded with all kinds of "transparent" conventions that we simply accept--jumps in time, cuts in dialog, people walking off the edge of the screen--because we're steeped in them from infancy. The aid workers had to produce films that illustrated these principles so that the audiences would be able to follow this bizarre new (to them) medium.
    Another quick point--the dramatic unities limited theater for centuries, insisting, for instance, on only one set. Convention breaking is integral to every medium except, apparently, film--I guess it's the money.

  4. Now I'm the one who can't find the references. But there was a time in film before cross cutting, where you'd see all the events in one space and then see the parallel events in another space. The sample film we saw of that was "A Day in the Life of a Fireman" that showed the inside of the burning building with the rescue and then the outside. (there is some dispute that this isn't just a found uncut copy of the raw footage.)

    That essentially it was through D.W. Griffith and Eisenstien that our ability to follow cuts emerged.

    I think I have a good size rant about the ridiculous expectations of story telling in film loaded up and coming soon...

  5. Personally I love the departure from reality one finds in an on-screen song and dance number -- I still remember when I first went and saw the South Park movie and discovered it was a MUSICAL! OH, I was so HAPPY! :-) But not as happy as at the end of the 40-Year Old Virgin when they slip in that gorgeous "Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In" Bollywood-esque thing of beauty. Oh the transcendent vitality of art!!!

  6. We nearly pissed ourselves as that ending scene began, laughing so hard it was obnoxious. People looked at us as they left the theater and we convulsed.