Talking Pictures

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Utopian Entertainment

Posted by keith1942 on December 20, 2010

Richard Dyer in an article titled Entertainment and Utopia [in Movie No 24, 1977] offered an intriguing model for reading Hollywood musicals. He suggested,

“Two of the taken-for-granted descriptions of entertainment, as ‘escape’ and as ‘wish-fulfilment’, point to its central thrust, namely, utopianism. Entertainment offers the image of ‘something better’ to escape into, or something we want deeply that our day-to-day lives don’t provide. “

He goes on to argue that,

“ … the utopianism is contained in the feelings it embodies. It presents, head-on, as it were, what utopia would feel like rather than how it would be organised.”

For the film musicals he identified five categories of feeling:

Energy              Abundance                   Intensity                        Transparency                Community

Dyer stressed that these feelings were most likely to be found in the non-representational elements of a film. They could be there in the character, dialogue and plot, but the most effective placement was in the music and in the film style, especially in the mise en scène.

He examined a number of musicals briefly and three in more detail, Gold Diggers of 1933 [Warner Bros.] On the Town [MGM 1949] and Funny Face [Paramount 1956]. In a recent film studies class I discussed these ideas with a group of students in relation to several MGM Musicals. One of the ideas bought up by a student was that in some films the utopia was embodied in what we tend to call ‘the American dream’. Fortuitously, this was the subject of a series of documentaries shown on BBC television in November 2010. The first programme addressed the 1950s and included film of an Industrial Musical. These were expensive shows, with dances and music, presented to the executives and sales staff at the larger motor companies, as morale boosters. The example offered was from the Chevrolet Motor Car Company and a1956 show that dramatised the launch of a new model. What we briefly saw of the show suggested a strong overlap between this ‘American dream’ and Dyer’s utopian categories of feeling.

The show was written and composed in the genre of contemporary Broadway and film musicals. Most of the energy was contained in the music and production numbers.

The abundance was everywhere, but especially in the plot’s young couple, married, home owning and now able to purchase a car. The surfeit of commodities they enjoyed paralleled images to be seen in contemporary Television adverts also screened in the programme.

The intensity reached a peak when the new Chevrolet model appeared, floating on a cloud of balloons, and accompanied by triumphant music and singing.

Transparency was possibly the weakest of Dyer’s categories in this example, but it was clearly intended in the style of presentation and publicising: ‘what you see is what you get.’

Community was plotted in the show, but most notably it occurred among the audience of executives and salespeople, who responded enthusiastically with a standing ovation.

Of course, not all was necessarily as it looked. Being observed by their colleagues/rivals and their bosses might well have motivated the response of the sales people at the end of the show. However, in the overt presentation this seemed a prime example of an ‘American dream’, a veritable utopian prospect for the 1950s.



2 Responses to “Utopian Entertainment”

  1. […] discussed on a recent course. It too seems to be illuminated by Richard Dyer’s  ideas around ‘utopian entertainment’ and the categories of feeling that he […]

  2. […] In retrospect it is interesting to examine Kelly through the prism Richard’s Dyer’s Utopian categories. […]

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