High-Water Mark


I. Repetition

Singin’ in the Rain, I’ve seen that thing a million zillion . . . it’s uncountable how many times I’ve seen that. —Macauley Culkin

A series of renewable epiphanies, self-contained like pop songs designed for heavy rotation—a fantasy playlist of flashing idea-bulbs. What if we shot a picture that talked? What if the talking picture sang and danced too? What if love makes you weatherproof? Compulsive viewing amounts to double and triple takes: Donald O’Connor back-flips the bird at the laws of physics; Gene Kelly breathes underwater. It’s hard to say what’s real. “Broadway Melody” is a brainstorm with a dream sequence for a film within a film. (Inside the Russian doll of Debbie Reynolds: Cyd Charisse. Inside Cyd Charisse: Cyd again, virgin-bridal and barefoot, money-green gown now diaphanous white.) The studio boss admits he can’t quite see it. Did we? Not sure—roll it again.

II. Replication

It was never going to be Singin’ in the Rain. —Anna Karina on the Madison dance in Band of Outsiders

The film was a rush job, all but ad-libbed, hence all the more impossible. This is cause for some resentment. Stanley Kubrick rapes the title sequence in A Clockwork Orange; Tom Hanks made an early bid for the People’s Pierrot via mawkish parody in Punchline. The brazenly amateurish quasi-musicals of recent years seem oedipally bent on avenging what Terence Davies calls the “real MGM moo-vay“s of the era. Those who understand can only mourn. In The Long Day Closes, Davies eulogizes his childhood, and the movies gone with it, in a weeping huddle of open umbrellas.

III. Remotion

It’s a museum piece. I’m a museum piece. —from Singin’ in the Rain

Don Lockwood’s hapless “I love you, I love you, I love you” in The Dueling Cavalier parrots the mantra that sentenced silent star John Gilbert to post-sound obscurity, but Lockwood rescues his own capsized entrée into talkies with hastily inserted musical numbers—meet The Dancing Cavalier. Singin’ in the Rain grins fondly at cinema’s first attempts at speech, reappropriating Tin Pan Alley chestnuts 50 years before the cut-and-paste japes of Moulin Rouge. Thus the ultimate nostalgic source text is itself a pomo homage to a lost moment. Kelly and Charisse’s ballet redefines the meta-physical, shimmering surreally at multiple removes of time and space. Even the camera keeps a stricken distance; get too close and this might disappear. The entire film is an optical effect of the memory. Those puddles are a mirage.