Richard J. Thompson and William D. Routt. '"Keep Young and Beautiful": Surplus and Subversion in Roman Scandals'. In T. O'Regan & B. Shoesmith eds. History on/and/in Film. Perth: History & Film Association of Australia, 1987. 31-44.
First Gesture: Bringing Back the Ashes
It seems necessary to begin by gesturing towards two recent publications: Raymond Bellour's recent "Analysis in flames" in Diacritics and Thomas Elsaesser's "Film history and visual pleasure: Weimar cinema" in the anthology Cinema Histories, Cinema Practices.
Bellour's little polemic is, as might be expected, both provocative and peculiar. He begins by telling us that the analysis of films "has finally become an art without a future" (emphasis ours). Apparently it has gone up in flames, it has burned itself out. Yet the author nowhere hints that his love of cinema has consumed itself in this way. It is another love of which he writes, a love whose ending lends an elegiac tone to the piece, even in the awkward translation printed by Diacritics.
Alone, caught up in one's own thought: in bed, touching one's companion, exchanging with her and the image an ideabearing look; with one's students, at the moment sought by everyone ....
We hesitate to intrude upon a moment so intimate, so private - or, rather, we would hesitate to do so were not that privacy the root, so to speak, of the analysis without a future. "The" analysis, not "analysis" tout court; for it seems to us that Bellour has confounded his personal crisis with a global crisis, his analysis with what the rest of us may wish to do with a movie.
For Bellour the moment of analysis finds one always "alone". It isolates, closes off, moves one to the interior ("caught up in one's thoughts"). In this the analyst mimics the pose of the object of analysis (which in this analyst should occasion some surprise). At the moment of analysis the object is still: it does not move. Or, at least, this is what Bellour asserts continually in his article. He tells us that only four "gestures" remain as the heritage of film analysis (although the article describes five). Each of these is in some way based upon the figure of "the freeze frame."
The freeze frame is the shaping metaphor of Bellour's piece. Stopping the film is what this analysis does first. No wonder, perhaps, that it has no future; it has no past either. The freeze frame represents the eternal, impossible present which only lovers and those about to die experience. Who of us who knows the cinema (and this is a question of knowing, not of loving) is surprised if the frozen image curls, turns brown and begins to be consumed by fire?
Implicit in the renunciation of this kind of analysis there lies, we think, an invidious distinction between two kinds of time: duration, which is the time of the film, and serial time, which is the time of the analysis. The two are posited as absolutely opposed. Analysis destroys the film or else it is, as Bellour claims, "an illusory object," engaged with "an elusive body", the film text, which "cannot really be quoted nor grasped."
But all this is only true if the unit of analysis (the "analeme"?) is, as Bellour and his school assert, the photogram or freeze frame. For us the base unit of analysis is the shot, not the frame. That is, for film as distinct from other cultural products, duration is a constituent of the basic unit (the shot is a wave as well as a particle). Film analysis, as distinct from the analysis of some other cultural products, should arise out of the irreducible duration of the shot, should be grounded in the elusiveness of its object, should eschew quotation or the attempt to fix a meaning.
Hidden in a footnote in Bellour's article we have found the analysis which, for us, has a future, is the future.
I recently received a fascinating manuscript containing both an analysis and a thorough description of Tourneur's Cat People, drawing in some respects from Barthes' procedures in S/Z. The author, Dominique Zlatoff, was conscious and rightfully proud of having reached a limit by producing a "mad" work: in its essence very hard to read and yet often remarkable, if ony because of this limit that it made perceptible.
The occasion of the footnote has been the phrase in the main text, "the exceptional resistance (to analysis) put up by the analytic material" - because that material is "polysemous ... in an excessive way (for) its matter, moulded by iconicity and analogy, pushes language into check." Bellour condemns film analysis for being "unable to produce the equivalence brought out in readings of Les Chats or in S/Z" which would be, we presume, a form of "sanity". Bellour apparently does not wish to acknowledge that in the "madness" of analyses like Zlatoff's lies a valid equivalence of the cinema. That analysis which has as its goal the production of a template of a film has, indeed, no future. Again we assert, it never did. But that analysis the goal of which is the recognition of the madness at the heart of the work does have a future, is the future. For it is the analysis which adopts the pose of its object, which moulds itself to iconicity and analogy, which pushes language into check, which respects and welcomes polysemy.
(A parenthesis here:) this is not a new position for us, nor one we have been forced to adopt because of Bellour's recantation. We are naive enough to have always believed that it went without saying that the discovery of madness - or neurosis, at least - was the goal of analysis properly so-called. Others, it seems, thought they were seeking some crime.
In the title of our paper, arrived at as such titles are, with no thought and less wit, we refer to the "surplus" in the film we hope to analyse. The surplus meant is the surplus of meaning, its plentiful incoherence, its cacophony, its craziness. This surplus is what we want to display for you, not a selection from it nor even the naughty bits. It would be a terrible shame if you went away with the idea that this film finally and irrevocably makes sense.
So-Called "Classic" Narrative and its Siblings
It is undoubtedly true that the aim of most film analysis has been to make sense of its object and that (as Bellour says) such analysis has been misconceived from the start. We think it proper to ask why, if the madness Zlatoff has apparently reproduced is only what is to be expected, it has not been reproduced before this by those who, like Bellour, have practiced film analysis assiduously.
We think that the answer lies as much in what has been selected for analysis as in the analyses themselves. By and large these have been sequences from so-called "classic" or "bourgeois" narrative films: films, that is, made for (and by) a certain social and cultural group, and films which, from the evidence of their use in film analysis, still hold some attraction for that group. (Of the best known or most influential close analyses perhaps only Kunzel's work on The Most Dangerous Game can be exempted from this category.) These films are webs woven together with careful artisanry. They are constructed of circles, according to an ideology which valorises repetition so long as it is disguised as linearity. Their concern is to transform diachrony into synchrony, duration into stasis (dare we say Eros to Thanatos?). Much of the action in such films, and thus much of the analytic work done on them, deals with spaces which are articulated as closed: hermetically sealed by the sutured gazes of the characters in them and by the boundaries set up in the decor.
The seemingly secure place made for the spectator in such spaces, in such stories, is all too readily transported to the fixed position of the freeze frame analyst. Over and over in these films one rediscovers one's self (as though that was all there was to look at). The sense of rationality and coherence which can be gained from this sort of sighting is undeniably a strong one, and is at least partly justified on the grounds of a certain congruence with the analytic material. When there is added to this tendency within the object a parallel tendency to explain or apprehend within both the analyst and the scientific project of analysis itself, it is not to be wondered that what has been discovered in the heart of the cinema has been a certain murderous sanity, a truly terrible reasonableness.
But "classic" narratives are not the only story structures that "classic" films provide, and crafty suturing is not the only technique employed by them. The classic story identifies itself in relation to its own diegesis as but one of an infinite number of stories that might be constructed from that diegetic universe, each separate and complete and only contingently dependent upon any other. There are at least three alternatives to this relation, the relation that predicates what is called "closure".
The first alternative to classic closure which we have identified covers cases where the diegetic universe remains so disturbed at the end of the story that any sense of closure offered by the narrative may be said to be false. TV soap operas would come under this heading and, indeed, much film soap opera as well. The disquiet at the end of film noirs fits the pattern. But so do those horror films in which we know the menace has only been temporarily destroyed, if at all; and these are doubtless more interesting instances because the spectator's knowledge of the inefficacy of the narrative resolution is often dependent as much or more upon general cultural knowledge as it is upon elements within the specific narrative (which is only to say that we are taught how to read categories of narrative as well as narrative per se). The disequilibrium which remains at the end of such films represents an open invitation for more stories generated by the diegetic universe, with the understood proviso that none of the stories to come will succeed in redressing the imbalance that upsets us. Such films display hyper-closed spaces which evoke a sense of entrapment, or closure gone mad. Perhaps this is a visual equivalent of certain neuroses: dark streets, interiors, night, shadows, close-ups.
A second type of "open", non-classic narrative involves the abolition of the diegesis at the end of the story and the simultaneous realisation that there are other stories still to be told about other diegetic universes. The most obvious example of this type is the literary genre called "picaresque". Here the trajectory of the protagonist, often in the form of a journey, successively elides and open up several diegeses in the course of a single narrative at the end of which the protagonist is still in motion, still seeking diegetic worlds to conquer. Perhaps the commonest example of this sort of story in film is that species of western at the end of which the heroes ride off, having resolved the narrative conflict. Here we are to understand that there are no more stories to be told of the diegetic universes the protagonists have left behind, but that there are an infinite number of such universes still to be explored, all of which will prove to be more or less unsatisfactory for these characters. Narrative space in this instance is constantly unfolding, always in the process of construction (and the paradigm of such a narrative is the tracking shot). Any position constructed for the spectator is ultimately a precarious one, no matter how securely she may be stitched into any specific narrative.
Finally, some stories end with the abolition of the possibility of further stories along with the simultaneous institution of the diegesis (a reversal of the previous). What is represented in such stories is nothing more or less than the end of history, and it is not to be wondered at if there seem to be dystopian and utopian variants of the species. Some stories and some films end with the destruction of the world - the distopian variant. Others however, end with the establishment of utopia, which - as surely in the case of world destruction - implies an end to conflict, or that which produces stories. Often at the end of a musical comedy, for example Roman Scandals, a utopian community is established and the conflicts that engendered the preceding story are presumed to be transcended forever. This is the sense conveyed by the traditional words, "they lived happily ever after" which are, to our mind, not words of closure. The diegetic space of utopia is, as Frederic Jameson has pointed out in relation to Conrad's writing, articulated differently from the space we are used to. Neither endless nor enclosed, it represents rather the paradoxical space of a post-Newtonian universe in which the normal "laws" of time and space are suspended, and within which, therefore, the classic spectator may be only ephemerally positioned, if at all.
Second Gesture: Tap-a-dee-tap-tap ZIEG HEIL!
However, in spite of the existence of other narrative forms, what are commonly chosen for analysis are precisely those texts made for analysis or, better, made for interpretation. These are texts which, despite their often attractive surfaces, are not "for everyone" in the sense that they contain, have wrapped themselves around, secrets. Moreover, secrets are the pretexts and subtexts of such texts: their purposes and shapers, final and formal causes. Without secrets there would be no such texts. Secrets constitute the objects of the analyst's desire: what is sought.
Yet not all texts are made to convey arcane information, not all are written in cypher. Some, we would suggest, are made for display or "entertainment". This does not mean that they cannot be analysed or interpreted, but it does suggest that the framework within which such analysis proceeds will be somewhat different from the framework provided by works made for the purpose.
Thomas Elsaesser's article furnishes the opportunity to postulate some of the features of such a framework. Like Bellour's, his is a remarkable summary of a certain theoretical work which has been undertaken on the cinema over recent years. But, unlike Bellour, Elsaesser looks to the continued development of that work, not its demise.
We will be concerned here with only one observation in Elsaesser's article. We want to examine that observation, expand upon it, and from that expansion suggest somewhat different directions from those which Elsaesser takes. Elsaesser observes:
... the parallels between the American musical and the Nazi parades are significant ... insofar as they are proof that fascination, voyeurism, identification and spectacle were, during the Nazi period, directly fetishized and libidinally fixed in the streets through parades, rallies and public speeches. Nazi cinema, on the other hand, shows a tendency to repress this voyeurism ...
The phrasing is careful, but the parallel is tendentious as it has been worked through the surrounding text. The argument, if that is what it is, begins with the words of "a historian" (George Mosse) comparing the spectacles in The Triumph of the Will with "those American musicals of the 1920s and 1930s which Hitler himself was so fond of watching each evening," and finishes with a "recent film-historical analysis" (written by Karsten Witte) evoking the Nazi Revue-film - which is to say, the Nazi musical. The movement of this argument, it is clear, positions the American musical under the heading "Nazi spectacle" and not the reverse - partly, it would seems, because of Hitler's benevolent regard, subsuming and consuming both, and partly because what were separate at the beginning of the argument (the American musical and the Nazi spectacle) have become one (the Nazi musical) by the end, in the process losing the national adjective, which, then, must be presumed to have had no significance in this context.
On another level, we read here of the influence, the effect, of American musicals upon the Nazi leader, which confirmed/reaffirmed his sense of what there should be to enjoy in the world (certainly not the Weimar cinema as Elsaesser represents it: in this article we do not read that Metropolis was a film which much impressed Hitler, although that has been asserted elsewhere. We read of a parallel between American musicals and Nazi spectacle within the context of a contrast between Nazi cinema and Weimar cinema. The fascism of the American films is a by-product of the global structure of Elsaesser's argument.
There are two obvious points to be made about what Elsaesser says directly and the implication we have drawn. The first is that "fascination, voyeurism, identification and spectacle," if they are "directly fetishized and libidinally fixed" in Nazi "parades, rallies and public speeches," are also fetishised and fixed by the same activities put on by governments of other political persuasions. If a parallel between government sponsored spectacles and film musicals can be drawn (and it is certainly an interesting and potentially illuminating parallel), there is surely no valid reason for limiting the historic scope of those spectacles to the ones the Nazis sponsored, nor of those musicals to the ones made in Hollywood during the late 1920s and 1930s. To do so is merely tendentious, as we have said.
The second obvious thing, we think, is that "voyeurism" is not the correct word to describe what is evoked by such displays as parades, rallies, and musicals. To use the term in this context so casually is to ignore precisely the difference between those spectacles and the kind of films which interest Elsaesser (and, we would say, most analysts of film).
If we are to remain within the (neo)Freudian paradigm implied by the term "voyeurism", these spectacles are examples of "exhibitionism", not "voyeuristic" at all. It is true that Freud himself rather simplistically dialecticised voyeurism and exhibitionism, but even he was prevented by the clinical evidence from conceptualising the voyeur as spectator of the exhibitionist's performance. The spectator constructed by exhibitionism is not a voyeur but, we would say, a voyant: one who is changed by what she has seen.
The voyant is a different spectator from the one constructed by classical narrative. Since the ideology of the classical narrative has been denominated "bourgeois", and since the spectator constructed by the spectacle is one who can be changed, that is, one whose position is not fixed, we must find a different name for the ideology of the spectacle. We have said that to call it "fascist" or "Nazi" is not historically accurate, although clearly something of those ideologies must be present in it (as well as something of communism, socialism and capitalism). The name we suggest for the ideology of the spectacle is "populism".
This name is appropriate, we think, in a collection of conference papers largely about film in the thirties. But rather than defining or discussing this ideology directly here, we would prefer to illustrate it in the content and expression of the film which interests us: Roman Scandals.
"Roman Scandals": Story, Persona, Historical Metaphor
The story of Roman Scandals, as succinctly as we can put, concerns one, Eddie - a figure socially on the margins of the small American town of West Rome. Eddie, whom everyone of the bourgeoisie considers simple, knows a great deal of the history and culture of ancient Rome. The common people of West Rome are secretly ruled by a cabal of the wealthy and the powerful, who scheme to deprive them of their homes and erect a new gaol in their place. Accidentally, Eddie comes into possession of proof of this conspiracy, but he does not know he has it. Meanwhile, he aids the common people in resisting their evictions and is thrown out of West Rome as a result. Here the story actually begins, for Eddie walks out of West Rome and into ancient Rome - out of the present and into the past - where he is enslaved and renamed Oedipus. He is bought and freed by Josephus, who doesn't hold with slavery, and together they witness the parade of the victorious Emperor Valerius, who is displaying his captive Britons, among them the Princess Sylvia. Eddie falls in love with Sylvia, who learns that if her people are to be spared martyr's deaths, she will have to become Valerius' mistress, replacing his former favourite, the slave Olga. By a chain of curious circumstances, Eddie is appointed food taster to the Emperor and is enrolled in a plot to poison him. At the same time, he and Josephus plot to spirit Sylvia away from the Emperor's banquet and take her to safety in Hostia. Inadvertently, Eddie acquires evidence of the Emperor's corruption of the Senate. The rescue plot succeeds (with help from Olga) and Eddie, Josephus and Sylvia flee, pursued by the Emperor's minions. In the course of the chase, Josephus and Sylvia (who are in love with one another) gain safety and Eddie falls victim to an accident and wakes up in the present, to be taken back to West Rome, where he discovers/ rediscovers/ discloses the evidence he had acquired against the conspirators there. The film ends with an explicit representation of a utopian community from which all evil-doers (the wealthy and the powerful) have been expelled.
Eddie is played by Eddie Cantor. Cantor was a vaudevillian, a show business personality, who had developed a persona which was well-known. Clearly this film was written for Cantor, in order to feature that persona. Commonly, Cantor played what might be called "the wise fool" (Chaplin and possibly Harpo Marx and Barry MacKenzie, are cognates here). The position of Cantor's persona - outside of normal society - gave it abnormal insight, as well as abnormal blindness: Cantor was more-than-social, rather than other-than-social. His obsessions tended towards the idealistic: he attempted to live the myths that others knew were impossible. But Cantor also played a particular inchoate Everyman. He adopted gestures and mannerisms associated with adults and children; women and men; Jews, WASPs, Italians, and blacks. His persona was at once highly sexualised and preternaturally innocent - another "detumescent Everyman hero" if you will. If one were looking for a textbook incarnation of polymorphous perversity, Cantor's persona would surely be a candidate.
There is, in other words, a surplus in the persona Cantor constructed. It is a locus of specifically social and cultural contradiction and conflict within which much that is marginal or aberrant is given a positive expression which at the same time respects its difference from those who watch (the voyants). It is, we would say, itself populist.
In films often the fool acts as a helper to a classic hero. This does occur in Roman Scandals, but in a highly inflected way which has the effect of displacing and undercutting the conventional heroic model. In the first place, there is no classic hero at all in the story set in contemporary West Rome. Eddie is both fool and hero. In ancient Rome, Josephus is the classic hero. (His heroism is introduced to us by the epithet "friend of the people".) Yet nothing Josephus does by himself in the struggle against the Emperor Valerius is effectual. Eddie actually performs the heroic actions and Eddie is the mechanism of Valerius' downfall, as he is of the downfall of the corrupters of West Rome. Josephus is merely there for beefcake, and to get Eddie out of an awkward romantic situation with a minimum of pathos.
Not everything we would want to call "populist" undercuts classic heroic models, but in Roman Scandals there is a neat congruity between Cantor's persona, the role assigned to that persona in the narrative, and the populist semantics of the film within its spectacle genre of musical comedy.
The thirties are a period in Hollywood cinema (we would say, in world cinema) in which one has come to expect to discover films of social protest which exalt the common people at the expense of one or another uncommonly wealthy or powerful enemy - documentaries no less than fiction films. If Roman Scandals is in any way unusual in this populist context, it is only in its juxtaposition and paralleling of the ancient and modern worlds (and even this is something which Cecil B. De Mille - for one - does during the same period to much the same end). Indeed, the trope of ancient Rome fosters a hyperbolic articulation of the conflict. The struggle of the powerless against the powerful becomes, in the Roman context, the struggle of the Oppressed Masses against Tyranny. Bankers become Emperors and the poor become Slaves. Rather than softening or ameliorating the populist message, that message becomes more rhetorically pointed by the historical metaphor, and the film says things which might otherwise have been considered hysterical or out of place. What would have been out of place was, it must be said, not that the troubles of the poor are due to the evil machinations of capitalists - that was, and is, commonplace and acceptable - but that the rulers are tyrants who have enslaved the masses and deceived the rest.
It is in keeping with the populist idealism of the film that the operation of its utopian resolution is not made manifest. Populism assumes that once evil is exposed, redress follows inevitably; it proposes no machinery of punishment beyond the amorphously righteous anger of the people. Hence there is neither revolt nor reformation at the end of Roman Scandals (that is, the people do not replace the bad rulers, nor are the bad rules replaced by good ones). Instead, in West Rome (which is the only place where we see any political resolution) the capitalistic rich and powerful have been dismissed: what they once provided is neither wanted nor needed in the new order. They are dismissed through the workings of the Law (thus in some sense by the state), which acts here in the interests of the people, as presumably some mechanism of the state in ancient Rome will act without fear or favour to oust the tyrant and those he has corrupted. It seems to us that in this way the film quite unequivocally subordinates the rich and powerful to the will of the people and claims that democracy (the mechanism of the populist state) can (and should) destroy capitalism and tyranny.
The Musical Numbers
But this film is a musical comedy, and the segment in which we are most interested is a musical number. Nothing we have said thus far has properly taken account of this. As was the practice at the time, the musical numbers of Roman Scandals were directed by someone other than the person who directed the straight narrative. In this case the musical director was Busby Berkeley and the overall director was Frank Tuttle.
The musical numbers are stylistically quite distinct from the narrative which surrounds them. Moreover, they share at least one significant function: they are all vehicles for economic commentary. In the first, "Build a Little Home", Cantor leads the evicted common people in the creation of a community in the street (the song is about the unimportance of commodities). This is the only number which is set in the contemporary world (West Rome), and it is reprised at the end. The three numbers set in ancient Rome all deal with the relations of economics to sex. The first of these is one of the few sequences of the film in which Cantor does not appear. In it Ruth Etting sings a song the burden of which is that there is "No More Love", and an elaborate slave market ballet is staged during which female slaves are exposed to the gaze of corrupt, ruling males. In the second, "Keep Young and Beautiful", Cantor gives musical instructions to a group of female slaves on how to commodify themselves. And the last features Cantor calling for legislators to "Put a Tax on Love" to resolve the Roman (and/or US) government's economic crisis.
Before beginning work on Roman Scandals for Samuel Goldwyn, Busby Berkeley had signed with Warner Brothers, who at the same time assumed his obligation to Goldwyn for one more film. Goldwyn went to court to force Warners to give him Berkeley for Roman Scandals at the time he (Goldwyn) had scheduled it. His suit did not succeed, although he did eventually get Berkeley for the film in 1933. The legal action was lengthy and very expensive. Berkeley was called "The Million Dollar Dance Director" by the newspapers because of the cost of the suit, which was taken as evidence of his actual, or perceived, value to the movie companies involved. At Warners, Berkeley directed his first feature two years later.
We cite this anecdotal evidence as empirical background or "explanation" for the intertextual consistencies of the musical numbers and their distinctness from the main text. A more elaborate interpretation would use the circumstance of the suit as it would use the circumstance of the Depression: as material to be rediscovered in mediated form within the film. That interpretation might wish to lay emphasis upon the representation of aberrant sexual behaviour in certain of the musical numbers and to suggest that the "outrageousness" of these, arguably Berkeley's most "outrageous" sequences, could be seen as arising out of the conflict between Berkeley and the very respectable Goldwyn. The extremity and excess of the numbers then, become measures of Berkeley's defiance and of Goldwyn's dullness.
A rather more interesting context can be supplied by relating two of these numbers ("No More Love" and "Keep Young and Beautiful") to certain other musical numbers in other films. Often musical numbers in films of this period are embedded in, but not contained by, the diegesis. They are signed quite explicitly as impossible within the rules imposed by the diegesis, as exceptions to the diegetic world. Indeed, it is never clear what rules govern such sequences (and we presume there are such rules, still to be discovered): they are not "real" (not diegetic) but neither need they correspond to any character's "fantasy". However, they do seem to be intended as fantasies for the spectator and in this sense they may be conceptualised as competing diegeses. We think that these fantasy numbers merely make manifest a dialectic which may be thought of as the engine of the musical: the interplay between the musical numbers and the narrative, the two different "worlds" of the musical. Most of the time the musical ends by monistically replacing the narrative diegesis with that of the musical numbers ("utopia" in Dyer's formulation).
These two numbers in Roman Scandals represent a further modulation to the pattern we have just described. In Roman Scandals there are three manifest diegetic levels. The first is the present of West Rome: the level of reality within the terms set by the film. The second is the past of ancient Rome: a level of Eddie's fantasy, generated by/for him, embedded within the first level. Embedded within this is the slave's world, which is not Eddie's fantasy, (but into which he intrudes in "Keep Young and Beautiful"). These three levels constitute an error in logical typing; and together they construct a narrative structure reminiscent of the graphic work of M.C. Escher. (The error illustrated by the film is, we think, an analog to the error noted as necessary to the construction of fiction by Gregory Bateson.)
"Keep Young and Beautiful": The Story of Eddie in the Baths
Eddie has been enlisted in the conspiracy to poison the Emperor Valerius and he is plotting to rescue the Princess Sylvia from the Emperor's banquet. He goes to warn the Princess, to inform her of the rescue plans and to tell her of Josephus' love for her (which troubles him because he believes Sylvia must love him, Eddie). Sylvia is in "the Baths", where no men are permitted to enter.
Eddie gains access to the Baths by pretending to be one of a number of slaves carrying amphorae. He disguises himself as a black slave and is mistaken for "the Ethiopian Beauty Specialist" who has come to impart secrets of lasting loveliness. He delivers his message to Sylvia, but is accosted as he leaves and forced to tell some of his beauty secrets, which he does in the song "Keep Young and Beautiful" - the occasion of an elaborate production number during which white and black female slaves dance with him. While the dancing is going on however, Eddie's deception is discovered and the women begin to chase him. He is caught in a steam cabinet and one of the women turns on the steam. When he tries to escape he has been shrunk. He dives into a pool and the black colouring washes off, but he does not care anymore, and the sequence ends as he sinks happily beneath the water.
Independently, both of the writers of this paper were struck by the "Keep Young and Beautiful" sequence at quite different times and in quite different places. We found it intriguing and delirious: something special. (Perhaps this is all the more surprising since neither of us has any particular affection for the Cantor persona.) What first attracted us was undoubtedly something that also marks the sequence off from the main text of Roman Scandals - the socio-cultural sign of "blackness": the evocation of "race" and "race relations". Black people are represented in the rest of Roman Scandals as they are in many American films after the advent of sound (for example, in the Tarzan series) - as background figures - and the blacks in the rest of the film are all male. However, in this number black females play a key role.
A second attraction for us was the invocation of an ecstatic religious experience at the end of the sequence ("Death where is thy sting?/ I don't care, `cause I've seen everything ... blub ... blub ... blub ..."). This seemed highly suggestive to us when we first saw the film and has, of course, only grown in importance since then.
Perhaps you will have detected in these two points of entry, intimations of the ideas of populism and of spectacle with which this paper began.
Since discovering our mutual interest in the sequence, we have used it, together and separately, in several classes - each time, it seemed to us, differently. We do not use it in sessions on "close analysis" (it simply has not crossed our minds to do so), but we do use it to discuss "interpretation" - that is, as the object of hermeneutic games. In the work leading up to this paper we found ourselves more and more drawn to the idea of revelation in the sequence, although not in quite the quasi-mystical sense which had piqued us before, and this finally was the point from which we determined to start - fittingly, and even classically, from the end.
Having acknowledged the deplorable conventionality of this starting point, we at once began to recognise that we had deceived ourselves. The revelation of the sequence does not come at the end, although Cantor sings of it at the end. Revelation in this sequence is continuous, not concentrated at one point. "Keep Young and Beautiful" is not (or not wholly) a detective story, where the "truth" can only be reconstructed after a syntagmatically located point in the narrative ("Challenge to the reader"). Rather, it is a processual visual description, the length of which is arbitrary or, better, determined by interest rather than by the desire for closure. Space is continuously unfolded and redefined in the sequence until, if you will, the bottom drops out. Revelation may even be a misleading term because of the instantaneous temporality it implies (one thinks of Jake transported by God in the black church of The Blues Brothers).
The story told in the sequence seemed to be one we had heard before. It is about someone who, by deception, gains access to tabooed knowledge (the Baths) and is punished for it. That is an Odeipal story, a story about the desire for knowledge, a gnoseological narrative - and there can be no doubt that we would be foolish to ignore that story in understanding this sequence. But there is another story being told simultaneously here. It is the story of someone who does not want to know what it is forbidden to know, but is nonetheless forced to it and forced to take the consequences. Eddie is only interested in delivering his message. He becomes engaged in the story of revelation only in order to save himself, although he is happy enough to have learned what there is to learn at the end. This story is closer to the stories of Jonah (who tried to hide from God) and Job (who did nothing to deserve his suffering), than to that of Oedipus.
In a certain sense these two stories of the sequence have separate protagonists. Eddie, despite his "ancient Roman" name (Oedipus), is the protagonist of the Jonah/Job story and the spectator is the protagonist of the Oedipal story - for we would assume (perhaps too quickly) that the spectator wants to see what is to be revealed and, unlike Eddie, is not retained in the Baths under duress.
Yet we do not think that the sequence admits of such a clearcut interpretation. The (male?) desire set in play by the sequence seems to us undermined, subverted, at several points. Not destroyed, we hasten to say (because, we think, it is not the strategy of populist texts to eliminate positions) - not destroyed then, but deflected, toyed with, mocked, and even reconstructed.
Let us begin with the images which, we suppose, are intended most overtly to evoke desire: those of the blonde-haired white women. We do not think it a confession of deviant masculinity on our part, or an accusation of inept filmmaking on the part of those who put together the sequence, to say that we do not find these images effective evokers of desire. These images do not so much express female sexuality as travesty it.
Recently the idea of "the feminine masquerade" has been used to explain this sort of parody. We would like to extend the idea historically and to discuss it in relation to the notion of the surplus of meaning.
Images of feminine sexuality - "erotic images" - are often grossly overcoded. The particular generic image with which this sequence deals is a case in point. What we see here, as so often in Berkeley's musical numbers, is "the Show Girl". The Show Girl (and we pause to allow you to savour the phrase, so much more interesting than the socio-cultural construction it names) has a specific history. It (and we use the sexually neutral pronoun to express the biological neutrality of signs in the context of this discussion) is American, and is associated with the Broadway stage, and more specifically, with the lavish stage productions of Florenz Ziegfeld: The Ziegfeld Follies. The "formula" of the Ziegfeld Follies was a simple one: to combine masses of erotically clad and unclad women with a handful of (mostly, but by no means exclusively, male) "show business personalities". The function of the women was to display "beauty" and that of the personalities to display "talent".
Many of the personalities featured in the Follies were comedians. Eddie Cantor was a regular performer in The Ziegfeld Follies.
The Show Girls were not expected to display talent. It was not necessary for them to be able to sing or to dance - in a word, to perform. They were employed to stand and to move, to wear clothes - dressed and directed by men. One of the most successful directors of Show Girls on Broadway was Busby Berkeley.
Berkeley was in the business of making women into signs of sexual objects: Show Girls. Perhaps too successful: for the sense of the object, the thing, the commodity, dominates the sense of woman, or human, or "sexiness" in his images of women. So effectively are women reified in sequences like this that reification is itself foregrounded.
Once having placed masculinity as the efficient cause, or producer, of the Show Girl, we would now like to very briefly say something of how some women took control of that paradigm. Real human beings had to live out the Show Girl fantasy, had to leave the stage of the Follies, or whatever, each night surrounded by the aura in which they had been bathed. A series of myths accrued around such people. Significantly, most of those myths combined elements of money and feminine sexuality. Anita Loos inscribed an exemplary condensation of them in a novel called Gentleman Prefer Blondes, published in 1926, the later cinematic significance of which we are sure you are all aware. The Show Girl was presumed to be using "her" sexual attractiveness to get what she wanted - and what she wanted was masculine wealth. On one level, the commodity relation is completed in the mythology; but on another, the exchange is unequal, as women receive what is really (culturally) of value in exchange for what is not. (Or is this right? Perhaps the men are receiving what is truly valuable and the women what is not. It seems to us that the Show Girl exchange is an endless loop of value/meaning, significant because it is unresolved, cannot be resolved within this economic system.)
This particular circumstance was further underlined at the time by the ways in which both women and men signed "sexiness" or sexual attractiveness within the Show Girl paradigm. Sexual desire cannot reside within a sign (it is neither expression nor content). It is a response to a sign. As such, it escapes the direct control of sign producers and easy semiotic apprehension. In order to evoke the response of sexual desire, sign producers (Ziegfeld, Berkeley, the women themselves) piled on expressions of what was culturally understood as erotic. The surplus which resulted still produces the effect called "the feminine masquerade" - an erotic travesty of female sexuality which is at once attractive and repellent. In the case of Berkeley's Show Girls, prototypical in this regard, the plethora of erotic signifiers shifts women into the category of uninteresting, unalive things and also into the realm of parody.
In the case of Mae West, no less prototypical, the shift is more complex and a great deal more threatening to conventional male sexual desire. Mae West threatens men because of the distinct possibility - we would say, certainty - that no man can provide what she wants. The male spectator is overwhelmed by her. But that circumstance is not absent in "Keep Young and Beautiful" and other Show Girl sequences, where sheer numbers challenge the presumed power of the male. ("I am your worst nightmare").
In this sequence the Show Girls are shown/show themselves to us. One should be able to assume that the display has primarily an erotic intent, as one assumes (perhaps too quickly) that it is the exhibitionist's intent to awaken desire. But to make that assumption ignores all that is being displayed. Indeed, it again ignores the musical element of this musical sequence.
For that element is bound up with another display, one that is perhaps even more prominently shown. This is the other element of the Ziegfeld show: the performance of the Star. Cantor is on display here. He sings and dances. He calls for one's attention, is positioned so as to attract that attention. Cantor is an integral component of this musical spectacle, and at least equally with the Show Girls, its reason for being.
The attention is split by the spectacle. There are at least two things to look at, calling for distinct spectator positions. (Or at least they would call for distinct positions if they were displayed separately. Or at least that is what we usually think.) Moreover, as we have indicated, one of these displays, the display of the Show Girls, seems to have a particular significance within one of the stories being told (the Oedipal one), while the other, the display of the performer, may be interpreted as having significance in the other story (the story of those who cannot hide). The Show Girl display is deliberate, but diegetically it appears to have no audience. The Show Girls are hidden, but they would rather display themselves. Eddie's display is both deliberate and inadvertant. He is hidden and he only performs in order to further hide himself.
One's initial understanding of the situation is that Eddie has penetrated into a house of secrets, and that he will, then, be looking at what is displayed for him. But his performance alters that circumstance. In the sequence more women look at Eddie than he looks at. It is remarkable how little looking at women Eddie does. The most noticeable thing that he does with his eyes is to roll them, which we take as a sign of internal sight, or of digestion.
We have described the sequence thus far as one in which two components are on display. They look seldom at one another and often at us. They perform together and both exhibit themselves to us.
We know that you will have been before us here, for it is Eddie's exhibition of himself which leads to his discovery and destruction. That exhibition is represented in terms as graphic as one could wish in "family entertainment": he raises the skirt of his tunic while dancing, revealing the whiteness of his upper thighs. This action is, we would maintain, the equivalent for the women of what it is that Eddie has seen when he claims to have "seen everything". You will notice that the sight of "everything" does not please these women (although, of course, what they/we see is nothing, an absent everything, which stands for the surplus referred to).
The revelation of Eddie (and that is what this appears to be, even if what happens to Eddie in the sequence is not, strictly speaking, a revelation) occurs because he fails to maintain his disguise. The revelation of Eddie argues that there is a third story here: the story of what women see. This might be the story of Bluebeard, but it is not. It is perhaps the story of Alice Through the Looking Glass. We think it is the story of Peter Pan - as it is traditionally represented on the stage.
Keep Black and Beautiful
It is now time to talk of blackness in this sequence. Eddie is made black because he is taken for a women (mud is put on his face as a beauty treatment). When he recognises what has been done, he completes the disguise. That is, he disguises himself as a black man.
Eddie is a black man in the midst of white (and black) women. Why does he, why do we, think he will not be discovered? Why isn't his presence a signal of the gravest danger rather than one of security for all parties?
The first answer is related to the socio-political structure of ancient Rome as the film represents it. At the top is the Emperor Valerius, below him are various grades of free people (more or less wealthy and privileged), below them are the slaaves. Within the slave world there are both racial and sexual hierarchies: men are placed more highly than women, and whites more highly than blacks. However, all blacks in the film are slaves. Eddie's disguise is an intelligent and socially wise one. A male black slave has more place in the women's slave quarters than a male white slave. Eddie moves himself down a notch socially so as to become more like those who now surround him.
But what sort of black male belongs properly among female slaves? At the same time that he puts on his blackness, Eddie is also taking off his physical masculinity. He has become a sexually neutral and racially hysterical sign, if you will. One's easy acceptance of his harmlessness is predicated upon a mad repression of his brother, the lust-crazed blood who stalks white womanhood: each as ugly an image as it is nonsensical and excessive.
Eddie's new identity is almost immediately transmuted into one of arcane power he is identified as an Ethiopian Beauty Specialist, a kind of proto-Rasta). His masculinity has been exchanged for special knowledge and status - and eventually for the sight of "everything" (an exchange the song suggests may have been worthwhile). His new special knowledge appears to be at least in part a function of his blackness - at least there is no suggestion in the film that anyone other than a black specialist would be allowed to practice his art among these women.
Eddie's special knowledge is what these women want from him and what he is called upon to display in song. We have suggested that he receives that knowledge in exchange for his phallus. That his unmasking should proceed from the discovery that he is not without a phallus seems only proper. The absent phallus has been signed as blackness and wisdom; its discovery is represented by whiteness and foolishness. The discovery of Eddie's duplicity then, wipes out (eventually washes away) his blackness and wisdom while it restores his white and foolish phallus, which then is shrunk and drowned (for it is not what these women want).
For the moment however, we wish to linger in the realms of black knowledge and black service. In this sequence it is the role of black people to serve white people. Black people are active, whites are passive. Blacks work, whites are worked upon. This relation is extended in interesting ways.
Black women discover Eddie's duplicity by witnessing his inadvertant exhibition (the boy can't help it, he just can't help it). Their gaze is the instrument of his undoing. Because, in other words, they have looked at him - which is what his display asks them to do - they discover that he is not what he pretends. And what he pretends seems to involve a betrayal of the black race far more clearly than it does any threat of sexual aggression - for the black women take the lead in his pursuit and destruction with a vehemence unmatched by the whites. One woman tries to strangle him (we have run that bit of film backwards and forwards, and even paused on frozen frames, and we are certain that this is what is happening). When he hides in the steam cabinet a black woman turns on the steam which shrinks him. When he escapes the cabinet a black woman recognises him and raises the alarm. In every case it seems to be the same black woman; and we are interested in the extent to which a single black woman is individualised by a sequence which goes to such lengths to massify white women. The contrast to the socially invisible status of black people within the film, which provides the excuse for the presence of black women in the first place, seems a significant one.
If blackness in the film is the locus of certain meanings that involve servility and slavery, it is also the place for meanings of activity and power. Inert white bodies are manipulated by black hands. Black women's faces grin through white legs. The women make a strange gesture (voudoun?) and disappear. White women dance with little energy, mechanically, backed by strings. Black women dance with verve and swing, to the blare of brass and blue harmonies.
When this complex of racial connotations is superimposed upon the semantically cacophonous persona we have described as Cantor's, a black hole of meaning is opened. In the course of this sequence Cantor is taken for a white woman, transformed into a black man, converted into a eunuch, presumed to be conversant with feminine beauty secrets, transformed again into a dwarf or a child, and again into himself, and in the end, there being no way out of the madness which has been made of him, he commits suicide (only to be resurrected in the next scene without any explanation for his escape having been offered). In addition, he gestures as a gay male, as a black and as a child and manages to make American thirties slang references to oral sex and vaginal odour ("a kiss in the dark" and "a whiff of Christmas Night"). We doubt our list is complete - but it is complete enough to be able to assert that this plethora of meanings, this polysemy with a vengeance, calls into question any but the most aberrantly utopian interpretation of this sequence. Grace Jones isn't in it: Cantor here is the masses incarnate.
We are now ready to consider the purpose of the commodification Cantor urges in his song. His instructions - to the white women - are to "keep young and beautiful." They are, in the first place, impossible to obey. One cannot keep young (and probably not beautiful). In spite of the elaborate practical detail of Eddie's prescriptions, the project is doomed from the start - or can only succeed in a magic world like the world of the Baths, where normal laws of time and space do not apply.
But why is it that these women should "keep young and beautiful?" You should do so, the song says, "if you want to be loved." But who is to love these women? And here again we find ourselves enmeshed in the social and economic networks of the world the film constructs. For these women are, as we have pointed out, slaves. We know this because they look the same as (some of) the slaves in the earlier "No More Love" number and because of the harem-like situation which has been defined for them, if for no other reasons. (It goes without saying that the black women are slaves, of course.)
Love, in one sense of the word at least, is not likely to be of much benefit to slaves. Indeed, in the "No More Love" sequence, male lust has been explicitly shown as ugly and degrading to these women. There seems to be little reason why any of them would want to be loved like that. On one level at least, another contradiction has been articulated and meaning falters once more.
The "No More Love" number is the completion of the "Keep Young and Beautiful" number - both in its dark and in its bright side, for in it is displayed all the love there is in the slave world. We will merely describe the varieties of love we see in that sequence without elaborate glossing or interpretation.
1. There is no more love in this world. (Apparently this is because the Emperor Valerius has decided to discard his favorite, Olga, preparatory to taking Sylvia as his mistress.)
2. There is male lust in this world. It is a corrupt and deadly lust. (The parallel between this world and the world of the Show Girl cannot be overlooked: the love a slave might wish to inspire in a Sugar Daddy - originally a black term. The men here are all "Daddies" in age and physical type, and so is the Emperor Valerius. This love does not appear here as a desirable thing it itself, but, as for the Show Girl, the products of this love - its spending - may be desirable. In this context, as for the Show Girl, the most extreme form of such products is feedom from male tyranny. The Show Girl achieves this end through wealth, the slave more directly via manumission.)
3. There was once love in this world. (That love does not appear to have anything to do with the Emperor Valerius. It is signed clearly and directly as love between Olga, who sings, and another, dark-haired woman. In this sequence the dark-haired women occupy the same visual place that the black women occupy in the sequence we have previously described: that is, they are their complements. The dark-haired woman is killed by male lust.)
Now it seems to us that we have sufficient information to resolve certain important enigmas within the "Keep Young and Beautiful" sequence: the love that the white women want, the vehemence and the contours of the black vengeance upon the intruder. Also explained are two exchanges of looks within that sequence: the only two exchanges of looks that are foregrounded before the looks which unmask and kill. One is exchanged between a white woman and black woman in the course of a single shot. The white woman, to the left and slightly higher in the frame, is similing vacantly. She looks first as her fingertips (nails) are dipped in liquid. As if responding to an unvoiced command, the black woman looks up to her. Their mutual glance establishes an equality, a communion. The black woman then breaks into a strangely quizzical and knowing smile before the shot is cut.
The other exchange is the only instance in this sequence of two shots joined by a look - and the suture is an unusual one. It consists of a look up by one (white) woman, responded to in the next shot by a look down by another. Spatially the arrangement is probably impossible (but that is not surprising in a musical sequence), but the juncture effected by the look is equally compelling as that effected through the (predominantly left-leaning) motion of the characters during the rest of the number. Here, as in the previous, the exchange of looks signifies a complicity in which Eddie has no part.
These women, whose only other foregrounded looking results in male destruction, here look at each other. They look conspiratorially. They look with satisfaction. They look with approval. They look with power.
1. See Bellour, "Analysis in Flames," Diacritics (Spring, 1985), pp. 54-56; and Elsaesser, "Film History and Visual Pleasure: Weimar Cinema" in Mellencamp, Patraicia and Rosen, Philip (ed.), Cinema Histories, Cinema Practices, American Film Institute Monograph No. 4, 1984, pp. 47-84.
2. Bellour, p. 55.
3. Ibid. 5.
4. Salut, Dominique!
5. We are fascinated by a transformation of this situation which we feel that current theory does not adequately explain: those diegetic universes that instill in us a desire for more stories from them even though those stories are entirely and classically complete and closed, and equilibrium fully and stably established at the end. Popular literature provides many examples of this type, particularly in the adventure, fantasy, and science fiction genres. There are fewer examples in film (and we wonder why this should be so), but Star Wars (and not Raiders of the Lost Ark) is certainly one of them.
6. Jameson's discussion of Conrad occupies pp. 206-280 of his The Political Unconscious (London: Methuen, 1981). Before the publication of Jameson's books, Richard Dyer had used the figure of utopia in a significant piece which argues for its importance in musical comedy films but not quite in the terms we are suggesting here. Dyer discusses in some detail the intimations of utopia offered in the musical numbers within a musical comedy film, which is relevant to the analysis offered later. See Dyer, "Entertainment and utopia", Movie n. 24 (1977), pp. 1-13.
7. Elsaesser, p. 73.
8. Ibid, pp. 72-73.
9. Lang himself made this claim. The earliest instance we have found is in Alfred Eibel's edited volume Fritz Lang (Paris: Presence du Cinema, 1964, p. 22) probably taken from an uncredited earlier interview. Goebbels apparently preferred Die Nibelungen, a film which could well have appealed to Hitler too. See David Stewart Hull, Film in the Third Reich (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969, p. 23).
10. "Je dis qu'il faut etre voyant, se faire voyant. Le poete se fait voyant par un long, immense et raisonne dereglement de tous les sens" (Rimbaud). If we do not speak here and now about what exhibitionism has to do with male castration anxiety and the look, it is not only because we are not prepared to do so and not only because it would take time, but also because what we would say seems so obvious and because the theorists' silence on the point is so deafening, we are quite sure no one would be able to hear us.
11. Actually, George S. Kaufman and Robert Sherwood, the writers on the film, sued Cantor for interfering with their work. The account we know is very brief, occupying three sentences on one paragraph in Tony Thomas, Jim Terry and Busby Berkeley, The Busby Berkeley Book (Greenwich, Connecticut: The New York Graphic Society, 1973), p.72.
12. The history of ancient Rome recounted by Roman Scandals is not only a (distorting) mirror of its own times but also a recasting of the American revolution, in which Tyranny is overthrown by Freedom.
13. Published credits indicate that another song, called "Rome Wasn't Built in a Day", was written for the film. The print we have used for this paper, which is missing the credits and some minutes at the beginning, does not contain this song.
14. See the account in Thomas, Terry and Berkeley, pp.26-27.
15. Bateson, "A Theory of Play and Fantasy," pp. 150-166 in Steps to an Ecology of Mind (Frogmore, Herts.: Paladin, 1973), esp. pp.153-157.
16. The idea seems to have been first advanced in 1966 by Joan Riviere and is fruitfully discussed in print in Mary-Anne Doane's "Film and the Masquerade: theorising the Female Spectator", Screen, v. 23, no. 3-4 (September-October 1982), pp. 74-87. Our discussion is an historical gloss to the extension outlined in Sally Stockbridge's paper, "Women in rock", delivered during the Politics and pleasure seminar series, during the Women's 150th in Melbourne during September, 1985.
17. The specific mechanism of Berkeley's reification consists in the dismemberment of the Show Girls, the patent artificiality of their make-up and hair, the simple, repetitive choreography, the stress on similarity of appearance, and, most of all, in the application of a rigid, metronomic system of montage, derived from Soviet, German and French models.
The reference to Jean Baudrillard's In the Shadow of the Silent Majority ... Or the End of the Social (New York: Semiotext(e), 1983), is by no means accidental.
HTML markup Tom O'Regan, 20.2.1996, Garry Gillard 19 February 2015