The musical is not dead and nor does it have any intention of being so. The success of Glee and musical theatre demonstrate its enduring popularity. Yet film theory positions it as the often neglected family member avoided at gatherings as they are known to be difficult. Why the difficulty and reluctance? It is due to that essential element: the musical number. What are musical numbers and why do they work? Musical numbers should be seen as a Gestalt: where the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Analysing either music and/or visuals in isolation will not lead to an understanding of the whole as it is a synthesis of the two. Any reading, therefore, should pay constant attention to the relationship between the two aspects: music and image.
Musical numbers are great for analysing this relationship. The Danish director Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000) epitomises perfectly the complexities of the medium. The ‘Cvalda’ number illustrates how audio-visual space is actively played with. Images alone provide a fragmented space, so how is a coherent space created? We watch this scene and accept that which is presented to us. Closer inspection, however, shows us that there are 199 shots in the complete number, with an average shot length of 1.2 seconds. We move from long shots to close-ups with dizzying effect and providing little help with spatial cohesion. Yet our ability to negotiate the space remains due to the use of sound.
The industrial sounds of the machines build to create a pleasing harmony. The images, particularly at the beginning, are used to visually locate the sound sources. They are emanations of the music and provide us with an audio-visual proxemic relationship which is logical (when the camera shows a close-up of a machine, it provides us with a sonic ‘close-up’ with noise emitted). Here we have an example of sound driving the image, as it is the sound we first experience. We are happy to move around the scene as frantically as we do because the sound provides reassurance and stability with its regular tempo. Whilst the sound alone varies very little, the images provide no fixed point of reference; together they create a coherent space. They are a Gestalt and conventional film studies analysis that focuses on narrative and visuals therefore fails when attempting to understand musical numbers.
Musical or Music Video?
Thanks for your post on Dancer in the Dark - it’s one of my favorite musical numbers. I think your examples shore up my argument: once clips appear on YouTube, we have a hard time saying what genre they came from, and we can no longer find the boundaries of music video. (My students might assume that the sequence is a Bjork music video: they might not know of Lars Von Trier or Catherine Deneuve.) I agree that your clip draws our attention to different features in the song (which is a music video aesthetic), and that the song provides context for the image. It quickly becomes clear that the music determines where machines and people are in space. The clip also has music video's fast editing, and the images possess a kind of weightlessness.
I’ve been engaged in a debate with several scholars about the main progenitors of today's intensified cinema and the audiovisual turn. I want to make a stronger claim for music video than Marco Calavita is willing to grant: he says the intensified style derives from European art cinema, Hong Kong action films, American experimental film-making and Hollywood musicals. I suggest that only within the hothouse of 80s and 90s music video production, using the inexpensive and flexible medium of videotape and (later) digital technologies, could a language of music video and contemporary audiovisual aesthetics come together. A sensitivity to sound-image relations derives from music video’s heritage – it's a form of knowledge. In other words, even if you sped up Godard’s image tracks, you might not know how to put them against pop songs. Nor would you know how to shape sound effects, dialogue, and music into a musical track that moved in fine relation to the image. Post-classical cinema and other genres draw much from music video.
I discuss some of these questions in my book, Experiencing Music Video (CUP) and my forthcoming book with Oxford, Unruly Media: YouTube, Music Video and the New Digital Cinema.
Many thanks for your comment; it certainly provides food for thought. Experiencing Music Video was a key book in forming my views of this musical number, so thank you.
I find the move to Youtube very interesting and the number of musical numbers you can find on there is very helpful, but also insightful. Where people chose to start and stop their videos and delineate it from the rest of the 'narrative' of the film always proves interesting.
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