for 30 May 1996. Updated every THURSDAY.


Signing in the Rain

Whether it's Saturday Night Live's
hackneyed but amusing-in-spite-of-
itself swimsuit issue songbook or
the forthcoming Woody Allen movie,
whether it's the new-found hipness
of "La Boheme in the East Village"
as seen in Rent or the subtle
creep of movie soundtracks into the
space of narrative, it is clear that
a C-change is afoot: we've seen the
future and it carries a tune.
The perpetually unamused may at first
peg this rising intonation as simply
another way to crank up the cynicism
dial, the logical next step in a
youth culture that has made "ironic
appreciation" an excuse to indulge
itself in everything from Beverly
Hills 90210 to Mentos ads. To be
sure, the success of nostalgia
orgies like School House Rock Live!
suggests that the coming New
Musicality will gain some support
from the same set of
twentysomethings who flocked to
pledge allegiance to the Cocktail
Nation. But there are the souls who
look at a songbook and see only
notes and then there the ones who
look at it and know the score.
The reason CopRock seems so absurd,
and why musicals stand out at all -
in spite of their varied subject
matter - is their radical
conventionality. While their threat
to the Iliad is questionable,
spectacles like The Muppet Movie and
Beauty and the Beast are childish
reminders of the influence of
schoolyard chorus in the more
musical staged arts - an outpouring
of emotion so strong it must be
expressed in rhyme. And if Western
sociality deems singing cash
register attendants at Carls Jr.
inappropriate, if life insurance
salespeople choose to cautiously
explain rather than launch into a
heel-clicking tap frenzy, who can
As authors of the social, most of us
know better than to condone
aggressive acts of baritone
terrorism. The cast of Cats goes
through hours of make-up each night
not just in support of the premise,
but to cleverly build cognitive
consonance to the unspoken notion
that the audience is at the zoo,
seeing what would normally be
inappropriate, if not undesired.
Cats and Urban Outfitted hipsters
talking on stage, much less singing,
is strange enough to superficially
suggest an unexpected pushing of the
envelope, if only by an octave.
Even in dealing with shoot 'em ups
and sexcapes, most people expect
movies to play within fairly rigid
parameters of what "would really
happen" should some terrorist freak
hijack a building, or should Drew
Barrymore seduce her dad. Filmmaker
Hal Hartley's burgeoning following
attests to the willingness of at
least some audiences to reject a
modicum of realism in favor of, if
nothing else, a good laugh. Hartley
deadpans his way through the mild
insanity of everyday existence by
letting his characters loose only a
little bit. Normal people with
normal jobs in normal towns, they
just go a little nuts every once in
awhile - throwing aside the person
ahead of them in line, stealing a
six-pack. Hartley's response to the
criticism that "people just don't
talk (or act) that way" is "But
that's not the point."
To some extent, the accolades heaped
upon these auteurs and amateurs
alike are justified. Great
entertainment has resulted from
their attempts to unhinge the
delicate balance of realism and
fantasy upon which popular culture
rests, but for every Altmanesque
foray into suburban nonsense, there
is an equal and opposite reaction of
Leaving Las Vegas bleakness. After
awhile, the tension between
surrealist whimsy and graphic
authenticity escalates into a kind
of aesthetic warfare in which the
real losers are the neutral
observers. The impulses of realism
and fantasy become hopelessly,
hyperbolically fused - and all we're
left with are Abel Ferrara films,
confusion masquerading as
complexity, grostequerie posing as
genuineness. Not only is this bad
art, it can be a miserable way to
spend an afternoon.
It's one thing to point out the
absurdity of our everyday
assumptions by introducing a large
gun into the frame, a la Tarantino.
It's quite another to have people
burst into song. Because no matter
how many fast food references you
make, if the meat of the matter is
still murder, something will trip in
our brains, and eventually it's just
not funny anymore. Besides, using
violence as a tool to introduce the
shock of the unreal loses its
potency as the recognition of real
violence around us increases.
In contrast, the novelty of a chorus
line is evergreen. The feedback loop
of simulated violence and real
violence that seems so troubling to
some isn't so much of a concern when
it comes to whacking "G"s of an
entirely harmonic nature.

words by Ann O'Tate
pictures by Terry Colon