Tuesday, June 27, 2017

David E. James's "Rock ‘N’ Film"

David E. James is Professor of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. He is the author of Written Within and Without: A Study of Blake's Milton, Allegories of Cinema: American Film in the Sixties, Power Misses: Essays Across (Un)Popular Culture, The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles, and more.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Rock 'N' Film: Cinema's Dance With Popular Music, and reported the following:
From page 99:
exciting music and dance and other unique talents revitalize it, attracting the admiration of the community, especially its females, which may occasion the jealousy of a villainous male. He is set a task and, aided by an inferior (usually comic) sidekick, he displays remarkable physical prowess in completing and defeating his rivals. He is rewarded with the chosen, manifestly fertile, female, and the community celebrates their union and its own renewal. The only major variations are whether the narrative is motivated by his musical or by other skills and occupations, and whether a father figure aids or hinders him. All the films provide the opportunity not only to see and hear the King sing, but also to admire his face, his body (until he gains weight), his physical accomplishments, and the elaboration of a romantic triangle, and to celebrate his triumph over impediments as he brings the narrative to resolution.

Elvis was the most productive and the most dependable film star of the decade, and the genre’s stability and endurance over so many retellings suggest that the myth responded to some strong social desire centered on the core narrative transactions. Fundamental to them is a myth of exogamic community renewal, a motif whose ubiquity in folk stories and genre films alike suggests that the Elvis movie is anchored in some deep-seated, perhaps transhistorical and transcultural, satisfactions. The positions offered to both men and women for fantasy identification are deeply reassuring, providing universally learned, if not innate, gratifications. Buoyantly enacted as comedy rather than tragedy, the specific narrative elaborations of the core myth are always amusing and never disturbing or disheartening, and the inevitable happy ending symbolically introduces the spectators into the represented community while smoothing their return to the real world. Sung to his new bride as the finale to It Happened at the World’s Fair (Norman Taurog, 1963), the song “Happy Ending” articulates the trite but overwhelmingly reassuring conclusion that is axiomatic in the film musical generally: “Give me a story with a happy ending/When boy meets girl and then they never part again/But live forever happily, like you and me.”

Such a generic stability recurs in many Hollywood star oeuvres, but the quality that kept Elvis’s appeal alive is particularly illuminated by contrast with one of the other most successful pop cultural franchises of the sixties, the James Bond films. The series of almost annual movies from Dr. No (Terence Young, 1962) to You Only Live Twice (Lewis Gilbert, 1967) starring Sean Connery contain recurrent plot elements resembling those of Elvis’s films of the same period. Like the King, Bond is a loner, without parents, family, friends, or other social connections, apart from those he makes while fulfilling the tasks that each movie gives him. Their respective projects take both to exotic locations separate from ordinary life and replete with touristic appeal, where they compete with other males, invariably successfully since both are spontaneous masters of whatever skills appear necessary, but
This is the text of page 99 of my book Rock ‘N’ Film: Cinema’s Dance With Popular Music, which is a history of films about rock 'n' roll from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s. It argues that classic rock 'n' roll was fundamentally a biracial project and that it and the films about it anticipated, reflected, and participated in the utopian cultural developments of the time, especially the civil rights movement and other youth insurgencies. From the jukebox musicals and Elvis’s films, through Woodstock and the other counter-culture documentaries, to the Rolling Stones and David Bowie’s films, the rock 'n' roll film has a structured and coherent history evolution that passes through many modes of film production: Hollywood genres, independent documentaries and avant-garde subversion. This history revolves around the two social implications of music generally that had previously informed the structure and themes of the classic musical: the ideals of romance and of community. That is, the rock 'n' roll film both ended the classic musical, but also renewed it and reconstructed it for the music of a new era.

The page is from the second of the two chapters on the Elvis film, which argues that in the 1960s Hollywood sacrificed the radical potential of one of the most important artists of his time to the capitalist film industry’s own financial priorities. It did so by imprisoning him in an exceptionally stable subgenre that caricatured the fifties’ icon of rebellion and forced him into saccharine musical irrelevance. Despising these films, Elvis nevertheless found a place in all of them to affirm his genius.
Learn more about Rock 'N' Film at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue