Courses / Undergraduate

Fall 2022

  • Special Topics in Film Genre – That's Entertainment!: Theorizing the Musical

    171 001 | CCN: 24952

    Dolores McElroy

    Location: Dwinelle 188

    Date and Time: M, W 3:30pm - 4:59pm

    4 Units

    In many ways, cultural attitudes toward the genre of the movie musical are metaphors for cultural attitudes towards films themselves. Often dismissed as “mindless entertainment,” or “unrealistic,” the American musical raises our greatest fears (and joys) about the process of being entertained. The musical is also, paradoxically, the genre of film that requires perhaps the greatest marshalling of technological resources (synchronization, precise editing, expert performance, rehearsal, and coordination of orchestras, choruses, choreographers, dancers, singers, set and lighting designers, costumers, and a sound department that can make recorded and prerecorded music sound “seamless” to the ear), yet must appear––according to the expectations of the genre––spontaneous, sincere, and must make us, the viewers, feel as though we can sing and dance along, too. These paradoxes are also the paradoxes of modernity, in general, and a closer study of the musical will demonstrate the ways that fears and fantasies about technology and the changing rhythms of modern life, arise in tandem with fears and fantasies of race and gender. One of the theses of the course is that each new technological development brings with it an equally strong tide of nostalgia for a pre-modern world of “authentic” feeling, which often takes the form of racist fantasies and regressive gender roles. And yet, musicals have been the genre perhaps most influenced and defined by groups on the margins of American society, including Black Americans, Jewish immigrants, women, and queers, offering a complex knot of genre conventions into which marginalized people are often boxed, and out of which they can also pour and express their longings. We will examine the ideological constraints of this genre which, no matter how self-aware and self-reflexive, is most often labeled “conservative” by critics, upholding traditional values, and will try to think through what is often left over, or left out of this ideological criticism. For instance, how do we grapple with the fact that, whatever the ideological “message,” we nonetheless emerge from these films tapping our toes and humming a song? Lastly, we will ask ourselves, in the postmodern (or post-postmodern) era, is the musical “dead?” Students will be conversant in issues regarding the structure and style of the musical genre, and will gain an outline of its history on film.