June 14, 2013

Wife's Choice: AN AMERICAN IN PARIS Is The TRANSFORMERS Of Musicals

"Did I ever tell you about the time I gave a command performance for Hitler?"
When Jamie told me that her Wife's Choice pick was An American In Paris, she immediately followed it with, "You're going to hate it."

She knows me so well.

Any of my friends can tell you that I am simply not a fan of the genre.  I'll admit that there are a few musicals that I really do enjoy, but I'm talking about nerdy stuff like Dr. Horrible, anything with the Muppets, the musical episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer titled "Once More With Feeling" and The Blues Brothers.  (Not only is it one of my favorite movies, but as far as I'm concerned it's the best musical I've ever seen.)  Considering my fondness for karaoke, my college a cappella background and my degree in theater studies, it might seem strange that I would harbor such vitriol for the musical form, but my complaint is very simple: I simply can't get on board with the convention of characters suddenly breaking out into an elaborate song and dance routine.  I think it almost always stops a scene's momentum dead in its tracks.  Moreover, since the song usually comes in right at the emotional high point, I get really frustrated when I'm really engrossed in a really dramatic or romantic moment, only to be abruptly jarred out of it by something so incredibly mannered and artificial.

The counter argument, which Jamie has made to me on numerous occasions, is that the characters are so overcome with emotion, be it happy or sad, that normal human interaction just isn't enough.  They can only adequately express themselves using song and dance.  Sorry, but no dice.  Rather than enhance a scene, I think it deflates the scene.  Human beings have so many fascinating ways of communicating their thoughts and feelings that actually occur in real life, and that's the stuff that I find truly interesting.  Whether watching a movie or in my day to day reality, I never find myself wishing that people would suddenly bust out into musical routines just to convey themselves to the world.  It never feels necessary.*  The bigger the musical number, the more annoyed I tend to get.

An American In Paris is everything that drives me bonkers about musicals, cranked up 1000%.  Aside from the fact that it starts out with voiceover from three different narrators and then totally drops the convention five minutes later, the story itself is fairly dull, with very little real conflict between characters.  Gene Kelly is charming of course, and I actually loved his "dance" where he wakes up and sets up his apartment for the day in a series of fluid, choreographed movements.  That actually felt really clever.  Unfortunately it was all downhill from there.

In a way, An American In Paris isn't even really a movie so much as it's a recital with a few scenes between songs.  The characters do not sing and dance as a means of communication, in lieu of a conversation.  Instead they just break into song appropos of nothing, to no specific end.  Gene Kelly sings "Who Could Ask For Anything More" with a crowd of French kids for no other reason than it's adorable.  A man describes his girlfriend to an old friend while we see multiple iterations of an imaginary version of her dancing to illustrate to every adjective.  Eventually Gene Kelly's piano playing friend, who is at best tangential to the plot, imagines himself as every member of an orchestra in concert, which goes on for about ten solid minutes, contributing absolutely nothing to the story at hand.  But that's nothing compared to the film's finale.  After the woman Gene Kelly loves walks out on him, he imagines himself in his own sketch of a Paris fountain, which then morphs into a bizarre fever dream of wordless technicolor dance numbers FOR TWENTY MINUTES.  He then snaps back to reality to find that his ladyfriend has returned to him, just because.  Fade to black.

How did this film win an Academy Award for Best Picture?

That's not to take anything away from Gene Kelly's incredible dancing or the lush, colorful set and costume design of the finale.  It's beautiful craftsmanship and superbly executed.  But I'm sorry, there's just no excuse for spending the final twenty minutes of your movie engaged in an imagined dance routine that has no emotional stakes or bearing on the plot of any kind.  That shit is not only lazy, it's boring.

Maybe it's a generational thing.  Obviously Kelly was a huge star and beloved by everyone, so maybe the audience for this movie didn't give a shit about plot and story and just came to see awesome dancing.  If that's the case, An American In Paris certainly delivers.  But that also kind of makes it the musical equivalent of Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen - all overwhelming spectacle with nothing below the surface.  Yeah it's visually impressive and on a certain level it's entertaining, but ultimately who gives a shit?  It may have been a different era, but this is a timeless criticism. Story is should always be king, so I don't feel guilty judging past audiences for liking Paris. After all, I expect our children will rightly judge us for Michael Bay's mechanical monstrosities.  

At least Gene Kelly doesn't have giant robot testicles.





*Not to step into a giant hornet's nest, but this is pretty much how I feel about religion.  While the idea of a benevolent supreme being is certainly nice and reassuring, it feels like an obvious human invention.  The universe operates on a series of laws and it's certainly able to function whether there is a god or not.  Both belief in God and love of musicals feel like a dream of how people wish the world could be, so it suddenly seems obvious that I'm skeptical of both.


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Title: An American In Paris
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Starring: Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Oscar Lavant, Georges Guetary, Nina Foch
Year Of Release: 1951
Viewing Method: DVD