JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

These connotations have been associated with the independent stars and in particular those who had at least one time in a career crossed the sex barrier to dress as a man. Like Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus and Morocco, Katherine Hepburn in Sylvia Scarlett, and Greta Garbo in Queen Christina, Eleanor Powell played the woman masquerading as a man. She was often costumed in top hat and tuxedo with tails for her tap dance specials, as seen in the Lady Be Good "Fascinating Rhythm" finale, where she dominates an extravaganza featuring, in addition to a singer and the Berry brothers, eighty male dancers, five pianos, and an orchestra.[27] [open notes in new window]

Feminist film critics have claimed this kind of strong female star (coded as masculine to bring out the <tough> and <resilient> connotations in her star image) as their lost lesbian heritage.[28] Yet, if current critical practice considers lesbian and gay messages in film or image as subtext, does this mean that there is a "hidden" meaning encoded by gays working in the industry forty years ago? Is this retrospective reading of a film or a star icon a wishful misreading or does the sexual ambiguity allow and even encourage the lesbian connotations?

Eco's semiotic theory leads away from any idea that meaning is embalmed in an artistic text. His understanding of signification as social allows any textual interpretation to shift with social and historical change. The work of art, he says, can be "adapted" to meet the expressive needs of those who receive its messages, and this adaptation need not ignore or misconstrue the rules governing meaning.[29] In semiotic terms, interpretive reading also involves testing codes and rejecting them, much as we have done here with the proposal that Marilyn and Buttons may be dancing or playing. The rule which the sender used is "extrapolated" from the codes the viewer already knows. Also, the viewer might either try closely to follow the sender's intended message or to investigate other possible messages.[30] This theory of interpretation with its equal emphasis on sender and receiver seems to allow so much "play" with the text that it might accommodate the interpretive license of impressionistic criticism. For example, several contemporary viewers who saw the sequence in Lady Be Good told me that they suspected woman and dog were mating. To make such a reading would be to take interpretive license with the text if, in fact, there were no basis for seeing the interaction as a mating ritual.

Kinesic codes: dancing and mating

How do we determine whether a dance is "saying" that a woman is mating with a dog? Could the woman and dog's strutting and preening movements be based on a primal courtship ritual still retained here in a residual shadow? Common sense suggests that human societies have elaborate sex differentiation rituals because male and female homo sapiens are so distinctively and visibly biologically different. Birdwhistell's work in kinesics, the study of motion and gesture, shows that, although a patterned set of movements facilitates the gender identification preliminary to and requisite for species reproduction in humans and animals, there is an inverse relationship between male and female secondary sex distinctions and ritualized gender display. Because humans are not that well-differentiated anatomically, this space creates an "opportunity" for the construction of tertiary, or learned, sexual behavior. This is how we should consider gender display.[31] Costume, cosmetics, gesture, and ritual elaborate upon and magnify masculine-feminine difference.[32] Even more important for our purposes, this space makes room for invention, which in turn can foster social myth. For instance, as the choreography "arranges" a dance which imitates animal gender display, it says in a coy and charming way how much humans seem like animals in this regard, and how different in all species the male is from the female.

The film develops the human/animal analogy primarily by the movements which emphasize the similarity of the partners. I have identified four patterns in the sequence which stress similarity:

These patterns set up woman and dog as matched partners. I would argue that the patterns themselves convey this meaning.

A fifth pattern, which I will call the manipulation pattern, accentuates the differences between the partners. In the conventional male-female duo, this pattern becomes visible in the way partners exchange active and passive roles, with the male partner, usually the more active of the two, directing the woman's body movements. An example here would be Fred Astaire's style, described as an initiation and seduction of the female partner."[33] Astaire conveys instruction and his control over his partner by turning her at the waist, raising an arm or leg, and lifting her body over his head.

The Marilyn-Buttons act transgressively uses these conventionalized patterns or choreographic codes of similarity and difference. Here the patterns intended to create a symmetrical effect instead call attention to the partners' asymmetry. The manipulation pattern, finally, is impossible to adapt gracefully because of the anatomical difference between woman and dog. Here it's "spoofed" in the way Marilyn lifts the dog onto the record player and catches him in the air. In parallel steps, Marilyn, posterior slightly raised, "conforms" her body position to that of the dog, and the dog "walks" on his hind legs [Figure 10]. Mimicry demands less precision than paralleling here, and Buttons' tail wagging becomes equated with Marilyn's hula. (We know this because Marilyn says, "Oh, so you can do the hula too?") Anatomical incongruity is used to transgress choreographic codes.

If we were to locate the operations which produce humor in the sequence, we might also look at the way the various codes are transgressed and rules broken. Eco theorizes this kind of code abuse in an aesthetic message. He says it creates potential to "bring the code into question" in such a way that we understand the "possibilities" of the code in new ways."[34] "Calling a code into question" to bring new concepts to light certainly will have an important significance when a message has profound social implications to begin with. If not so "significant," this whimsical dance affords an example of the same phenomenon. The substitution of a dog for a male partner calls our attention to the rules and assumptions we make about couples dancing together — that their bodies should empathetically meld together and that their climactic clinch prefaces the sex act. Finally, for the characters to "dance" acrobatic sideshow tricks, and for the film to athleticize dance is to draw attention to the rules of both circus act and tap dance, if only fragmentarily and fleetingly.

As further argument against looking for echoes of innately known (and hence uncoded) primary gender display in the strutting and preening of woman and dog, I would stress the distance between elemental ritual and satirical mimicry within an entertainment form such as cinema. Even if gesture in the entire body of U.S. cinema were successfully classified according to movement, we would still have recorded only a secondary system, dependant on the primary gestural system. The cinema, says Eco, is a highly stylized "artificial kinesics," best thought of as a "language speaking another preexisting language." When we consider that we are analyzing filmed dance, this becomes yet another generation removed from the primary.[35] Dance is a code, like game, play, and mime, "derived" from the primary system of communication. And Birdwhistell cautions that these derived codes are relatively resistant to systematic analysis of the sort he has undertaken with primary gesture.[36]

While we can't hope to understand primary gestural language by studying cinematic theatrical gesture, we can easily see broad patterns of cultural emphasis in the secondary system's embellishments and condensations. Theories of social construction must analyze the derived and artificial as well as map the linguistic features of the primary. Eco recommends borrowing Birdwhistell's scheme, developed from systematic research on primary gestural codes. I introduce that scheme here as a model of how to see movement as communication.

The gesture which people consider "innate," like the image which they think "resembles" something, presents us with an area seemingly resistant to being analyzed as communication and therefore seemingly impossible to reduce to culture.[37] As with the iconic sign, we are faced with the question of how to break up the object of study, which is in this case the field of filmed action. What shall we designate as the units of meaning? How do we isolate them? Of what size are the signifying chunks of action which cinema viewers "take in"? Although human bodies produce gesture and posture in a continuum rather than in action increments, in perceiving gesture, every society slices the movement continuum in a different way.

Birdwhistell has reduced movement to the kine, that fraction which cultural "informants" recognize. It might be as small as the degree of eyelid closure.[38] Kines in themselves, however, have importance only insofar as they combine meaningfully on another level. This level Birdwhistell calls the kinemorph, the equivalent to what is meant here by the kinesic sign.[39] Kinesics, then, measures action minutely, showing that meaning is communicated through body shift or facial twitch. From kinesic research we know how every slice of action carries some portion of meaning in relation to other bits of action.

This theory of the segmentation of the action continuum is useful to explain why viewers might not see Marilyn's /knee slapping/ or /kicking/ as commands to the dog. Dance is read largely as abstract pattern. Here, the viewers combine as rhythmic design what the dog might respond to as discrete obedience signals. Furthermore, whereas a choreographer would see the basic tap steps (Falling Off a Log and Shuffle Off to Buffalo) or the flash steps (Over the Top and Through the Trenches),[40] an unschooled viewer would pick up patterns connoting "energy" or syntagmatically, "acceleration."

The choreographic steps could be productively studied as kinemorphs, combinable units in a kind of choreographic language understood by dancers. But what about the arcs and spheres and multidimensional textural effects that dance movement creates? Do viewers read dance movement like they read gesture? In some cases, to insist on a distinction between iconic and kinesic signs is not so useful. As Eco describes it, icons must always generate kines.[41] In addition, dancing bodies, their costume style, and physiological type contribute modifying connotations to movement sensations. Richard Dyer, in Entertainment and Utopia, holds that the nonrepresentational forms carrying the expressive contents in cinematic musical numbers are predominantly iconic. These iconic figures do not combine into meaningful units that refer to real world objects. We "recognize" them in another way. The best analogy here is to the language of music whose abstract melodic and rhythmic forms signify definite sensibilities, which can be translated into variations of human emotion.[42]

Movement patterns, then, systematically communicate feelings, although these waves or splashes seem, on first consideration, illusive and erratic, picking us up emotionally in a quite unsystematic manner. Critical studies of dance as design show that there are abstract shapes recurrent in every dance and that forms in themselves have expressive correlations. In this vein, Dyer, in the British Film Institute Study Guide on the Musical, draws from choreographer Doris Humphrey's dance theory to demonstrate the way in which movement design is culturally coded. Every dance, says Humphrey, has alternating symmetrical and asymmetrical design, patterned either into a solo dancers body position or into the partners' interaction. The similar and different body arrangements in the dance analyzed here correspond with this symmetrical and asymmetrical division. They bear out Humphrey's theory that every dance will contain both of these patterns in alternation.

Humphrey further identifies a second basic choreographic division, the oppositional and successional. He links these patterns with emotional expressions. According to Dyer, the oppositional pattern, in which lines are opposed at right angles, contrasts with the curved and fluid successional pattern, which conveys a more gentle, yielding, and usually romantic sense. Forceful oppoitional lines become vehicles for "aggressive energy" and "vitality," according to Humphrey, and this kind of energetic happiness the viewer feels as "exuberant joyousness' and "exultant hope."[43]

Such dichotomies also represent some of the broader cultural patterns or emphases to which I have referred. For instance, Dyer relates the oppositional and successional division to concepts of male and female qualities. He notes that the aggressive oppositional forms are danced by males while the yielding successional forms are reserved for female dancers. Even more pertinently, Dyer finds a happiness/romance dichotomy solidly implanated in the show business tradition to which the U.S. musical belongs.[44] If happiness stands as opposed to romance, this tells us that the culture conceives of some aspects of "happiness" that are distinctly different from those commonly associated with romance, i.e., bliss, rapture, serenity, contentment. These other aspects of happiness are associated with "aggressive energy" and "vitality." They correlate with the oppositional forms in dance, and they refer to, on an ideological level, some particularly North American aspirations, which I will discuss in the concluding sections.

The audience's empathizing with characters and feeling up or down with the rhythm of an entertainment film indicate still another kind of cultural expertise which moviegoers have without awareness — emotion. Response to film's visual and aural rhythms, which we may have experienced as spontaneous actually comes as the result of learned analogy, as I have already argued.[45] The connection between rhythmic intensity and eroticism, for instance, is culturally inculcated.

How does this help us to understand the sensation audiences would have watching Marilyn tap out rhythms and the dog jump to beats corresponding with a snappy orchestral arrangement of the George Gershwin melody? The musical film employs a number of different vehicles to represent rhythm. These include cutting, camera movement, dance, narrative pace, and music, which is both melodic and rhythmic.[46] These vehicles all share in conveying rhythmic pulses, but not always equally. Since Marilyn's tap dancing has the strongest rhythmic pulse in this scene, I have concentrated on it here.

Movements also involve kinetic release, which choreographers measure as the amount of energy compressed in the dynamics of dance. Dyer refers to Margaret D'Houbler's work on dynamics. She classifies dance according to four binds of energy release: swinging, sustained, collapsing, and percussive.[47] Because of its bursting and leaping, and in the case of flash, springing movements, tap dance offers predominantly a percussive release, but the percussive drill-like tapping can be punctuated with more languid shuffles. The loose body and "wound-up" feet of the tap dancer, then, have their own peculiar energy release and this kinetic quality is another dance component which audiences relate to familiar emotions.

"Feeling like a million"

Lady Be Good is not an adaptation of the Broadway musical, the source of the two Ira and George Gershwin songs the film features. The film uses an original story by Jack McGowan, previously entitled "Feeling Like a Million."[48] This title would have worked as well on almost any Freed Unit musical of the 40s and 50s, usually in that tradition of optimistic self-confidence which Michael Wood has described as offering audiences less a feeling of 'how to succeed" than "how it feels to be succeeding."[49] Lady Be Good conveys the very U.S. sense of "feeling like a million dollars" in two specific ways. First, the narrative concerning the Donegan and Crane team makes connections by loose analogy between "a million dollars" and other cultural units such as "hit tune." "Feeling like a million" is like "writing a tune that becomes a popular hit," or "breaking record and sheet music sales," and also like "falling in love and marrying." Second, the film conveys the sensation of "feeling like a million" through music and dance.

The Marilyn-Buttons routine contributes "spontaneity" and "exhilaration" to the overall sense of "feeling like a million." As signifiers, both the dance design and its dynamics are culturally linked to an extremely energetic but self-assured sort of happiness, which U.S. audiences might associate with "being on top" {mastery} while also "feeling at ease with oneself." I would suggest that executing something very difficult with such ease that it looks like child's play is especially a U.S. ideal; tap dancing summarizes this near impossibility. We can add to this the extreme joy felt in doing those things that "take one away" (from the ordinary), which Powell once expressed in her declaration: "I would rather dance than eat!"[50]

Conclusion: rhythm and success

Why a woman can dance with a dog in this film has to do with both the spirit of "feeling like a million" and the conditions the musical has established within which extraordinary things can and do happen. Recall that the narrative concerns the way in which a song becomes a national craze. The film offers one explanation for this, and it is not that the tune has been promoted excessively or "plugged to the hilt" in the publicist's jargon. The explanation offered is that the song is irresistible. It just "catches on" by itself. Window washers and "shoe shines" can't help whistling, humming and dancing a few steps to it. It takes people over. They can't help doing things they might not ordinarily do. Taking this a step further, the finale — which was added to feature the second Gershwin song around which Lady Be Good was conceived — offers a seemingly broader explanation for why we can't help doing things: "Fascinating Rhythm." In the words of the song,

"Fascinating Rhythm is a pickin' on me … it's got me on the go …"

Of course, the song "Fascinating Rhythm" does not offer any logical explanation as to why people are "carried away." Instead it is a celebrated bromide that ties up the loose ends of the film.

Without going into a detailed analysis of the Busby Berkeley finale, I will just note how it integrates some of the elements introduced in the film. First, there is a resolution of the popular and the classical, represented by the elegant black grand piano on which the curtain rises.

This gives way to the "pop" white pianos and Powell's tap dancing. Second, the finale traces rhythm to its African origins; here Black cultural forms assume a popular, colonized disguise. As signified by dark projections, Black rhythms connote a racist "spooky" effect, rather than rhythmic eroticism. The projections are actually shadows cast against the back stage wall by orchestra members representing the instrumental sounds which carry "that rhythm." These shadows "answer" the images of the Berry brothers, whose silhouettes loom large on the stage curtains. In turn, these Black tap connotations are passed along to Powell, whose tapping feet are seen over the top of the sheet music for "Fascinating Rhythm," a visual refrain of the popular music sales and irresistible rhythm elements.

The finale cuts to the courtroom scene with Dixie explaining to the judge why she wants a divorce; this reveals that the entire film has been in flashback. In the courtroom present, the story of Dixie and Eddie's collaboration and the immense popularity of their efforts then stands as evidence to the judge. He refuses Dixie the divorce and proclaims they should remain married. Because the film makes an analogy between the hit tune's unification of popular and classical and Dixie and Eddie's marriage, each "match" provides evidence for the validity of the other.[54] The love between man and woman is proof of the success of the song and the success of the song "Lady Be Good" proves the rightness of their marriage.

For Marxists, one of the lures of semiotic studies has been the hope of understanding the way ideology is built at the level of daily life, from the bedrock of social knowledge up. Eco's theory promises a systematic approach to "… everything which can be used in order to lie." This is to say that Eco looks at how this bedrock of social wisdom is laid.[52] Some of this potential for seeing how the ideological is structured into culture comes from Eco's theory of code-switching. Here he shows how signs accumulate new equivalences and these come to have the status of "truth."[53]

My study has looked at how a musical film has made rhythm interchangeable with success. Certainly the rhythm = success equation has not been proposed for the first time in this film; it "rings true" from our cultural experience. The idea that "feeling like a million dollars" describes the best state of things gets a "boost" from popular wisdom about money, success, and the inexplicable drive leading to accomplishment. Strangely, "rhythm" in this film's finale is both active and fixating, an impetus for achievement ("You got me on the go …") and a mesmeric fascination ("You can get it from the slap of the big strong bass/Or the moan of the saxophone"). Characteristic of ideology, such "truths" restated in film are limited and contradictory. Surely they cannot account for very much if we try to use them to make sense of the world.

The notion of cultural coding as it has evolved in mass culture studies still provides only an imprecise critical tool. Because we need to establish general operational communicational rules applying to such various systems, we may sometimes force similarities between systems.[54] Some systems — for example, rituals such as play — are so very loosely coded that to consider them linguistically, we must stretch a comparison with verbal language, which is so strictly coded. Another critic has complained that the titles assigned the various systems seem arbitrary.[55] For example, Eco himself has this problem in his references to codes of perception and codes of recognition. Further, because the difference between an iconic sign and an iconic seme is relative, an important distinction is left as an open-ended choice when it comes to applying the principle to a specific example. Finally, the relation between the iconic and the kinesic has not, in my opinion, been adequately theorized, especially as this pertains to images of the human body represented in cinema, an art ruled by both iconic and kinesic codes. The notion of code is most useful as an orientation. It forces us to see how existing knowledge is used to build new semantic systems (or languages) which construct "realities" parallel to a real world, and how in this adjacent "reality" we can "say" anything, even that dogs do "dance."