Sunday, March 1, 2009

Period piece: An American in Paris

Last night we watched the movie "An American in Paris" on TV. I hadn't seen it since I was a kid and my family rented it back in the heady early days of rental movies (I think we saw it on a gigantic primitive laserdisc, but I can't be sure). My mother always loved showtunes, so we had a lot of original Broadway cast recordings of this and that, and as a result my relationship to musicals is frequently very song-focused; I usually know all the numbers but have never seen the show (and have, at best, a very vague grasp of the plot). This has often meant that I've been disappointed with musicals I've seen performed, often because of the broad strokes with which their stories are painted; I remember being surprised to discover the streak of racism and classism running through "Oklahoma!," for instance, or the sexism of "Kiss me, Kate." I probably should have expected it, given that the mid-century musical has vaudeville, minstrel shows, and music-hall song as well as Gilbert and Sullivan among its ancestors. But the result is that I am a bit ambivalent about seeing musicals.

"An American in Paris" is a kind of loosely plotted vehicle for a series of Gershwin songs and an extended arrangement of the 1928 symphonic tone poem of the same name, along with the dancing of Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. As long as you don't really expect a lot of narrative sense, it is delightful, both visually and for the music and dance. Shot entirely on Hollywood sets, it nonetheless evokes the spaces of Paris for people like us who have also spent extended periods there. Many of the song and dance numbers are sweetly exuberant, and both Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron are extraordinary dancers.

What struck me about the movie, made in 1951, is its vision of the relationship between the Americans and the French in the immediate postwar period, which is warm and affectionate, but also characterized by some very particular stereotypes. As you watch "Jerry Mulligan" mugging for a crowd of children on the sidewalk in front of his neighborhood flower shop, you see him play the cowboy, the GI, and the jazz dancer, and then promise "demain, bubblegum pour tout." And despite the fact that this scene is made by Americans, for Americans, it is here that you can see how, at a particular moment in time, American brashness could be understood by the French as a form of flamboyance. A certain post-WWII affection for Americans is entirely understandable on historical terms, but the film frames the figure of the American in Paris in terms that are especially striking if one is used to travelling internationally as an American in the present day. American brashness still has some international appeal, especially in its new hip-hop clothing, but it's no longer associated with well-scrubbed white guys from Perth Amboy, New Jersey, like Jerry Mulligan; and it has acquired overtones of ignorance and provinciality that were perhaps once less prominent. Similarly, the American vision of the French is today far less effusive and extroverted than in 1951.

The film is visually beautiful, with gorgeously incidental Technicolor gestures of saturated hue; the camera panning over a crowd scene will move smoothly past a woman in a fuchsia suit, or a long green convertible limousine. This makes the all-black-and-white costumes of the Beaux-Arts Ball scene still more striking, when they finally appear. Other details of the film are also evocative of the time period: a smoke-filled basement jazz bar where Jerry Mulligan takes socialite Milo Roberts is decorated with reproductions of the cave paintings from Lascaux, discovered in 1940, while the singer Henri Baurel, played by Georges Gu├ętary, sings "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise" on a huge curving staircase with lighted risers, accompanied by chorines in skimpy gowns and bizarrely faux-Breton headdresses. The number ends with a flourish in which lights come up on two tableaux of these women in architectonic groups, holding up candelabras: Rex commented "Those girls can now say that they've appeared on film playing a chandelier."

Ultimately, the film is worth seeing for its moments of visual beauty (even during the bizarre dream-sequence ballet set to the "American in Paris" suite), its stupendous dancing, and its wonderful music. It really reminded me of what an important composer George Gershwin was, and how rich his music is, beyond the standards that have become a part of the "American songbook." The melodies of songs like "'S Wonderful" and "I Got Rhythm" are only the beginning. Somehow, the visual richness of the movie adaptation helped me to hear the richness and complexity of the underlay beneath the songs, and the themes that were adapted over and over again for incidental music throughout the film. It was an evening well spent.

1 comment:

Natalia said...

Relatedly, have you seen Paris, je t'aime? There's a good bit of that American-in-Paris affectionate teasing vibe.

I think what amazed me most aboutAn American in Paris was the number of costume changes Leslie Caron went through in the final ballet.