Saturday, March 11, 2006

HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL, OPEN RANGE and unrevisionist genre films

First off, thanx soooo much to Mike Grost for hipping me to HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL. One of the things I adored about it was how unrevisionist it was. It seems as if after a certain point in history, Hollywood could burp up ONLY revisionist/baroque/reflexive genre films. Take Tom Schatz's four stages of genre development: experimental, classical, refinement, baroque...the end. Or Jane Feuer's model - experimentation, classical, reflexivity...the end. As Rick Altman puts it, "(in these) teleological histor(ies), genres...only...shuttle back and forth between experimentation and reflexivity" (from FILM/GENRE, p. 22). Hasn't the revisionist or baroque or self-reflexive western been with us since at least BROKEN ARROW (1950)? That's 56 years of revising! What about the Lash La Rue-style programmers that were still being pumped out in the 1950s or our pal William Witney and his serials? Much of that activity moved over to TV, I know. But it still disrupts tidy histories.

And so does HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL. While watching it, I said to the Mr., "Sheesh - even the Astaire/Rogers musicals were more radical than this!" Though probably not the MacDonald/Eddy horrors (STILL can't make it through MAYTIME). HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL is the classical classical musical - the genre's conventions have reached their equilibrium...yet 2006.

I'm thinking about this in the wake of Blake Lucas' admission on the a_film_by list a few months back of being unmoved by several recent westerns (if not the post-1969 and/or revisionist western in general) such as THE MISSING (I think) and OPEN RANGE. Not a fan of the former. But what I found so thrilling about OPEN RANGE was that I kept waiting for the revisionist moment that never came. It genuinely guided me through the film. Maltin Inc. is right - OPEN RANGE is "as simple as a Roy Rogers B movie." But in an era when it supposedly shouldn't exist.

Now at over 2 hours, OPEN RANGE can't be ALL that simple. And HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL does feature an interracial romance. But the revisionism one might juice from these films could barely fill a shot glass.

This bothers me to a certain extent. Schatz says that genre films in the baroque/ revisionist stage make the genre's form the film's content. Thus these films can be more potentially appealing to those of a formalist bent. Believe it or not, there IS a formalist side to me that OPEN RANGE and HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL definitely do not engage. Don't go to either for genius explorations of space or whatnot! Right now, I'm more than fine with this lack of formalist oomph largely because there are so few integrated musicals around. But if indeed the marketplace becomes flooded with them (and it may - see below), the impact of each film will necessarily be diluted.

But I love these films now because they encapsulate a chaotic history rather than a teleological or (and I want to make this point very clear) circular one. Because we all know where teleological and circular histories lead, don't we, Boomers?

And it pays to think about such things sooner than later. Check out this piece by Mikael Wood from the Village Voice on HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL. The thing is on freakin' fire!!


Blogger Tom Sutpen said...

To start with, I'll confess I've not seen High School Musical, so perhaps its unwise for me to comment here (watch closely as I unwittingly give flesh to this proposition . . . besides, I made it through Maytime not once, but twice), but with respect to Open Range, its lack of any components we would normally call revisionist raises the question of what revisionism is within genres, what it constitutes.

Because when you look closely at the so-called Classical period of American Westerns, you'll find you're not dealing with a monolithic form of expression or a static, neatly ordered thematic template just sitting there waiting for Anthony Mann or Sergio Corbucci or Spencer G. Bennett or Sam Whats'is'name or whomever to come along after the fact and modify as one would a slang dictionary; dropping and adding elements in accordance with contemporary currents. In this sense, every Western since The Great Train Robbery has been 'revisionist; a fact which renders the term (in this context) useless.

There's as much difference, formally and thematically, between the 'classical' Westerns of John Ford and, say, Cecil B. DeMille as there are between those of Ford and the 'revisionist' Mann; and they're not completely a matter of differences in their respective authorial voices (whatever that phrase means). But for some reason we retrospectively attribute to Mann's Westerns a conscious self-reflexive-ness (is that a word?) that I'm not 100% certain he ever intended; just as I'm equally unsure someone like DeMille was working from some format of genre expectation when he made a film like The Plainsman.

Okay, this is getting way too long. My point is that film genres in American have always undergone this process, there's always been evolution (though sometimes in directions that outwardly seem less-than-evolved), and the only thing that ever gets revised in genres is our conception of them. These modes of storytelling always had the potential for greater and greater levels of expression. We just don't always realize it.

By the by . . . great blog, Kevin!

Tom Sutpen

8:20 AM  

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