Sunday, November 30, 2008

Scenes from a Depression Past

With all the tragic economic news alongside the "New" New Deal rumblings from the off-and-running office of the President Elect, I've been searching out escapist fare online. From the Great Depression of the 1930's, I found these visually fascinating and surreal productions from the great Busby Berkeley. Looking at them now, I find the contrast between the dated, not-quite-classic 30's musical language and the hard-edged, at times minimalist sets, patterns and choreography really resonant and fun. My faves:

"The Words are in My Heart" and its 56 floating, skating pianos.

"All Is Fair In Love And War" may go on too long, but I like the combination of the chromatic martial melody and dozens of giant white rocking chairs; the flags are fun and spectacular too.

His masterpiece, "Lullabye of Broadway," is a sinister take on broadway pizazz, and features many of his thirties motifs: disembodied singing heads, tiny urban vignettes,, impossible transitions, endless variations on a popular song, and massed geometric dance patterns. That it ultimately takes a tragic turn and becomes a cautionary tale for party girls everywhere makes it all the more nifty.

Watch Part 2 here.

In the forties Berkeley worked in color, and his hard edges bleed in the three-strip technicolor film process. His last great signature pieces, "The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat" (reminds me of hallucinations I experienced when I had surgery at 8 years of age), and "The Polka Dot Polka" get stranger and stranger as they go along. It probably drove him crazy when he couldn't get everyone and everything as precise as he had in the previous decade, and the studio most likely gave him less time and money to work with. Consequently, the human waves aren't quite in sync. However, the "Polka" ends with creepy disembodied heads floating in a disturbing technicolor space, but not before a series of images that almost rival Kubrick's Star Gate sequence in 2001 for their sheer abstract quality.

Strange...and tons of fun.