In the past I’ve made light of Busby Berkeley’s films. Without ever having watched them, I knew they were filled with clichés about 'dames'; I knew Berkeley himself lived out his days in Palm Springs, which to me meant golf, which in turn, to me, was wholly incompatible with artistic genius; I knew, finally, that his choreography was parodied by Mel Brooks in the Spanish-Inquisition scene in History of the World, and being an object of Brooksian parody, I passively assumed, could only mean that there was nothing to earnestly admire in the source material. How wrong I was.
Berkeley's choreography is best known for its complex architecture, rather than for its 'moves'. He was more an architect than a choreographer, in fact, and what he achieves in the end cannot really be called 'dance' at all. The raw material he works with are women's bodies, and his oeuvre shows a singular obsession with turning these women into geometrical patterns. Once this aim of his work is grasped, it is hard to think of it as light entertainment. I don't know enough about him to say what was driving this obsession, but I can't help but be reminded of the well-known aim of 18th-century French gardening: contrôle totale du monde végétal. Replace the vegetal with the feminine and you have a fairly good summary of Busby Berkeley's art.
Berkeley's architectural choreography is made possible through the intervention of a third art --cinema--, and the choreographed scenes, taken apart, suggest to me a possibility for the history of cinema that largely died out with Dziga Vertov and only lived on on the avant-garde margins in the work of such film-makers as Stan Brakhage: namely, cinema as principally a visual rather than a narrative art, whose objective is to capture transient patterns in the world. There is nothing more transient or unstable than a geometrical assemblage of women, but Berkeley understands how to use film in order to effect an incongruous, indeed impossible, transformation, and to make it, in a sense, permanent: he freezes these unstable moments in time during which organic bodies are reduced to simple and regular shapes.
If you are made uncomfortable by the misogynistic implications of Berkeley's project, it will be enough to describe it as issuing from a general biophobia, already well diagnosed in Kant's Critique of Judgment, and arguably, before him, in the aesthetics of Shaftesbury, which understands art as the managed and finite reaction to the revolting complexity of nature. Geometrizing the organic is obviously the most severe sort of imposition of order, yet again, it is film more than choreography that makes it possible: if performed on a stage or on a football field, a pyramid of girls' bodies will appear merely as impressive acrobatics. But on film the stunts become real sculptures.
The most stunning scene choreographed by Busby Berkeley is surely “By a Waterfall,” from Lloyd Bacon's Footlight Parade of 1933. It adds a further complexity to the choreographer's ordering impulse by moving back and forth between the geometrical and the biomorphic. We see fleeting likenesses of spermatozoa and digestive peristalsis, but in the end we are always returned back to perfect Berkeleyan order. (Note: the real show begins at around 5'17'' in this clip. The initial scene with the couple lounging by the waterfall, I take it, is just the pretextual schlock in which Berkeley had to trade in order to pursue his art; the real thing, as becomes evident at the end, is the man's dream.)
[Sunday Cinema, #13]
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