- Incongruous Entertainment:Camp, Cultural Value, and the MGM Musical
With his 1978 essay "The American Film Musical: Paradigmatic Structure and Mediatory Function," Rick Altman made an important intervention into the structuralist turn in narrative film theory. Pioneering scholars such as Christian Metz and Raymond Bellour (whose essay "Segmenting/Analysing" Altman specifically takes to task) had seized on structuralism in order to lay the groundwork for the study of film as a language. But this project was hampered somewhat by a totalizing that ignored the variety of film languages within the classical Hollywood cinema. Where Bellour, for instance, was operating under the assumption that the narratives of classical Hollywood films possessed a syntagmatic thrust, Altman showed how the musical progressed through a paradigmatic structure largely in respect to the main romantic couple.
The narrative of the musical served to compare and contrast the hero and the heroine, oscillating back and forth amongst their seemingly contradictory qualities until a synthesis was achieved by the end of the film with the formation of the heterosexual couple. Instead of racing inexorably to a conclusion or the solving of an enigma, the dual-focus structure of the musical teetered between these two poles in an attempt to resolve irreconcilable cultural tensions, usually between the musical's status as a product of industrial capitalism and its positing of utopia beyond capitalism's unequal distribution of wealth and resources.
While Altman's essay undoubtedly rendered the structuralist study of film narrative a richer field of inquiry, it sidestepped the question of whether or not a narratological study of the musical is a fruitful one in the first place. The fit between narrative and number in the musical is a stormy one at best, with the numbers often overwhelming the narrative altogether. And while Altman's subsequent work offered brilliant analyses of the workings of the number, the heteronormativity of the dual-focus narrative structure has long begged the question of what specifically within the musical has made it so amenable to gay male readings and pleasures. Scholars such as Alexander Doty, Brett Farmer, and Matthew Tinkcom have addressed this subject at various points in their work. But with Incongruous Entertainment: Camp, Cultural Value, and the MGM Musical Steven Cohan has devoted an entire feature-length study to the gayness of this most gay of genres.
Cohan's goal with Incongruous Entertainment is to bear down upon the camp logic of the MGM musical in particular. He chose to limit his study to MGM's musical output for some obvious reasons. Especially in the 1940s and at least the first half of the 1950s, the musical was MGM's flagship product, and some of the greatest musicals of all time were created by this studio. Less obviously, though, MGM employed many gay men and women, and thus Cohan demonstrates how a camp aesthetic had already informed the production of musicals that addressed a spectator capable of detecting these traces of camp. Some of the strongest moments in the early portions of the book provide a welcome meditation on various personnel within the famed Arthur Freed unit responsible for MGM's greatest [End Page 66] musical triumphs, Singin' in the Rain chief among them. Cohan necessarily focuses on Freed's assistant Roger Edens, who, along with arranger Kay Thompson, played a crucial role in the development of Judy Garland's performance style. His evocation of the camaraderie between these various behind-the-screen players is not only superlative scholarship but enormously moving in its own right.
But Cohan also bears down on the films in their textual specificity to prove that a camp recognition of MGM musicals is not a function of gay male audience projection. In fact, he gathers so many details in his textual analyses of a variety of films that his book sometimes comes off as a direct provocation to those who continually afflict the tyranny of evidence upon queer scholarship. Far too often, queer media scholarship is dismissed as a result of straying too far from the text, a privileged...