WEIRDLAND: "Singin' in the Rain" (Symbolism and Interpretation): An Alternative View

Monday, April 23, 2012

"Singin' in the Rain" (Symbolism and Interpretation): An Alternative View

I consider "Donnie Darko: An Alternative View" as one of my best articles/interpretations I've ever written, maybe it's due (from a sentimental point of view) to being Richard Kelly's cult classic "Donnie Darko" the subject of one of my first serious analysis in film criticism.

Another film which has similarly gotten such a hold of me lately is "Singin' In The Rain", which deserves on its own classic merits a new essay, this time related to Sigmund Freud's symbolism theories, also invoking the themes of matriarchy and incest that can belie its gleaming surface. Here is my postulation: "Singin' In The Rain, allegory and symbols". I've used as examples for my thesis fragments from "Freud, Psychoanalysis and Symbolism" by Agnes Petocz (1995)

Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly): -I can't get her out of my mind.

Cosmo (Donald O'Connor): -How could you? She's the first dame not to fall for you in ages.

Don Lockwood: -She's on my conscience.

Sigmund Freud regarded conscience as originating from the growth of civilisation, directed its energy as a superego against the person's own "ego" or selfishness. According to Freud, the consequence of not obeying our conscience is guilt; Freud claimed that both the cultural and individual super-ego set up strict ideal demands with regard to the moral aspects of certain decisions, disobedience to which provokes a 'fear of conscience.'

Film director: -What's your name?

-Don Lockwood, but people call me Donald.

Freud often uses 'symbol' in the sense of metaphor, and he allows that the concept of a symbol cannot be sharply delimited: it shades off into such notions as those of a replacement or representation, and even approaches that of an allusion.' "Lockwood"´s name seems to be an allusion to "Hollywood": that is, Hollywood as a locked place.

Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds): -And there was a girl. Lina Lamont. I don't go to the movies much. If you've seen one, you've seen them all.

We could see as a scurrilous allusion to a tyrannical mother in the figure of Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), a forced "fiancée" of matinée idol Don Lockwood (who pretends to be socialising with her around the party atmosphere of Hollywood in the 20's).

Don Lockwood (exposing his true feelings to Lina): -There is nothing between us. There has never been anything between us. Just air.

In a classic Oedipal dream, for instance, the presence of the queen might be a 'disguise' for the mother. But the conditions of pictorial representability are equally applicable to both; it is no more difficult to represent the mother via a visual image than it is to represent the queen. Freud recognised that a dreamer in relation to his dream-wishes can only be compared to an amalgamation of two separate people who are linked by some important common element.

Kathy Selden (whose surname could be a substitute for "Seldom") is a young actress who, the same as Don, is exaggerating her "dignity" in order to gain sympathy in a ruthless industry. Although a romantic relationship is clearly established, however one can't shake off the impression of being contemplating a courtship a little too pure and restrained, almost as if we were witnessing siblings role-playing in a platonic romance. In "On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love," Freud discusses the "incestuous fixation on mother or sister", so Kathy's character could stand for Don's sister. In Freud's most famous work, "The Interpretation of Dreams", incest -in which the original object (for the male) is the mother or sister- forms the material for the most common theme in art and creative writing. Interestingly, Lina expresses a desire to kill her 'successor' Kathy ("I'll kill her"), who becomes a reminder of Lina's caducity.

In the non-dialogue segment of "Broadway Ballet" between Cyd Charisse (the vamp) and the young hoofer (Gene Kelly), a lubricious dance spirals into a veiled catachresis which isn't easy to decipher when the figure of a ganster appears winning back the indecorous vamp. In "A Special Type of Choice of Object Made by Men," Freud considers men who are interested only in women over whose affections they must compete with another man; women who by virtue of their sexual life have something of the prostitute about them and for that reason are more exciting. The lover of this type proposes to save the woman he desires, though he readily accepts the presence of his rival. Thenceforward he feels he must save her from degradation. This pattern, Freud adds, is repetitive, because it can only result in disappointment.

The staircase symbol: 'Ladders, steps and staircases, or, more precisely, walking on them, are clear symbols of sexual intercourse. On reflection, it will occur to us that the common element here is the rhythm of walking up them.' Symbolism is like a language, but one which, curiously, the dreamer has not learned. Knowledge of the language is unconscious, but this, according to Freud, is more problematic than unconscious 'endeavours' (wishes and impulses).

Despite the fact that Freud earlier referred to unconscious psychical conflict as leaving the patient 'in the peculiar state of knowing and at the same time not knowing', here, unconscious knowledge presents a problem. The very great majority of symbols in dreams are sexual symbols. What makes the symbolic relation 'a comparison of a quite special kind' is not just the obscurity in some cases, but the curious fact that the dreamer is not 'acquainted with' the symbol, uses it 'without knowing about it'; we are faced by the fact that the dreamer has a symbolic mode of expression at his disposal which he does not know in waking life and does not recognise. Thus symbolism is a second and independent factor in the distortion of dreams, alongside of the dream-censorship.

Freud identifies displacement as the most powerful instrument of the dream-censorship. We can guess how much to the point is Nietzsche's assertion that in dreams 'some primaeval relic of humanity is at work which we can now scarcely reach any longer by a direct path'; It was later found that linguistic usage, mythology and folklore afford the most ample analogies to dream symbols. The use of a common symbolism extends far beyond the use of a common language.

Audience: -lt's a Lockwood & Lamont talkie. This is terrible. The sound is out of synchronization!

The relationship between language and thought by Lakoff and Johnson: according to their proposed 'contemporary theory of metaphor', which rejects the classical treatment of metaphor as a strictly linguistic device, 'the locus of metaphor is not in language at all, but in the way we conceptualize one mental domain in terms of another'; thus metaphor, like (non-conventional) symbolism, is 'fundamentally conceptual, not linguistic in nature'.

CONCLUSION: As representational meaning, Lina Lamont would adopt the role of surrogate mother to estranged son Don (he calls Lina "rattlesnake" and "reptile" and whom he'd want "to break every bone in her body"), Kathy Selden would assume the figure of Don's sister (or even daughter, given the fatherly treatment in their fairy tale romance); probably the most interesting (although screen time-wise brief) female character is Cyd Charisse's: her dual character as femme fatale and bride would personify the flesh and blood girlfriend who abandoned Don to become a ganster's moll, which would lead us to conclude that the "Broadway Ballet" (intended to be a dream scene or a surrealistic proposal which will be discarded) is maybe the only real scenery all through the film, therefore Don Lockwood is basically a popular dancer from Broadway, a Hollywood actor in the making, but still not the superstar Don Lockwood appears to be in the beginning of the film. So the fantasy part in "Singin' in the Rain" would include all the story except the fourteen minutes of "Broadway Rhythm Ballet", hence its seemingly anarchic structure makes sense if we see the film as a paradigm of the musical genre that venerates happines above reality.


countsheep said...

very interesting article, Elena!

Elena Gonzalvo said...

thanks a lot, countsheep, you're welcome!