Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Rock Pile

As a consequence of writing my previous blog entry on The T.A.M.I. Show (1964) a couple of days ago, I’ve been preoccupied by various issues raised by the so-called “rock ‘n’ roll film,” hardly the most promising of film genres upon which to base theoretical arguments. In my previous post, I argued that it’s a stretch to view The T.A.M.I. Show as anything but a long, American Bandstand-like episode put on film (it was actually filmed on video and then transferred to film), and that aesthetically speaking it shares more with the TV variety show than the rock documentary pioneered by D. A. Pennebaker and others with films such as Monterey Pop (1968). I observed that what we typically refer to as the “rock documentary” is defined as much by the technology used to record the event as it is by its cinéma vérité style, but I think now this observation is incorrect, for the style is actually dictated by the technology, not the other way around. In the same way the heavy, ponderous video cameras demanded the studio-bound setting used for the filming of The T.A.M.I. Show, the lightweight, portable hand-held 16mm cameras used by Pennebaker and crew to record Monterey Pop encouraged the freewheeling approach to the rock concert typical of documentaries in general. The time restriction of the film roll in each camera required the use of multiple cameras, because the amount of film contained in an individual camera could not record the complete performance of an individual musician or band. The use of low angles and extreme close-ups was enabled because the lightweight camera allowed the camera operator to move easily about the stage, crouching down when necessary for the proper angle. In the same way early Hollywood musicals often employed the features of a Broadway theatrical revue, early rock ‘n’ roll movies employed the jukebox formula used in youth-oriented television programs such as American Bandstand. The other night while watching the rock film featuring Alan Freed, Rock, Rock, Rock (1956)—I’d never seen it before—I was struck by the way the narrative (as utterly banal and inconsequential as it is) was interrupted (stopped) in order for the Tuesday Weld character to sit down and watch TV, on which were appearing several rock acts introduced by DJ Alan Freed. I wonder if it is for this reason so many of the early rock films have dated badly, not only because of the déclassé musical forms (e.g., doo-wop) featured in them, but the unimaginative aesthetics that governed their production. In the case of Rock, Rock, Rock, the banal, unambitious narrative, concerning the teenage Tuesday Weld character’s desire to earn enough money to buy a dress for a school dance, is also another reason these early films hold so little interest except of a historical nature. Even the power of nostalgia, which typically overvaluates the past, can scarcely redeem a film such as this one.

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