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Evolution

Essay by   •  March 19, 2011  •  Essay  •  1,918 Words (8 Pages)  •  1,091 Views

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As long as there has been genre criticism, critics have pondered the existence of genre evolution. Certainly none would argue that the content, style, and structure of genre films changes over time, but is this evidence of significant evolution, or merely variations on a theme? In examining three different movie musicals - The Wizard of Oz (1939), Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), and O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000) - I will attempt to determine the extent to which these variations constitute evolution of the genre.

The Wizard of Oz (dir. Victor Fleming) tells the simple story of Dorothy Gale, an young girl from Kansas transported to the magical land of Oz. Accompanied by three unlikely compatriots - a tin woodsman, a scarecrow, and a cowardly lion - as well as a loyal dog, Dorothy must make her way through the strange and enchanted kingdom of Oz to ask the Wizard to send her back to her beloved Auntie Em. A whimsical fable, the movie's escapist fantasy urged the downtrodden American audiences of the time to forget their troubles and find their heart's desires in their own backyards.

The Wizard of Oz contains many conventions commonly seen in musicals, most notably the use of artifice and spectacle. The entire kingdom of Oz, and especially Munchkinland, are lush with vibrant colours. The Munchkins themselves are sickeningly sweet, with their false voices and archetypal fashions. The Munchkins are caricatures, an exaggeration of Dorothy's wish to be appreciated. She is certainly appreciated in this new land, as the Munchkins throw a musical parade in her honour and declare her their national heroine. However, despite her newfound celebrity, Dorothy wants only to return home.

This film contains elements of the fantasy/quest movie, as Dorothy and her friends embark on a quest to find the Wizard and obtain their various goals. The elements of fantasy are many; Dorothy, as the central character, has been magically transported from the 'real' world of Kansas to the secondary world of Oz, where animals and scarecrows talk, trees scold you for picking their fruit, and witches cast spells. Dorothy must learn the 'rules' of this fantasy world if she is to make her way back home. There are also elements of the horror movie, as the Wicked Witch is an excellent example of a menacing monster. She commands an army of flying monkeys, has an arsenal of magical spells, and lives in a terrifying castle in a haunted forest.

The music and choreography of Wizard are contemporaneous with other musicals of the time. Dorothy, her companions, Glinda, the Munchkins, and the citizens of Emerald City all partake in the merriment of song and dance, while the Wicked Witch, and the Wizard himself, seem above such frivolous pastimes. Tellingly, while music is common in Oz, Dorothy is the only character who sings in the colourless world of Kansas - the famously mournful "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." Other than this piece, the music is lighthearted, richly orchestrated, and joyful - typical of musicals of that era.

Though Dorothy's adventures seem real and life-threatening to her, and to the viewers, the end of the film implies that the entire episode was merely a dream. However, if the 'journey' was an inner one, the conclusion is lacking: Dorothy's central issue (the upcoming destruction of her dog) has not been resolved, nor has she gained any knowledge or experience to help her prevent, or accept, the loss of her pet. Nevertheless, this misfortune is glossed over in favour of feel-good lessons such as "There's no place like home." This happy but illogical ending is typical of the musical genre.

In 1973, director Norman Jewison presented the last few weeks of Jesus' life, climaxing with his death by crucifixion, in Jesus Christ Superstar. Though the story is timeless, the themes of oppression and rebellion are strong, and seem to serve as an allegory to the racial and societal tensions prevalent at the time the film was made.

Jesus Christ Superstar contains many conventions of the stage musical, on which it is based. Using sparse sets and no costume changes, the cast interacts with the props and scenery in ways not seen in other genres: for example, the Priests thumping their hands against the temple scaffolding to punctuate their singing that "Jesus is dangerous". Another stage musical convention is seen in the absence of dialogue, which is replaced by the characters singing pop and rock songs accompanied by electric guitar and keyboards. The music of Jesus Christ Superstar is a product of its time, heavily influenced by the cultural revolution of the 1970s.

The film features two powerful applications of 1970s culture that greatly enhance the story: "Simon Zealotes" and "King Herod's Song". In "Simon Zealotes," Simon leads a crowd of enthusiastic believers urging Jesus to save them. The disco choreography is rapid and mechanical, with a sense of desperation, recalling the religious fervour displayed at revival services. In "King Herod's Song," King Herod ridicules Jesus, asking sarcastically to prove himself King of the Jews. With decadent, gaudy costumes and 'mod' makeup, Herod and his subjects are garish and contemptible next to Jesus' quiet simplicity.

The influence of the time is also evident in the casting choices. Not only does the majority of the cast appear to be under 30, in order to capitalize on the mistrust of adults prevalent at the time, but the two major supporting characters are played by visible minorities: Judas Iscariot is played by an African American (Carl Anderson), and Mary Magdalene by an exotic Hawaiian woman (Yvonne Elliman). Furthermore, the anachronistic conceptualizations of Roman guards using modern machinery (tanks, planes, machine guns) are more a product of era than of genre.

Loosely based on Homer's Odyssey, packed with 'old-timey music,' and named after a fictional film imagined by a fictional character in Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels, the sources for O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000, dir. Joel Coen) may seem complex, but the film is actually as simple and straightforward as musical movie audiences expect. Coen uses the Depression-era Midwest to tell the story of Ulysses Everett McGill, his two companions, and their adventures as they escape from a prison chain gang in order to recover a treasure in O Brother, Where Art Thou? The three encounter several unlikely situations, as is common in a genre based on artifice and improbability; the police van meant to take them back to jail instead explodes and showers the officials with gunfire, and later, the governor of the state grants them a full pardon. These

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