A Singularity In The Woman-verse: A Non-Representational Approach To “Dames”
Ray Enright and Busby Berkeley’s Dames is a film that reverses the core values of theorist Richard Dyer’s “representational” and “non-representational” elements in the traditional backstage musical (20). Familiar archetypes in this style of musical, such as the down-on-her-luck aspiring actress, instead focus on a struggling male performer whose dreams are realized by “those beautiful dames”. This facet of Dames’ narrative is a representational one, but executed in such a way that challenges the familiar structure of representational elements in other musicals. If the narrative functions and representational symbols are tampered with in Dames, then what is to be said of its non-representational imagery? The roles of both elements are linked in a very specific way; the representational story beats are very self-reflexive, even going so far as having its characters discuss the allure of the musical genre itself. This enables the narrative and its themes to be very immediate and clear cut. Underlying subtexts and symbolic meanings are explored in the film’s non-representational sequences, produced in such a way that forms more complex themes for the viewer than its strictly diegetic narrative events. That is to say, the visual and more directly passive experience that is traditionally found in a musical’s non-representational elements is reversed in Dames, enabling the production numbers to express the film’s themes over the narrative.
There is a sequence in Dames that acts as the film’s stylistic centerpiece; a large group of sleeping women inhabit a dark soundstage-like space. They begin to wake, groom, and dress themselves in highly exaggerated vignettes of feminine morning routines. These women leave the space and march in formation through a city street. The group finally enters various “Stage Doors”, presumably to audition for or perform production numbers. In a reversal of the opening “waking” shots, this new performance space is much more visible. Shown in four segments, this loose context involving stage performers is shot as an extravaganza of female anatomy, form, and gesture throughout the six minute sequence. This series of shots is wildly abstract and visually interpretive in the surrealist vein – It stands apart from the other dance sequences in the film because it seems to have little association with Dames’ diegesis. As highly stylized as the other sequences are, they still are fundamentally representational; they involve the narrative’s familiar characters and help to advance their goals and aspirations. This sequence is seemingly dropped into the middle of the diegesis, lacks any familiar characters (save for the final shot) and is enveloped by non-representational lavishness. Why is it then that this sequence is more essential than the film’s various narrative driven numbers? This is the sequence that justifies the claims of the film’s players; the male lead in the film expresses that performance is really only valued by an audience insofar as the performers are beautiful women. As Richard Dyer notes, non representational passive imagery is “within the network of signs in a given culture at a given point of time. Nevertheless, the signification is essentially apprehended through the coded non-representational form.” (21). In a self-reflexive fashion, this sequence shows rather than tells, abandoning procedural narrative conventions and expresses thematic ones instead. We as an audience are able to “apprehend” and perceive the stunning qualities of the “dames” for ourselves through non-representational means, and come to this conclusion without the instruction of the film’s characters.
The segment opens in a parallel ‘woman-verse’, a black void that houses all the women of the city. Of course, this space is interpretive – it suggests symbolically that all women are cut from the same cloth, and all possess the same routines, habits, and traits. This is further supported by the women’s identical make up and hairstyles, and the fact they are visually ‘coupled’ with each other in their beds. Something is also to be said of the ominous darkness that surrounds the pearlescent beds, bathtubs, and vanity mirrors that are frequently used by the women in the space; later on, when the group of women enter a starkly white space, it is in visual opposition to the dark one that begins the sequence. When the women devote their energy to beautifying themselves and demonstrating that beauty through performance, the forum in which they do so is radiantly lit and exposed. This implies it is the women’s vocation and single purpose to be beautiful. Their personal ‘woman-verse’ world is black, save for the radiant objects they use to beautify themselves. This can be taken to mean that a world beyond cosmetic performance is unattainable and non-existent for these women – or ‘dames’ at least.
So far, this sequence’s non representational elements have been interpreted in an ideological manner; in a way, the intellectual reading of these elements yields a misogynistic and sinister feeling regarding the locations the women inhabit. And yet, these women seem to be in absolute bliss when engaging in their morning routine, enjoying their sorority, and adopting a childlike excitement expressed in big grins. They are about to be worshipped, and given such deific glamour that even allows a blind man to register their beauty. A resolute doorman gets a spring in his step as he joyously opens the door for these women. As the sequence transitions from their morning routines to their performance on the stage, the emotion invoked is that of pure delight: The expressions on the faces of these actresses are jarringly cheerful (even forcibly), and their overall movement from bed to stage is in a state of hyper-control, a never faltering grace that is upheld even when the camera invades their private spaces and habits. We can assume the non-representational elements in the actresses’ movement and demeanor implies perfection. Even before their cosmetic transformations, the women uphold elegance behind closed doors. Emotionally, we respond with warmth and giddiness at the thought of these perfect creatures – a non-representational reading that is in stark contrast with the former oppressive intellectual take. Dyer addresses this conflict, noting that “the capacity of entertainment to present either complex or unpleasant feelings…in a way that makes them seem uncomplicated, direct, and vivid…” (22) is crucial in comparing these dynamics. Are the women deservedly worshipped, or constrained by imposed misogynistic standards? Both conclusions can be met via the non-representational elements in the first half of the sequence. These women gain diversity in their costumes, hairstyles, and look after their entry into the world of male eyes. Their individuality is only earned when they become the ‘dames’, their worship is only justifiable when accepting their role as a spectacle. To me, this paradox of disturbing subjugation and joyous expression reflects Dyer’s assertion that “the categories of the utopian sensibility are related to specific inadequacies in society.” (23) In the world of Dames, women are used as raw material to fuel the performance industry. This wholly negative foundation is responded to by treating these women as precious gems, commodities as they may be; the utopia is thus populated by successful businessmen and contentedly adored women.
As the women exit the street and enter the voluptuous sea of “Stage Doors” (that also hearken back to the clocks in the opening of the sequence), we begin to see that the world of performance is the domain of femininity. They are the crux, as even the entryways to the stage have a curvaceous feminine nature. When the women take the stage, they immediately use their feminine appendages to execute very controlled patterns en masse – This is not dance per se, but a process that further imposes a conformity upon the ‘dames’; their gender becomes further specified, where women are relegated to geometric conventions. What I mean by this is, the abstract (non-representational) floral patterns the ‘dames’ perform are not emotional displays of femininity, but mathematical formulas that further classify the roles and functions of women’s bodies. Just when the viewer begins to feel a lack of emotion in the formulaic and abstract arrangement of their choreography, the women suddenly begin to fly from the ground into the camera, giving the sense that being on the stage and performing invigorates these actresses with superhuman strength. This becomes even more apparent when the women eventually fold into pure lines, which then in turn form a literal hallway of ‘dames’. The ensuing transformation from woman, to individual ‘dame’, to chorus shape, to finally becoming a three dimensional space themselves over the course of the sequence is overwhelming. Ultimately, the non-representational image of woman in this sequence is summarized as simply a space to inhabit, let alone an object or second-class citizen. Theorist Lucy Fischer comments that these images are a “reduction of the female form to biotic tile in an abstract mosaic” (138) and also notes that the film uses a “woman as decoration” (139) mentality in exhibiting its non-representational elements. All emotion to be found in the non-representational reading is lost when the dames literally become a “decoration” on the wall.
The sequence ends with the dames themselves singing the familiar melody, as the camera zooms out from a close up of an individual woman to reveal her mechanical part in an ornate design of many women. The male lead’s head bursts through this image, now transformed into a 2 dimensional print on the wall. The dames have indeed turned into a work of beautiful art to be admired, and yet the contemporary subjectivity one brings when viewing leaves a sense of discomfort. Through pure abstract imagery, we have gathered a very crucial theme of the film – Beautiful women are the cornerstone of entertainment and according to Dyer, this would also mean that they are the cornerstone of the screen-utopia. The narrative of the film is dependent on this sequence to prove its representational assertions, and thus it falls on the non-representational elements in the scene to explain what mere words can’t. This sequence ultimately does not provide utopia, as the reliance on non-representational signs create a conflicting and disturbing picture of how one can view femininity. Regardless, the sequence is ambitious for allowing itself to show rather than tell; and in the end, it feels natural that an aesthetically dominated sequence yields an aesthetically dominated message.
1. Dames. Dirs. Ray Enright, Busby Berkeley. Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell. Warner Bros, 1934
2. Dyer, Richard. “Entertainment As Utopia.” Hollywood Musicals, The Film Reader. Ed, Steven Cohan. New York: Routledge; 2002. 17 – 30.
3. Fischer, Lucy. “Shall We Dance? Woman and the Musical.” Shot/Countershot: Film Tradition and Women’s Cinema. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989. 132-162.