Outin' Singin': The strange case of Cosmo Brown 
Wednesday, March 26, 2008, 06:48 AM
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As part of my research into the relationship between allusion and the uncanny I’ve been researching (re)animation, especially in responses to the Pygmalion myth. In a surprising number of stories about female statues coming to life I’ve identified a queer subtext (see my earlier post on Lot’s wife). Singin’ in the Rain is part of this pattern but doesn’t otherwise quite fit in to my research – so I’m doing it as a (rather extended) blog instead.

Singin’ in the Rain doesn’t feature a female statue precisely. However it does represent the creation (via dubbing) of an artificial woman, the perfect leading lady to play alongside hero Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly), one who combines the glamour of Lina Lamont with the lovely voice of the film’s heroine Kathy Selden. But I won’t to focus instead on Don’s best friend, Cosmo Brown (played by Donald O’Connor).

The famous musical is set in the early days of cinema just at the beginning of the rise of the talking picture. We first meet the hero, Don Lockwood, at an opening night. He is accompanied by his beautiful leading lady, Lina Lamont, and it is assumed by his adoring fans that they are engaged. But in fact Don dislikes Lina, who is both vacuous and manipulative. When interviewed by a gushing reporter Don ignores Lina and instead emphasizes the importance of his relationship with his best friend Cosmo Brown, his song and dance partner from childhood. This sequence, incorporating several quick flashbacks, exemplifies the film’s sly play with illusion and masquerade. Whereas Don’s voiceover presents his early life as privileged and respectable it is clear from the visual flashbacks that he and Cosmo were mischievous ragamuffins. What we see and what we hear are two quite different stories.

Tellingly the reporter interrupts Don, silencing his tribute to Cosmo and brushing away his hand as he leans across her to shake Cosmo’s hand in an extended and affectionate handshake. A further hint at a gay subtext is offered when Cosmo informs Lina that she “looks good for a girl” – a line which is barely audible, but picked up by the DVD subtitling

But any suspicions in the viewer’s mind will probably be laid to rest with the arrival of Kathy Selden. The film’s main focus is on how this actress, less glamorous but more talented than Lina, rescues the studio by dubbing Lina’s own Brooklyn accent when movies become talkies. Don teams up with Cosmo to ensure that Kathy gets the credit for her performance – when Lena performs a song ‘live’ both men pull the curtain revealing Kathy hidden behind Lena on stage - and the film winds up to a (delightfully) heteronormative ending.

But the surface love story between Don and Kathy can be seen to figure a hidden alternative romance between Don and Cosmo. Homosexuality was an obvious presence in early Hollywood but almost invisible in its products, the films themselves. Gay stars, just like the apparently straight Don, often dated or even married in order to keep up their image. This dynamic of concealment is repeated in Singin’ in the Rain although here it is a woman (Kathy) rather than a man who is being hidden, both as the real singer in The Dancing Cavalier and as Don’s real girlfriend. Kathy is deeply upset by her concealment behind Lina which she ascribes to Don’s own lack of loyalty in apparently supporting her continued invisibility, not realizing that he plans to unmask Lina’s meanness.

This is one of the many texts and films I’ve discovered which combine a ‘Pygmalion’ motif with a queer subtext. Although the screen siren is a hybrid of two women, the composite is persistently associated with cross gendering. Cosmo stand in front of Kathy miming her song when he first dreams up his plot, the film and the sound track later get out of synch forcing Lina to speak with the voice of her male co star, and at the end of the play Cosmo takes over from Kathy to provide Lina’s voice in a live performance, symbolically sharing her role as the concealed artist/lover, standing behind her as though hinting at a further punchline which remains unspoken

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Reading the Past in the Nineteenth Century: A Symposium 
Sunday, March 9, 2008, 01:52 PM
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This enjoyable event, hosted by the Cambridge Victorian Studies Group and the Reading Experience Database, was held in King’s College last Tuesday. Annika Bautz spoke on Scott’s Victorian readers, showing how sales figures and other data demonstrate the persistent popularity of Scott’s novels, in particular editions of his collected works, over the course of the nineteenth century. I felt slightly sceptical about this – just because books are sold doesn’t mean they are read (think of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time).

But my scepticism is probably a reflection of my own response to Scott (mostly boredom) – and the second paper, given by Rosemary Mitchell, certainly demonstrated that C.M. Yonge at least was an attentive and enthusiastic reader of Scott, through an examination of the presence of The Talisman as a subtly pervasive intertext in Yonge’s own The Chantry.

Shafquat Towheed then offered a very elegant paper on Stevenson’s reading of a single text, William Forbes-Mitchell's Reminiscences of the Great Mutiny 1857-9 in Samoa, and Michael Ledger-Lomas concluded with an entertaining investigation of Victorian representations of the early Christians in Rome, looking at such forgotten novels as Darkness and Dawn, or Scenes in the Days of Nero (by F. W. Farrar, best known as the author of Eric, or Little by Little).

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Ooxml, brm, ecma: Back from Geneva. 
Monday, March 3, 2008, 08:25 PM
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There was a whole paragraph about OOXML in the middle of a fascinating article at the end of this month’s Prospect magazine. So it’s clearly really really important.

But what with earthquakes, storms and Susannah (8) deciding that an intruder had broken in to the house in the middle of the night (she was mistaken but it gave her a good excuse to come into our bed ) I haven’t been sleeping well while Alex has been wielding his gavel in Geneva.

So it’s great to have him home again – I just ask him to talk about his work – the difference between O and P members, for example, or the precise thinking behind those ballot papers, or maybe his latest response to Andy Updegrove, and I’m happily asleep in no time. And if all else fails I can always catch up with the blogosphere’s latest version(s) of events – makes Rashoman seem very straightforward.

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Uncanny Allusions: Pratchett and Shakespeare. 
Wednesday, February 13, 2008, 03:45 PM
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In Terry Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies the wizard Ponder Stibbons has been exploring the magnetic effects of a mysterious stone circle:

“Rocks! Why am I messing around with lumps of stone? When did they ever tell anyone anything?’ said Ponder. ‘You know, sir, sometimes I think there’s a great ocean of truth out there and I’m just sitting on the beach playing with … with stones.”

Ponder, who is by temperament more of a scientist than a wizard, is inadvertently quoting Isaac Newton.

"I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me."

But perhaps there is a still more interesting allusive dynamic at work here. This novel centres around the performance of a play which is clearly the Discworld equivalent of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Ponder’s (overt) allusion to Newton might in fact be a (more buried and covert) allusion to a very famous speech from Shakespeare’s play, itself yet another allusion.

What are the characteristics of Ponder’s words? They express a yearning for something beyond his own world couched in words which are (ironically and reflexively) a kind of message from beyond his own world – from our own – although admittedly they have been somewhat garbled in their journey to Discworld.

A similar expression of yearning and wonder in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is also expressed in words which are, like Ponder’s, an allusion to a text the character shouldn’t be able to access, not because it exists in a parallel universe but because it hasn’t yet been written.

“The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was”. (4.1.209-12)

These are Bottom’s words as he tries to articulate the wonder of his ‘dream’ encounter with Titania. They are also a confused version of Paul’s Letter to Corinthians in which he describes the power of the Holy Spirit.

The speech’s effectiveness as an allusion is not limited to the fact that both Paul and Bottom, in very different ways, are describing something beyond normal human experience. It is not simply the content of the allusion but the fact and nature of that allusion which is significant. Bottom shouldn’t be quoting from the New Testament as A Midsummer Night’s Dream is set long before the birth of Christ. Like Ponder’s quote from Newton, the Bible’s presence in ancient Athens is almost uncanny.

Both allusions, Ponder’s to Newton and Bottom’s to Paul, express an appropriately reflexive longing for hidden knowledge, other worlds. Both Bottom and Ponder are approaching the barrier which separates them from us.

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Murder at Anglia Ruskin: John Harvey's Gone to Ground 
Saturday, January 19, 2008, 01:19 PM
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Slightly irked by a recent article in Spiked (see previous post). After criticising a ban on Google and Wikpedia by a Professor of Media Studies at Brighton University Patrick West commented that this was ‘a mickey mouse position if there ever was one’.

This kind of prejudice – and West cheerfully asserts later in the article that ‘personally I’m in favour of elitism’ – reminded me of the recent publicity given to an A Level blacklist of supposedly ‘soft’ subjects which universities such as Cambridge look on less favourably than traditional subjects such as Maths and English. (It’s fine to take one of these blacklisted subjects, but no more.)

I can’t completely distance myself from (some of) the implicit prejudices at work in this list – I’d be instinctively more impressed by English, Maths, Latin than by English, Sports studies, Art. And at least Cambridge and co were being honest.

But I do think such prejudices help maintain private school/middle class domination in Russell Group Universities because pupils from more privileged backgrounds are more likely to be encouraged to take mostly traditional subjects.

And the values attached to subjects are surely shifting and relative. 100 years ago English would have been seen as a very soft option whereas now it is respected. Today Media Studies is perceived in a similar way when it seems (so far as I can judge) quite as demanding as English.

Given the prejudices against both newer subjects and the newer universities they are associated with, it was good to read John Harvey’s thriller Gone to Ground recently. There are lots of Oxbridge murder mysteries but in Gone to Ground the murder victim was a lecturer in film at my own Department at Anglia Ruskin University.

The only other books I’ve read set at Anglia are Tom Sharp’s Wilt novels (when the University was still CCAT). These depicted the lecturers as frustrated low achievers. But John Harvey’s murder victim represented a pleasing advance on this negative stereotype of the poly lecturer – instead he was a self absorbed, pretentious, intellectual workaholic - a stereotypical old university style academic in fact.

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