On a YouTube channel where somebody’s posted the clip of Swing Time’s “Never Dance Again” scene, a melancholic and eventually inspired dance between Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in an empty dining hall near an arcing staircase, somebody’s left a comment saying, “[Ginger Rogers] did everything Fred Astaire did backwards, in high heels, wearing a twenty-pound dress, exhausted, injured, and standing in a pool of her own blood. And watching her performance, you would never know.”
Roger Ebert says in his review of Swing Time that, apart from being Astaire/Rogers movie of the ten in which they starred, this scene was probably the high point of their partnership. His review meditates on what’s basically the transcendence of watching extremely talented people exercise their talent in a way that makes the feat look easy. The beauty of the dances, the grace, the chemistry and charm between the actors. There’s nothing too cerebral about it, you’re just lifted and swept away by it, which maybe makes for the most cinematic experience of all.
The reason for my consulting his review of Swing Time, and re-watching the dance numbers on YouTube, and checking out the trivia about it on TCM is because right now, six or seven days after seeing it, I remember almost nothing. I remember the gambling component, and the fact that painful misunderstandings propel the plot forward just as they did in Top Hat, but otherwise my recollection of what happened here is just a reel of what they were wearing and where they danced. Quick flashes of pirouettes and taps.
I took courses a course on postmodernism in college called Deconstructive Ethics, a title I still don’t understand, and it was like the second-level course after Postmodern Lit. Both were taught by the same professor, a young and excitable mom named Ana, and I remember she used dancing as her main example for pure, unfiltered, “essential” action or expression. Part of postmodernism’s big schtick is that everything is mediated, removed from its essential self. Like take the word “desk.” The word desk is only a signifier of the thing we’re envisioning: a modest wooden table. That distance between the word and the thing is unbridgable and eternal and if you follow the postmodern rabbit hole you find that nothing means anything and all of life is a jungle gym and there’s really no point in bathing.
But back to the example. We dance, she said, for the sake of dancing. There are some instances, sure, where a dance means something. But for the most part it it’s just expression of raw wordless emotion. She also – a parent of two young girls – referred to the way that children will naturally play with each other as a sign of something consummate and essential. Not how they play with toys or electronics; just the two of them frolicking in the grass. That you just watch it and you understand something wordlessly, feel things in response.
Maybe that’s the allure of these Roger/Astaire movies? The acting isn’t outstanding, I’m not even sure I buy their romantic chemistry, and the stories all seem pretty similar. But then you get to those dancing scenes and the masks of narrative are pulled aside. We watch the dance and therein see all that’s worth saying.
Swing Time is fun, I know this in retrospect, but I think its appearance on the List, so close on the heels of Top Hat, makes the two of them bleed together in the memory of any viewer with a less-than-expert familiarity with the genre or the craft. Frankly, if not for the presence of James Cagney, I wouldn’t be able to distinguish, in memory, 42nd Street from Footlight Parade either, except to say that I remember liking the former more than the latter. I don’t suppose Steven Jay Schneider, editor of the List, would advise a strict adherence to chronology in one’s journey through the List, and this, so far, allows or a solid argument against my current approach.