Glee: Cinema Verité

[Movies] don’t just tell stories. They transport us to other worlds. They are inspirational. They provide comfort. And they help us escape from our day-to-day anxieties. . . . Now remember. Movies are visual. So it’s not just about the singing. It’s about performance; it’s about theatricality. It’s about the language of cinema.

When I hear the phrase “the language of cinema” I can’t help but recall Dziga Vertov’s 1929 Man with a Movie Cameraand the cinema verité movement it influenced. Vertov’s film followed the lives of ordinary Russians going about their day, while exposing the tricks of cinematic technique—the language of cinema. In one scene, he splices together shots of vehicles driving with shots of himself filming the vehicles. There’s not a deep association here, other than “verité” means “truth” and early practitioners were concerned with showing reality as objectively as possible—without controlling actors through directing. It was kind of like trying to get at the truth while simultaneously demonstrating the limitations of the medium.

In a lot of ways Glee is the opposite of cinema verité. It shows us reality and “truth” too, but in a way that’s extremely stylized, symbolic, and often, fantastic. And yet, just like Vertov’s shots of himself behind the camera, the show likes to make us aware of its own artifice. That doesn’t make it less real or true.

In “Girls (and Boys) on Film,” we see characters dance around, face or reveal truths, and those moments are set in motion thanks to film. Many characters use cinema to speak—they use plots to suggest courses of action, they imagine themselves as characters in a film to contemplate their problems. They even try to write (or rather, re-write) the “films” of their lives.

“You Can’t Handle the Truth”

Screen Shot 2013-03-09 at 2.46.52 PMIn the episode, Joe mistakes the Jack Nicholson “truth” line quoted above from A Few Good Men for a Tom Cruise one. Even though he’s wrong, the quote is important, since the episode is full of people telling the truth—and full of other people trying to handle it. Kitty reveals to Marley that she used to tell others she was “poor and fat and mousey and boring.” Emma tells Will the truth about why she left him at the alter, while Finn reveals to Will that he kissed Emma. Jake is honest with Marley, and she, with Jake. Kurt is honest with Adam (and in his fantasy, with Blaine). And Santana either extracts or shares various truths pertaining to Kurt and Rachel: that Kurt hooked up with Blaine, that Rachel is pregnant, that something is going on with Brody.

Screen Shot 2013-03-09 at 4.19.29 PMMost of the truth-telling comes out of characters’ engagement with film. Emma responds to Will’s Say Anything, and it’s when he asks her to in fact say anything (in the form of a pamphlet title) that she finally does. Marley and Jake’s truth-telling comes out in different ways. Jake recreates a scene from Ghost to connect with Marley before telling her about Ryder helping him, while Marley watches two different versions of the film play out in her mind, and comes clean to Jake about the kiss she shared with Ryder. Kurt’s admission to Adam about wanting to move on comes out of his imagining a scene from Moulin Rouge—and recognizing the pull Blaine still has on his heart.

Finding a Plot That Fits

Finn uses the language of cinema more literally, in that he uses film plotting to communicate with Will throughout the episode. For instance, he frames Will’s situation with Emma as a mystery when he asks him, “How’s the case going, Detective Shue?” He continues that framing with Artie, who suggests they conduct a “lady manhunt” to locate Emma. Finn and Artie’s undercover stint as “gingers” is another way Finn keeps using the genre’s plot devices.

Once they find Emma, Finn uses the rom-com genre with Will to push him to act by telling him,

This is like in the third act of the movie where the heartbroken guy chases through the crowded city streets to win his girl back and then he does some big romantic gesture and the music swells and then the crowd applauds and their eyes well up with tears and then she’ll take you back.

Screen Shot 2013-03-09 at 2.45.20 PMThis particular example strikes me as odd, though. Who needs to win who back, anyway? Will’s not going out to “win” Emma back—she left him at the alter. Neither does Emma need to win back Will. If anything, Finn’s example makes me think of his own situation with Rachel. Is this the film he’s working from? The role he sees for himself? Regardless, the film plot doesn’t adequately capture Will and Emma’s story, and in the end Will creates his own, truer version (at least from his perspective):

Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy mopes around and sits on his ass until his best man helps save the day.

Of course, even that revision is faulty, as it doesn’t represent Finn’s secret about Emma. But I like the idea of characters trying to control their own narratives, instead of being directed by others. “So what happens now?” Emma asks Will, as both characters seem ready for a new story, maybe one they’ll write together. We’ll see.

Just as Will and Emma’s story doesn’t match the film Finn tries to apply to it, Kurt’s fantasized “Come What May” is somewhat similar. In keeping with the idea of characters controlling their stories, we could argue that Kurt’s fantasy film version with Blaine is controlling him. Even if it captures the truth about his feelings, it’s not the story Kurt wants to live right now, as he admits to Adam that he “desperately wants to be over” Blaine. He tentatively accepts Adam’s affections. In so doing he might be taking on a new cinematic story, though, alluded to in the Downton Abbey lines Adam delivers in the kitchen. Even though Adam gets the story between Daisy and William wrong (she marries William out of guilt, not love), the reference is interesting.

Marley’s “Ghost” offers the same concept. In her reality, she’s re-enacting the Ghost scene between her and Jake. But as she watches  herself, she rewrites the scene with herself and Ryder. She can’t tell what actors should play the role of her lover in her own story.

“You Can’t Just Force Someone to Do Something”

Screen Shot 2013-03-09 at 4.16.11 PMIn spite of characters’ seeing their lives in film form and trying to control how it plays out, a lot of the musical numbers are about the opposite of that. Songs like “Shout” and “Footloose” (even “Danger Zone”) are such free spirit songs about letting loose and going for it. The choreography illustrates those feelings, as we see boy after boy slide across the choir room floor, or the student body army crawling across the library floor and later sort of goose stepping across the cafeteria floor. “Footloose” is similar, with the wild dancing both above and on the stage and its crazy kicking choreography. (There’s actually a lot of focus on feet, whether we’re seeing Artie hold up shoes or Brittany take them off, or seeing the quick shuffling in “Shout” and feel sliding on the floor.) Will and Emma’s performance of “You’re All the World to Me” captures this spirit too, as they playfully spring from surface to surface.

That said, we do get plenty of “forcing someone to do something” imagery, too. Even as the Will and Emma scene is fun and light, the space they operate in is so cramped, and the door keeps them inside. Sue’s crack about Emma escaping Will’s “Living Dollhouse of the Damned” suggests confinement, too—being kept. And Artie’s comments about going on a “hard target search of every gas station, residence, warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse and doghouse” suggest other closed spaces (many of which are relevant, actually, either literally or figuratively).

“So What Happens Next?”

Getting at the truth is good thing, even if it’s difficult or painful to deal with. As these characters continue to understand themselves and what they really want, we’ll see the particular way they shape the stories of their lives—whether they capture it honestly or obscure it through gimmickry, or whether they escape the confines of stories that someone else is trying to write for them.


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