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Meta-casting: Icons, Ions, and Pop Metaphysics

A celebrity is a commodity whose sign-value (appeal, recognizable identity, talent, performance history) is inseparable from his or her economic value (box office draws, ratings, music, and merchandising sales) in terms of a general equivalent: money. This fundamental premise of the entertainment industry drives decisions for investing in salaries and commercial airtime. The somewhat obvious role of “the market" in popular culture not only characterizes the media-scape as demotic but also gives it its empirical premise. 

Fred Astaire is a sign with multiple values in simultaneous sign systems: proper noun, family name, cultural icon, entertainment commodity. His career spans approximately six decades from vaudeville to television, no small achievement in show business. But more remarkable are Astaire’s persona and his referential function in a lexicon of popular culture, his epithet - the happy-go-lucky, American song-and-dance man and romantic embodiment of masculine grace. The length of Fred Astaire’s career and his inseparable association with the genre of the American musical situates him within the first generation of media-nostalgia figures, a position that becomes even clearer in the translation of his image from one genre to another (musical comedy to drama). What follows is an analysis of two films featuring Astaire: the MGM musical Royal Wedding (1951) and the MGM nuclear post-apocalyptic drama On The Beach (1959). These two examples of Astaire’s work illustrate the evolution of an image economy in which medium, genre, and celebrity persona become peripheral, extra-diegetic orders of meaning. The following analysis emphasizes the effects of Astaire as an icon working (1) within his “home" genre - the idyllic Hollywood musical and (2) diametrically opposed to his “home" genre – in the nuclear age realist drama.

The objective of this analysis is to deconstruct Astaire’s performance in each of these texts in terms of its aesthetic engagement with the discourse of physics, the atom, and states of matter. It is to theorize the terms of a pop metaphysics and an atomic semiosis. These terms are based in the proximity of electronic media to nuclear physics in the collective imaginary of the cold-war era. The first significant issue in comparing these examples of Astaire’s work is the level of signification at which this engagement with physics occurs. The surrogate eye-camera in the willful misperception of physical laws is the site for Royal Wedding’s engagement with physics in terms of relativity: a body in motion to a body at rest. On The Beach engages the atom diegetically and in nuclear criticism’s aporia of speed and suspension of moral economy. It is also the site of a meta-casting intervention. 

The difference between these Astaire texts, the first of which does not have nuclear war or any element of physics as its actual subject matter, and the second, which deals quite explicitly with nuclear war, requires that the point of departure for analysis be radically different for each. In terms of chronology, Royal Wedding was released at the very beginning of the decade, in 1951, while On the Beach appeared at the closing of that decade, in 1959. This shifting in criteria for categorizing these examples is an important variable in this analysis because it emphasizes the variety of sites at which their meanings create a model of interpretation that engages a discourse of physics and the atom.

Dancing about Einstein: On the Electrodynamics of Enchanted
Fred Astaire’s persona as an entertainer is marked by an element of contagious magic and a sense of the supernatural, not necessarily in his roles, but rather by his persona’s direct affiliation with a genre (the musical) whose primary conventions are most often dependent on a suspension of disbelief and escapism: plot development interrupted by spontaneous musical numbers. Astaire’s proximity to magic appears in his choreography and its relationship to environment and props. He is famous for dance numbers in which ordinary objects and environments are seemingly bewitched or anthropomorphized by his presence, such as his dance with a coat rack and with a broom and, of course, his denial of gravity as he dances on the walls and ceiling in Royal Wedding and in mid-air in Belle of New York

Royal Wedding’s cinematic illusion transforms an otherwise ordinary space into one that flatly denies the laws of physics and points to a core issue of a metaphysics based on the media image: the image space within the film frame has a potentially unstable ontology because it is a synthetic space. Not only do technological manipulations of the image-making processes in cinema yield a variety of willful misperceptions, but those misperceptions, in turn, yield simulated degrees of materiality with their own physical laws.

In Fred Astaire’s dance routine on the walls and ceiling of a hotel room, the ruse is constructed by seizing the very relativity of the still with the moving.  While cinematic special effects have been around since the late nineteenth century, their integration into Astaire’s choreography is significant in its lack of any scientific explanation for such an effect, only an emotional one - Fred’s character can dance on the walls and the ceiling because he is in love. Certainly, films with characters that defy gravity are numerous. One only has to look as far as Peter Pan’s pixie dust, or Mary Poppins’s umbrella. The issue of motivation for such flight sets apart the enchanted spaces (or ordinary spaces transformed by an enchanting individual) in their independence from any particular altered state of consciousness: Dorothy is, after all, home in Kansas the whole time, with Oz (and Technicolor) existing only in her dream.

While the lovestruck Astaire’s dance does not appear as directly connected to the cold-war obsession with radioactivity as the next text featured in this analysis, On the Beach, in terms of a metaphysics of the media image, the apparatus used to produce this effect is worth examining in detail.  

The 360˚ dance was accomplished by means of a steel barrel that rotates both the room in which the dance occurs and the camera support together while Astaire dances carefully from surface to surface (see Consequently, the finished film image belies the “real" orientation of Astaire’s body to the room and its contents (furniture, etc.) and thus to the force of gravity. The relationship of the camera-eye rotating in unison with the room invokes a rudimentary element of Einstein’s theory of relativity: two objects (here the room and the camera-eye) moving through the same path at the same time will appear stationary to each other. In other words, an object only perceives itself to be moving through space and time in relation to some other object that does not share its exact position in space and time. It is the inversion of this effect that creates the illusion of Astaire moving 360˚ across the surface of a room, which, to the camera-eye, appears to be standing still. A more abstract articulation of this relativity will arise later in this discussion: that which is believed to be a constant - the position of the room and camera - is a variable and that which is believed to be a variable - the force of gravity acting upon Astaire’s body - is actually a constant.
A camera trick, like a magic trick, differs from charlatanism by involving willful misperception. Obviously, a magic show audience knows one cannot really survive being sawed in half, painlessly and reversibly, as appearance indicates. The artful lie attests not to the dishonesty of the magician but to the skill of his sleight of hand, the use of common bodily gestures which punctuate the arrival of a particular illusion - the waving of wands, snapping of fingers, veiling and unveiling, and pulling objects from articles of clothing. However, the quality of enchantment manifested in the artful lie can be synthesized as an ideological form of camera-eye positivism. The result is a more complex set of relations between (1) the physical body placed before the camera (surrogate) eye and (2) the placement of the camera in physical space as a surrogate body of the viewer. The magic of Astaire’s ceiling dance is associated with Astaire himself, with his body, even though it is the work of cinematic technicians and set engineers that made it happen. It is associated with Astaire as an enchanted persona, but is also the actual site of the artful lie - its mechanics, which reside in the extra-diegetic and anonymous territory of a cinematic special effect that uses the forced perception of movement as stillness to manufacture a perspective for a surrogate eye. The misperception is conspired by a trick room and camera support. Astaire’s body is portrayed as the source of magical control over an otherwise ordinary space, but it is the intermediary role of the film image captured by the camera-eye which synthesizes all of it into something metaphysical - moving and not moving, a transgression of physical laws which, like the surrogate camera-eye witness, is both there and not there.

These relationships are crystallized by contrasting this scene against another tilting scene in Royal Wedding, which takes place in the grand ballroom of a cruise ship rocking and teetering on the rough waters of the Atlantic. In this scene, a stationary camera records the movement of the room faithfully. It involves simulation, but no forced misperception of the still with the moving and, hence, is not an extra-diegetic site for a metaphysical element specific to the media image. It is, rather, an opportunity to synthesize slapstick physical comedy into Astaire and partner Jane Powell’s choreography, which incorporates the clumsy sliding back and forth of the couple on the slippery ballroom floor as they attempt to perform on the rocking ship. In this case, Astaire’s persona as, arguably, the most graceful man who ever lived is the site of self-parody, rather than enchantment. The fact that this secondary use of room-shifting is diegetically, and more importantly, scientifically motivated, is worth emphasizing because it illustrates two very different instances in which the space and perspective of the cinematic image have direct proximity to the discourse of physics. In the first, the dancing body transcends the physical laws of the space in which it dances (becomes meta-physical). In the second, it takes its comic effect in the dancing bodies’ vulnerability to the physical laws of an “ordinary" narrative space. 

The general optimism of the Hollywood musical (with its emphasis on spectacle over plot development) and the association of Astaire to that genre form a center or, in keeping with the atomic analogy, form an association to the nucleus of (its own) domestic electron.  The recognizable identity of Astaire, his function as a semiotic and economic commodity, figures electronically. The “charge" of general celebrity in semiotic orbit takes its power from the fact that while Fred Astaire may play any character, in any text, in any genre, he plays, first and foremost, Fred Astaire.

Speed/Inertia: On the Electrodynamics of Hollywood Narrative
Fred Astaire made his dramatic debut in a feature film as Julian Osborne, a cynical and emotionally tormented nuclear scientist in MGM’s post-apocalyptic drama, On the Beach.  In this film, the proximity of Astaire’s performance to the discourse of physics is a narrative one. On the Beach is straightforwardly and obviously engaged in nuclear criticism and deals with the atom as an epistemology of matter in terms of the cataclysmic results of splitting the atom.  Astaire’s performance as Julian Osborne is significant in terms of casting, an element of film that bridges the diegetic and non-diegetic territories of film production.

Julian, like those around him, is living in 1964 in Australia, the only known continent whose population has not yet been decimated by the recent nuclear war. Local scientists determine that it will take approximately five months for the radioactive fallout cloud to reach them. While the government issues “Prescription 24768" suicide pills, the last remaining members of the human race live with reckless abandon and try to find some pleasure under the shadow of their immanent extinction. The gesture of casting Fred Astaire as the self-loathing nuclear scientist is rich in “meta-casting" irony. In Royal Wedding, Astaire is at home in his persona that bewitches and commands the physical laws of the space he occupies with his dancing body. In On the Beach, not only is Julian Osborne a lonely, cynical, alcoholic scientist, the antithesis of the happy-go-lucky persona associated with Astaire's image and his name, but Julian's duty with the crew of the nuclear submarine, the U.S.S. Sawfish, is to confirm exactly how little time is left before the end. It is Julian who consults the apparatus (presumably a Geiger counter) to let the crew know the rate at which the radiation contamination is increasing, in short, how much time until they are “in the red."

The application of Julian’s contribution to the splitting of the atom is an unbearable emotional burden for him. On a “meta-casting" level, the non-dancing Astaire’s alcoholism, the personal poisoning of his “enchanted" body adds insult to injury, as an American icon cuts a tragic figure of a fallen humanity’s toxic regret, the legacy of its technocratic hubris, and its pacifist afterthought. The Julian Osborne-Astaire has a paradigmatically lyrical proximity to the discourse of physics. This proximity requires plot analysis to make the leap from the non-diegetic still/moving camera tricks of Royal Wedding to the narrative of On the Beach as a site of nuclear criticism.   

In his essay “No Apocalypse, Not Now (Full Speed Ahead, Seven Missiles, Seven Missives)," Jacques Derrida poses the question of whether the experience of speed changed qualitatively or quantitatively in the nuclear age. He proposes an ambiguous “nuclear criticism" in which “'history' (and 'progress' as well), as a project of recognizing precedents, has an aporia of speed (go quickly but go slowly), and yields an urge for deceleration at the threat of approaching unprecedented cataclysm...Nuclear criticism has irony, potentialization and ellipsis as rhetorical strategies for dealing with this aporia…Calculation always has the structure of a particular potentialization of speed...overtaking the act and the speech-act, the act and its enunciation."

The tension among the principle characters of On the Beach plays itself out in an awkward cocktail party, punctuated by one of the most overtly political pieces of dialogue in the film.  Julian Osborne, drunk and defensive, expresses the frustration and moral outrage of a number of high profile physicists (Einstein and Oppenheimer among them) at how their knowledge of the atom was to be applied.  

JULIAN: (clearly intoxicated) In the end, somehow granted the time for examination, we shall find that our so-called civilization was gloriously destroyed by a handful of vacuum tubes and transistors, probably forty.
MORRIS: Ahh, there you are, Julian. There you are. Now we know where the blame lies, don’t we?
JULIAN: Oh no you don’t! No…no, maybe we were the…blind mechanics of disaster, but you don’t pin the guilt on the scientists that easily. You might as well pin it on…Motherhood!

Derrida describes the sides of the conflict as the constative knowledge of nuclear technology - that of the scientist’s research and calculations - and the performative engagement of nuclear technology - the military and political powers’ decision to fund and ultimately use a nuclear weapon.

The aporia of speed informs every moment of On the Beach as a post-apocalyptic narrative, not only in the general climate of a population living out the final five months of its life, but in the specific sub-narrative of Julian’s plans for passing these last five months. On the Beach, although it predates Derrida’s discussion of nuclear criticism by twenty-five years, engages Derrida’s meditations on the quantity and quality of speed in a simple component of post-apocalyptic realism: film temporality of narrative ellipsis and the characters’ extremely accelerated consciousness of their mortality as individuals, as a community, as a nation, and as a species. The viewer of the film is aware at the outset that every character knows he or she will be dead by an approximately determined time, regardless of age, behavior, or any moral economy. The five-month span (calculated in part by Julian) in which the characters of On the Beach attempt to come to terms with their fate is an anecdotal treatment of the “limitation of time upon nuclear criticism [which] prompts a rhetorical form of nuclei [the unraveling psyches of the principal characters] in the process of fission or division, in an uninterruptible chain haphazardly projected towards the reader - to say as much as possible," as Derrida phrases it. 

The characters of On the Beach are branded with an enigmatic proximity to the death of humankind. This inclusive mortality extends from within the safety of fiction into the metaphysical sense of the “real world" inhabited by the viewer/reader, in which the film is a mere object. While social criticism that takes the form of fiction makes extensive use of empathy for its protagonists, the characters of On the Beach are contaminated by a black hole in history and the effects of their own misguided “progress." They appear like the walking dead, the figures of an aborted cultural potentiality - a tragedy made explicit by the inclusion of a newborn baby as one of these figures.  

Julian’s particular plans for his last five months are an overt reference to the nature of speed and to his role as the official measurer of time until the end. He purchases, from a local resident, an object he has always dreamed of owning: a Lamborghini racing car. Julian carries out his plans to race the car in the Australian Grand Prix, an event that, for unexplained reasons, goes on as planned on Philip Island regardless of the circumstances. The decision to include a famous race among the final public events of human culture is, simultaneously, a richly ironic symbol at the level of plot and a pun at the semiotic level: human race, arms race, space race, rat race, a race to the finish. The race scene of the film is full of stock footage shots of grinding, flaming car crashes, presumably of the other drivers, but haunted by another of Derrida’s rhetorical strategies: ironic potentialization. Are these wrecks merely car accidents, or are they the thrill-seeking participants’ dramatic suicides? As Julian puts it, “Nobody cares who wins," which resounds as a sentiment also applied to nuclear war.

Perhaps the two most telling shots in this respect are that of an ambulance moving slowly and indecisively towards one of the flaming wrecks and of Julian himself winning the race with a look on his face that intimates his disappointment at having survived it. Julian’s final gesture paradigmatically recalls not only the ironic potentialization of Derrida’s nuclear criticism, but the relationship between the still and the moving (this time in a narrative event, and not in the deconstruction of a camera trick, as in Royal Wedding): he seals himself in his garage, starts up the fastest car in the world in “park," and literally “accelerates" to his own private suicide. Stillness, movement, the aporia of speed - go quickly, but go slowly.

Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity makes its way into nuclear criticism of On the Beach, Julian, and Astaire. Einstein expresses the following in his article “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies" in the Annelen der Physik, 1905:  "the phenomena of electrodynamics as well as of mechanics possess no properties corresponding to the idea of absolute rest [only relative rest].  We will raise this conjecture (the purport of which will hereafter be called the ‘Principle of Relativity’) to the status of a postulate, and also introduce another postulate…only apparently irreconcilable with the former, namely, that light is always propagated in empty space with a definite velocity ‘c’ which is independent of the state of motion of the emitting body" (emphasis mine).

To extrapolate from this, Einstein is able to begin from the assumption that there are no instantaneous reactions in nature - even radio waves, microwaves, and rays of light take time to get from place to place. With the instantaneous rejected as impossible, there must be a maximum possible speed of interaction. That speed, according to Einstein, is the speed of electromagnetic interaction (the speed of light). What this means for the principle of relativity is that the speed of light “c" (which stands for “constant") does not vary based on the speed of the observer (a moving observer and a stationary observer both see light emitted at the same speed, regardless of their distance from one another and from the source of the light - even if it were possible for a moving observer to travel at the speed of light).  So, in the equation of speed = distance ÷ time, it is distance (the distance between the source of the emitting body and the receiving body/eye) and time (the point in time that light reaches the eye) that must be made variables, not speed.

In the time/space equation of the ultimate movement, the fastest speed possible in the universe, those concepts that were presumed by all previous scientific logic to be stable, exact measurements in objective certitude - distance and time - are actually unstable, relative measurements that are only subjectively true from one perspectival variable to another. The element which was presumed to be unlimited, that is, the concept that speed which so much human technology has endeavored to improve upon by building machines (like Lamborghinis) capable of traveling faster and faster is, in fact, limited, curtailed by the maximum possible speed in the universe - that of electromagnetic interaction. The relativity of simultaneity of an event is the vanishing point of our ability to perceive time, space, and movement in relation to our own bodies.

Dash-Dot-Dash: Detection, Encryption, and Random Numbers
One of Derrida’s reasons for posing the question of whether the concept of speed has changed qualitatively or quantitatively with the onset of the nuclear age deals with the ultimate discursivity of nuclear war. He expounds on this issue further when he claims, "Nuclear weaponry depends…upon the structures of information and communication, structures of language, including non-vocalizable language, structures of codes and graphic decoding. But the phenomenon is fabulously textual also to the extent that, for the moment, a nuclear war has not taken place: one can only talk and write about it."

The dependency of nuclear war on discourse is not lost in Hollywood’s treatment of the subject. Miscommunication is a common theme in films and television shows which take on the anti-nuke ideology. However, one of On the Beach’s most memorable moments is a more sublime twist on the paradigm of miscommunication, technology, and the enunciation of a speaking body. The U.S.S. Sawfish picks up a radio transmission from San Diego, providing false optimism that a survivor in the U.S. is trying to contact authorities. But the message, assumed to be in Morse code, is gibberish with the exception of two words “water" and “connect." When the U.S.S. Sawfish goes to investigate, they find the signal is nothing more than a tipped Coke bottle caught on the ring pull of a window shade flapping in the breeze and tapping the transmitter in a random rhythm devoid of any living, human enunciation. The desperate circumstances in which this sound is mistaken for a message (the simulation of a single remaining human being in North America) gives the error its palpable significance of, as Derrida puts it, “overtaking the act and the speech-act, the act and its enunciation." The tangible source of this mysterious “message," that is, the random fluctuation of the window shade in motion between two opposing forces: the spring mechanism of the window shade roller and the weight of the Coke bottle, constitutes the physical end of a tableau tying together an ontologically heterogeneous continuum (a paradox in itself).

The transmission of a signal is especially marked by a metaphysical quality as a “sign of life" both in On the Beach’s grim, quasi-realist paradigm of human survival and, more commonly, in idealist fantasy of communication with extraterrestrial beings in science fiction narrative. The role of the electron is a common denominator between the technology of radio transmission, space hardware, and nuclear weaponry. (Recall, for example, Julian’s assertion that “so-called civilization was gloriously destroyed by a handful of vacuum tubes and transistors.") The sequence which leads up to the discovery of the mysterious message’s source takes full cinematic advantage, alternately suspending the camera-eye above and situating it within the unpopulated space while the single crew member, fully outfitted in a bulky suit of protective gear, crosses the desolate, industrial landscape from which the transmission emanates, drawing him to the mysterious message.

The dialogue among puzzled crew about the possible origin of the transmitted signal and the two words  (“water" and “connect") in Morse code, which are coincidentally formed by the random sounds, emphasize the relationship between the random generation of signs and the communicative combination of signs. One crew member brings up the epigrammatic example of infinite time and randomness within a limited set of signs (the alphabet): “Well, you know the old story about an infinite number of monkeys and an infinite number of typewriters. One of them has to end up writing King Lear." 

Atomic semiosis is a phenomena of market driven, popular culture texts built on part-to-whole relationships among signifying elements which seek out centripetal and centrifugal forces, in short, orbital and ionic relationships among media images, identities, and narratives. This analysis of two media texts featuring Fred Astaire in the 1950s illustrates how atomic semiosis, as an element of pop metaphysics, operates by means of a common denominator. As such, popular culture is, indeed, its own sphere with its own capacity for the uncontrollable production of meaning.

February 2012

From guest contributor Jessica Buben

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