Gene Kelly, Volkswagen, and Posthumous Performance
Kelli Marshall / University of Toledo

Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor, backseat dancers.

During a Superbowl playoff game on January 23, 2011, Volkswagen aired the above commercial featuring song-and-dance legends Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor. Cobbling together body doubles, a green screen, and Kelly’s and O’Connor’s televised “sitting dance,” the Jetta ad revives the two dead performers to emphasize the whopping three feet of leg room in the car’s back seat. “We wanted to bring the Jetta’s rear leg room to life,” claims Eric Springer, one of the project’s creative directors. “It has substantial rear-seat leg room for its segment, and we needed to build a spot dedicated to that competitive advantage.” Let me get this straight: Volkswagen wanted to bring to life the car’s rear leg room by reanimating two dead dancers? This is not the only incongruity with the Jetta ad; it’s just the most amusing. In this column, I’ll consider the above commercial along with Volkswagen’s 2005 “Singin’ in the Rain” spot and assert that while both might succeed within the world of advertising awards1 and in the eyes of some viewers, they disappoint as homages to Gene Kelly and the classical film musical because they draw attention to their own artifice, something neither Kelly nor the genre would presume to do.

When the Jetta advertisement aired earlier this year during the Jets-Steelers game, I turned to Twitter to see how others would react: would they know Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor, would they like the commercial, and would it really make them want to buy a Jetta? After the ad aired, my Twitter feed exploded, suggesting that many football fans were indeed familiar with Kelly and O’Connor. Furthermore, several people tweeted that the commercial was mindblowing, nostalgic, awesome, and fantastic; so yes, for some, the ad was a hit. However, the majority of viewers echoed Bill Prady, executive producer of CBS’s The Big Bang Theory, who tweeted, “The Jetta commercial with Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor digitally dancing in the back seat makes me sad on a level I cannot truly express.” Here’s a sampling of the Volkswagen backlash:

  • “I love you Jetta, but you can screw yourself for digitally inserting Gene Kelly into your latest ad” (@grrarghing).

  • “Yes, because if Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor were resuscitated, restored & reunited, the first thing they’d do is dance in that backseat” (@AgentMarco).
  • “Just saw a Volkswagen commercial that featured Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor being raped” (@peterluna).
  • “Boycotting VW, specifically the Jetta now. Not fond of Gene Kelly’s estate right now either” (@karinagw).
  • “Just saw the Jetta ad w/ Gene Kelly and Donald O’Conner displaying back seat legroom. #VW you are dead to me” (@tivogirl).
  • “Never thought I’d tweet about Gene Kelly during a Steelers game, but as a Pittsburgher I am not okay with that commercial” (@theconradwaite).

angry bird

Angry Tweets

Others attacked the Jetta ad using more than 140 characters. For instance, NPR’s Linda Holmes laments that the ad “is unconvincing and cheap looking” and, moreover, because it removes the dancers from their context and conceals their use of bricolage (i.e., when performers “spontaneously” make use of props), it further cheapens the art of dance.2 Similarly, marketing copywriter Coreen Tossana wonders why the viewer should trust Volkswagen’s claim about the spacious legroom; after all, the company “has shown us a doctored video.” Holmes, Tossana, and the hundreds of angry tweeters not only expose the ad’s weak marketing ploys, but they also insinuate that the commercial is a rather poor tribute to Kelly and O’Connor as well as the art of dance and the film musical. Here’s why they’re right:

“Musicals are full of deceptions,” writes Jane Feuer. For example, numbers appear spontaneous and effortless onscreen even though they take weeks or months of preparation. Cameras may merge a theatrical and filmic space to manipulate the viewer’s point of view. Vocals and sounds of tap shoes are rerecorded in post-production even though they presumably occur at the moment of the performance. Songs/numbers not originally written for the film may seem organic and fully integrated. And performers may move into and away from the camera to suggest a three-dimensional space.3 However, something that classical musicals and onscreen performers virtually never do is draw attention to these deceptions. Rather, their focuses (among others) are entertaining, showcasing talent, and instilling in the viewer feelings like abundance, energy, and community.4

“Gene Kelly” singin’ and poppin’ in the rain.

Unlike classical musical numbers, the Volkswagen commercials emphasize their own artifice. First and most obvious, their subjects, apparently identifiable to many, are dead; as such, viewers immediately recognize the ads and their context as false. Second, the Jetta spot in particular looks contrived (NPR’s Holmes humorously equates it to “an outtake from a TV movie on SyFy like Sharktopus or Mansquito“). Like Fred Astaire in one of the controversial Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner ads or Louis Armstrong in a spot for Diet Coke, Kelly and O’Connor are noticeably cut out, lifted from their original setting, and plunked into an anachronistic mise-en-scene. What’s more, the vibrant quality of the first two shots–in which obvious body doubles open the car door and enter the backseat–differs drastically from Kelly’s and O’Connor’s part, which appears muted and fuzzy, evoking almost an animated quality.

Third, the subjects’ posthumous performances highlight the commercials’ construction. Kelly’s and O’Connor’s actual “sitting dance” lasts about six minutes. In the first half, the stars sit in chairs and recreate each other’s most famous numbers; they talk, tap dance, move their arms and torsos, bump each other’s heels, tap on one another’s chairs, and fiddle with a cup of water. In other words, like all musical performers, they make hours of practice look spontaneous while never once drawing attention to this falsity. Conversely, in the Jetta’s backseat, their performances are questionable. “Why don’t I hear their feet tapping?” the viewer may ask. “Are those really their legs? Are their lower bodies digitally manipulated too?”5 In all of these instances–the choice of subjects, quality, and “performance”–the viewer is compelled to pay attention to the ads’ artifice, something neither Kelly, O’Connor, nor the musical would dare to do.

Gene Kelly’s posthumous performance in Volkswagen’s 2005 “Singin’ in the Rain” commercial highlights its trickery even more than the Jetta ad; therefore, it’s perhaps even more disappointing as an homage to Kelly and the genre. In this recreation of the title number from Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952), Kelly’s face has been “pasted” onto the bodies of three poppers/break-dancers6 , which means that Kelly is now “performing” steps and gestures that he did not (nor likely would not) while he was alive. Thus, with this ad (and something like Nancy Marchand’s posthumous performance in HBO’s The Sopranos), we’ve embarked upon a new and arguably unethical level of digital manipulation, one that Lisa Bode maintains, “transforms the dead actor’s performance itself at the most fundamental level” (51). Because the Golf GTI commercial has decided on this harvesting/pasting method or “montage within the shot,”7 it plainly flaunts its own construction. In fact, what’s mostly celebrated about this spot are not the feelings it evokes or how it honors the Golden Age of Hollywood, but the skills of the special effects crew and the dance doubles,8 the latter of which is a vocation Gene Kelly was definitely not a fan.9

Volkswagen’s communications manager states, “The scene from Singin’ in the Rain is a memorable, classic film moment, showing Gene Kelly at his very best. Volkswagen felt that this moment encapsulates the very essence of Gene and we feel that our latest GTI captures the spirit of the Volkswagen Golf GTI as a stylish and classic car that has, like Gene, stood the test of time.” Much like Volkswagen’s wanting to resurrect two deceased dancers to “bring to life” a car’s backseat leg room, the irony here is comical. That is, an advertising company acknowledges the title number from Singin’ in the Rain as classic and unforgettable, featuring a dancer at the top of his game. But then, said company removes from virtually the exact mise-en-scene the very thing that makes the number iconic: Gene Kelly singin’ and dancin’ (not poppin’) in the rain. Alas, this is just another way the company makes the viewer fully aware of its ad’s constructed nature.

Image Credits:
1. Angry Twitter Bird

Please feel free to comment.

NOTES

  1. According to Stink, the Golf GTI commercial “won silverware at the Clios, Eurobest, BTAA and inducted into the APA 50 collection.” []
  2. On bricolage, see Jane Feuer, “The Self-Reflexive Musical and the Myth of Entertainment,” Genre: The Musical, Rick Altman, ed., London: Routledge, 1981. 163. []
  3. Ibid, 161-66. Also, see Jane Feuer, “Singin’ in the Rain: Winking at the Audience,” Film Analysis: A Norton Reader, Jeffrey Geiger and R. L. Rutsky, eds. New York: WW Norton, 2005. 444; Steven Cohen, “Case Study: Interpreting Singin’ in the Rain,” Reinventing Film Studies, Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams, eds. New York: Oxford UP, 2000, 67. []
  4. Richard Dyer, “Entertainment and Utopia,” Genre: The Musical, ed. Rick Altman, London: Routledge, 1981. 176-89. []
  5. Speaking of Kelly’s and O’Connor’s legs, they are partially obstructed in the commercial, a virtual no-no in classical musicals, which generally frame performers in long shot with nothing blocking their talents. []
  6. The poppers are David Elsewhere, Crumbs, and Jay Walker. []
  7. Lev Manovich calls this type of repurposing, in which there is an increased level of control over individual elements within the frame, “montage within the shot,” qtd. on p. 52 of Lisa Bode, “No Longer Themselves?: Framing Digitally Enabled Posthumous ‘Performance'” Cinema Journal 49.4 (Summer 2010): 46-70. []
  8. Bode reports the same findings regarding the Golf GTI ad’s apparent “success” with some viewers (52). []
  9. In an 1985 interview with Margy Rochlin, Gene Kelly was asked about the dance doubles in Flashdance: “I don’t understand the whole concept of doubles…in Flashdance you have triples, quadruples. From my point of view it is bad for the art. In film, a dancer should always be shot from head to toe, because that way you can see the whole body and that is the art of dancing. Nowadays they shoot the nose. Left nostril. Right nostril. Hand. Foot. Bust. Derriere. The film prevents you from determining who is a good dancer and who is not.” []

28 comments

  • Pingback: Those Gene Kelly Volkswagen Commercials Suck, and Here’s Why | Unmuzzled Thoughts

  • Kelli: This is a very thoughtful piece that includes several worthy objections to the commercials in general. However, some counter arguments …

    * Your objection to the use of Gene Kelly’s image after death really has nothing to do with whether this is an effective homage. As I see it, you either have to determine that Gene Kelly’s image should never be repurposed, or you have to allow for it. (One can’t take the position that it’s disrespectful only when they don’t like how it’s used.) Kelly’s trust, for better or worse, is the arbiter of whether Kelly would approve, and since Kelly is dead I think there are precious few people who would have the right to suggest that they know any better what Kelly would or wouldn’t have embraced. It’s at least possible that he would have found this stuff cute, in which case this wouldn’t be disrespectful in the least. The overall point being that while your gut feeling that Kelly wouldn’t have approved this use makes the ads nauseating for you (rightfully so), that has more to do with your personal emotional profile of Gene Kelly than it does the commercial itself.

    * In fact Kelly was not above taking part in scenes that emphasized their artifice. We’re talking about a guy who danced on walls and a ceiling and danced with an animated mouse — two instances in which, just as much as the commercials, the filmmakers were saying, “Hey, look what we can do!” In those scenes the artifice was at the forefront, as much as it is in the commercials.

    * I don’t think there’s any irony in using dead actors to “bring to life” the leg room of a car. The actors are dead, yes, but their performances are not. They’re just as alive as the days they were recorded. And, in fact, the argument can be made that by repurposing these images that the commercial’s makers emphasize Kelly’s timelessness, rather than making him a relic of the past. On that note …

    * Before Kelly was used to sell Jettas, Steve McQueen was used to sell Ford Mustangs (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UZzXHq7gKN8). Now, one could make the same objections about taste here — about repurposing an actor’s footage after his death. But those arguments should be directed solely at the trusts, not the artists who have simply requested the “actor” they want to fulfill their vision. These commercials will never work, as art or as retail enhancers, on those who take a moral objection to this repurposing. But beyond that, with permission granted, I think all these ads are respectful of the spirit of these performers and evoke the undying affection we have for them.

    (For the record, I’m not suggesting that the Kelly commercials are terrific. I really don’t have a strong feeling about them one way or the other. Just debating the merits.)

  • Hi, Jason:

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Let me see if I can respond to your points, some of which I wanted to explore further in the essay, but FlowTV only allows so much room per column! =)

    Kelly’s trust, for better or worse, is the arbiter of whether Kelly would approve, and since Kelly is dead I think there are precious few people who would have the right to suggest that they know any better what Kelly would or wouldn’t have embraced.

    — I don’t know that this is something I feel comfortable discussing in depth online, so I’ll just say this: over the past few months, I have spoken with some of Kelly’s family members and close friends who, no, do not have rights to his image but would address “what Kelly would or wouldn’t have embraced” much differently than those currently in charge of his image. If you want to discuss specifics, shoot me an email. =)

    In fact Kelly was not above taking part in scenes that emphasized their artifice. We’re talking about a guy who danced on walls and a ceiling and danced with an animated mouse […] In those scenes the artifice was at the forefront.

    — You’re absolutely right, and this is something I wrestled with as I wrote the essay. For example, Kelly dances with Jerry the Mouse in Anchors Aweigh and other animated characters in An Invitation to the Dance (which just came out on DVD last month, btw!). Similarly, he dances with himself in Cover Girl, which also arguably draws attention to the special effects. However, in those dream sequences or that subjective reality, Kelly never draws attention to his performance as artifice. In other words, there’s no question about his talent, his number, his character’s purpose in the narrative, etc. I can’t say the same about the Volkswagen “performances.” Btw, it was Astaire who danced on walls and ceilings. =)

    The actors are dead, yes, but their performances are not. They’re just as alive as the days they were recorded. And, in fact, the argument can be made that by repurposing these images that the commercial’s makers emphasize Kelly’s timelessness, rather than making him a relic of the past.

    — Hmm, I’d argue that O’Connor’s and Kelly’s performances are alive in their original context and/or when it’s their original performances, but not when they’re plucked out of that context and/or replaced with someone else and then dropped into an entirely new mise-en-scene. That doesn’t seem alive to me at all, but manipulated, tinkered with, like puppetry.

    — Re: timelessness, but Kelly is timeless, and this is something Volkswagen readily recognizes (my last paragraph above). So it just seems illogical to update/modernize “timelessness” via someone else’s performance (I’m speaking particularly of the Golf GTI ad).

    I hope some of that makes sense. And thanks again for commenting!

  • Btw, it was Astaire who danced on walls and ceilings. =)

    Arg! That was embarrassing. If you’d have asked me before reading this, I knew that, but I thought about the scene with Jerry and then somehow it blended together.

    More responses …

    * I have spoken with some of Kelly’s family members and close friends…

    Yeah, that would put you in a rare camp, and even though I didn’t know you were in that camp, my point is basically the same: unless someone truly knows through some kind of intimate knowledge, then most of us (including lots of the tweeters and critics) would just be offering baseless speculation with any objections about how Kelly would have felt. (And, for what it’s worth, I do think family members get understandably protective about such things. Kelly himself might have been game. In fact, it’s possible their objection has more to do with their lack of control. Not trying to pretend I know better; just tossing that out there as a possibility.)

    * However, in those dream sequences or that subjective reality, Kelly never draws attention to his performance as artifice.

    I guess I don’t see the difference here. Yes, the dance is still the dance, even in an artificial construct. But I look at from the standpoint that a shot is either about the artifice (“Hey, look, it’s Gene Kelly with Jerry the Mouse!”) or it isn’t. I understand your objection in spirit, I think, but I guess to me it seems overly reverential to suggest that somehow the artistry of the performance always took the forefront of Kelly’s work.

    * That doesn’t seem alive to me at all, but manipulated, tinkered with, like puppetry.

    Oh, it is puppetry. No question. My point was that when I see McQueen walking out of a cornfield in the Ford commercial, I don’t see a corpse, I see the character from Bullitt. I’m suggesting that through the films, these guys are always alive. Plus …

    This might sound like a strange leap, but consider the number of films that have used Beethoven’s music without his permission, or consider the number of real people who have been dramatized on film, long after their death. We don’t blink at that because it’s the norm. But is this really any different? I’d say no. What’s different is that previously we haven’t had the means to take a Gene Kelly clip and put it inside the backseat of a Jetta. For all we know, King George might have objected to the puppetry of The King’s Speech — his life was manipulated, tinkered with, to make something new (and something commercial, too, let’s not kid ourselves). It wasn’t his real figure used, but it was his “real” life suggested … and if you think about it that’s perhaps a far greater violation — it’s just one we’re used to.

  • Gene’s image was sold by the person (his 3rd wife) who is in charge of his image in order to make money. It was used to advertise an item. His dancing was intended to bring joy to people, and not to sell something. Having known Gene, and knowing his oldest daugher, I would argue that he would not have done something like this had he been alive. One only need to look at the fact that he did NOT sell himself to advertise items in this way when he was alive. He did not sell his most famous dances or persona. His dances, whice he created, were the most important part of his career. I would submit that his 3rd wife debased his art for her own profit. He would have used his art to help someone in need (e.g., he was involved with the United Nations Children’s Fund and supported many charities), but he would have never sold his art to sell a car.

  • Hi Kelly (and other commenters),

    Firstly, thanks for a really interesting article – I’d never actually seen these advertisements before, but I’m fascinated by the sort of responses generated by these posthumous performances.

    I wonder if at the heart matter is simply a difference in perspective about how these media ‘elements’ are conceptualised? For advertisers, they’re looking for a series of media elements which, mixed together in a particular way, will promote affection or interest in their product (in this case cars). They find that particular elements of Kelly & O’Connor’s performances are available, digitally remix them with other performances, body doubles and so forth. They’ve applied the logic of the database – ie all performances etc and media elements, regardless of their origin – and remix them accordingly.

    For those more invested in the lives of these people before they died, then their original intent matters – would these actors/dancers have done these ads if they were still alive (and this determines, in no small part, the emotional reaction to these ads)? This is the broader social and cultural context which is less geared towards treating a performance as an individual media element (or database entry).

    I guess the success, or otherwise, of the ads would, in part, be judged on whether more viewers are receptive to database approach or instead hold the broader contexts and the actors’ intent as key.

  • (Sorry, I realize that should be “Hi Kelli”, not Kelly. My bad.)

  • One only need to look at the fact that he did NOT sell himself to advertise items in this way when he was alive. He did not sell his most famous dances or persona.

    Well, actually, that’s not true. Here’s a link to a 1960 Air France print ad featuring Kelly dressed Singin’ in the Rain-style and dancing:
    http://www.amazon.com/Kelly-Fr.....B002FAY77K

    A quick Google search will also find other ads for Air France, an RCA videodisc player (in which Kelly is in a bathrobe) and an ad for Durkee Food. (I can’t provide links because the system says my comment seems “spammy.”)

    So, if the above is true, that Kelly’s third wife sold the rights, the “I knew Gene” argument really doesn’t hold up. Because she knew Gene, too. And in the end it’s one person (acquaintance or family member) arguing against another — and it’s all opinion of what someone else would or wouldn’t want, with selfish interests on both sides.

    Just saying.

    P.S. Let me jump out ahead of a potential follow-up argument: it also doesn’t work to say that Kelly wouldn’t have allowed footage from one of his film performances to sell an a car given that the technology didn’t previously exist (especially in light of the first link). Again, it’s all speculation.

  • Hi again, Jason:

    I do think family members get understandably protective about such things. […] In fact, it’s possible their objection has more to do with their lack of control.

    — I agree with you here, but again, from what I understand, the situation re: Kelly’s image is much more complicated than just “control issues.”

    Kelly was not above taking part in scenes that emphasized their artifice. We’re talking about a guy who […] danced with an animated mouse — two instances in which, just as much as the commercials, the filmmakers were saying, “Hey, look what we can do!” […] I guess to me it seems overly reverential to suggest that somehow the artistry of the performance always took the forefront of Kelly’s work.

    — I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that Kelly’s dancing abilities always take precedence over the cinematography, mise-en-scene, sound, etc.; of course, as Kelly knew well (!), they all work in tandem for the good of the performance. But in something like the “sitting dance,” in which the mise-en-scene and cinematography are sparse (i.e., a white background, two chairs, two dancers, few edits, long shots) I’d argue that the literal performance/dance do (and should) “take the forefront.” That’s not so in the Jetta commercial.

    — Back to Jerry the Mouse and the alter ego number… =) You’re totally right here. Yes, artifice is obvious in both, but I think the difference between them and the ads lies in the context. Both of the original numbers have a clear thesis or a purpose; to this end, the artifice is justified, accepted, perhaps even glossed over (?) for the good/fun/enjoyment of the performance and narrative. I quote Kelly:

    “You can’t just begin to dance. You have to state your thesis in a song first, and then go into the dance. Take the number ‘Singin’ in the Rain.’ I tell the audience in a song what I’m going to do and then I do it.”

    Author Peter Wollen points out that Kelly does the same with the alter-ego number from Cover Girl:

    Kelly’s character “wonders out into the street, depressed and alone. There he ‘states his thesis’ with a few phrases of voice-over, as if they were ‘stream of consciousness,’ before going into the dance” (Singin’ in the Rain, BFI, 26).

    continued…

  • continued…

    Neither of the Volkswagen commercials does this, which (to me) makes the falseness stand out more, i.e., why are they in that car? Why would they be tapping back there? Why is Gene Kelly popping and locking around that lamppost like that? Etc. I think Gene Kelly’s 1991 Diet Coke ad with Paula Abdul (which, interestingly, he sanctioned after forming a close friendship with Abdul) or Gene Kelly’s dance with Stewie work better as homages because they maintain a thesis and they are not shoddily executed. In fact, I appreciate the latter more than the former because hardly anything has changed; rather than Kelly being cut out and inserted into Family Guy, Stewie has been inserted into Kelly’s “original” world.

    Thanks again for talking with me! Will perhaps write more later. Must do schoolwork now… =)

  • A quick Google search will also find other ads for Air France, an RCA videodisc player (in which Kelly is in a bathrobe) and an ad for Durkee Food.

    Yep, Gene certainly had no problem selling products! =) In addition to the ones you mentioned, which significantly, are all PRINT ads, there’s also a TV commercial with Fred Astaire (Western Airlines, I think) as well as an infomercial for the above-mentioned RCA videodisc player/discs. And sure, as a Hollywood star, director, choreographer, actor, etc., Kelly most certainly knew he was a product, a commodity.

    Still, I’m considering something different here, right? In those ads, most of which are print, Kelly is featured, not his screen performances/numbers. In other words, no one removes him from the original film’s mise-en-scene and inserts him (or someone else in his stead) into another mise-en-scene. I don’t want to speak for C. Millen, whose comment you’re responding to, but I believe that’s what she’s suggesting above.

    Hope that makes sense!

  • Hi, Tama:

    Thanks for reading/commenting!

    You write, “[The advertisers] have applied the logic of the database – ie all performances etc and media elements, regardless of their origin – and remixed them accordingly.” So, do you mean, logically, these ads should work? But for those of us who are “invested in the lives of these people before they died,” they don’t?

    Thanks!
    Kelli

  • Hey, Kelli —

    Good thoughts. Two more quick points …

    * Why would they be tapping back there?

    Because they’re delighted by the leg room. That simple. You can call it trite, but it’s also cute. That’s the joke.

    * In other words, no one removes him from the original film’s mise-en-scene and inserts him (or someone else in his stead) into another mise-en-scene.

    Right, but that’s what I was getting at in my advanced rebuttal. If you go to that Air France ad, there’s no question that they’re conjuring not just Kelly, but Singin’ in the Rain. And saying that Kelly never allowed his movie scenes to be digitally inserted into a different mise-en-scene is kind of like saying that George Washington never allowed anyone to travel to the moon. In other words, it wasn’t even an option. I look at those print ads and see a guy who wasn’t overly fussy about his image. I don’t want to imply at all that Kelly would have willingly endorsed these modern ads; I just see no compelling evidence (not even circumstantial evidence) to suggest he would have vetoed them. That was my only point there.

    All of this makes me want to sit in the back of a car and dance!

    (I kid! I kid!)

  • Hi Kelli,
    Thanks for the really interesting, thought-provoking article. I really take your point about the way that the posthumous composited performances of dancers from musical performance in particular indeed does a disservice to the original, perhaps moreso than dramatic performance, where the face is seen as the primary locus of meaning (such as for Nancy Marchand in The Sopranos). I’ve just been reading Andrew Klevan’s Film Performance in which he points to how Astaire insisted his dance performances be shot in fairly long takes and shot scales that allowed his whole body to be seen. The stardom of both he and Kelly was partly predicated on their ability to sustain a complex routine – the camera’s job was to bear witness to it. editing and fragmenting of the body through close-ups would have put their skill and talent into question. So your work here has allowed me to think about what bearing genres have on the way performances are technologically mediated, and the further implications for posthumous performance. Thank you!

  • Hi, Lisa. Thanks for stopping by and commenting! Yes, Kelly (rightly!) required the same re: long shots and long takes; see footnote 9 above, for instance. =)

  • You write, “[The advertisers] have applied the logic of the database – ie all performances etc and media elements, regardless of their origin – and remixed them accordingly.” So, do you mean, logically, these ads should work? But for those of us who are “invested in the lives of these people before they died,” they don’t?

    Perhaps I made too clear cut a distinction initially, but, yes, I do think if you’re more impressed by the remixing of the media elements, then you’re more likely to enjoy or at least be impressed by these ads. If you’re more invested in the lives of Kelly and O’Connor, and their legacies, then I’d guess you’re more likely to dislike these ads (especially, as you point out, because the dancing is, in large part, obscured in the ads!).

    I wonder, too, if the production context matters? I suspect if these performances hadn’t been a Volkswagen ad, but had been a fan remix, then this would shift the responses since, in that context, both the logic of the database and a sense of fandom or fidelity to the actors is at play.

    (Of course, not being hugely knowledgeable about musicals, I could be entirely wrong!)

  • This is a very interesting debate going on, and I just had a few comments/questions to add. While not getting into the whole “would Kelly approve question”, I think that the issue of artifice is key here. While there is an element of the artificial pointed out about certain performances of Kelly’s, the audience is willing to suspend their disbelief, and sense of the artificial for the magic of the moment. However, when new technology allows for a “new”, digitally edited, reconstructed performance, the sense of artifice behind it is much harder to overcome (the fact that Kelly and O’Connor are being used to peddle Jettas just seems to rub salt in this wound). While it is an innovative use of technology to be able to do this, I have to wonder if it’s really the fact that Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor look like alien, blurry, anachronistic versions of themselves, as pointed out in the article, that really is what bothers people. Would there be quite as much of an uproar if it looked like the commercials Kelly had done when he was alive?

    I really like the point that Jason Bellamy bring up when he says:

    This might sound like a strange leap, but consider the number of films that have used Beethoven’s music without his permission, or consider the number of real people who have been dramatized on film, long after their death. We don’t blink at that because it’s the norm. But is this really any different? I’d say no. What’s different is that previously we haven’t had the means to take a Gene Kelly clip and put it inside the backseat of a Jetta. For all we know, King George might have objected to the puppetry of The King’s Speech — his life was manipulated, tinkered with, to make something new (and something commercial, too, let’s not kid ourselves). It wasn’t his real figure used, but it was his “real” life suggested … and if you think about it that’s perhaps a far greater violation — it’s just one we’re used to.

    The music, even when re-imagined (a la “A Fifth of Beethoven”) doesn’t call attention to the fact that it is being re-purposed and redone by someone else–there’s not that same sense of unease about it; it’s own artifice is skillfully hidden by the fact that it still sounds like the original. There is something so personal and alive about a visual performance, that I can see how the manipulation of a person’s actual moving image seems to exert a sense of power over their posthumous form in a disturbing way that using a song does not.

    Finally, I was somewhat amazed at this year’s Academy Awards when suddenly, Bob Hope popped up on stage and started presenting an award. While not as stridently commercial as the Jetta ad, this was a very odd moment for me as well as the people I was watching the movie with. At the same time the Academy is trying to engage a younger audience, yet they still want to throwback to the glamor and class of old Hollywood. With all this digital manipulation and re-purposing of deceased stars, I also wonder what this says about the nature of stardom and “commodity” celebrity (if you will) itself these days. Was Bob Hope really the only person they could possibly have present? Were they just trying to honor him as one of the most prolific hosts? Were Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor the only people for this commercial? It is interesting to me, and I think indicative of the changing nature of stardom and class that these choices were made (and of course, the nature of technology as well, where in X-Men, Patrick Stewart has the signs of age all digitally removed, but is once again, somehow still somehow creepy and unbelievable because we know that something isn’t right about the image, and thus can’t get over our sense of the artificial).

    Anyway, thanks for the interesting article and discussion!

  • Hi again, Tama:

    I do think if you’re more impressed by the remixing of the media elements, then you’re more likely to enjoy or at least be impressed by these ads. If you’re more invested in the lives of Kelly and O’Connor, and their legacies, then I’d guess you’re more likely to dislike these ads (especially, as you point out, because the dancing is, in large part, obscured in the ads!).

    — Yes, I agree with you here. Wholeheartedly. As I mentioned in the essay (and as Lisa Bode points out in her piece on posthumous performances), the first thing viewers who LOVE the commercials praise is the special effects/remixing.

    I wonder, too, if the production context matters? I suspect if these performances hadn’t been a Volkswagen ad, but had been a fan remix, then this would shift the responses since, in that context, both the logic of the database and a sense of fandom or fidelity to the actors is at play.

    — Hmm, interesting. Do you mean a remix in the way Glee remixed “Singin’ in the Rain”? Or a fan remix like “Gene Kelly: Simply Irresistible“?

  • Hi, Regena:

    Thanks for your response to my column and the other commenters!

    While it is an innovative use of technology to be able to do this, I have to wonder if it’s really the fact that Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor look like alien, blurry, anachronistic versions of themselves, as pointed out in the article, that really is what bothers people.

    — I’d say that’s definitely a part of it, yes. In fact, several of the viewers who apparently despised the Jetta commercial wrote (on Twitter) how “weird” or “abnormal” or “unnatural” Kelly and O’Connor looked. In fact, Linda Holmes’s entire post (cited above) seemingly derives from this very notion.

    With all this digital manipulation and re-purposing of deceased stars, I also wonder what this says about the nature of stardom and “commodity” celebrity (if you will) itself these days. Was Bob Hope really the only person they could possibly have present?

    — Such a good point here! I think of “the Astaire Bill” (created in 1999 after Astaire “dances with” a Dirt Devil) and wonder, in the immediate future, what kind of amendments and/or revisions it will ultimately necessitate…

    Thanks again for stopping by!

  • Hi, Regena:

    Thanks for your response to my column and the other commenters!

    While it is an innovative use of technology to be able to do this, I have to wonder if it’s really the fact that Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor look like alien, blurry, anachronistic versions of themselves, as pointed out in the article, that really is what bothers people.

    — I’d say that’s definitely a part of it, yes. In fact, several of the viewers who apparently despised the Jetta commercial wrote (on Twitter) how “weird” or “abnormal” or “unnatural” Kelly and O’Connor looked. Furthermore, Linda Holmes’s entire post (cited above) seemingly derives from this very notion.

    With all this digital manipulation and re-purposing of deceased stars, I also wonder what this says about the nature of stardom and “commodity” celebrity (if you will) itself these days. Was Bob Hope really the only person they could possibly have present?

    — Such a good point here! I think of “the Astaire Bill” (created in 1999 after Astaire “dances with” a Dirt Devil) and wonder, in the immediate future, what kind of amendments and/or revisions it will ultimately necessitate…

    Thanks again for stopping by!

  • Pingback: Those Gene Kelly Volkswagen Commercials Suck, and Here’s Why « Gene Kelly Fans

  • Pingback: The Bias of All That: Gene Kelly and His Wives | Unmuzzled Thoughts

  • Pingback: The Bias of All That: Gene Kelly and His Wives

  • Pingback: Those Gene Kelly Volkswagen Commercials Suck, and Here’s Why | Pop-Cultured Prof | Kelli Marshall

  • Pingback: The Bias of All That: Gene Kelly and His Wives | Pop-Cultured Prof | Kelli Marshall

  • Pingback: Gene Kelly in the 21st Century: SCMS 2012 | Pop-Cultured Prof | Kelli Marshall

  • Pingback: The Bias of All That: Gene Kelly and His Wives | Kelli Marshall

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *