The Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera
Cultural pretension has involved operatic grandiosity throughout movie history. As a genre, grand opera is the father of the movies. Part of the prestige of opera lay in its ability to wed transcendental sound to visual pleasure. The difference between aura and glamour bears importantly on the ways in which opera and the movies channel the desires of their audiences. Opera's numinous intangible, with all its cultural and aesthetic prestige, could be annexed to the sphere of visually sumptuous mass culture. A Night at the Opera takes apart the opera in order to claim both theatrical and social superiority for itself, but its claims turn out to depend on the opera in intimate and unexpected ways. It claims that an entertaining movie can tell a more moving, musical love story than an edifying opera. The power of the film depends on the power of opera, even to embody an aspiration to the condition of opera. The movie seems to depend on and to yearn for the very operatic pleasures it claims to surpass. Operatic love and vaudeville ridicule join “musically” to rip the fabric of an absurd society. The “downward” shift in ethnicity and social class gives the operatic voice a demotic, democratic inflection, and allows A Night at the Opera to take as its primary object of desire precisely the intangible bliss manifested through the melancholy ecstasy of that voice. The logic of carnival and that of castration govern the process of complementary abasement and elevation.
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