The Last Detail

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AT THE climax of 'Be Our Guest', a spectacular musical number in the new Disney Beauty and the Beast involving various animated items of kitchen cutlery, the camera suddenly assumes an overhead, pattern-making point of view (or rather, pretends to assume it: in a cartoon, of course, the effect is created entirely on the drawing board).

The inspiration is unmistakable. It derives from those neo-Futurist production numbers choreographed by Busby Berkeley for a series of backstage musicals of the Thirties and Forties and rapturously described by one critic as 'kaleidoscopic patterns of female flesh, dissolving into artichokes, exploding stars, snowflakes, and the expanding leaves of water lilies'. Yet, charming as the scene is, it is a complete travesty of Berkeley's vision - precisely because the anything-goes licence of a cartoon violates the rigorously controlled space, what might be called the impossible stage, on which Berkeley's routines unfold.

It has to be said that the close if overly frivolous attention accorded to Berkeley's work in recent years has tended to focus excessively on those overhead-shot symmetries, at the expense of some prodigious tracking, panning and dollying camera movements which ceaselessly redefine the spatial parameters of his vast, silvery, disc-like sets before our dazzled and discombobulated eyes. Yet what is so fascinatingly paradoxical about his Catherine wheel formations is that, though usually justified in narrative terms as part of the Broadway revue towards whose triumphant opening night the whole plot is converging, the fact that they are filmed from directly overhead means that they necessarily remain invisible to the theatre audience for whose benefit the movie would have us believe they are being staged. Its view of the spectacle, in fact, would be as partial and problematic as that of an art gallery visitor confronted by one of those horizontally positioned maps or paintings found in certain works of trompe-l'oeil and whose anamorphous perspectives can only be corrected with a deforming glass. In Berkeley's case the deforming glass was the camera.

Busby Berkeley was therefore the improbable descendant of his 18th- century namesake, the Bishop George, famous for posing the conundrum of unperceived existence, of what happens to a material object when it's no longer under observation. Each delivered the world in extremis from the spiritual nausea of solipsism, Berkeley the philosopher by hypothesising the ultimate vision of God, Berkeley the choreographer by granting the movie spectator a Godlike overview of his impossible stages.