Time rushes by, love rushes by, life rushes by... but the red shoes dance on.
Before getting into my comments on Powell & Pressburger's The Red Shoes, I want to get a little autobiographical here and reflect on where I'm at in this blogging project with 75 reviews on this site since I started in January 09. August will prove to be my least prolific month of watching and writing about Criterion DVDs. That's partly because I was out of town on vacation for a week and had lots of other summertime stuff competing for attention. I expect that my life and schedule will be just as busy as we get into the fall, so I will probably have to scale back my goal of 120 reviews this year (which I mentioned in a comment awhile ago,) But I'm also finding the films growing in complexity and requiring more time for me to absorb their content and think through all the stuff I want to say here.
The Red Shoes is a good case in point. Back when my approach to Criterion was more scattershot and I focused mainly on films that held an obvious, overt appeal to me, The Red Shoes didn't register on my list of "must sees," let alone eventual purchases. I remember an occasion some months ago when the film showed on TCM and I had nothing else to do and could have watched it for free. I tuned in for a few minutes but soon lost interest, not for any particular reason other than I didn't think there was much chance that the movie would pay off the investment of a couple hours. I mean, it's a ballet flick, for cryin' out loud. Even though I'd heard about the gorgeous use of color, how it had inspired Martin Scorcese and others to make movies, generated a strong cult following and even kicked off a wave of dance-school registrations for a generation of girls in the late 40s and early 50s, none of that convinced me that The Red Shoes was right up my alley. Even though I'm not the overly macho knuckle-dragging type myself (if I were, I wouldn't be this deep into art house cinema, obviously!), I'm still a straight guy who likes sports, lives and works in a fairly "traditional values" subculture, who's never had much interest in dance as an art form (other than a brief childhood fascination with old Busby Berkeley musicals, but even that was more about the kaleidoscopic visual effects of the production than the physical techniques involved.) I mean, I respect the discipline, talent and skill involved to succeed as a professional dancer, and when I happen to stumble upon some kind of dance exhibition, it's easy enough for me to find plenty to appreciate. But professionally choreographed dance, in and of itself, has simply never drawn me in. I've seen it more as an accent, a sidenote that makes an entertainment offering more entertaining, but not as the main thing itself.
Why would that be the case? I suppose it's that I never really learned the vocabulary of dance, so when that's the primary visual medium of telling a story, it requires more thinking and figuring it out for myself than I'm accustomed to in my usual choice of entertainments. I also have to acknowledge an aversion to the effete reputation and mannerisms associated with ballet, especially the men's parts. Probably some residual homophobic biases from my youth that I still have to work through - just trying to be honest here... and I suppose that watching The Red Shoes and other gay-affirming films found throughout the Criterion Collection is good exercise for me toward that goal. This isn't a film that addresses sexual orientation questions head-on; we're still in cultural 1948 here and taboos against open treatment of the subject are still in effect, requiring an indirect, even subliminal approach. But in any case, I present these thoughts for the benefit of any guys like me (or anyone else) who sizes up The Red Shoes and wonders if an apparently dance-focused, melodramatic chick flick is really worth the time and effort. My verdict on that is, emphatically, YES. You can be a sports-watching, beer-chuggin', middle American, self-secure heterosexual dad who occasionally cleans his ears with his car keys and still find a lot to admire and enjoy about this movie. I should know - I'm one!
But to get there, you have to PAY ATTENTION. As with all the other Archers films, this is a film that returns dividends the more you invest in it. And the extra features on this early Criterion disc happily show you the way.
The story begins with a clamoring crowd of young people ready to bang down the doors of an English music hall, so eager they are to immerse themselves in... ballet! I couldn't help but think of the opening of A Hard Day's Night, filmed just 16 years later, when a new generation of British youth were set to screamin' by the power of music... only those kids didn't stop once the band struck up a tune. Within a few minutes, all the main characters are introduced to us and we soon enter into the backstage scene of a world-class dance troupe, the Ballet Lermontov, led by an aristocratic tyrant Boris Lermontov, played by the great Anton Wolbrook, who we've met in more sympathetic roles assigned to him in 49th Parallel and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Here he epitomizes Euro ultra-sophistication, a zealously single-minded aristocratic aesthete with no time or concern for the fragilities of human relationships, especially those of the more intimate sort. He sees love and empathy as dangerous rivals for the attention of those rare few who are gifted enough to take their artistic disciplines to the highest level, and considers ballet his religion. His mission is not to cultivate a vulgar popular appreciation for dance or to help mediocre talents work their way toward competence. Rather, he sets out to sift the continent looking for diamonds and pearls among the rubble and place them in settings worthy of their artistic calling. Anyone who no longer fits his plans is swiftly and coldly discarded - he has no time for pity. Though he is generally very icy and serious, we do see him happy on a few occasions, invariably only when he has found a few morsels of artistic ecstasy capable of satisfying his appetite for the sublime.
Into his realm, two young people arrive: Vicky Page, an aspiring ballerina, ward of a wealthy patron of the arts, and Julian Craster, a music student just beginning to establish himself as a composer. Lermontov takes them both into his company, feeds ever so slightly their ambitions, then plucks their fruit when he sees it ripening to his liking. He enlists Julian to first revise, then completely rewrite music for a ballet, The Red Shoes, based on Hans Christian Anderson's story of enchanted slippers. Vicky is quickly cast into the lead role in that same production after he determines that she shares, or at least approaches, his devotion. This clip splices together a few scenes, beginning with Lermontov's meeting with Vicky to tell her she's been chosen and the requisite "rehearsal" scenes that transport us from dreams, through drudgery sweat and toil, to glory under the lights.
Probably needless to say, she succeeds brilliantly in her debut, delighting the audience and the critics, but most importantly, Lermontov himself, who now realizes that he has a disciple capable of becoming a prima ballerina under his tutelage.
So far, we have a pretty conventional showbiz story, even if it takes place in a rather regal, stylish, high society milieu (filmed in gloriously gaudy Technicolor, on location in London, Paris and Monte Carlo.) The challenge for Powell and Pressburger, when the movie arrived at this crucial juncture of depicting just how wonderfully Vicky danced in her big moment on stage, was that it's very difficult to convince a general audience of rubes like myself that her balletic moves are truly that much better than any other dancer they might have cast in the role. The Archers could never be content just having her run through the performance and show the crowd bursting into applause in the pedestrian manner of so many other musical biopics or variations on A Star Is Born. Their ambition is to present to us a more subjective meditation on the experience and meaning of artistic creation. In the following video clips, you can see the film's centerpiece, the Ballet of the Red Shoes, picking up right where the above clip left off. It begins as a conventional documentary of performance, but look for the amazing way the visuals (still breathtaking and surprising today despite all the advances of our CGI-era) bring us into Vicky's inner world as we continue observing her from the outside but begin to experience the dance as she herself might feel it...
Now the music and pictures, as pretty as they are, didn't fully communicate Vicky's point of view across to me, I have to admit. I was still a bit clueless about what was going on with her until I was able to hear audio track #3 on the DVD, actor Jeremy Irons reading from a corresponding passage in Powell and Pressburger's 1967 novelization of The Red Shoes. I guess I'm still hung up relying on words to some extent to get the drift! But what a nice bonus that is to have that resource at our disposal - an excellent demonstration of the unique opportunity that the DVD medium brings to understanding cinema.
What I learned in that passage was also spelled out in other ways throughout the course of the movie - that the red shoes, a symbol of the eternal and compelling role that art plays in human existence, have a power of their own that is capable of taking us to exalted heights of experience, but also of overwhelming and burning us out in the process. I imagine that this is something that Powell, Pressburger and the other creative minds who worked on this film discovered themselves in the process of their own dedicated efforts. The dramatic tension in the film arises when Vicky falls in love with Julian and faces the vexing choice between domestic comforts and the rigorous dedication needed to achieve artistic excellence. Admirably, the Archers don't make the choice easy for us. Just when we are gnashing our teeth at Lermontov's stubbornly inhuman rigidity in the face of young love and human nature, we come to realize what an insufferable simp Julian really is and what a mistake Vicky would be making to squander her talents on a moody sulker who doesn't fully appreciate her gifts. I won't be so brash as to outright spoil the ending for you, but I'll just say that the overall storyline bears a remarkable (and not so coincidental) resemblance to what happens in the ballet. Is that giving away too much? :o)
As I've reflected a bit on The Red Shoes over the past few days, I see some natural reasons why Powell and Pressburger decided to make a film about dance, and ballet in particular. The two disciplines share much in common, even though the differences between them are also numerous and obvious. Each require a lot of planning and choosing from an infinite number of possibilities to tell their story. They are large scale productions involving a host of subordinate disciplines, and each take place within a discreet time frame as they invite their audiences into fictive worlds that shed a unique light on both the shared world we mutually inhabit and move within, and our more private inner lives where dreams, emotions and imagination shape our interpretations of experience. And of course, ballet simply offers a vivid, picturesque and exciting milieu in which to tell a story. Others more knowledgeable on the subject than I can fill you in on the historic background and parallels to Diaghilev and Nijinsky (mere names to me, I know next to nothing about them, and I don't expect that I'll be delving a lot deeper into the world of ballet anytime soon either.) What I can say though is that The Red Shoes is a film of great heart, depth and soul. I can easily see myself popping it in some mid-December Sunday afternoon as a refreshing viewing alternative after I've glutted myself on football. That's about as ringing an endorsement as this armchair cultural commentator from working-class suburbia has to offer!
Next: The Fallen Idol