Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Night Journey (1961) - #406

Martha Graham's "Night Journey" takes place at the moment of Jocosta's death.

If you don't know who Martha Graham or Jocosta are, maybe this review isn't the place to start making your acquaintance. I'll leave that decision up to you, but if you're a complete novice to Jocosta, she's the ancient mythological queen who unknowingly married her son Oedipus after he unknowingly killed his father. You can read all about it here.

If you're a novice to Martha Graham, let me at least recommend that you read my review of the short film A Dancer's World first, and then follow it up with my essay on Appalachian Spring after that. They're the first two entries on this blog, written from the perspective of a fellow dance noob, that I culled from the Martha Graham: Dance on Film collection that Criterion released back in 2007. It's a release that I figure all but the most die-hard of Criterion fans have probably forgotten about or at least neglected ever since, just because they don't really fit the auteurist formula that draws most of us to the brand. On the one hand, I recognize that it does have a niche audience of admirers who appreciate modern dance and probably dig it a lot more than many of the other titles that Criterion released right around the same time. Just taking a minute to compare how many Likes this set got (262) on Criterion's website (as of today) compared to The Three Penny Opera (87) and Mala Noche (66) confirms that point. But on the other hand, I can understand why this set doesn't get a lot of attention from the standard art house aficionado, since I have to admit that I probably wouldn't have given these films much if any attention if the DVDs weren't emblazoned with that big C logo. Going into my first exploration of the set, I didn't really even think of them as "films" since they were originally broadcast on TV, and I harbored a vague suspicion that Criterion decided to release them mainly based on Martha Graham's enduring reputation and cult following than on the inherent quality of the documents themselves.

Watching the two earlier films mentioned above already disabused me of that notion - despite their brevity and relative obscurity, these are illuminating gems of their era - but watching and re-watching Night Journey several times in different moods and at various times of day over the past week has raised me to an entirely new level of astonished admiration for both Martha Graham and director Nathan Kroll, whose intuitive grasp of her art led him to capture these dances as performed by their creator before it was too late. Graham appears to have visibly aged even in the time that transpired between A Dancer's World (1957) and this production just four years later. According to those who danced for many years in Graham's company, interviewed several years ago on a Disc 2 supplement, Night Journey was by far their favorite performance, and it's significant that Martha herself featured the costume and props she used in it as part of the "backstage dressing room" set-up in A Dancer's World. The liner notes mention how profoundly Graham related to its focus on Jocosta's culminating realization of the profound ecstasy and tragedy of her existence, and how she connected elements of that myth to her own turbulent relationships, especially with her lover Eric Hawkins, the dancer for whom she wrote the Oedipus role in the first place. The fact that he was fifteen years younger than her certainly infuses some thought-provoking parallels of art imitating life into the context of this dance. But at this point, I'm not familiar enough with Martha Graham's personal journey to say much more than merely drop that reference. Still, even that small tidbit of knowledge helps me to see the depth of passion and dramatic poignancy that infuses her movements and expressions in the Jocosta role.

As for the film, it's quite a showcase for the artistry that Graham and her ardently devoted dance troupe developed over the course of nearly fifteen years between the first performance of Night Journey and its eventual capture on celluloid. More than was the case with the earlier filmed adaptations of Graham's choreography, I was struck with how much is actually lost in the process of compressing the continuity of Graham's three-dimensional stage productions into a flat, edited and narrowly framed 2D format - even though it's wonderful to have these documents of Graham herself in performance. Even though the lens brings us into intimate spaces at angles that we'd never approach in a theatrical setting, much of the action is lost off camera, or submerged in the background, and this knowledge makes me curious about the possibilities of a well-rendered multi-angled 3D cinematic presentation using 21st century technology. (Note: I have not yet seen Wim Wenders' Pina, though I'm more eager to now than I ever have been!)

With its abstract, minimalist set design and a collection of lithe, lean feminine physiques swirling and gesticulating with a precision both hypnotically archaic and shockingly modern, I felt for the first time in quite awhile somewhat over-matched in my ability to decode the foreign language with which I was being confronted in Night Journey. As much as any movie presented in the dialects of Europe or Asia, this is a film for which I could have benefited from reading the subtitles - but then again, I appreciate the challenge of deciphering Graham's coded body language even more. I seriously doubt that I have made it past the kindergarten level in that regard, even after numerous passes through, but here's a transcript that I'll offer you, a real-time written stream that you can read along as you make your own way through the dark erotic mystery that is Martha Graham's Night Journey...

Opening credits roll over suggestively iconic Greek relief sculptures - downcast female head, aroused nipple, bare feet, flowing robes forever cast in stone, before a brief text scrolls orienting the viewer to the pagan mythic roots of what's about to take place.

A strange platform - is it a bed? a table? a sacrificial altar? - appears on screen before we focus on an entranced woman holding a rope in a suggestively pubic triangle form. Tiresias, a blind masked prophet, twirls his way toward her, using his staff to pluck the rope from Jocosta's hands, and she swoons, once relieved of its inconsequential weight. A Chorus of lean supple maidens stride into view as witnesses to the tense exchange, as shamed Jocosta cowers in penitence while the women pay homage to the seer's wisdom and authority.

Jocosta, left alone again with Tiresias, lays her soul bare, a widow, mourning a lost husband whom she believes was killed by bandits. Frantic in her grief, sensing a void in the midst of her being, moving, searching, seeking that elusive fulfillment, possessed of powerful raw energies but aching in solitude, she spins and kneels, in supplicant submission to the prophetic oracle. But not receiving any direction, she returns to her solo dance before finally collapsing in exhaustion upon that sparse uncomfortable platform.

As she sleeps, the Chorus returns, waving olive branches over her, accompanied by the handsome confident young man who recently unknowingly slayed his own father and now confidently struts in seductive pursuit of the sleeping woman to whom he's attracted, mistaking his natural maternal affection for sexual cravings. She likewise is oblivious to the roots of her desire for this virile consort, happily yielding to his display of masculine power, bearing the branches above her head that proclaim a promise of fertility and abundance that fate will not allow her to fulfill.

Regardless of the taboos it unconsciously shatters, the unnatural courtship of Oedipus and Jocosta is not lacking in its own form of beauty. At first coy, demure and genuinely innocent, the return of the observant Choral Leader presses the couple to greater heights of ardor as the attraction of their bodies becomes too overwhelming for them to resist. But even as they consummate their intimacies, a flickering of troubled conscience sweeps across Jocosta's face, a signal perhaps for the full Chorus to barge in and enact their outraged protest at the violations of natural order that have just taken place. A wild, frantic dance erupts at the very moment that Oedipus entangles Jocosta irrevocably in the rope that she'll soon use to hang herself - the women leap vehemently, contracting and exploding in alternating rage and sorrow, hands and feet extended in protest, eyes shielded as they collapse to the floor then kneel in rapt attention as Tiresias returns to reveal, at last, the long prophesied but fiercely denied truth that seals Jocosta's doom and Oedipus' everlasting shame.

One last spurt of energy left in her, Jocosta reels in bewilderment before collapsing on her bed, while Oedipus arises after her, recognizes his sin, and punishes himself by gouging his eyes with the brooch from his lover/mother's breast. He staggers off to face his fate in the wilderness, choosing to live on despite his disgrace, an option more unbearable to Jocosta than facing the dreadful mysteries that await her beyond the grave. Shedding her regal robe, the last layer of dignity and artifice available to her, Jocosta now stands naked, accepting her sorrowful destiny. That rope, the cord that bound Jocosta to her son/lover, is now used with one final wrap around her neck to escort her from this world, leaving only Tiresias to poke and prod his way across the stage, now bereft of life and offering only a harvest of sighs.

Next: Sanjuro


Keith Enright said...

Ill come right out and say I would NEVER have watched this without the tilted C emblazoned on the cover.

This is what I love about The Collection. Exposing me to gems like this. Without being a completist I would never have been introduced to such incredible artistry.

David Blakeslee said...

Great observation, Keith, and I agree. My implicit trust in Criterion's judgment to steer me in a quality direction has yet to seriously disappoint me. I won't say that "just because it's Criterion means it's automatically good," but they do an impressive job of maintaining brand integrity even as they continue to sift through the full range of films potentially available for their distribution.

Martha Graham's complete immersion into her function as an artist in the context of her times makes her a very fitting subject for film, and we're very fortunate that her talents were captured (even if a bit past her prime) by someone who had such an intuitive grasp of what she was expressing through movement.

Anonymous said...

Oh, there are definitely discs in the collection that I did not "enjoy," but never once was I disappointed or thought my time was wasted. I enjoy the exposure very much and it helps me understand more what I DO like.

I did feel a little twinge of regret that these great documents didn't come 20 years younger in her career, but then the video tape may not have existed to so effectively grasp the immediacy of what was on the screen.

David Blakeslee said...

True, it would be nice to see Graham at her most spontaneous and supple, but then again, if she'd been pressed to become something more like a conventional "Hollywood movie dancer," that might have messed her up for the long term! She put up strong resistance to having her work filmed - think about it, if all she knew was the 1940s/50s movie industry as it existed at that time, I can understand her reluctance to go down that road. Fascinating that it was a TV broadcast format (short form, massive free exposure to potentially millions?) that changed her mind.