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Avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren is mostly known for short films like
Meshes in the Afternoon. A predominant theme of her work is dance. Both
literally, and in the 'dance' choreography where the camera manipulates
space. Following a win at Cannes, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, she
travelled to Tahiti to make a movie about dance. But the dynamics of
ritual among Voudoun devotees would throw much light on her academic
writings on the artist's responsibility in ethnography.
The finished film uses her footage from 1947 to 1951. But it was only released after her death, with explanatory narration from her book of the same name. Observations partake of the dispassionate ethnographer but with an artist's ability to create atmosphere using metaphor. "The rhythm and the sound of the drum brings out the movement of the dancing. It is the drumming which fuses together the 50 or more individuals into a single body, making them move as one. As if all had become linked on the thread of a single pulse." Deren is one of the few Westerners to be admitted to innermost Voudoun rituals. By the end of her stay, she had been accepted as a Mambo priestess. Yet throughout, her scientific candour remains as uncoloured as the studies of JG Fraser.
In Voudoun terminology, it is said that the loa (spirit) 'mounts' a person. The symbol is that of the horse and rider. Resulting actions and events are the expression of the will of the rider. Voudoun is syncretic, attempting to reconcile contrary beliefs, often melding practices of various schools of thought. It united disparate tribes of Haiti. It absorbs images from Roman Catholicism.
As the supreme God does not interfere with the world, it is to the various loa that devotees pay attention. The film documents several with associated rituals. Legba is a loa who is the link between the visible mortal world and the invisible immortal realms, the means and avenue between them. He is associated with a crossroads. A junction between worlds through which communication is established. The cross in Voudoun is also a symbol of life and death, of generation and resurrection.
One of the more complex ceremonies documented in the film is the celebration of Agwé's wedding. Agwé is the sovereign spirit of the sea, betrothed to the Goddess of Love. He also symbolises the ideal husband - being as the sea is, a ready strength and deep peace.
Our Goddess of Love, Erzulie, is mother of man's myth of life. In her, Voudoun salutes woman as love and muse. In a sense, she is the very principle by which man conceives and creates divinity. A beautiful mood accompanies her arrival, an atmosphere of refinement, "as if a fresh cooling breeze has sprung up." The atmosphere becomes less intense.
But what about 'possession' one of the more famous aspects of Voudoun? We see a sudden change come over participants as the loa 'mounts' them. But is it 'real'? Could it be fakery? Hypnotism perhaps? Possessed persons get considerable honour, so the temptation is there. But anthropologists (such as MJ Herskovitz) suggest it is normal in certain cultures. Not put on or induced. A Voudoun priest (a hungon) may also do tests of his own though. For instance, he might get the 'possessed' to drink chilli concentrate to see if they react.
I witnessed a Voudoun ceremony on another island - Bali. A young man seeking possession took his turn, dancing excited by drums. He became exceedingly the easiest word is - 'possessed' and ran out of the compound into oncoming traffic. He was eventually stopped, but I did not personally doubt his genuineness. He did eventually recover, slightly puzzled.
The film shows rituals of life and death at the cemetery. Catholic litanies (action de grace) precede the Voudoun ceremony. As the future springs from the present, life and death are viewed as one.
Divine Horsemen doesn't try to avoid 'difficult' aspects. So what of rituals that are more aggressive? Instead of sensationalising, it explains, "If the Rada (tribe of) loa represent the protective, guardian powers, the Petra loa are the patrons of aggressive action. The Petra cult was born out of a cosmic rage. It is the rage against the evil fate which the African suffered because of his enslavement. The energy from that rage enabled him to regain his freedom by winning the revolution against the Napoleonic forces." Such factual accounting extends to sacred animal sacrifice (which some viewers, of course, may find disconcerting).
Filming sensitive material presents its own problems. Cameras are intrusive. Deren develops techniques called 'shoot to cut' (which reduces the need for editing) and 'plan to eye,' (which uses a visual shorthand). On the back of her Bolex camera, she taped the commands, Speed Stop Focus Finder Motor. The prompts were there to safeguard shots that could never be redone.
A final section of the film shows Tahitian Carnival, Spring Festival. This has some of the most interesting dance sequences, many by talented performers rather than people possessed. Although presided over by a loa, it is not primarily religious. "Carnival celebrates a triumph over death. Of Spring life over the Winter, which was death for the earth. A time for putting the past behind. Of excitement and hope. And promise of a fresh start and a clean beginning." Deren related Voudoun back to her own work and philosophy of art. Using the idea of a collective of people, as found in ritual, she explains how the true artist becomes a channel of creativity, serving those people.
Deren has fathomed the deepest recesses of her subject and commits them to film and folio. A faithfulness rarely achieved in either. Her methodology and essays continue to inspire serious artists, filmmakers and researchers. Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, pieced together with primitive film equipment, is a lasting legacy of inestimable value.
"The largest popular arts show on the planet is a competition held
every year on the Sunday and Monday of Carnaval." So begins Schultz's
documentary, Imperatriz do Carnaval.
For many westerners, 'Carnival' stirs up images of a street party, costumes, and maybe even hedonistic Bacchanals. But in Rio de Janeiro, it is this and much more. In a place called the Sambodrome, twelve top samba schools (fourteen at the time the film was made), each with an average of 3,500 performers, perform to nearly one hundred thousand spectators and a live TV audience of twenty million. Four judges in each of ten categories. Elaborate costumes and extravagant floats must be beautiful and relevant to the chosen theme being depicted through the parade. The song must communicate the theme, and dancing and drumming are judged for their skill and execution, the synchronisation and the overall harmony. Top stars of screen and stage perform and are judged for the beauty of their dancing. Each school must cross the 800 metres of the Sambodrome in 85 minutes, cohesively and without rushing.
Yet above all, Carnaval is an experience. One that is very hard to convey on film. An elation, a joy, a celebration, sustained without break for over an hour. Today, the Brazilian media give continuous coverage as well as annual DVD summaries. But how to get a flavour of the unique spirit? The chaos. The remarkable division of labour. The tears and passions. The hopes of whole communities. For that, one has to dig deeper. Which is where an award-winning filmmaker comes in, one familiar with both Brazilian culture and the western understanding so far removed. Enter Luiz Fernando Schultz.
Instead of merely recording the end result, Schultz spends nine months getting to know one school Imperatriz. He places the preparations and the event squarely in the context of Brasil and its problems of poverty and class divisions. But he also shows the unquenchable spirit of the Brazilian people.
Following Imperatriz to their home in a poor district of Rio, the story begins with the announcement of the theme for the coming contest: the Portuguese discovery of Brasil. Composers will have 60 days to write songs and compete for the honour of representing the school. The winning song will not only be sung by participants for the whole of that school's performance. It will enter the annals of popular songs sung at fiestas every year. It will carry the audience away. It will make them dance and sing.
The biggest shortcoming of this exceptional film is perhaps the lack of any clearly defined audience. Brasilians are familiar with the subject matter. For them, much of it might play too close to a lecture for young children - unless you are a fan of that particular school (Imperatriz) and want to spot various personalities. Brazilian television includes material of this kind particularly at Carnaval time but it is presented in a punchy style assuming prior knowledge. For viewers outside of Brasil, it goes into a depth that might not hold the attention of non-aficionados. But let's face it, for an event the scale and emotions of which rival the World Cup and Oscars rolled into one, it is hardly mentioned outside its home nation. The music 'all sounds the same', the dancing is 'foreign' to what we call dancing, and it is hard to relate to the excitement experienced so intensely by so many.
This is a shame. As there is much in Carnaval that is worthy of serious study. It doesn't just form a unifying culture across class and communities (attended by both the President of Brasil and slum-dwellers). The samba schools themselves provide necessary social projects in deprived areas. Crèches, welfare for old people, job-starts. It bridges all ages, and generates a dedication among ordinary people who will put in time, tears, and much effort. All for no payment.
Carnaval is a national institution. Every Brazilian has a favourite Samba school, like supporting a football or baseball team in the West. But the enthusiasm generates active physical involvement (dancing), and no drinking, drugs or negative rivalry. It is an aspect of Brazilian life we could do well to learn from.
Schultz doesn't whitewash. He explains how the lack of money, especially in the early days, produced a culture that was subsidized by illegal gambling operations. But such scandals are not the meat of his work. It is a testament to the positives.
It is half past midnight when I arrive at a section of closed-off freeway. The parades are assembling. Thousands of performers in the most extravagant costumes I could imagine. Or covered in little more than gold paint. Enormous floats that have taken months to construct. Fireworks announcing the entrance of each school. One lead float is 51 metres long. A gigantic sculpture of Cleopatra with people dancing in inbuilt fountains. It's the school I have joined for Carnaval. I get my costume on. Now I don't dare drink much, even in 30 degree heat. There is no way I could pee while wearing it. My mind and body is fused towards other concerns. Rehearsal parties in preceding weeks, learning the samba song in Portuguese, friends I have made. Expectations, exuberance, inspirations.
Suddenly thousands of ecstatic faces. Everything coalesces into eighty minutes of sustained elation. An almost mystical experience. Remote-controlled TV cameras skate along specially-constructed tracks. I look up at faces in the audience as I dance and sing. People who imagine they are part of an anonymous multitude. I want to tell them, "You are not invisible! I appreciated every gesture! Every smile of encouragement! Every indication that you are sharing this amazing experience!" It is an emotional high unlike anything I have ever known.
If you want to know Carnaval, go to Brasil and experience it. Even better, register with a school and take part. And, if you can't do that, watch this film.
"Johnny Castle I'm a much better dancer than he is," says Patrick
Swayze about his Dirty Dancing character. I had thought, falsely it
seems, that the dancing in that film was pretty hot. Does Swayze have
an exceptionally high opinion of himself? As it turns out, no. He's
trained at several schools including the prestigious Joffrey Ballet
School of New York. On Johnny Castle, he continues, "He's a guy from
the streets of Philadelphia he didn't study from a ballet teacher or
a dance teacher." The real proof of the difference comes when Swayze
demonstrates difficult dance moves with the ease of a top pro. One who
can improve your style with a few casual words. This writer probably
learnt more in 59 minutes of this documentary than in ten years of
jive, salsa and the social dance scene. Swayze's comments offer insight
into dance as part of life. His mother (Patsy) and wife (Lisa) are
particularly articulate in explaining how it has enhanced other areas
of their life.
When Swayze says, "You have to allow the music to take you some place else you have to allow it to take you away," I recall Paul Mercurio's almost identical comments a few years later on the Strictly Ballroom DVD extras (given without, unfortunately, a simultaneous dance demo). Mercurio speaks of taking an audience on a journey through dance, whereas Swayze's 'journey' is the emotional preparation as a dancer becomes a character. Both processes stem from theories of Stanislavski ideas that had lead both to a revolution in modern dance on one hand, and 'Method School' acting on the other.
Swayze shows a genuine love of, and dedication to, his art. It's infectious. Dancing to him is as natural as living. It illuminates every part of his life. A Q&A with 'aspiring dancers' might seem over-rehearsed, but it is equally informative. Dialogue addresses different concerns, from nerves and performing in public, to finding the right dance partner. Swayze's explanation of 'deflecting momentum' (in words and practice) is superlative. Explanations on dance lifts are a sharp rebuke to would-be teachers who explain such dynamics inadequately.
Swayze shows deep respect for his mum, the dance teacher sitting at her desk and barking words of wisdom in a nasal twang. She taught him. Google her and you will find an established choreographer. The second part of Swayze Dancing shows sections from her classes. Putting students of different levels through their paces. It lets us see not only the hard work needed for dance sequences such as those in Dirty Dancing, but makes the moves look attainable.
Few modern dance movies feature top dancers - for few of them are also good actors. Dirty Dancing and Strictly Ballroom stood out in this respect (even if the former seemed let down by cheesy dialogue and teenage themes). Usually, directors cheat a bit, relying on fast montage to cut actors faces with the feet of dance doubles. In this sense, Swayze is one of the few remaining exponents of popular dance film in living memory. Watching this documentary, we lament that he never got more and better scripts to dance in. Or at a time when his health would have permitted it.
The bad thing about Swayze Dancing is the clumsy dramatisation in which the two teachers' lessons are set. The 'story' follows a group of young dancers competing in a contest. They arrive at Patsy's dance school for help as if they are near beginners, with "six weeks to learn to dance." But it is soon apparent to the viewer that they are already quite accomplished. They sport crazy 80's clothing and haircuts, with names like 'Gonzo.' Needless to say, all win some category or other in the dance-off. It feels quite embarrassing at times, right down to the fictionalising of Swayze's sister.
But as a dance instruction film it is priceless. A must for any aspiring salsa, Latin or performance dancer. Or of course, any 'dirty dancer' that wants to emulate the eponymous movie. It is also a short but moving testament to one of the screen's best known modern dance-actors. A chance to see him at his most commanding and best not as the hick from Philadelphia.
Cocktail party chat on Mission Impossible III might, at very worst,
label you mainstream. But mention 'trekkie' interests and the ghetto of
a solitary corner awaits, as you vainly gaze across the watered-down
punch for a glimmer of like-minded weirdos.
Unless pointy ears and anoraks are your thing, admitting you go to the latest Star Trek movie was generally a mistake. This, the studios, in the name of all that is financially Good and Great, wish to save us from. Star Trek must be lifted from its intergalactic backwater and placed squarely in the multi-million dollar sound-bite. Now, suitably high-concept, this eleventh incarnation from the media franchise becomes the respectable selection from a dizzying array of multiplex excess.
What Christopher Nolan (and then Heath Ledger) did for Batman, surely a blank cheque and a few good actors can do for Captain Kirk and his motley crew. That, at least, seems the intention. How well does it pan out?
Our new Star Trek has a less cult muppets and more action heroes. Chris Pine almost morphs the face of William Shatner's original and the captain of the 4th TV series. Leonard Nimoy cameos as aging Spock as we are introduced to the newer model. Simon Pegg (Scotty), Winona Ryder (Spock's mum) and Zoe Saldana (Uhuru) are all a joy to watch.
To establish itself as authoritative (a la Batman Begins), this movie is the prequel, long ago envisaged by creator Gene Roddenberry, and cancelled after its premature birth in the ham-fisted TV 'Enterprise' series. We follow Kirk from his earliest days, and also see young Spock grow up. It is an enormous balancing act, executed with a tremendous price tag (more than any previous Star Trek film) and has to tick many boxes for die-hard fans as well as reaching out to new audiences.
Our film opens a few minutes before Kirk is born. During a massive battle, he is shuttled out of harm's way, a cacophony of explosions submerged by sympathetic orchestra strains. He grows up the pretty boy-next-door with a wild streak. A sort of James Dean with a brain. Or, "the only genius repeat-offender in the Mid-West." After the most taxing training that Hollywood can devise, he becomes a hardened fighter still in touch with his humanity.
There are nice touches to look out for. Spock becomes 'emotionally compromised.' We see passion and a moist eye from the lovely Uhuru; and futurescapes glimpsed all too briefly in an average shot length of under five seconds.
As summer blockbusters go, Star Trek deserves to do well. But I would like to have seen some of the groundbreaking moral subtlety for which the original series famed for the first on screen inter-racial kiss garnered high regard among many. One has to search for any underlying dynamic at all. At best, it is the story of brave and fearless white Americans with the addition of a Russian, a Scot, and a token black woman facing a terrorist-style enemy (rogue Romulans) that has an unfounded grudge, formidable strike power, and no logical way of being defeated. (Wow! That's not too hard to follow!) Add familiar tropes about saving mankind, and western 'compassion' (before blowing someone up). Then fights between representatives of good and evil on a high ledge somewhere, and it starts looking depressingly derivative. Star Trek here relies on action scenes styled to Tom Cruise completing another impossible mission. But, sadly, Pine lacks Cruise charisma or anyone else's for that matter. And, while MI-III director Abrams was probably a wise choice, the result is more a step in the right direction than a satisfying overall product.
We can unashamedly leave our pointy bits at home to watch this film in the company of regular cinema-goers. But, rather than ground-breaking fare, it only takes us to the happy-land of unthinking entertainment. Its catchline: 'The Future Begins' came up on the screen only moments after the trailer for the new Terminator, for which I am assured, 'The End Begins.' Seems all you need these days to defeat an undefeatable assassin is a good starter line. May the White House take note. Though not, perhaps, feeling impelled to boldly go too boldly.
I felt slightly saddened and not a little ashamed of the sorry state of
affairs in our cinemas watching In the Loop, even though it is
well-acted and brilliantly scripted. As a television satire
transplanted onto the big screen, it does an admirable job of living up
to its tasteless expectations. In a political arena of spin and
counter-spin, British and American politicians collude over bringing
about an unjustifiable war that looks like Iraq, right down to jokes
about hounding someone to an assisted suicide suggestive of the death
of David Kelly. What depresses me about a film that, against my better
judgement, gave me quite a few laughs, is not the exhumation of the
seediness of politics. Nor the unbroken use of creative expletives from
the first to the last moment of the movie. It is my own acknowledgement
of a powerlessness in British culture that, unlike its European
counterpart where public protests can and do influence politics, or the
U.S.A. where elections offer real choice. No. We, the British, find
consolation for political impotence in the salve of cynicism.
In the Loop is a sniggering affirmation of helplessness against ministerial mouthings-off that no-one believes. But it is not a protest movie: it is entertainment. We longer go to the movies to think. Quite the opposite. We go to switch off our intellectual faculties at the end of the day and, accordingly, this is what we get. Where a film that prodded our sensibilities on the issues, forcing us to examine our conscience or come out on one side or the other would have failed at the box-office, In the Loop is a 'runaway success', delighting both the public and its equally anaesthetized critics. Instead of overhauling ministerial responsibility, we will probably give it a Bafta. And go home feeling good about ourselves.
Ignoring any serious take, as In the Loop adroitly encourages me to do, one effortlessly portrayed difference that particularly interested me was the cross-Atlantic cultural disparity on swearing. It is on release at a time when the U.S. legal system has just upheld the regulatory board's justification for fining a television company over even a single use of a swear word. Such 'prudery' would be unimaginable to British audiences. The White House lackeys of In the Loop carry this characteristic self-censorship through with considerable humour and effectiveness, battling their British counterparts who find ever more inventive ways to use the f-word and its equivalents.
In the Loop is unmistakably British, right down to the lottery funds that enable us to trumpet our foul language to the world and make them laugh. The dialogue would make any comedian reliant on gutter tactics exceedingly proud. Its unceasing and seemingly limitless supply makes any background music redundant, and the makers have wisely omitted such trappings apart from an old boy type government face who listens to Debussy and has his finger pressed on the requisite part of the keyboard to delete any criticisms of intended war.
If you can afford to spend a couple of hours (including adverts) in the cinema and not worry about where the time went, go and see this film. It will become a timeless 'classic' on DVD and probably adored by an equal number of bleeding hearts ('lefties') who know they can't stop governments bombing people but can delight in 'knowing' better. Cheap shots, intellectual conceit, and the stand-up skill of attacking everyone while upsetting no-one. Whether it is a meritorious film is another matter entirely, but that has never bothered the cinema-paying public. Any more than the countless people killed or tortured in their name.
In the Loop is better entertainment than a Labour Party Conference. And much less expensive.
Potter's idiosyncratic exploration of conflict is almost a diamond
bashed into a cheap ring. The film's title is a clever intellectual
device, an affirmation of the positive, explained in the ending by the
narrator-philosopher cleaning lady, and in a conversation about numbers
mid-film. As an anti-war film (post 9/11 and filmed during the early
occupation of Iraq) it is rather less coherent, hinting at its theme
obliquely through the love affair of an Irish-American woman and man
The most immediately distinctive characteristic is that the whole film uses a dialogue of iambic pentameter. In this it is brilliantly successful. The lines come naturally and I felt myself transported as if hearing Shakespeare in his own era. It runs the gamut of eloquent flights of poetry, unfurling like a woman's hair from a clasp, to the foul-mouthed language of a punk-rocker kitchen assistant. It never once seems forced.
The story follows a beautiful woman, maybe in her forties, played by Joan Allen and never named. She is a scientist, lives a luxurious lifestyle but in a cold, 'open' marriage to a politician (played by Sam Neill). She strikes up a passionate affair with a waiter/chef from the Middle East who charms her one night at an official function she must attend. But having played the wonderful (and sincere) Lothario, he breaks off with her when he realises he is only valued for the image she has of him. He has to struggle to fit in, living in a western country, speaking English, adopting 'her' culture. Yet she knows nothing of him, his background. Not even a single word of his language.
It is in the portrayal of different and far from simplistic gender stereotypes that Potter excels. All the characters are beautifully hewn and totally unalike, each justifiable to him or herself. We don't gain much insight into politics, but we do see interesting 'types' of women and men. All portrayed with respect and highlighting our shallow understanding of anyone who might be of a different mental make-up to ourselves.
The film's shortcomings can be viewed sympathetically. The religious rants are just that, and lacking depth. But would we expect more of most people? Perhaps not. But as the cleaner is prone to comment on everything, a few words of insight might not have been amiss. Or is it that Ms Potter knows as little about Christianity, Islam and Lebanon as the characters she accuses? Some scenes would have benefited from jump cuts at the point where interest languishes. One might argue that they are consistent with the storyline of over-attachment to a love affair or particular point of view. That did not stop me wanting the scene to move on instead of saying the same thing again in another impressive (if redundant) piece of verse.
The sudden shifts of location to Beirut and Cuba are visually appealing (even if Joan Allen had to be in reality shot in the Dominican Republic due to U.S. restrictions on its citizens working in Cuba). But they also have the feeling of a cop-out for mainstream audiences. Potter claimed that, "Endings are notoriously difficult," and technical problems and time pressures added to the production worries. But this does not assuage the reality that the intended political comment is explored without being well thought out. And that the choice of ending seems to be more for appeasing audiences than adding to a consistent whole.
Yes is a proud addition to Sally Potter's highly personal and curiously successful work. Though perhaps not the masterpiece she might have wanted.
Whether you judge The Tango Lesson to be as perfect as a film can get,
or a self-indulgent autohagiography with nice legs and sets, is
probably about your viewpoint. There is bound to be at least one reader
who will disagree with either view. So I am inclined to look at what
the director was trying to achieve. Sally Potter is an established
art-house filmmaker with particular interests in gender politics and
dance. She also sings, writes and, in this film at least, acts.
Tango is a dance drawing heavily on passion. Unlike many dances, its emotional range includes jealousy and betrayal. When sparks fly, they are not just sparks of attraction. Male power and domination, silence that bites, and doomed love and destruction (hence the metaphor of Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris). A woman never escapes the man's embrace. The brilliance of her steps give the appearance of being entirely due to her partner's masterful guidance. At one point in our movie, Potter's partner, enraged, tells her she must 'do nothing' he means nothing that doesn't come from him.
It is a perfect dance to build dramatic metaphor around.
But Potter's interest goes further. She wants to examine role reversal (this is the director who has had a hit a few years earlier with the sexual ambiguous Orlando). In The Tango Lesson, she plays opposite a top tango dancer, mentally submitting to him in order to learn the dance. Her character is a film director, disillusioned with a Hollywood deal and looking for a new project. Could it be dance? In the second half, she enlists him to play in a film. The power position is reversed. He must follow instead of lead. He must take direction.
The success of this plot relies almost entirely on its real life elements. The circumstances in which the film was made mirror those depicted in the film-within-a-film. Names of principle characters are not changed. Potter does all her own dancing. Obvious commercial sell-outs are avoided.
So in terms of dancing and the gender politics, how well does the film perform?
The answer has to be, "Magnificently." The tango scenes are among the best of any motion picture. Tango on the stage, tango on the streets. Tango in the dancehalls, tango on the water's edge. Tango in rain, tango in snow. Potter described some of the technical challenges, saying that in the rain there were, "a limited number of takes possible due to the limited number of dry jeans." But the result is stunning. If you wanted a tango photo to hang over your fireplace, you would be spoilt for choice with stills from this film. Perfect mise-en-scene and impressive lighting make the film visually intoxicating. And when we hear Libertango the most familiar of all tango tunes the energy explodes as Potter bursts from the dance studio, dancing with several men at once.
Cinematography is endlessly inventive. During a stage performance, the camera is positioned so that it faces the audience, dancers silhouetted by the dazzle of spotlights. "I wanted to show something of the visceral sensation of being onstage," she says, "with the lights in your eyes." Gender analysis is equally successful. Potter deals with simple male chauvinism, and in a matter-of-fact rather than an unkind way. Pablo and his friends act in a 'perfectly reasonable' manner which Potter then exposes as unreasonable. They cherish a glamorised idea of film-making. She has to exert gentle authority when they 'decide' that they've waited long enough for someone to turn up; or when Pablo might not 'want' to shed a tear in her 'little film.' She must and does handle their unprofessional emotions, fears and ignorance, exactly as Pablo had to handle hers when she was learning to dance. And now it is against his every instinct. He must follow and let her lead.
Potter takes us beyond gender politics to the creative process. The film opens with her wiping a white table, then she sits at it with a blank sheet of paper. She starts to script, but discards one idea after another. Fast cuts to bursts of colour (in the Hollywood movie she had originally planned to make) illustrate action sequences of a movie style that makes money. They are like fragments of a finished film, waiting to be found. She hovers, waiting for the right idea to take form. "I know this moment well. It's the most precious, delicate, terrifying moment in film-making. The void beckons, seductively. But at any moment, the pencil will touch the blank page and the first, irrevocable step will have been taken. Every such step can feel like an act of treachery against abstract and infinite perfection." That state of 'becoming,' the moment before any definite action is decided, parallels the state of preparedness a follower must have in dance.
It is the philosophy that an early feminist-filmmaker, Maya Deren (also a dancer), propounded in connection with films (such as her Study in Choreography for the Camera). For her, it was an essential trait of being a woman, the ability to wait, as opposed to a man's desire for immediacy. For Potter, who had focused on dancing in her earlier life, the film becomes a voyage of discovery. "I remember suddenly what I always loved about dancing the combination of vigorous endeavour, present timidness, and dedication to process the sure knowledge that you never 'arrive', you are instead in a constant process of arrival. It is itself, and it is a metaphor: for learning, for living, for being."
On the downside, there is not a lot of story. The Tango Lesson is Strictly Ballroom stripped of make-up, witticisms, clichés, overacting, and the pointless, predictable, but highly entertaining storyline. The Tango Lesson proudly states that the ideas (and the dancing) should be sufficient. Sadly for some people of course, it won't.
A difficulty in reviewing an avant-garde short is the danger of coming
from the wrong mind-set. Some films are self-explanatory with varying
amounts of attention. Some aren't. My first reaction on seeing this
film after falling in love with Deren's early, seemingly oneiric,
stories was not very positive.
But I could have been looking at something written in a foreign language and not known it. I dismissed it as artistic scribbles. Or perhaps I am not sufficiently steeped in film-making to recognise what she tried to illustrate.
Compared to Meshes of the Afternoon or At Land, I initially found A Study rather disappointing. I couldn't see it as an abstract exercise in 'creative geography' merely a step down from something I had been able to relate to enthusiastically and immediately. I was wrong.
I take a second look at this well-regarded short some time later, when thinking about Sally Potter's ideas on the similarity of dance and film (in The Tango Lesson). Potter agonised over the moment before being, the blank slate, that hovering moment of 'becoming'. It made me think back to Maya Deren, this short film which unexpectedly sees a dancer transition through different surroundings.
Deren herself described her film as having, "the characteristic time quality of a woman." She explains it by comparison. "I think that the strength of men is their great sense of immediacy. They are a 'now' creature. And a woman has strength to wait, because she's had to wait. She has to wait nine months for the concept of a child. Time is built into her body in the sense of becomingness, and she sees everything in terms of it being in the stage of becoming."
There are (at least) two important features of A Study In Choreography For The Camera that make it interesting in this respect. They are interesting as part of the study which the film is eponymously intended to be (rather than, say, just entertainment). The first of these is the transitions. A dancer raises his foot in a forest and puts it down again indoors as part of the same step. He explores the museum. Then, with an intense spin, he returns to the outdoors, but without any suggestion of continuity in space. He does not leap so high physically that he escapes the walls of the museum. The outside simply is 'there' for him. The reality is that of the dancer, not of the external world. (The transitions are accomplished so skilfully that Gene Kelly was to seek her advice on how to approach them.)
"In any time-form, this is a very important sense. I think that my films, putting as much stress as they do upon the constant metamorphosis one image is always becoming another it is what is happening that is important in my films, not what 'is' at any moment. This is a woman's time sense, and I think it happens more in my films than almost anyone else's." Now, it is also possible to see the common train of thought between this and her earlier, more diegetic but equally challenging, films.
The second feature of the film which bears on time is Deren's specific decision to use slow motion. "Motion picture is a time form," says Deren. "Just as the telescope reveals the structure of matter in a way that the unaided eye can never see it, so slow motion reveals the structure of motion. Events that occur rapidly, so that they seem a continuous flux, are revealed in slow motion to be full of pulsations and agonies and indecisions and repetitions."
What better way to illustrate this than with the hidden exertions of a ballet dancer? Strength, concentration, even pain, all sublimated to look effortless and beautiful. Magnified and stripped of the illusion created by performance in normal time, the dancer becomes more like a moving sculpture. We can examine him at leisure. It is this focus which particularly separates the work from say, Shirley Clarke's A Dance in the Sun, which also explores a dancing moving through different locations but whose overall effect is to isolate energy and the state of mind of the dancer.
Like dancing, Deren's finished work appears so effortless that it is all too easy to miss its subtlety. (For a similar microscopic examination of the film-making process distributed after her death, an accompanying film, called Outtakes from A Study in Choreography for Camera, assembled 15 minutes of footage from which the final film had been distilled.)
The title points us towards yet another innovation. Instead of statically recording, the camera is an active participant (the subtitle of the film is 'Pas de Deux'). The 16mm Bolex is an equal partner to Talley Beatty, the dancer. Near the beginning, it makes some long pans. We see Beatty several times, among the trees. It is almost as if trick photography has been used, but in fact we are simply seeing him from the camera's point-of-view-as-a-dancer. The camera is not limited by space and time. Or as Deren more poetically wrote, "The movement of the dancer creates a geography that never was. With a turn of the foot, he makes neighbours of distant places."
Deren has used the principles developed in her earlier films to create a window within a film. We see the dance as separate from the surroundings, in order better to study its nature.
But unless such ideas excite you, A Study in Choreography for the Camera is not going to blow your socks off. "I make my pictures for what Hollywood spends on lipstick," she famously said. If however, you also harbour a suspicion that Hollywood "has been a major obstacle to the definition and development of motion pictures as a creative fine-art form," then maybe it's time to take a walk or a leap into the world of Maya Deren.
As the film opens Paul and Nana are going through a break-up. Each is
filmed with their back to the camera. As Nana says she wants to die, it
makes me think that, when we turn our back on the most significant
person in our life, it can be like turning our backs on life itself.
Such a big part of our identity is bound up with them that there seems
nothing left. It is as if we have failed to heed the advice of
Montaigne, quoted at the end of the opening credits: "Lend yourself to
others and give yourself to yourself." Of course, Godard may not be
intending for me to have such thoughts. For much of the film I get the
distinct impression that he does not want me to interpret anything as
anything, but just to accept it as it is. But the film, within a few
minutes, has sparked off some interesting and worthwhile thought in me
and I like this. It seems to be what art should do. And that it should
do it simply by existing, not by trying to convey some message of its
For much of the film that follows, part of my mind is taken up with enjoying the crisp black and white photography. The streets of Paris, and other simple but finely observed detail. The lustre of Anna Karina's hair she plays Nana is as enchanting as if I were talking to her. And maybe talking about nothing very much in particular so that my mind could wander to such things. The quality of the print is sufficient to make out individual hairs or hairline cracks in walls and furniture.
The overall effect taken with some other devices that I only slowly become aware of is to give a documentary-like feel to what the camera is seeing. Nana splits from Paul and drifts into prostitution. It happens without any big dramatics. She has been working in a record store, is having trouble paying her back rent, and, after a few other minor incidents, we see her with her first client. The look of repressed emotion on her face is one of the most stark and memorable images in the film. A bit like Edvard Munch's painting, The Scream. But sublimated into what is portrayed as a very everyday setting.
Later, in a rapid monotone, Nana's pimp even gives us a run-down of prices, laws, regulations and practices. It is almost the Brechtian splitting of the film into twelve chapters (each with long titles telling us what is about to happen), and Godard's increasingly frequent experiments that separate the sound from the image, that remind us this is fiction, not docu-drama.
For instance, towards the end and when Nana is with a young man she rather likes (and the attraction seems mutual, maybe love), their conversation is not heard by us but only seen on the screen as subtitles. They are communicating soundlessly perhaps, as lovers do.
There is a long scene where she discusses the meaning of language with an old man, a philosopher (played by Godard's former philosophy teacher). Although this is outwardly quite deep, I did not find the arguments nearly as profound or rigorous as in Godard's later film, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. Prostitution is not used here, as it is in 2 or 3 things, as a political metaphor. Susan Sontag, in her aptly titled essays, Against Interpretation, suggests that it is, "the most radical metaphor for the separating out of the elements of a life as a testing ground, a crucible for the study of what is essential and what is superfluous in a life." She sees Nana as having divested herself of her old identity and taken on her new identity that of a prostitute.
In the version I watched, quite a few lines were omitted from the English subtitling, so my smattering of French came in useful. But I needed some of the subtler French puns on the 'life' and 'chickens' pointed out to me.
As the film came to its not untypically Godard-like abrupt ending, I wondered for a minute if it was as great as some people often claim. The celebrated critic Roger Ebert, for instance, singles it out as one of the great movies of all time. My mind wandered to such movies as Last Year at Marienbad, and Jules and Jim, both made about the same time and which have left quite a deep impression on me. But only for a minute.
Vivre Sa Vie is different, yet again, to any other work by Godard. But it is deceptively unassuming, and a remarkably solid piece of work for all its sense of transience (Godard compared cinema to a train rather than the station). It can also be seen as a love letter from Godard to his wife, the beautifully photographed Anna Karina.
At the height of its television popularity, a New York TV station ran
Swing Time twice a night for a whole week. Even before digital program
recording, people were timing it, so they could tune in to every
showing, catching the magical moment when Fred Astaire performs his
legendary dance sequence in Bojangles of Harlem.
Later, they would wait for the wonderful pairing with Ginger Rogers, where chemistry would sparkle from beneath her long lashes to the tips of her toes. And although I've also enjoyed it on the small screen several times, nothing can compare with the wonder of experiencing it in a movie theatre. The dance becomes alive. We feel not only the rush of movement, but being caught up in the moment, and seeing the fine details of expression so hard to appreciate when reduced in size. Swing Time is rightly regarded by many fans and critics as Fred and Ginger's greatest movie together. A movie to laugh and cry with. It was even referenced in Barack Obama's inauguration speech. The story is imaginative, the good-natured gags bring a smile to your face when remembered, and the songs and dance routines live on forever. Fred and Ginger exude a joy of performance and a skill of execution that can make you gasp: "This is what dancing is all about!"
The dances are almost always performed in a single take, showing the whole dancer's body. No mistakes. No special effects. But dancing that sets the standard for generations to come. They look carefree and relaxed as dancers should but each move, each throwaway gesture and expression, had been minutely rehearsed until it was beyond perfect. It was perfect and then had added charisma, warmth, and acting infused into it. The charm of Fred Astaire's on-screen character (reputedly very close to his real life persona) and the unaffected femininity of Ginger Rogers make them the partners that every dancer longs to trip the light fantastic with. Astaire is the epitome of style, elegance and good taste. The embodiment of the 'gentleman' but without stuffiness. He woos the girl, gets out of problematic situations, and is a good friend. Witty repartee alights from his lips to disarm every attack and entice very woman into his arms, at once making her feel like the most special woman that ever lived.
Occasionally one wonders why Rogers achieved more fame in his arms than any of his other dance partners, many of whom exceeded her in professional training and maybe even looks. Perhaps the answer is that she is not just a perfect dancer, but a perfect partner. Who wants to dance with someone who just loves themself? Rogers, both in her performance of dance steps and in the attitude she emanates, dances as part of a partnership seemingly made in heaven. As if both people are dancing from the same inner source. Watch her in their first dance together in Swing Time. After the initial gags, he takes her back into the dance studio to save her job in front of the boss. For the first section of the dance, she is the backdrop, discretely watching and following Astaire, the man taking the lead. (It's a basic polka with added syncopation and tap steps.) She is the tapestry upon which he shines. The good woman behind every good man. Then, as they relax into the routine, her steps become more decorative, sparkling jewels adorning their performance together. For those fond of the oft-quoted line, "Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels," this is a great example, tap dancing in black high heels! By the end of the dance she is iridescent, a flower in beautiful bloom. The next scene is a suitably impressed studio manager arranging a top audition for them.
Their first dance has followed a farcical sequence when Astaire pretends he can't dance in order to get lessons from the beautiful dance instructor, played by Ginger Rogers. They repeatedly fall over, Astaire trying to arrange it so they fall ever closer to each other. All this is timed to the famous song line, "Pick yourself up, start all over again." It could almost be an anthem for every dancer who has ever failed as every dancer must as well as in life. Dramatically, this 'not being dissuaded by failure' is at the core of most rom-coms, as well as visually in much later movies like Flashdance). In Swing Time, it becomes iconic. The words of the song, the visual acting-out in dance, and the storyline. They combine to become something life-affirming, and also one of the quintessential qualities associated with the American attitude of 'never give up.' Or as Obama exhorted in the midst of the 2009 economic crisis, "Pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off!"
Rogers combines a down-to-earth, girl-next-door appeal, with some of the most ladylike qualities anyone could wish for. Her elegance of movement is matched by the elegance with which she handles situations. If the unbelievably crazy strategies to romance her aren't quite believable, she doesn't quite believe them. She can be politely formal rather than take offence or get angry. Her displays of emotion are tempered by gentleness and good taste.
Although the award-winning Bojangles of Harlem sequence was one of the favourites of the day, Never Gonna Dance is probably the climax for modern audiences and the climax of the film. It is one of the great unsurpassed dance performances of cinema. It deserves to be seen by every aspiring dancer, amateur or professional.
This review will not give away any more hints to the storyline. You will have to see the movie yourself and enjoy the leaps of time and place as it launches from one situation to a deeper one, carrying you with it in one of the greatest Hollywood musicals of all time.
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