Thoughts of a Canadian academic on the plays he sees, the books he reads, and the movies he watches. Published on the Web in a spirit of self-indulgence.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Ballets Russe

I've seen lots of new movies since my last post: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Brokeback Mountain, Capote, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Good Night and Good Luck, Syriana, Munich, among others. I might blog about them later: particularly Capote and Good Night and Good Luck.

But last night, I saw Ballets Russes: a documentary on the history of the famous Ballets Russes ballet company (actually, there were two for much of the time). And I loved it, the way I loved Schultze Gets the Blues: one of those lovely movies that creeps up on you and moves you to tears when you're least expecting it.

The documentary covers the history of the dance troupe from its inception to its demise, under the leadership of Balanchine and others. The dancers are now elderly, withered, sagging, sometimes wheelchair-bound, frequently with canes, and ... beautiful. Breathtakingly beautiful. Beautiful beyond words.

In one scene, two octegenarian dancers do an excerpt from Giselle. The scene is hilariously funny, and the dancers themselves are doubled over in moments: when the male dancer complains that he can't keep up, and when they realize that they are both too broad in the beam to fit on the tiny bench at the close of the scene. But at one crucial moment, the ballerina bends, and turns her face to the camera, and smiles.

In another movie, it could be parody. It could be savage, cruel. It could be Baby Jane Hudson, staring at the grotesque remnants of her childlike beauty in a mirror and screaming in terror. It could be unbearably sad, watching someone reveal the remnants of her former lithe beauty. After all, we worship youth in our culture: dancers, above all, must not grow old.

But it's not cruel or savage. It's not even sad. The movie celebrates, not what was lost, but what remains. The woman's smile is so beautiful, and her spirit and personality and artistry are all there. The central paradox of dance shines through that wonderful scene, and all through this wonderful documentary: dancers use their bodies ruthlessly as tools to express something beyond their bodies. When watching the ballet, we marvel at the superb physiques of these dancers: their slender arms and legs, their strength, their agility, their accomplished feats of skill. But all those things are signifiers, pointing to something beyond. And these aged dancers shine with that something. I don't know what it is. But aged dancers reveal it with a clarity that we don't see in the younger ones, blinded as we are by the magnificence of the tools they're using.

The narration by Marian Seldes is haunting. And the music. Omigod, the music. The movie throbs with the incredible music that fueled the Ballets Russes: Afternoon of a Faun, Petrushka, Symphonie Fantastique, Coppelia, Giselle, Swan Lake.

I'm not a dancer, and I'll never be a dancer. But after seeing this movie, I'll never again see the latter half of a dancer's life as a mournful tragedy. I assumed that dancers peak in their early twenties, spend the next 20 years fiercely holding on to their turf, and then retire to agonize over their lost abilities and former glories.

Watching a 90-year-old Frederick Franklin dazzle a master class and show a young dancer how to move, I realize: was I ever wrong.

Friday, November 11, 2005

A History of Violence

David Cronenberg's new movie got terrific reviews at Cannes and in the papers here in Canada. When I went last night, I wondered: was he simply getting good press at home because he's a Canadian, and therefore one of our own?

Nope. He's getting good press because A History of Violence is one rattling good movie. Although I mean "rattling," not as a jaunty rattling over rough road, but the sense of feeling rattled, disturbed, frightened, suspicious, sad and uneasy. Knocked out of my groove.

From the opening frame, Cronenberg displays complete command of the story's structure. We see a hot motel in the mid-West, and two guys checking out of their room. They're exiles, doing time in a wilderness of heat and dust. We soon see why. Eventually, they find their way to a small town, and cause trouble for the owner of the local diner, played by Viggo Mortensen, who is as far from Aragorn in this picture as it's possible to be without reconstructive surgery. And once Pandora's box opens, all sorts of gremlins come crawling out. We realize that the two men who open the movie are not the only exiles: everyone is more or less a wanderer, driven partly by the urge to find safety, and partly by the lure of danger and the need to hurt others.

Cronenberg takes a potential cliche--we're all capable of violence--and makes it rich and disturbing, partly through the performances he elicits from a superb cast, and partly through the careful use of structural parallels. The violence comes largely from the men, and yet the men are frequently paired or grouped in nurturing or mentoring relationships. The two killers at the beginning, one of whom is significantly older than the other, seem at times to be lovers and at other times to be brothers and at other times to be father and son. Mortenson has an uneasy relationship with his own son.

The sinister Ed Harris surrounds himself with younger henchmen, and acts like a spurned mentor. In one of the creepiest moments, the wife discovers that her daughter has walked out of the store where she's trying on shoes; she runs into the mall and finds her looking through a shop window, with Ed Harris sitting nearby, watching. "Don't worry," he reassures her: "I was keeping an eye out for her." The scene's power came not from our belief that Harris was out to harm the daughter, but from my belief that he genuinely was protecting her: this hideous man has a nurturing instinct, and his urge to protect and his urge to kill are coming from the same place.

And Tom (Mortensen) has a reunion with his older brother (William Hurt): a relationship in which protectiveness, affection, arousal and hostility combine to make a harrowing mixture.

The movie has its share of violence, but graphic as the scenes are, they never go to excess. In fact, the sex disturbed me more than the violence: the scenes between Mortensen and his wife suggest intimacy and love, but also a complex honesty, and a recognition that sex takes them to strange places in their heads, places that seem inconsistent with their daily lives and characters.

I left the theater thinking of Prospero's words about Caliban in The Tempest: "this thing of darkness I do acknowledge mine." I felt the same way on many levels after seeing A History of Violence. As a Canadian, I recognize Cronenberg as a major figure in Canadian cinema: a spokesperson for a lot of the disturbing stuff in our psyche that seems inconsistent with Canadians as nice people. As a human being, I recognize that I am those people: that the violence is there. The movie helps us to look inside; it also helps us to back away, slowly, sadly and carefully. We're not left with a sense of hopelessness; instead, we're left with the realization that love, compassion and caring are as real as violence. That gives us hope, and opens the door to sadness and responsibility as well.

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Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Carnival of Souls

This movie has appeared on the Internet Archive. It's frightening, in a subtle, creepy way. But it's also beautiful. It's a summer afternoon in a small town: two boastful guys in a car challenge three girls in another car to a race. The girls' car goes over a bridge; just when all hope is about to be lost, one girls struggles out of the water.

She leaves town and takes a job as an organist in a neighbouring town. But she sees dead people all around her. And the fabric of normal life starts to rip apart.

I won't reveal everything, but the movie is sad: even when it's frightening, it's poignant and full of sorrow. Like Romero's "Night of the Living Dead," for which this movie was clearly an influence, "Carnival of Souls" shows the dead with horror, repulsion, compassion and sorrow all mixed up together. Unlike Romero's zombies, the dead in this movie have a weird, haunting beauty to them. The line between the living and the dead is hard to define, here. It's a great little movie.

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Sunday, August 07, 2005

Mildred Pierce

I taped this fine old movie off the late show in Kingston, back when I was doing my Ph.D. in the 1980s. As the tape aged, I left off watching it, and so, when I landed a spanking new DVD version, it was like coming back to a friend I hadn't seen in years.

Seeing a wonderful, clean print on a large-screen TV made me appreciate all over again what a superb movie this is, and how it remains the very distillation of film noir. I'm not a big Joan Crawford fan; loving Bette Davis as I do, it seems disloyal to like Joan Crawford too much. And while she acquits herself well in this movie, her achievement is absorbed into the far greater achievement of the movie as a whole. The movie is all about the visual style, with its darkness, shadows, and variations of light and dark. It's sexy, brooding, sardonic, intelligent, cynical. Max Steiner's swirling score is effective, although he shamelessly plunders his earlier score for Now Voyager. And Crawford's supporting cast delivers even more than she does: particularly Jack Carson as her cheerfully roguish chum from way back, Eve Arden as the wisecracking friend, and Ann Blyth, whose portrait of the daughter from hell ranks right up there with Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven.

Watching the trailer and seeing the poster gave me pause for thought: Mildred Pierce is presented in the publicity of the time as a dangerous woman, as a femme fatale in the tradition of Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon or Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. And yet, Mildred Pierce is hardly the story of an evil woman; rather, it's about a woman who works night and day to provide for her selfish daughter. What is so dangerous about her? Ahh, there's the rub. Mildred succeeds on her own. When her husband ups and leaves her, she gets a job as a waitress, becomes good at it, then goes into business and opens her own restaurant, and becomes incredibly rich. She uses people, just as much as they use her, and her main emotional concern is not a man, but her spoiled daughter. The men in the movie are largely ineffectual, however much they bluster. It's the women who hold the cards and get things done, whether it's Eve Arden's competent Ida Corwin running the restaurant staff, Vida Pierce's scheming to get what she wants, or Mildred herself, accepting openly nearly all human relationships as arrangements of mutual exploitation.

Feminist scholars must find this movie very interesting.

As for me, it's revived my interest in film noir, and made me hungry to revisit my idol, Bette Davis, in her own movies of the period: in particular The Letter. Joan Crawford, for me, is a competent actress, who, when well directed, can deliver lines extremely well, do very good physical comedy, and achieve moments of great intensity. But Bette Davis, for all her tricks and mannerisms, is much, much more interesting. My DVD had clips from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? as part of the special features, and the difference between the two of them is astonishing. Crawford tears at her part as if she's beating herself to death; Davis, in her grotesque makeup, offers up layers of humour, sadism and pathos in a single look.

Seeing Mildred Pierce again has made me curious to see some of the other Joan Crawford movies from her Warner Bros. period, which was apparently her greatest: Humoresque, Possessed, and Flamingo Road. But in terms of the the divine feud between Bette and Joan, I'm still on the side of la Davis, and probably always will be.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Mysterious Skin

This movie provoked very different responses on the night I saw it: my friend hated it, while I quite liked it. My friend’s reasons for disliking the movie were persuasive; nonetheless, as the dust has settled, I find that I still like and admire the movie. Each to his own, I guess.

Mysterious Skin deals with a troubling subject: the long-term effects of child sexual abuse. Two boys on a baseball team are sexually abused by their coach. One grows up to be a gay hustler, while the other blocks out the memory entirely, convincing himself that he was abducted by a UFO. Finally, late one Christmas Eve, the two young men meet and confront the past together.

The movie’s faults are legion: pretentious dialogue, unconvincing performances, a tendency to treat scenes with an air of portentous significance which is hardly justified by what we’ve been given. And characters are frequently mouthpieces of attitudes, rather than fully-realized characters. This is particularly true of the sympathetic friends of Neil, the gay hustler: his ever-so-awesomely-wise female friend and his ever-so-poignantly-patient male friend.

Nonetheless, I liked the movie while watching it, and I find it a satisfying and intriguing memory, days after. I think my admiration stems from the astute staging and presentation of the movie’s sex scenes, all of which are gay, and nearly all of which involve Neil in his later days as a prostitute. The movie sets up (rather obviously) the two boys as two sides of the same person, representing two different responses to what they experienced as children. While Brian blocks out the memories and lives an asexual life, Neil interprets the encounters with his coach as a victory: the first of many successful attempts to land an older man. Brian’s dysfunction contrasts with Neil’s confidence and tireless readiness to earn money and get laid. And yet, the scenes with Neil and his tricks build a steady picture of a young man whose sense of freedom and autonomy is an illusion, and who is increasingly helpless in the face of the complex needs and emotions he arouses in the men who pay him. His first trick is an elderly salesman from out of town, who whimpers admiration of his beauty. He arrives in New York full of cocky self-assurance, but completely unversed in the use of condoms. A man with AIDS pays him simply to touch his ravaged body, crying out, “touch me. Make me happy.” And finally, his helplessness coalesces in a harrowing encounter with a john who beats him to a pulp.

Yes, many of the scenes are pretentious and overdone. The man with AIDS is a bit too leering and sinister at first, before we figure out what’s going on, and the gigantic Vermeer portrait over the bed is a bit much. Director Gregg Araki emphasizes these men’s hunger and need with more shots of hands groping Neil’s body than is probably necessary.

Nonetheless, the scenes are honest, astute and compelling, and they tell a part of the story that can’t be told any other way. Unlike most sex scenes, the story doesn’t halt for the duration of the encounter; it tells itself THROUGH the encounter. This is particularly true of the final half hour, when the boys finally relive the scene with the coach. Without revealing too much, or turning this into an X-rated blog, I’ll just say that the scene distinguishes the concept of abuse from the concepts of active and passive in a sexual encounter. The boys are not ‘raped’ in the conventional sense. Their behaviour has the appearance of consensual, active participation. But that’s exactly where the abuse lies. Like the female rape victim who is made to feel that she somehow “invited,” or “colluded in” what happened to her, the boys are made to feel that they “did” something, and that sense of agency torments them through the years in very different ways.

I’m shy about applauding this view too much; I’ve never suffered from abuse of this kind, and I’m in no position to comment on whether or not it’s “true.” I’ll only say that from my chair, the movie seemed astute and convincing.

And that I’m deeply grateful to my family and childhood home, for protecting me from such experiences.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

War of the Worlds

Maybe it was my mood. Maybe it was the fact that I hadn't been to a big-screen flick in a long time. But I thought this movie was terrific, and far, far better than the reviews had led me to expect.

The movie surprised me in many ways. I was expecting an action flick in the traditional, time-honoured sense: an exotic, but reassuringly antiquated sci-fi premise, light-hearted banter, spectacular visual effects, and an exhilarating roller-coaster ride coasting towards a happy ending.

On one level that's exactly what the movie delivered. Spielberg treats the original source material (H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds) with great respect, both visually and textually: the Martian tripods are both spectacularly realistic and intrinsically faithful to Wells's original vision. The plot, while radically updated, and with some condensing of multiple characters into one, is essentially the same. And the ending is absolutely faithful, in tone and substance, to Wells: the miracle of embracing the loved one when all hope had been lost. There's plenty of Spielberg banter, too, with the knowing children who give attitude and affection in alternating waves, and Cruise's rather dense parent who awakens into protectiveness in the nick of time. The special effects are overwhelming, and overwhelmingly GOOD. Spielberg is a genius, and his genius shows most effectively in his firm control over the visual aspects of the movie, and how they serve the story. You need only look back at the overblown climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark to see that Spielberg's talent has matured into brilliance.

The movie also cheerfully disregards credibility in the time-honoured Saturday matinee action genre. This is a movie where cataclysms leave convenient pathways in the rubble, suitable for an SUV to drive through, where people can be thrown into the water and have cars and ferries dumped on top of them and still somehow make it to shore. And, of course, while the Martians lay waste to all the urban areas on the globe, the Boston home of the ex-wife's parents remains untouched. Not even Martians, it seems, can assail the old money of Beacon Hill.

So what surprised me? I was surprised at how frightening the movie was: how disturbing, how sad, how sombre. This is truly a post-9/11 movie, and one of the starkest depictions of the post-9/11 spirit in the U.S. that I've yet seen. Like The Day After Tomorrow, this movie presents a disaster of apocalyptic proportions. But while the earlier movie confined that apocalypse within the cheerful conventions of a disaster flick, this movie breaks those conventions, and lets the fear out. The scenes where the Martians first explode through the city streets capture the mood that we all remember as we watched TV in September of 2001: the eruption of terror and panic within the streets of New York. Spielberg empties the banter of its reassuring humour, emphasizing instead the fragility of these humans, and their lack of inner strength. And when the young girl takes temporary refuge by a running river, Spielberg provides one of the most beautiful and most horrifying visuals I've ever seen, giving new meaning to Yeats's phrase, "a terrible beauty is born."

Most cheerful action flicks throw all kinds of mayhem into the mix: anything's fair game, as long as it keeps the adrenaline pumping. Spielberg obeys the convention. But this time, it's different. It's not a matter of anything goes. Rather, everything is going. The visual effects of buildings collapsing, cities disappearing, humans running terrified, stripped of their humanity by fear, are bigger than the conventions can contain, and absolutely faithful to Wells's original vision.

Maybe it was my mood. Maybe it's been too long since I've seen a big-screen movie. But I'll step out on a limb, and say it: this is one of the finest, and one of the scariest movies I've ever seen.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The Women

This masterpiece is part of the bumper crop of masterpieces that emerged in 1939: surely one of the great years in the history of the motion picture. Over 65 years later, it remains one of the funniest, most literate, truly adult films ever made. Based on the Broadway play by Clare Booth Luce, the movie tells the story of Mary Haines, a happily married woman who discovers that her husband is stepping out on her. Surrounded by a bevy of gossiping friends, she ends up divorcing him, only to find a way to get him back.

Sounds like melodrama, and there are parts that people claim are syrupy, particularly the scenes with her daughter. But the movie is chock full of some of the funniest, wittiest dialogue ever captured on screen, and played to perfection by a cast led by Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell. Russell, in particular, is a superb comedienne, with impeccable diction, who can handle physical comedy and banter with equal aplomb.

There are no men in this movie: even the pet dogs and the zoo animals are female. The male characters are offstage, and while the women themselves are obsessed with them, we in the audience couldn't care less about them. The only guy who counts in the whole business is director George Cukor, who wrings every last ounce of brilliance out of the script and the cast. He retains virtually the entire play, which makes for a very long movie, and there's a strange, technicolour fashion scene stuck in the middle that stops the action dead for about 5 minutes. But he captures just enough of the play's flavour to give the aura of a stage production, without losing a bit of what the camera can do to open out the action.

Along with All About Eve, this is part of my list of desert island necessities. Intelligent, superbly-executed comedy: it doesn't get any better than that.

Plan 9 From Outer Space

God bless the Internet Archive. I have almost no ready cash this summer, and it's giving me something to watch, even as I'm forced to by-pass "Batman Returns," "War of the Worlds," and even "Land of the Dead."

Having sampled "Wasp Woman," I've now gone on to lose my cinematic virginity thoroughly, by watching "Plan 9 from Outer Space." I've wanted to see this movie, ever since seeing the wonderful "Ed Wood" some years ago, Tim Burton's fascinating depiction of Edward Wood as a film-maker with all the determination and stubborn persistence of Orson Welles, but without a scrap of the talent. Now, I've seen it.

Well, I guess I'm a better person for having sat through it. There IS something oddly compelling about the movie, inept and fumbling as it is. It's not significantly worse than "The Phantom Planet," and other curiosities of the '50s and '60s. The special effects are awful, of course, but that's nothing surprising. The direction sucks, but that's nothing surprising. What surprises me, actually, is the clodhopping earnestness of it: the inexorable sense that he had a point to make. And the dialogue. The dialogue should be declared a health hazard. There should be a law against that dialogue.

All in all, there's something about the movie that I find both poignant and pathetic. It may be terrible. But it's not the bad filmmaking of a Hollywood studio that's just cranking the stuff out on an assembly line. The entire movie looks as if it barely got made, from the god-awful sets to the god-awful actors. This horrendous movie took a horrendous effort to make. Even the badness of it is the badness of desperate, frantic improvisation, such as the no-name (apparently someone's chiropractor) who took over Bela Lugosi's part after Lugosi's death by walking around with his cape over his face.

There's something about it that's weirdly sincere.

It's awful. But for some reason, on some level, it's not cynical. And that redeems it enough to make it bearable.