25 for 25 – Put on Your Red Shoes and Dance the Blues

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Nowadays, movies are saturated all the way through with stories about struggling artists and that has been so since the nascency of the very artform (the oldest I can think of on the spot is the historical Jazz Singer from 1927, but you can be damn sure that’s a great underestimation on my part) and because every artist takes their art seriously, even if they’re talking about different artforms and mediums, they all essentially have some sort of emotional investment in the struggles of the artist. Life struggles, physical struggles, psychological struggles, financial struggles, it’s oh so very hard to be an artist but worth it because of what you create and how it obviously affects others, these are all the revelations each one of these movies discover over and over and over again.

And so I suppose on the very genesis of it, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger aka The Archers (always getting duo credits for director, producer, and writer, but  were not doing anything special when they decided to make a movie about a ballet based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale “The Red Shoes”, but the execution behind it… it leaves most of those other movies in the dust. The Red Shoes seems more intent overall as a movie to utilize as many of the tools of cinema as it can to make the psychological state of its lead dancer Vicky Page (Moira Shearer) into a complete abstraction and succeeds marvelously. Powell and Pressburger are responsible for some of the inarguably most beautiful movies of all time and I sincerely think The Red Shoes‘ design is easily their best. Meaning that I think The Red Shoes is one of the best-looking movies to ever exist, fuck it. And a lot of that praise from revolves around its central scene.

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I’m not sort of guy who subscribes to the idea that only one element being masterful is enough to carry a movie to pantheon-level. I like to think of film as collaborative and needing every element to work perfectly before it can get better. But if I end up talking exclusively about the ballet close to the end of this, I want you to understand: this is a movie shot by Jack Cardiff, the Archers’ regular, and designed by Arthur Lawson and Hein Heckroth and even the mundane one-on-one discussions are set in such aristocratic palatial interiors that it’s all wonderful to look at. But that ballet is why this movie is a masterpiece, just everything else around it is great. But first the context to that scene:

In the development of that very ballet adaptation of the Anderson story, the impresario of one of the most acclaimed ballet companies in the world Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook based essentially on Sergei Diaghilev, director of the Ballet Russes) has employed the dancer Vicky whom he finds an arresting amount of potential in and the young conservatory student Julian Craster (Marius Goring) whom he hires after discovering that one of the company’s composers has in fact been a professor of Craster’s and plagiarizing his work. There’s hardly much more beyond backstage drama going on within the film leading up to the ballet, but one of those very threads of backstage drama wraps itself around Vicky’s ankle and tries to tear her apart. And that thread is the romance that blossoms between her and Craster in their preparations and artistic arguments for the upcoming show that begins to disturb Lermontov. Not of a romantic jealousy, though. Lermontov is of the strict opinion that there is no room for domesticity in the hunt for artistic greatness and we earlier see him dismiss his prima ballerina Irina (Ludmilla Tcherina) for her imminent marriage. The gendered factor aside, it’s very clear that Vicky wants to be able to live her life in love with Craster AND wants to reach her full potential as an dancer under Lermontov’s guidance, but Lermontov absolutely will not allow her to have both and it leads to a domestic clash of attitudes between Craster’s young anger and Lermontov’s stubborn classicalism with the helpless Vicky in between unable to use her autonomy to truly pick one or the other and all three of the leads are superb on this front.

But Shearer gets the best most showy role and she gets to do it in the middle of one of the all-time greatest dancepieces ever put to film, particularly because it is the sort of dancepiece that could only be set to film. Scored by the Brian Easdale’s composition conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham with the Royal Philharmonic, the scope of Lawson and Heckroth’s sets and backgrounds to the play do not fit into any reasonable proscenium scale, there is no way this production can work within a stage, but because The Red Shoes is a movie and not a stage production, it gets to cheat at it and have all these angular, surrounding expressionist village sets full of depth despite their artificiality and the superimposed easy on the eyes skies of red and blue to begin heightening our emotional reactions to these colors and at the center Shearer and Leonide Massine (playing the Shoemaker within the play) pantomime essentially the relationship between Vicky and Lermontov, the Red Shoes being the most obvious metaphor for Vicky’s desire to dance and once they’re on her shoes in a magical movie trick of stop motion, she dances oh so elegantly and wonderfully and then precariously and then interminably and it turns from blissful to frightening just from the curtness of Vicky’s movements and the stamina Shearer must have and then the world keeps spinning around her and we witness that with her sways and the backgrounds now becoming easy light colors that would be so comfortable if it wasn’t obvious how much it pains the girl in the red shoes until the ballet itself climaxes in a manner that foresees the tragedy of the drama behind the production itself.

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The bad news is that it tells the story of the movie already in the most overt manner and once The Red Shoes reaches those heights, it never ever returns to them. Everything after seems mundane in its aftermath despite being made two of the least mundane filmmakers in all of 1940s British filmmaking. And it almost ends up being a waiting game for the rest of the movie to get to the ending you already know it’s heading towards, but maybe that’s just if you’re me and prefer your storytelling by such overt visual abstractions rather than by narrative drama. Because by god, do Shearer and Walbrook and Goring still do their best in their performances to match up in the Archers’ scripted melodrama what that ballet was able to do in craft and I personally find it worthy of a cool down. The Red Shoes feels like a complete challenge to Musical Cinema beyond, the 1950s being plumfull of centerpiece dance numbers like An American in ParisSingin’ in the Rain, and The Band Wagon trying to match up to Powell and Pressburger’s daring marriage of film and dance and music and stage to become the ultimate artform, but there can only be one pair of Red Shoes and it looks like Powell and Pressburger are wearing them. I guess they can split it.

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25 for 25 – A Bedtime Story for the Damned

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I once was under the impression that movies can only ever be about the atmosphere and the visuals and that’s how I came to easily love Suspiria, Dario Argento’s colorful horror fantasia that’s remained one of the most iconic pictures in horror, Italian cinema, and cinema in general. It’s so easy to be into the stylistic overload of the picture with its austere set design covered in brash big primary colors when story is not what you’re coming in for. It’s what made me so appalled by a friend in my dorm building responding “unfortunately” when I asked if he saw Suspiria a long time ago. My mind was blanked into how utterly anti-logic Suspiria as a film seemed to be, to the point of aggression. It never crossed my mind to sit and think about the story by Argento and his then-wife Daria Nicolodi that seems so very far away from reality. But then I look back on all of the movie’s plotting, the way its substance doesn’t seem existent, the way it all just seems like context for the painterly elegance of its visuals and window dressing and I think it’s enough to forgive Suspiria its narrative transgressions.

The last two times I actually watched Suspiria (which were within weeks of each other), I had by then realized that film was a marriage of both style and content together and I had to square this with the horror film. And I actually ended up loving it more than already loved it as one of my favorite movies. Hell, I’d actually put Suspiria into the ballpark of possibly the BEST horror movie I’ve seen (though I’d throw my favorite hat on Night of the Living Dead). I mean, around that point a line I had always dismissed as nonsense “I’m blind not deaf, you understand that?!” suddenly clicked with other lines of dialogue and revelations and the movie started making more sense as I moved along.

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It’s not that Suspiria doesn’t have its plot or that the plot doesn’t make sense, but two small keys about it that if you can’t meet halfway, you’re going to be hanging by the edge of its aesthetic: the first being that the movie is heightened into some sort of nightmare atmosphere provided by the colors and design and especially by the underlying sinister score by Italian prog band Goblin (with a theme song that sounds like 70-year-old Mike Patton trying to cough up cigarettes he accidentally swallowed while singing the theme to Rosemary’s Baby; I also think it’s the inspiration for Coheed and Cambria’s “Domino the Destitute“), all already dizzying and hypnotic and blanketing the viewer. But the script follows suit, where Argento claimed to be inspired by the essay on dreams by Thomas de Quincey that the film is named after “Suspiria de Profundis” and a dream itself by Nicolodi.

But then the second thing is that the entire plot seems seated exactly for children. We’re in a school – granted a ballet school, the Freiburg-based Tanz Dance Academy – all the women students have dialogue and moments that are immature like comparing names with “S” like snakes and sticking their tongues out. They are reactionary in a manner a child completely unable to comprehend what’s going on around them would be made uncomfortable and Suzy Bannon (Jessica Harper), our lead who is just arriving to the school from New York one dark and stormy night, is utterly naive to everything supernatural going on around the school – from the sudden and violent death of a woman she saw rush away on her arrival screaming about secret irises (and hoo boy is it violent. Argento gets right to the visceral point killing two girls with one glass stone.) to the inconsistency of the school’s head instructor Tanner (Alida Valli) and headmistress Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) in being able to accommodate a room for Suzy or not on her arrival. It’s all uncomfortable and shady but apparently not enough until the school begins invoking – SPOILERS for a movie where I honestly don’t feel that matters – witchcraft into this and causing her to weaken for some cultish reason involving the Greek witch Helena Markos. Bodies start happening and creepy crawly overtly horror movie things happen in bold form such as maggots falling on girls’ faces and shadows appearing in red light with creepy labored breathing.

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It’s really nothing more than a ghost and witches story (very notably not a giallo, since the story is not about a psycho killer in Agathe Christie vein but a  and its imagery is devoted heavily to that, but without its feet in the ground so that the viewer can be able to have a solid idea of what’s going until maybe later on when Udo Kier appears solely to give a great long exposition about the background of Markos in the movie’s only boring scene. I can see how some viewers would find such a whirlwind of a narrative to be off-putting or antagonistic, but I find Suspiria to be exciting and sensational for this reason. Nothing is scarier than an ability to tell what’s going on and slowly being able to stem out a true narrative after all is said and done suddenly stops me from dismissing the writing of Argento and Nicolodi as “utter nonsense”. Everything comes back and has a logical explanation. Not to mention that when your protagonist is a child, that atmosphere of not knowing what to do will make you feel within Suzy’s headspace more than the amount of nightmare imagery Argento and cinematographer Luciano Tovolli could supply, which they do over and over framing Suzy trapped in glass mirrors and windows, the garish colors of blood and night blues, the skeletons and bugs, haggard skin, bats. At one point a whole room full of razor wire with a poor soul trapped inside of it suffering. It’s all like a live-action version of that skeleton room scene from The Shining if that scene didn’t fall flat on its face.

The movie is baroque and artful about its horror in a manner that feels so very different in manner from its comic book splashes of elements, but that’s kind of what makes Suspiria so powerful to me as a movie that helped me decide what I look for in movies. Sometimes, the style becomes the true substance of the movie and everything you can gain from the images and sound can prove to be a lot more filling to the experience than the dialogue that comes out of the characters, even if the characters are brashly victimized like Suzy and her best friend Sara (Stefania Casini) or as leeringly predatory like Blanc, with Valli’s wide eyes and grin, or Markos, a complete creature half made of shadows and sickly green skin once we meet her. Suspiria opened up doors for that to me and every time I watch it further doors are blasted open.

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