Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Classic Scenes #13

Look, I'm the classic male standing at the bar watching everyone else on the dancefloor. I've never been to a musical theatre show in my life. In fact, recently I seem to have developed a prejudice against musicals. Every time I turn on the TV there's another production number advertising a building society, another street dance troupe on a talent show, yet more D-list celebrities dancing on ice, yet more films trying to emmulate the Chicago model, or the High School Musical franchise or the insane success of Mama Mia.
In fact, there are times when it feels like the entire world has formed into one enormous, cheery, fame-hungry musical society and nobody bothered to inform me. (Probably because they knew I wouldn't join in). It's all annoyed me in that unfocused way things at the edge of your peripheral consciousness do, a thoughtless, indiscriminate grumpiness gradually burying any genuine feelings or thoughts.
Then a few weeks ago this amazing Astaire clip cut through the crap. Since then I've gradually stumbled into thinking more about it, into rediscovering great dance scenes and generally recognising that because I love classic cinema in all its forms I also naturally love Gold Diggers of 1933 and Top Hat, Meet Me In St Louis and Singing in the Rain. It's just that for me they've always been great films first, musicals second. Basically, the musical form I can take or leave. Greatness on the other hand, in whatever form it manifests itself, is something to be cherished and championed.
So, in the last week I've looked at dance not only as an ideal of human expression but also as a way of feeling like you're in a movie, as something that can take you somewhere private or as a means of psychic escape, a consolation for broken dreams.
But what if the same abandon that allows us to reach trancendental states of consciousness also let loose darker forces hidden inside us? In other words, what if we watch the ballet scene from Powell & Pressburger's The Red Shoes?

People have always feared the power of dance. The ancient Greeks reportedly created one for the Furies that caused terror in audiences. In Celtic folklore it was believed fairies lured mortals into their circles before forcing them to dance to the point of exhaustion, death, or madness. So the idea of dance as something otherwordly, as a means for unleashing uncontrollable passions was well established by the time Hans Christian Andersen wrote his fairy tale, The Red Shoes, in 1845. And even though he co-opted the idea in the service of mean-spirited Christian morality (the vain, shoe-loving orphan girl is taught a lesson by having her feet chopped off no less) the notion of shoes that won't let the wearer stop dancing was just too full of metaphorical riches to stay inside Andersen's tale forever.

Powell & Pressburger's film is about the behind-the-scenes life of a ballet company, about one ballerina's love for two men. But it's the fifteen-minute ballet sequence that everyone remembers, a remarkable coming together of fairy tale, psychology, symbolism, expressionist lighting and pure cinema. By the end the red shoes have become much more than a cruel punishment. They've become emblems of sexual freedom, of romantic obsession, symbolic of the mania inside all passions, and the death-wish too. Red, after all, stands for danger and sex and blood and everything that makes us feel alive. 'Of all the films they made,' Martin Scorsese once said, 'this is the one that seems to cast a spell on many people, because it weaves a mystery of creativity and obession—it becomes a film about the creative drive.'

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