Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Notes on Review of RED SHOES(by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger) by Trevor Lynch

Finally forced myself to see the whole thing. Not my cup of tea but I can see the attraction and understand its high esteem among film lovers. Martin Scorsese for one always lists it in his top five or ten of the greatest films.

A happy ending seems, however, to be in the offing until the screenwriter contrives a perversely tragic finale in which Vicky Page dies. Both Lermontov and Craster live on, but they are utterly destroyed as human beings.

Not true. As RED SHOES the movie is based on a tragic tale by Hans Christian Andersen, it was designed to end madly; 'Red Shoes' story serves as a darkly romantic metaphor for art as tragedy(and transcendence). RED SHOES isn't just about the people involved in the production of the ballet but how its tragic themes leap out into life itself. At the end, Craster is certainly heartbroken, but Lermontov, though shaken and saddened, triumphs in a way in the creation, both inadvertent and destined, of the ultimate dancer. It's like the jump-to-the-death by the priest in THE EXORCIST signifies both death and victory. RED SHOE's ending isn't 'contrived' in the conventional sense of the term: implausible, arbitrary, ludicrous, overly clever, gratuitous, etc. Rather, it's a necessary coda within a story idea that is itself one big contrivance: The Tale of Red Shoes as story, as performance, and ultimately as life itself. It has to be appreciated like Alfred Hitchcock's VERTIGO where every character operates within a logical construct of doomed love and tragedy. In such stories, characters live out their fates without any recourse to free will.

(RED SHOES) actually puts ballet on the screen, most spectacularly in the form of a 17-minute original ballet based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale “The Red Shoes,”

It is impressive but also full of gimcrackery. It's fancy high-toned kitsch but kitsch just the same. Garishly arty and overdone with razzle-dazzle, rather like the later films of Federico Fellini. It's all too much. Also, Powell lacked the subliminal savvy of someone like Orson Welles whose images slipped through sensory crevices. The deft Welles was always two or three steps ahead of the viewer. With every stroke, he drew us into his hall of mirrors that reflected both classic order and cubist incongruities. In contrast, Powell was nothing if not obvious, and every trick is right in front of us, plain and simple. For all the complexity of production, the effect is rather crude, like a more elaborate version of the cinema of Jean Cocteau whose trickery was merely updated version of outdated silent cinema techniques.

The dance would have been so much more effective if Powell had relied solely on editing, lighting, sound, and pacing to convey mood shifts between art and reality. That truly would have been dreamlike and hypnotic, weaving a new way of seeing. But the bag-of-tricks-photography is so glaring at all times that it feels more like pictures in a gallery than a flow of imagery. A more effective use of cinema would have sensorially drawn us in than made us all too keenly aware of what's on the screen. It remains apart, in front of us than enveloping us. How more artful it would have been if Powell moved between reality and fantasy without laying so obviously bare the shifts. Then, we would have been lulled INTO the dance than merely looking AT it. It would have been magical than mechanical, evocation than affectation.

No doubt a great deal of care and preparation went into the much celebrated dance sequence, but it isn't quite cinematic. The overall effect is superficial than substantive because it amounts to glittery trickery than wholeness of visioin. It's like playing with fonts than with words. While pretty fonts are nice in poetry, the decisive factor is the use of words to conjure imagery and moods. Mastery of words than their stylized presentation on the page(as font) is the real heart of poetry.

The heart of cinema is composition, movement, and editing(montage). And even though Michael Powell knew the language of cinema, he had a tendency to fall back on trickery and superficial effects that cheapened his works — the kind of tricks that got tiresome already in the era of George Melies. In the case of A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, the effects were soon badly dated and now seem gauche. The effects in RED SHOES fare better but are still register as effects, over-done, imposed, and at odds to the trance-like aspects of the dance number. The tricks are so obviously tricks(no matter how well-crafted) that they keep reminding us that it's a bag of tricks than a call to magic. They amount to fonts than the grammar of cinema.

The Red Shoes is about the relationship between art and life. Early in the film, they are likened to one another, because they are both compulsions:

Lermontov: Why do you want to dance?

Vicky: Why do you want to live?

Lermontov: Well, I don’t know exactly why, but I must.

Vicky: That’s my answer too.

Not exactly because Vicky and Lermontov see life differently. Vicky doesn't see dancing nor life as compulsions. She sees them as natural. She's happy to be alive, and she's happy to dance. She dances for joy. She dances when she wants to. It gives her pleasure. Dancing is something she's willing to give up if she tires of it and finds joy in something else. For her to say that dance is like life means it's good to be natural. It's like animals run around because it comes naturally to them. They don't run to win races or to be the fastest animal. Even though Vicky isn't without ambition and hunger for fame, she dances for joy and pleasure. It is a natural extension of her view of life. For her, life and art/dance are not in conflict. This accounts for the misunderstanding between Vicky and Lermontov.

To Lermontov, art isn't merely like life or its extension. After all, most of life is routine and humdrum. One must do what one must to live: Eat, sleep, work, and etc. Life as necessity is about going through the motions, true regardless of whether one is genius or idiot, king or serf. At any rate, art isn't necessary to life. One could live without reading a serious book or watching a single ballet and live to a ripe old age. Indeed, many people with no interest in the arts lead pretty good and happy lives, which is the story of most of humanity. So, whereas life is about necessity, art is about obsession with the unnecessary.

For Vicky, dance is an extension of her view of life: pursuit of happiness. She came to love dance, and she sees dance as an expression of her joy. So, dance need not be a compulsion with her. But for Lermontov, art/dance is a pursuit of perfection even if it means agony and torment. It must be pursued to the very end. He is the dark and extreme side of the Red Shoes as metaphor, which represents both the joy of dance(as favored by Vicky) and complete intoxication(as envisioned by Lermontov).
Same goes for sports. Most people play sports for recreation and fun. It's an extension of our natural need to run around and play. For most people, sports is merely a part of their life. But for those who seek to excel in sports and possibly be the very best, sports becomes life itself. It becomes all-consuming, even to the point of self-destruction, as when any boxer steps into the ring. This is also true of spirituality. For most people, a bit of piety is enough. But what differentiates the saint is the willingness to devote one's life entirely to God. No wonder Martin Scorsese loves RED SHOES. It can seen as yet another false-messiah parable paralleling the life and death of Jesus who went all the way.

Anyway, there is a misunderstanding between Vicky and Lermontov. When Vicky says she dances for the same reason Lermontov lives, she assumes he is like herself. Vicky is naturally a light-hearted person. She feels joy in life itself. She would have been happy even if she'd never come upon dance. In her mind, life and dance are one and the same, an expression of joy.
In contrast, Lermontov seems to find little joy or zest in life itself. He lives not for life but for art, for ballet. Without that, he would find life gloomy, absurd, and meaningless. For him, life is fallen and pointless, a world inhabited by no-talents and idiots. It is through art that human ability rises above commonness and reaches for the summit of beauty and sublimity. For Vicky dance reveals life, whereas for Lermontov dance redeems life. One might say Vicky's view is more pagan, more in tune with the natural way of things, whereas Lermontov's perspective is christo-homo, i.e. nature/reality is ugly, plain, loathsome, and dull EXCEPT when elevated toward transcendence and redeemed.

Lermontov is apprehensive about affection between lovers because everything becomes soft and fuzzy between them. It weakens the sharpness and takes away the edge. He watches with an eagle's eye as his only love is perfection. In contrast, human love means unconditional acceptance of someone despite his or her flaws. So, when Craster and Vicky fall in love, they become indulgent of one another. Craster can love Vicky the imperfect dancer, and Vicky can love Craster the flawed composer. Love, in all its mushiness and forgiveness, fills in the gaps.
Lermontov, whose vision remains unclouded by lovey-dovey, can see with clarity what is necessary for perfection. Purely from an artistic vantage point, Lermontov is correct that the three had an ideal set-up before the love happened. Craster devoted himself to composing, Vicky devoted herself to dancing, and Lermontov had his eyes on the prize. It was a perfect triangle, but love got in the way. It's sort of like Merlin in EXCALIBUR sensing that love will bring it all to ruins among Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot. (And it's Noodle's sentimentality that fogs his vision of what Max and Debra are really after in ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA.)

Part of life is love, marriage, and family. Lermontov is particularly dismissive of ballerinas who allow these considerations to interfere with their art. First, it leads him to dismiss his prima ballerina Irina Boronskaja

This is only partly true as it's not a general principle with Lermontov. He knows very well that most ballerinas in his troupe will not reach greatness. They will merely be adequate, and it's doubtful that he would have fired any of them for getting married. Indeed, he doesn't expect much from most people in the business. But he has the dream of creating the ultimate dancer, and SHE must be totally devoted to the art. Thus, Lermontov has a double-take on creativity. At the basic level, art has its conventions and role in society. It is entertainment and business. But at the highest level, it is for the few who can break through the barrier of conventionality. As a businessman, he's content with the basic art that brings in the paying customers. But as a visionary, he must have total devotion from the chosen few.

It is tempting to believe that Lermontov was acting out of sexual jealously. His body language with Vicky in one scene is quite intimate... Craster accuses Lermontov of jealousy. He agrees, but says it is not sexual. He may be telling the truth.

It's obvious Lermontov is a toot, especially when he dons those 'gay'-looking sunglasses. In a way, his personage is instructive as to why homos gained such power and leverage in society. Unlike straight people whose careers and pursuits become weighed down by marriage and children, homos (especially back then when it was scandalous to be outed) were always working. Homos put in more hours because they had fewer conventional burdens of family life and sentimental attachments.
Of course, today some homos do get 'married' and have semblance of 'family life' with adopted children, and homosexuality is even associated with 'pride', but in the setting of the movie, homos would mostly have been secretive figures. Also, because homosexuality was regarded as a perversion, sickness, or sin, even most homos grew up with a degree of self-disgust, doubt, and anxiety for having particular peccadillos. Lermontov certainly isn't a 'pride-homo'. His sexuality is thus repressed.
So, it's true that Lermontov is jealous but not in a sexual way. He jealously wants to pull Vicky into his orbit so he could fulfill his dream of turning her into a total work of art. For Lermontov, whose repressed homosexuality has been channeled into total devotion to art-as-religion, it is sacrilege to allow Vicky to remain merely human in the fleshly role of wife and mother. Only through art can she reach the 'spiritual' level of transcendence. Such jealousy also crops up in Chen Kaige's film FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE. The Leslie Cheung character, being homo, does feel sexual attraction to his male performer-partner, but the jealousy goes beyond that. He wants both of them to belong totally in the realm of art(the Chinese Opera). It seems like a waste for his partner to get married to some harlot and fritter his talent away as a hubber. Lermontov resembles another character, the old man in Otto Preminger's LAURA, who is so taken with Laura's beauty that he wants to construct her into an ideal and loathes the notion of any lowlife male coming near her. Another character that comes to mind is Kirk Douglas's role in THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL where Douglas plays a S.O.B. but also an indispensable one-of-a-kind personality with the magic touch.

In a way, RED SHOES offers a glimpse into the homo-god-complex. Homos have traditionally been more into art(ifice), design, and fantasy because they were denied(and rejected) the humdrum conventionality of conjugal bliss. On the one hand, they didn't want to get married and do the normal things. On the other hand, society would have punished them(or even executed them) for acting all 'gay' and indulging in sodomy. So, homos created an alternative universe in art, decor, fantasy, so much so that it caught the eye of the privileged aristocrats who came to patronize homo creativity.
In a way, Lermontov is to Vicky what God is to Jesus. Lermontov's god-complex wants Vicky to forsake human life and totally commit to art and beauty... even if it means madness. Life is about growing old and dying. Art is forever and eternal. Likewise, in Martin Scorsese's adaptation of THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, there is a part of Jesus that wants to be normal and live as a real man and experience intimate joys. He wants a wife, family, and children. He wants to grow old and see his grand-children. But God has other plans for him. He must forsake what is human to reach a higher plane. He must become the messiah, which entails pursuing spiritual truth to the end, even if it means crucifixion, humiliation by the mob, and agony of death. Only thus could he reach immortality. And in RAGING BULL, there is much about how a true boxer must repress his sexual pangs before the bout to be strong and focused in the ring. Scorsese the renegade Catholic surely drew parallels between RED SHOES and the Christ tale. Though fascinated by these parallels, he believes there is only one true Messiah, and the rest are false messiahs as their pursuits, however amazing or inspiring, are expressions of vanity, sensuality, power-lust, or egotism than of the deepest wells of the soul.

In another brilliant, brooding scene, Lermontov comes to the realization that he has been a fool. Then Lermontov decides to approach Boronskaja, who is still happily married, and lure her back on stage. Boris has obviously concluded that art and life—in particular, married life—need not conflict. A year later, he manages to lure Vicky back on stage to dance The Red Shoes again.

That's a misreading. Lermontov never feels he was wrong. Luring back Irina was essentially a business matter. After all, he can be practical and diplomatic. With Vicky gone and his dream turned to dust, he needed someone for his company, and Irina just happens to be the one, and he had to make do. He knows the show must go on. He has to pull in the audience, make money, and pay the bills. But if he was truly content with Irina, he would not have gone out of his way to reconnect with Vicky. She is the key to his ultimate dream. He's had many successes, but he never created the perfect dancer, and he feels it in his bones that it must be her. Indeed, he recruits her not merely to perform RED SHOES but to persuade her to leave her life behind and commit totally to dance. He means to drive a wedge between Vicky and her husband Craster.

Then Emeric Pressburger’s script goes seriously off the rails.... Fixated on contriving an ending that is both gruesome and unhappy, Pressburger simply forgets about Lermontov’s character development toward accepting that his ballerinas can have private lives. He also turns Julian Craster into a petty, jealous villain—something not foreshadowed in the least. Then they drive Vicky to suicide.

This is totally wrong. First of all, the story is not a realistic portrait of people in ballet. Rather, it's been specifically constructed so that life imitates art. The story of Red Shoes must be lived out by the particulars in 'real life'. Its ending was fated to be tragic. It's almost as if their reality becomes possessed by the fantasy.

Also, there was no character development in Lermontov toward accepting the 'private life' of Vicky. Rather, Jekyll-and-Hyde-like, he can shift back-and-forth between art and business. When he re-hired Irina, it was the business side of him in action. It's the same with priests. At times, they must be political and pragmatic, even shake shady hands and take money from questionable sources. But before God, they must be pure. Likewise, while the business-side of Lermontov could seem agreeable and compromising, he never abandoned the 'religious' side of his devotion to ballet. His intention wasn't merely to hire the married Vicky to dance Red Shoes again but to ultimately wrest her from Craster and make her devote her life 100% to art.

Also, Craster doesn't come across as a petty jealous villain. His emotions are utterly understandable. He senses correctly as to what Lermontov is really up to. If anything, Lermontov comes across as the calculating villain(yet a sort-of-noble one because his vision is genuine). Craster rightfully fears that he may lose Vicky to Lermontov for good. Also, she is absent on the very day of the premiere of his opera. It is a big day for him, and he naturally wanted his wife to be with him as partner and support.
In a way, both men are possessive of her in different ways. With Vicky as wife, she will play a supportive role to Craster as the artist. Her dancing will merely be a hobby, something on the side. In contrast, with Lermontov she can reach the height of her profession and win acclaim in her own right. But she will have to give herself totally to Lermontov. He will possess her like the red shoes possesses the dancer in the Hans Christian tale. Dance as celebration will have to give to dance as tribulation. The shoes will become her cross to bear.

The fact that Vicky feels guilt in Craster's presence is proof that he isn't a villain, at least not in our eyes. In Lermontov's eyes, yes, but the full extent of Lermontov's deception emerges in Craster's presence. Earlier, he enticed Vicky as if he'd mellowed since their breakup, but he spells it all out when Craster pleads with her to return home with him. Lermontov admits it was his plan to come between them and pull Vicky totally into the dance world. The fact that Craster accepts this and walks away makes him a sad sympathetic figure than a villainous one overcome with petty jealousy. It's doubly sad for him because the movie began with his discovery that the man he admired had plagiarized his work. Once again, something of his is taken from him. In both cases, he is resigned to lose.

The whole setup is absurd. Vicky has come to Monte Carlo on vacation. On the spur of the moment, she agrees to dance The Red Shoes again. We are asked to believe that Craster’s new opera is to premiere in London the same day that Vicky dances The Red Shoes again in Monte Carlo. Why was Vicky in Monte Carlo on her husband’s big night?

Actually, it wasn't on the spur of the moment. In the back of her mind, there was always a wish to return to the stage. Despite severed ties, there was always a thread connecting Lermontov and Vicky. He wanted her back, and she wanted to be back. So, while ostensibly it seemed like a spontaneous decision, dance was always something she wanted to do and regretted walking away from, at least in part. She genuinely chose Craster out of love but also gave up something she loved. Lermontov queries as to whether she kept her body in shape and senses in her affirmative that she'd always wanted to return to ballet in a big way.

Now, did Vicky arrive in Monte Carlo ON THE DAY of her husband's opera debut? Isn't it more likely that she arrived some days earlier and planned to return before the opera date but chose to remain and dance the Red Shoes? And it was her failure to return before the opera that spurred Craster to make his own journey to confront Vicky, whom he rightly senses has been drawn into Lermontov's web?

Indeed, when Lermontov and Vicky met in the train, Vicky says the opera is only in rehearsal, and Lermontov tells her that he is PREPARING a ballet. There's no indication that both the ballet and opera will be performed on that very day. It's my understanding that the performances will take place about a week or two AFTER Lermontov and Vicky meet on the train. The reason why Craster appears so distraught is because he's been (1) worried sick and (2) surmised, correctly, that Lermontov somehow got his meat-hooks into her. He calls Lermontov jealous, but he too is jealous. Even if he knows Lermontov may be a tooty-toot after all and has no sexual interest in her, he knows she is drawn to his artistic gravity. With him, she is a wife, a mere partner and fan. But with Lermontov, she can be the star, and no one gets more love than the star in the performing arts. Lermontov, though a person of artistic sensibility, is essentially a manager, not a creator in his own right. In that, he is a bit parasitic of everyone, though he can be said to be as selfless as selfish. He's selfish in demanding that others bend to his will yet selfless in total devotion to ballet and in wanting the best of his star performers. Craster as composer can be considered a star in his own right, but a composer doesn't take the stage. It is the dancer, and Vicky-as-star is something that only Lermontov can offer. Vicky feels guilt as a wife who isn't there beside her husband in his moment of glory, but Craster feels guilt as a husband who took her chance at stardom away from his wife. As in STAR IS BORN, love-and-art is complicated.

Then Vicky, who is trying on the red shoes for that night’s performance, goes mad and hurls herself off a balcony, then gets hit by a train. The train seems like overkill, but there’s still enough life in her to beg a distraught Julian—who just happened to see her plunge to her death, even though it would have been impossible from his vantage point—to take off the red shoes.
I can’t think of a more arbitrary, ramshackle, and dissatisfying end to an otherwise great movie. It is a testimony to just how good the rest of the film is that viewers put up with it.

I'm assuming she didn't fall on the railroad tracks and was run over by the train. Rather, it seems she fell ON the moving train. Now, if she'd landed on the tracks and her legs were cut off by steel wheels, it would have more or less duplicated the grisly details in the original Hans Christian Andersen tale. But too gory for cinema, especially at the time.

Is the train overkill? Maybe, but everything in the movie is overkill, which was either Powell's strength or weakness(depending on one's taste). And yet, given the train's motif in the movie, it sort of makes sense. It was at the train station that Lermontov bid adieu to Irina. It was on the train that Lermontov and Vicky met again. Train represents both separation and union, the transience of life. Indeed, Lermontov is very much a man without a country. Though Russian in origin, he moves from place to place like a high-class gypsy.

Did Craster actually see her plunge from the balcony or did he turn his head because of the commotion of the crowd?

How is the ending arbitrary? Vicky's death and the removal of the red shoes evoke Andersen's tale. It makes total sense within the concept. Also, her death is not the final scene of the movie. The final scene is Lermontov announcing Vicky's death to the audience and the performance of RED SHOES going on without her... or with her in spirit. In that sense, Lermontov finally got what he really wanted. He turned Vicky into a spirit. It's like Jesus died on the Cross and was resurrected as Spirit with eternal life.
Indeed, even had Vicky become the dancer of Lermontov's dreams, she would eventually have aged and slowed down with injuries. Even as the best dancer, her flesh and bones would have grown weak. She would have faded. But as a spirit, she is young forever and forever tireless.

Also, the manner of her death suggests she didn't merely perform the Red Shoes but lived and died it(and transcended it). Like the heroine in the tale, she was torn between the need to dance and the wish to return to reality. The pull from both sides was so overpowering that the only solution was a kind of heightened death. It's like the Christ story. Jesus on the Cross felt all the pain of the human flesh, and He also reached out to Heaven. At that moment, He was neither just a man or just God. He was in that limbo world, the between world, and He had to die to finally cross into the spirit realm. It's tragic but also triumphant. And the same goes for the ending of RED SHOES. In a way, Vicky's real role of the Red Shoes was not on the stage as a dancer. Rather, it was her struggle between personal attachment and artistic vanity; and to play this drama to the very end, she had to end like the heroine in the story. She had to take an inspired leap from art into reality, and what is more real than a moving train? And finally, the shoes could be taken off. And yet, her death has released her spirit that can forever dance the Red Shoes.

But above all, I love The Red Shoes as a portrayal of the world of European high culture: an aristocratic, inegalitarian world devoted to the pursuit of beauty and excellence—a world whose basic principles contradict those of democracy and mass commercial entertainment.

But don't you like STAR WARS and TV shows and lots of commercial entertainment?
Also, Lermontov is aristocratic-like only in part. His nomadism suggests a gypsy-like existence. He's a hustler and businessman as well as artiste and connoisseur. All said and done, his is a business enterprise.

By the way, aristocrats were mostly dummies, hardly different from today's elites. Few created art of their own and relied on others to tell them what was hot and what was not. Most imitated the ludicrous fashions coming out of French courts, with powdered wigs, face paint, and snuff. And oh those pansy-ass dresses. Just imagine. Noblemen started out as warriors. Tough hardy men. But they amassed fortunes and got used to privilege, and their children were raised spoiled with luxury. They became obsessed with status and conformed to whatever was put before them as the latest thing. No wonder so much of aristocratic culture became 'gay' and whoopity-poo. Homos came up with all these candy-ass dresses, wigs, and make-up and whispered into idiot aristocratic ears that it was so fancy-poo to dress like fairies and strut around like girly men and speak in high-toned accents(which made British English so 'gay' sounding). This is why it's refreshing to see semi-barbarian elites of the Russian court in IVAN THE TERRIBLE. Them fellers have yet to put on pansy airs... like the Westernized Polish court in the opening of IVAN THE TERRIBLE Part 2.

Get a load of the tooty-ass Polack on the throne in this scene:

As if the culture of the Western aristocratic elites weren't tooty enough, we now have globo-homo fruits running all the culture and making 'gay' crap compulsory. This is why I can't get into ballet. Sure, it's a great work of art and a beautiful dance form... but it's also so 'gaaaaaay'. I prefer folk culture to aristo culture. Manly Russians dancing on tables is better than a bunch of pansies tip-toeing around or prancing about. It was a huge mistake for the Soviet Union to prop up the Bolshoi Ballet and make Russian guys prance around like a bunch of fruits. Chechen Lezghinka is a better dance. Though I don't like guys dancing in general(with the exception of Gene Kelly in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN and YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT), people of Caucasus have manlier ways of dancing. Ballet should only be for girls. Any guy in ballet tights should be paddled in the butt.

Europeans emerged from 'faggy'-looking aristocratic culture with the rise of the bourgeois and the masses. It was bourgeois culture that led to the English three-piece suit that was at once stylish, economic, and modest(lacking in the aristocratic dictionary). And I'll take the cowboy look over the aristo-fruit-look any day. Those guys in dusters in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST look real good. But the Three Musketeers look like a bunch of pansies.

No comments:

Post a Comment