Friday, August 22, 2008

Dying to dance

In 1947 at the height of their creative powers, British filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger decided to make their next movie a story of the backstage life of a ballet company. The Red Shoes (1948) was the result and is the film that's launched a thousand little-girl-dreams of becoming a ballerina, but it's a dark movie -- as dark as the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale that it was inspired by. There, a girl is danced to death by a pair of red shoes she acquires from a diabolical shoemaker (I wonder if Andersen would be deemed too depressing for nurseries today). Powell and Pressburger use it as a template to create a familiar tale of life imitating art, though one can never quite be sure where the line between life and art falls in this movie. Cameraman Jack Cardiff's Technicolor photography and director Powell's anti-realist style combined to create a fantastical milieu quite different from what audiences of the time would have expected. Britain was still recovering from the devastion of war and art was not a high priority. Powell explained their motivation, "For ten years we had all been told to go out and die for freedom and democracy; but now the war was over. The Red Shoes told us to go out and die for art."

Michael Powell (left) and Emeric Pressburger on set

While many fans of The Red Shoes love it for the audacious 15-minute ballet sequence that anchors the film -- and which inspired MGM spectacular's like An American in Paris -- many others are drawn to the mesmerizing character at it's center -- Boris Lermontov, the impresario of the fictional Ballet Lermontov. Boris is played by the Austrian actor Anton Walbrook and was loosely based on Serge Diaghilev and Alexander Korda. He's a distillation of the driven and dictatorial artist. His god is art and his religion is ballet. He tolerates no rivals, nor lukewarmness. Film historian Ian Christie writes, "Lermontov lives through his creations. People and relationships are ruthlessly subordinated to a drive which inevitably reminds us also of the passion to create films. More than any other film, The Red Shoes deals with the dangerous, magical process by which art is distilled from preparation and effort." Contemporary directors Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese are among those who credit The Red Shoes with first kindling their desire to make movies.

Dangerous and magical. Must one sell one's soul to achieve artistic greatness? To the extent that Boris Lermontov is it's spokesman and most magnetic character, The Red Shoes would seem to say yes. "You cannot have it both ways. A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer. Never!", Lermontov barks to his young protege Vicky Page, played appealingly by real-life ballerina Moira Shearer. He has room in his life for only one thing, and he expects the same single-minded devotion from his company. Powell and Pressburger show us both the triumph and tragedy that results. Christie writes that they set out to make "nothing less than a manifesto for the claims of art over mundane life." That Romanticist worldview can be attractive, but those of us who recognize a higher claim on our lives than art (or mundane life) must reject it. Making a god out of art instead of art's source, or to put it another way, worshiping creation instead of the Creator, carries with it the seeds of destruction.

Anton Walbrook was perfect for the role of Lermontov. His piercing eyes, Mitteleuropean accent and aristocratic bearing created a character alternately charming and terrifying -- but always watchable. I find myself admiring and pitying him. In this short clip he's reacting to the news that Vicky has defied him by going off and getting married. Note the gauzy, dreamlike atmosphere I mentioned earlier. Lermontov almost seems an apparition. The music is from the Academy Award winning score by British composer Brian Easdale.

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