Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Scenes #2: The Red Shoes

The Red Shoes is one of the most loving tributes to the art of the theater, that I've ever seen. Therefore it's borderline perverse that The Archer's chose to use the central performance in the film as a mini essay in the things film can do that theater cannot.

Prior to the centerpiece, all the dances have been carefully shot from single perspectives. Either from the audience onto the Stage:

Or from the stage out into the audience:

The centeral performance on the other hand begins in the audience before bolding breaking into a sort of pocket universe.

The sequence starts off like the others....

But it only takes seconds for it to dip into a different cinematic language. With a simple cut. Cutting to a less extreme long shot, focusing the audiences attention, forcing them to see what you want them to in a way that is impossible in theater.

This it follows up with an even more audacious breach of technique.

An edit. And not just any old cut, but a flashy crossfade. The one cut that an audience is guarented to notice, no matter how little they know about cinematic grammar.

And yet look at the perfection of that invisible edit here. Which breaks at the exact moment Grishna turns. Powell's genius only allows you to see what the seams in the illusion when he wants you to.

The introduction of Moira Shearer, is suitably breathtaking. It's not the first time we've seen her dance in the film, but the grace and beauty of it never fails to amaze.

Our first look at the shoes. Once again so much of the credit goes to Moiria. That gaze, that instant want immediately sells their power.

This is our third real leap from Stage to Screen and the one that the sequence will employ the most. Subjectivity. Shearer literally seeing herself projected in the shoes is the kind of instant communication you can only do on film.
Leonide Massine is the true underrated star of The Red Shoes. He is so charismatic, and so funny in the movie, it's a true shame that he never worked that much in film outside of The Archers films. He's responsible for much of the choreography in the film, including all of his own, and he makes the character of "The Cobbler" capable of a laugh out loud funny reaction shot like the above, and true menace. Which isn't even getting into his character of Grishna, who steals the movie at every oppurtunity.

The Final Seduction...

Part of what made this such a tough scene to analysis on a purely technical level, is that the editing is so sophisticated that some of the shots are damn near subliminal. I'd be shocked if this one lasted sixteen frames.

Obviously this is to hide the wires (Crystal Clear thanks to Criterion's Scorsese sponsored new restoration.) But it's such an eerie effect, it hardly matters.

Once again, another subtle change from theater to film. While breaking the fourth wall is fairly common onstage, and is indeed basically done anytime an actor needs to project, on film it's always jarring. Not to mention that Massine is breaking it in character, it becomes doubly disconcerting. Almost as if he is reaching through two walls of unreality to reach us.

The night brings with it one of the film's most menacing sets.

And the most menacing use of Jazz hands that I know of.

The carnival scenes are some of the most beautifully decadent ever shot. But look at the above shot how many planes of action are simultaneously ongoing? Four? Five? The sophistication of it is mind blowing.

Don't ask me why but I've always found those clearly young dancers in the false old age makeup very disturbing.

Note Massine's shadow lying in wait.

""I never knew what a natural was before," Powell told the studio owner J. Arthur Rank. "But now I do. It's Moira Shearer."

-Roger Ebert-

That's a powerful series of images. Once again the film's ability to dip into the subjective, without disrupting the objective reality of the ballet is just something of a miracle.

The ballet enters it's most abstract movement. And the one I have the least to say about.

I mean seriously I have very little to say about Newspaper man.

This next part is horrific on a very primal level:


Once again, the ability to keep the objective reality of the ballet with while portraying what's happening in Shearer's head is astounding.

But this is the shot that blows my mind. To break the fourth wall (just one of them this time) right before the emotional climax of the piece... To replace the poor girl from the ballet's look of woe, with Victoria Page's smile of triumph as the audience applauds (in the middle like Lermontov predicted) seconds before the emotional climax of the ballet? To know, just know that you'd be able to reengage that amount of emotional involvement after ruthlessly snapping the suspension of disbelief with that shot and that smile?

That's not confidence. That's damn near cockiness.

Oh well at least he quickly reestablishes the somber tone wit-


And STILL. Note the bored stage hands temporarily treading on the emotional reality. Much more importantly note Lermontav.

The explosion of brass that hits here is one of the ballet's most impressive musical beats.

Once again. These shots are damn near subliminal, and their power cannot be over estimated.

And once again Massine is the unsung hero. It's tough to emphasize in the stills how violent the dance is in motion, and how Massine exudes a kind of Satanic grandeur.

This would seem the natural end point for the sequence. After all it mirrors the opening shot, it would bring everything back the perspective of the audience. But no. One last time, there must be a cut, Powell must remind us that Film and Theater are not the same.

The Red Shoes as always must have their say.

(Sorry this took so long. I don't mind saying that this post took a lot (I believe the technical term is "fuck ton") of work. As a result I now have a bit of a backlog. So expect a fairly robust posting schedule in the weeks ahead)


Ryan McNeil said...

Love this series- keep 'em coming.

That moment where she jumps into the shoes and they lace themselves up caught me so by surprise that I had to rewind and rewatch about three times. Such an awesome effect and edit!

Chris Regan said...

Great post - only saw this film for the first time a few months ago and it really blew me away. It's great to see that sequence broken down - I was already impressed with it, but this has highlighted just how complex and amazing it really is.

Anonymous said...

I love Leonide Massine in this film SO MUCH. I just saw this film for the first time last week. The Ballet of the Red Shoes has now become one of my favorite sequences in all of cinema history.

Samuel Wilson said...

Bryce, this was obviously a labor of love, and I love it. Massine is awesome, as much a natural as Shearer -- and Anton Walbrook as Lermontov is my all-time favorite male performance on film. I could call the ballet Caligari meets Busby Berkeley, but I somehow think Powell could have come up with the same scene if neither Caligari nor Berkeley had ever existed.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Mad Hatter: Many thanks for the kind words Hatter. I really enjoy doing these so the response is helpful.

That is an amazing shot. It's amazing how fast it is.

@ Chris Regan: Many thanks man. BTW thanks for falling on the grenade for that Amazon thing.

@cinema-fanatic: Massine is amazing. Check out Tales Of Hoffman if you haven't.

@ Sam: Much obliged sir. I can't deny that this took a lot of time. But I do feel it came out well.

And I have a feeling you're quite right about Powell.

Neil Fulwood said...

You have to imagine me standing up and applauding right now.

I thought that with your "Scenes" analysis of 'Pan's Labyrinth' you'd set yourself a hard act to follow. This hasn't just raised the bar - it's put the bloody thing in orbit!

The technical sophistication of 'The Red Shoes' is awesome. Powell took incredible risks with this film, really went out on a limb. There are scenes and technical achievements here which you can only consider Powell & Pressburger utterly demented or entirely arrogant for daring to shoot for. And the dance of the Red Shoes is the great scene in a movie awash with inventive brilliance and visual beauty.

Those shroud-clad creatures towards the end of the ballet! I've seen entire 18-rated horror movies that haven't creeped me out to the degree those fuckers do!

Walbrook. Massine. So perfect. But, oh lord, it's Moira Shearer who defines this film. Her performance - both as actress and ballerina - is simply amazing.

Congratulations, Bryce; this for me is the most inspiring piece you've written so far.

Bryce Wilson said...

My sincere thanks Neil. That means a lot coming from you.

It's funny in regards to the shroud guys I had originally meant to lament that Powell had never made a straight up horror film, and then I was like "Oh yeah, Peeping Tom." That masterpiece I'd forgotten about .

And trust me, I knew it would be a tough time following up this in regards to "Scenes". I'm going to take the opposite approach for the next installment. Taking a scene that's fairly standard (on a sliding scale at least) and exploring what I think makes it really work.

Thanks again.

Unknown said...

Thank you for all your hard work in posting this.
Have you read Monk Gibbon's "The Red Shoes Ballet"?
If not I recommend it to you
Dai Williams

paddie said...

This has always been my all time favorite movie...........The best in everything.
Every thing was beautifully performed. It had it all. The color was beautiful and the dancing was fantastic and the drama...you can't beat it for the arts.