The Red Shoes

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The Red Shoes-Powell & Pressburger 1948
The British directorial team Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, known collectively as The Archers had spent WWII producing odd, idiosyncratic propaganda movies for the British war effort, mainly in black and white (a notable exception was The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp of 1942, which Winston Churchill had hated for its civilised, sympathetic portrayal of the German best friend of the Colonel).

With the end of the war The Archers changed direction and produced a series of sensuous fantasies filmed in the most glorious Technicolor by Jack Cardiff, intuiting that the British public, still in the midst of wartime rationing and austerity, longed for something more than the standard dourly realistic fare then be served. This led to the hallucinatory Black Narcissus in 1947, a melodrama full of simmering tension and repressed eroticism, followed by their most famous film a year later, the ballet movie The Red Shoes. As Michael Powell noted , ‘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.’

As the above quote illustrates this is a movie about the primacy of art over life. Indeed it could be argued that The Red Shoes is a Symbolist movie, though it is a rather late arrival to the party. Drenched in aestheticism, with a curiously timeless fairy-tale ambience and the  rarefied, hothouse ballet setting, The Red Shoes is valiant attempt at a Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art, an important concept in Symbolist aesthetics). However it also owes as much to Hollywood, especially the extravaganzas of Busby Berkeley, as it does to the various European avant-gardes.

The story is simplicity itself. Aspiring, ambitious ballet dancer Victoria Page, (unforgettably played by ballerina Moira Shearer, surely the most gorgeous red-head to ever grace the silver screen), comes under the auspices of Boris Lermontov, (an outstanding performance by Anton Walbrook) the impresario of the Ballet Lermontov who is clearly modelled on the legendary Sergei Diaghliev of the Ballet Russes. At the party where they first meet Lermontov asks Vicky, ‘Why do you want to dance?’ to which Vicky replies, ‘Why do you want to live?’ Quite.

At the same time Lermontov, who has an eye for talent, employs the young composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring). The scene is set for a particularly bizarre love triangle. For Lermontov isn’t just a Svengali, the demands he places upon his company shade into the Mephistophelian. When his current prima ballerina Irina (another ballerina Ludmilla Tcherina) decides to marry he remarks, ‘You cannot have it both ways. A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer. Never.’ 

Irina’s leaving opens the way for Vicky to become prima ballerina in a new ballet that the company is producing, The Red Shoes:

Boris Lermontov: The Ballet of The Red Shoes” is from a fairy tale by Hans Andersen. It is the story of a young girl who is devoured with an ambition to attend a dance in a pair of Red Shoes. She gets the shoes and goes to the dance. For a time, all goes well and she is very happy. At the end of the evening she is tired and wants to go home, but the Red Shoes are not tired. In fact, the Red Shoes are never tired. They dance her out into the street, they dance her over the mountains and valleys, through fields and forests, through night and day. Time rushes by, love rushes by, life rushes by, but the Red Shoes go on.
Julian Craster: What happens in the end?
Boris Lermontov: Oh, in the end, she dies.

Craster is the composer of the score and The Red Shoes premieres in Monte Carlo, Monaco. Daringly The Archers interrupt the narrative to present the centrepiece of the movie, a stunning seventeen minute ballet sequence exactly half-way through the movie. Both expressionistic and surrealistic, with scenery (designed by Hein Heckroth) and effects that could be never replicated in any theatre anywhere at anytime,  the ballet is a phantasmagorical tour-de-force.

Vicky and Craster fall in love while working on the ballet, with dramatic and indeed tragic consequences as life grimly mimics art. During the delirious final scenes Lermontov says to the sobbing Vicky:

Vicky…Little Vicky…There, there. Sorrow will pass, believe me. Life is so unimportant. And from now onwards, you will dance like nobody ever before.

The ending is entirely appropriate for this lush fever dream of a film. For The Red Shoes isn’t just a movie you watch, it is a film to be surrendered too, and once you have surrendered, to luxuriate in.

Always Crashing In The Same Car

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Andy Warhol-Red Car Crash 1963
J. G Ballard’s 1970 collection of interlinked ‘condensed’ novels, The Atrocity Exhibition had been the cause of considerable controversy. One of the short stories, Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan was issued as a separate booklet that had resulted in the prosecution for obscenity of the publisher. The American edition of The Atrocity Exhibition had been printed by Doubleday & Co when the company’s president Nelson Doubleday, Jr. ordered the entire run pulped as he feared potential legal action from the many celebrities featured within its pages.

Undeterred Ballard wrote Crash, a novel even more controversial and transgressive. One publisher’s reader verdict was simply, “This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do Not Publish!” As Ballard express intention in writing Crash was to, “rub the human face in its own vomit and force it to look in the mirror” and considering its extreme and disturbing content, the reader’s comment is understandable.

The narrator of Crash is an advertising executive named James Ballard (a bold, daring move: no authorial distancing to be seen here) who after being involved in a serious traffic accident that causes the death of the driver of the other vehicle, becomes obsessed with the sexual possibilities inherent in car crashes. He meets Vaughan, a rogue scientist and former television presenter, the ‘nightmare angel of the expressways’, who is the leader of a clique of similarly affectless crash devotees. Vaughan has one over-riding ambition: to stage the ultimate sex death with the actress Elizabeth Taylor.

The style of Crash is hypnotically detached. As I noted in my previous post on J. G Ballard Living The High Life its hallucinatory cadences render it a prose poem of twisted metal, broken glass and wound patterns, as can be seen from the following quote. It is also, without doubt, spectacularly deranged.

I think now of the other crashes we visualised, absurd deaths of the wounded, maimed and distraught. I think of the crashes of psychopaths, implausible accidents carried out with venom and disgust, vicious multiple collisions contrived in stolen cars on evening freeways among tired office workers. I think of the absurd crashes of neurasthenic housewives returning from their VD clinics, hitting parked cars in suburban streets. I think of the crashes of excited schizophrenics colliding head-on into stalled laundry vans in one-way streets: of manic-depressives crushed while making pointless U-turns on motorway access roads; of luckless paranoids driving at full speed into brick walls at the ends of known cul-de-sacs; of sadistic charge nurses decapitated in inverted crashes on complicated interchanges; of lesbian supermarket manageress burning to death in the collapsed frames of their midget cars before the stoical eyes of middle-aged firemen; of autistic children crushed in rear-end collisions, their eyes less wounded in death; of buses filled with mental defectives drowning together in roadside industrial canals.

The novel soon achieved cult status in France, unsurprisingly as the French have a long tradition of intellectual, transgressive pornography dating back to De Sade (see Philosophy in the Boudoir) and carrying on through Bataille to The Story of O. Most editions include the Introduction to the French Edition which carries Ballard’s spirited defence of pornography, as he notes “pornography is the most political form of fiction, dealing with how we use and exploit each other in the most urgent and ruthless way.”

Crash was later filmed by David Cronenberg in 1996 and was itself the subject of further controversy.

Living The High Life

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Sammy Slabbinck

Later, as he sat on the balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months. Now that everything had returned to normal…

J.G Ballard High-Rise 1975

Surely one of the darkest yet funniest openings to a novel in English fiction, J.G Ballard’s cautionary tale on civilisation and its discontents shows, in typically ambiguous fashion, that our inner natures could revolt against the conveniences of modern existence and the alienation implicit in our sanitised, mediated (un)reality.

Written in the hard-edged concrete-and-glass style of the late sixties and early seventies and hot on the heels of the experimental and spectacularly deranged  The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash, High-Rise, is with Concrete Island from the same period a return to a more traditional narrative framework. Eschewing the fractured, clinical and compressed ‘novels’ of The Atrocity Exhibition and the hallucinatory cadences of Crash (a prose poem of twisted metal, broken glass and wound patterns), High-Rise follows the three main characters, Dr. Robert Laing (a reference to the author of The Divided Self) who lives on the twenty-five floor; Richard Wilder a documentary film-maker down near street level on the second floor and the buildings architect Anthony Royal who lords it over them all in the fortieth floor penthouse as the amenities within the luxurious, self-contained high-rise block starts to break down, causing the affluent, well educated residents to wilfully and joyfully participate in the destruction of the building and revert to tribalism and barbarism. Always subversive, Ballard wickedly suggests that the only possible way to be free is to regress, discarding all civilised constraints and acting upon our deviant impulses and innate cruelty.

Royal detested this orthodoxy of the intelligent. Visiting his neighbours apartments, he would find himself physically repelled by the contours of an award-winning coffee-pot, by the well modulated colour schemes, by the good taste and intelligence that, Midas-like, had transformed everything in these apartments into an ideal marriage of function and design….Royal would have given anything for one vulgar mantelpiece ornament, one less than snow-white lavatory bowl, one hint of hope. Thank God that they were at last breaking out of this fur-lined prison.

Ben Wheatley’s stylish film version of High-Rise, starring Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons and Sienna Miller and produced by Jeremy Thomas who was  responsible for David Cronenberg’s film version of Crash was released in 2015.

 

 

La Dolce Vita of a Chelsea Girl

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Nico
The great Italian director Federico Fellini noticed Nico when she walked through the set of his most famous film La Dolce Vita and he immediately gave her a small cameo role starring as herself. This seemed to always happen to Nico, she had got her break in modelling by simply standing outside an upscale Berlin department store. With her striking, stunning beauty she was always going to attract attention.

Nico’s life is the stuff of legend and like all legends the exact details are somewhat hazy. She was either born in 1938 or 1943 in either Cologne or Budapest (though it was probably 1938 in Cologne). She started modelling at 16 in Berlin which led to a peripatetic existence that was to continue throughout her life. She spent a large part of the Sixties in New York where she met Andy Warhol and consequently become one of his Superstars, starring in his experimental extravaganzas, most notably Chelsea Girls. Warhol then decided that The Factory house band The Velvet Underground needed a chaunteuse and  who better than Nico, the Teutonic Ice Queen with her distinctive husky, heavily accented monotone? The main movers in The Velvet Underground, the singer Lou Reed and the Welsh sound wizard John Cale initially met the suggestion with consternation. Nico was a notoriously capacious and difficult character who was also tone deaf. However she featured on lead vocals on three songs (Femme Fatale,  I’ll Be Your Mirror and All Tomorrows Parties)  on their ground-breaking and hugely influential debut album The Velvet Underground & Nico.

She left the group to pursue a solo career, however she only started to write her own material at the suggestion of Jim Morrison of The Doors with who she had a particularly intense relationship. After his death she dyed her hair black and started to sport heavy, dark clothes and recorded with the help of John Cale the desolate, wintry The Marble Index in 1969, the first of three albums unmatched in their crushing bleakness. Unsurprisingly there all sold poorly, as Cale remarked ‘you can’t sell suicide,’ and Nico spent the next two decades as the junkie Dietrich. Her addiction was such that hardened drug fiends crossed the road to avoid her.

Nico’s death was spectacularly bathetic. She had  finally getting her act together: successfully kicking her heroin habit and re-established relations with her adult son Ari from her relationship with the actor Alain Delon. She was on holiday with Ari in the Balearic island of Ibiza when she announced that she was off to buy some marijuana and on the way fell off her bicycle suffering a cerebral haemorrhage. A taxi driver found her on the hillside and took her to four hospitals before she was admitted. She was misdiagnosed as suffering from sunstroke before dying the next day.

Nico, known as the Moon Goddess and Queen of the Bad Girls was cremated and buried in her mother’s grave in Berlin.

Vision Incision

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Un Chien Andalou-Luis Bunuel & Salvador Dali 1929
A notorious image of the early cinema, the eye-ball slicing scene at the beginning of Un Chien Andalou (The Andalusian Dog) is a shocking example of Golden Age Surrealist provocation. This short film opens with a man (the master of Surrealist shock tactics himself, Luis Bunuel) lazily sharpening a cut-throat razor, with a cigarette stuck in his mouth. He steps out onto the balcony where he stares at the full moon. In a stunning visual rhyme Bunuel slices a woman’s eye-ball and then we witness clouds dissecting and momentarily obscuring the moon. Then the movie proper starts.

Eyes, as I previously noted in Chance Encounters 2, play an important part in Surrealist symbolism. Sight is undoubtedly the primary of all senses, however for the Surrealists vision is not merely a matter of perceiving external phenomena , the visionary experience that transforms reality springs from the unconscious mind and manifests itself most markedly in dreams and madness. Only by completely abandoning ourselves to the dictates of the unconscious and following our deepest hidden impulses, not matter how perverse, can such a transformation be achieved.

Alpha & Omega

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The Witch’s Cradle-Maya Deren 1943
Experimental film-maker and Vodou priestess Maya Deren, with the help of the Big Daddy of modern and contemporary art Marcel Duchamp crosses over into the world of ritualistic magic where the nights are longer and the shadows deeper (oh so much deeper) in 1943’s The Witch’s Cradle. The text around the pentagram and enclosed within the double circle says ‘The Beginning Is The End Is’; of course as it is circular you could read it as ‘The End Is the Beginning Is’ or any other variant, depending upon whether the glass is half-full or empty. The phrase refers to Christ’s assertion in the Book of Revelations that ‘I am the Alpha and Omega’, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, it is usually further clarified  with the additional phrase ‘the beginning and the end.’

Maya Deren’s work was a marked influence on the similarly occult inclined 60’s underground film-maker Kenneth Anger, director of such ceremonial extravaganza’s as Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome and Lucifer Rising.

Dreams of Desire 17 (Belle Du Jour)

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Belle Du Jour 1967
In what may or may not be a dream scene (but what parts of the movie couldn’t be construed as either a dream or a fantasy) the incomparable Catherine Deneuve as Severine/Belle Du Jour, the haute bourgeois housewife turned daytime prostitute accepts the invitation of a sinister, decadent Duke to take part in a ‘very moving ritual’ at his country Chateau.

Performance

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James Fox-Performance 1970

Imagine the Warner Bros.executives reaction upon first seeing Performance. Originally commissioned as a light-hearted romp through Swinging Sixties London, a Stones version of The Beatles A Hard Day’s Night, they instead find themselves watching a much darker movie with the palpably greasy aura of a drug orgy overlaid with a pervasive stench of sulphur. Some of the sex scenes between Mick Jagger and Anita Pallenberg (who was involved with Jagger’s Rolling Stones bandmate Keith Richards at the time) won awards at an adult film festival at Amsterdam.With its explicit depiction of its themes of violence, sadism, drug use and bisexuality it’s no wonder one of the exec’s wife vomited during the original screening. It also is one of the great movies of merging identities; a male, psychedelic counterpart to Bergman’s Persona  (see Dreams of Desire 7)

The look of the movie is mainly down to co-director Nicholas Roeg who would later go on to film Walkabout and Don’t Look Now. The screenplay and therefore  much of the thematic content was down to Donald Cammell, Aleister Crowley’s godson (in actuality, I’m not been figurative). The Great Beast’s credo of Do What Thou Wilt certainly figures in Performance, as does Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty. In fact the actual set of Performance seems to have presented as an actual Theatre of Cruelty with Cammell intent in playing games of mind-fuckery upon the cast. Keith Richards stalked the set, sitting in his car for hours on end trying to find out what was going on inside between his girlfriend and Jagger. The process of  filming Performance and playing the lead character Chas Devlin, a vicious and sadistic ‘performer’ in a East End gang, clearly modelled upon the Kray twins organization, so traumatised James Fox that he gave up acting for over a decade to go knock on doors handing out pamphlets for a Christian organization.Both the female stars Anita Pallenberg and the androgynous Michele Breton would become heroin addicts, in Breton’s case fatally so. Cammell himself would disappear from sight, lurking on the fringes of Hollywood until his suicide in 1996 which he staged in front of his much younger wife with Performance in mind, even saying as he was waiting to die that he hadn’t seen Borges yet, referring to the Argentine fabulist Jorge Luis Borges whose work is a constant presence in the movie and whose image appears upon a speeding bullet.

Dreams of Desire 7 (Persona)

 

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Persona- 1966
Ingmar Bergmann’s stark modernist masterpiece of dissolving, merging female identities and the nature of cinema must surely influenced Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (Dreams of Desire 6). Both movies explore the porous boundaries of personality, the projection of desires onto another (and the subsequent hatred when the other remains separate and distinct) and the illusions that we create to maintain our precarious, fabricated self-image.

 

Dreams of Desire 6 (Mulholland Dr.)

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David Lynch plays tricks with time, memory and identity in the utterly mystifying yet completely bewitching Mulholland Dr. One of the few film-makers who can genuinely be classified as a Surrealist, Mulholland Dr. heady blend of atmospheric neo-noir, twisted Hollywood fable, mind melting strangeness and one of the most convincing dream narratives since a certain Alice fell down a rabbit hole defies categorization or rational comprehension, but therein lies its beauty. Continue reading