Friday, December 30, 2011

Prancer is this year's most valuable reindeer

A trip home to the family for the holidays inevitably informs your holiday viewing. For me, it means a return to the tastes of my mother, as she dominates the music on the radio (always classical) and generally gets her way on the television as well. More than that, though, it returns me to the whim of the obsession of hers than heavily influenced my childhood - dance.

On Christmas Day, the BBC put out an hour and a half programme where Darcey Bussell, one of the most famous ballerinas of recent years, flexing her leg muscles again after a few years of retirement. But instead of ballet, she took on recreating four famous dance numbers from the glory days of the movie musical. Just days after the news that the National Film Registry's latest inductees include some "family home movies" of the Nicholas Brothers, tap dancing contemporaries of Fred Astaire, dance experts name-check them here. Bussell's first challenge - and ultimately her biggest - was reenacting Astaire's famous 'Puttin' on the Ritz' number from the otherwise obscure Blue Skies (1946). As the programme progressed, the documentary sections before each filmed performance shortened, so most of the technical issues of adaptating to a vastly different style of dance were included in this first passage. Where classical ballet requires clean, long lines and telegraphed positioning, tap required Bussell to loosen up and bring her body inwards - while redirecting her precision, because Astaire's performances were no less controlled and perfectly choreographed than Bussell's graceful ballet roles.

Bussell recreates Astaire's 'Puttin' on the Ritz'
This first number - pleasingly blasé about inverting the gender of the performer - turned out to be the highlight of the programme. Recreations of Top Hat's 'Cheek to Cheek' number and Singin' in the Rain's 'Good Mornin'' were appealingly staged and brightly performed, but, perhaps because she was returned to the female parts, where Ginger Rogers and Debbie Reynolds had been less technically adept than their male co-stars, they felt considerably less spirited. The fourth, meanwhile, was a curious reinvention of the famous 'Girl Hunt' number from The Band Wagon - always a highlight of the enormously talented Cyd Charisse's career. But here, its modern mishmash of a score and rather garish sets were the background to a mix of dancing styles that just didn't spark. Though Charisse herself came from a background in ballet, Bussell's lengthy background in ballet still seems to be what undid her here - her leg extensions and polished line finishes seemed uncomfortable in the louche jazz setting. But major points for trying.

Bussell stretches out for the Girl Hunt
So then, in those lingering days before the New Year in which no one is really sure what to do with themselves, I noticed that the house had acquired the new DVD issue of 1968's Isadora, for which Vanessa Redgrave was a somewhat forgotten Oscar nominee in the year of the infamous Hepburn-Streisand tie. With Redgrave back in Oscar circles this year for her fiery turn in Coriolanus, I realised I'm woefully uneducated on her career, so what an unexpected boon this was.

Isadora Duncan was a dance revolutionary. The film Isadora doesn't leave you without this knowledge, but ultimately it feels more like knowledge and not feeling - you know it because you have been told, but less because you've witnessed and experienced it. Isadora gets hijacked by Isadora's love life, and while that wouldn't necessarily be a detriment, the script quickly loses the connecting tissue between these romantic tangles and Isadora's dancing. It's there in the passionate encounters with her first lover, Edward Gordon Craig (James Fox), a theatre designer who declares "You see, I invented you". Isadora does dance in these passages, a sprightly expression of her youthful sexuality finally blossoming ("Why did nobody tell me how beautiful men are?"). A sex scene is evocatively intercut with Isadora seemingly dancing on the ceiling (left), an aerially filmed series of movements that vividly suggest the thrill, fear and lust in Isadora's physical reality.

But dance is soon relegated to merely Isadora's career, something she inconsistently maintains through her relationship with Paris Singer (Jason Robards), and away fall the intriguingly filmed dance sequences of the early passages of the film. Late in the film, as Isadora moves to Russia, dance's capacity as a political expression, and moreover a political tool, flares up as an intriguing theme, but still one which blanks on really evoking the feeling of movement. Lost too, is the briefly glimpsed Duncan rehearsing - a friction between the supposed loose heartfelt nature of her dancing style and the idea that she can still rehearse such a thing.

Isadora's vibrant Russian red confronts an American audience
Of course, a biopic has to tell the story of a person's life, and Isadora's love affairs were a huge part of her particular existence. But so, too, was dance, and her fame in this area is what makes her specifically interesting as a subject. The ultimate fustiness of Isadora leaves a lingering disappointment that the connections between life and art seemed to fall through the cracks here. Isadora Duncan herself would likely have felt better served by a filmic treatment than was less narrative and more by some sort of 'arty' evocation of the passion and feeling and torture behind her dancing.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Margaret, unthatched

You can understand why Margaret has taken five years to make it to cinema screens, as few in number as those screens were. You can understand why it was the subject of editing headaches for director Kenneth Lonergan and his editor Anne McCabe. The film has been edited into as smooth a narrative curve as it sensibly could have been (apparently by Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker) , but, even though it is as close to a masterpiece as any film this year, you sense that there's a bigger, more amorphous, even more majestic film lying in pieces on the cutting room floor. Because Margaret is not about plot points or closure or linearity, not in a strict sense at least. Despite the clearly stringent editing process, Margaret still feels inescapably loose, a quietly ambitious collage of the human existence that barely makes the slightest pan or track without acutely demonstrating an astonishing understanding of the individual and their relationships.

Jean (J. Smith-Cameron) and Lisa (Anna Paquin)
Ostensibly the film follows the repercussions of a tragic road accident, partly caused by and witnessed by Lisa (Anna Paquin). Confused, petulant, argumentative and naive, Lisa is driven by guilt and self-righteously drives this into seeking legal action against the bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) who was also partially at fault. As the film progresses, the legal processes Lisa undertakes with the deceased woman's best friend Emily (Jeannie Berlin) do dominate, but even they prove more symptomatic of the tangled trappings of modern society's convoluted, emotionless systems than of any sense of resolution or finality in any of the characters' lives.

At one point, the idea of Lisa as the centre of a narrative is explicitly disputed by one character, their mouth practically spitting with disgust at the idea of such a self-centred idea. Margaret's title seems to take issue with this too - Margaret is none of the characters, not even the dead one, but a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem read out by one of Lisa's teachers. There is a sense of latent resentment as the film aligns with Lisa; passages that spend time with her mother Joan (J. Smith-Cameron) vibrate with a peculiar jealousy, stemming from Joan being slowly pushed out of her daughter's worldview, while her father (Lonergan) exists only in phone calls to his daughter, sympathetic but disconnected, trapped in an airless Los Angeles beach house. Students who are forced to witness Lisa's circular political arguments with a Muslim classmate yell to reinstate themselves in Lisa's narrative. Characters who are at one moment integral to Lisa's narrative fall away, her life shifting in a different direction - youthful romantic possibilities shed for starker, more cynical sexual entanglements. Among many things, Margaret is a story of a girl struggling with adulthood, a question of how a confrontation with death might mature her, and twist her self-perception.

Lisa shrinks from the world around her
On more than one occasion Lonergan abandons identification altogether, instead observing crowded sidewalks, or gliding across the cityscape to Nico Muhly's delicately sad score. These moments never feel awkward or pontifical, but an expressively cinematic way of expressing the essence of the film: the world overwhelming the individual, the multitude of tangled stories of isolated human beings. It recalls something mentioned by Glenn Close in The Hollywood Reporter's recent Actress Roundtable - the concept of "mirror neurons" and acting being a "reflection" of a scene partner. "You can elicit an emotion in someone else by how you look into someone else's eyes." But Margaret is about averted eyes, missed glances, defiant avoidance of gaze. Lisa chooses to disconnect herself from Jean, who desperately tries to draw her daughter's gaze but in turn fails to really look at the new man (Jean Reno) in her life.

Lisa's gaze rests on sympathetic teacher Mr. Aaron (Matt Damon)
Its convoluted journey leaving it a strange window into the past, Margaret's foundations are closer to post-9/11 society than the present, something explicitly referenced in the debating scenes at Lisa's school. But these moments never feel as if they're trying to elicit a particular response to anything; they are simply a more verbal example of a friction between two human beings, with Lisa and Angie (Hina Abdullah) tellingly positioned on opposite sides of the room. Margaret at once feels timely and specific yet displaced, a strange window to a recent past where the ideas seem alternately innocent and prescient.

I left Margaret in a similar way to that in which I left Melancholia - my sense of the word around me felt irrevocably different. But where Melancholia's florid, epic ambition left me on some other plane of existence, Margaret thrust me back out into a world full of people, a fresh tactility and almost hyper-awareness of all the individual stories and issues brushing past me. Margaret's lack of grand scope is what makes it so ambitious, as if it's epic qualities have been turned in on themselves, expanding within character rather than in the form of a terrifying planet. It pinpoints, finally, the difficulties of living, and the precious moments we'd all do our best to ensure we actually look at. (A)

Margaret is playing three times at a day at the Odeon Panton St. in central London until next Thursday. If you can get there at all, run.