Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Red Shoes

I have avoided watching The Red Shoes (1948) for over a year now after a friend gifted me a copy. I avoided it for two years before that when I could have easily borrowed it from the same friend, I avoided it when I became fascinated with Kate Bush's album of the same title (saucy devil played by Miranda Richardson in the video), and I avoided it for several years before that when I still lived with my parents and TCM aired it repeatedly.

The fairytale, if you're not already aware, is horrific. No, scratch that. It's fucking horrific. Leave it to Hans Christian Andersen's warped imagination to scare the bejeezus out of you and make you want to cloud yourself in a pure, white veil, never looking in the mirror again, never wanting anything ever again but to be a good little girl and go to Heaven. In the fairytale, a selfish little girl, adopted by a rich woman after her mother dies, wants a pair of beautiful red dancing shoes. She gets them, and they take on a life of their own. They dance whether she wants to or not, and they never leave her feet. Night and day, rain or shine, they won't stop dancing. Eventually, the girl has her feet amputated (amputated! what kind of fairytale includes amputation?!?) but the shoes still do not stop--they continue to dance with her amputated feet inside them. Inside them.

Now, can you see why the childhood memory and imprinted visuals of this terrible tale has left me a bit anxious to see the film? But this is what happens when it's rainy and cold, when you've just set up your projector in a new apartment (which, of course, must be broken in with a visually fantastic movie), and when your friend comments on the "redness" of your apartment at the exact moment that you open the first box entitled "DVDs" and find The Red Shoes right on top, Moira Shearer's flawless en pointe staring back at you. This is what happens: you give in and watch the damn movie.

For the first ten minutes I was terribly nervous, and for the next 123 we were completely entranced (at least, I was completely entranced, and being so entranced I could not accurately determine if he was also just as entranced--because I was, you know, entranced). The acting was dreamlike; I was surprised to find that Ms. Shearer made only a handful of appearances on film, this being her most well-known. The infamous dance sequence, the actual ballet performance of The Red Shoes, was the most beautiful, the most disturbing, the most colorfully stimulating, and quite possibly the most wonderfully artistic dance sequence on film I've ever seen (though Cyd Charisse and the green dress are still up there, artistic merit warranted or not). So comfortable is this film, all of its parts and players, within the realm of art, that sometimes you can't tell if you're watching a surrealist painting in the works, or a double exposure of a sunset and flame. Or perhaps you have truly just teleported to a world where color and movement are on a level of existence we could not have imagined- except Powell and Pressburger could. And did. In 1948.

I can't promise with as equal conviction that this film will change your life as a friend who has assured me that watching The Wire will change mine (this has yet to be confirmed, or even tested), but it certainly changed my perceptions of early dance films--namely, that they could be strange and daring without sacrificing any of the Technicolor pow! associated with 1940s and 1950s musicals. Instead, The Red Shoes takes the pow! to new and unexplored terrain, as if introducing it to its own potential. Powell and Pressburger were famous for being ahead of their time, and that is entirely apparent in The Red Shoes. The tragedy underlying this film is not how life imitates art, though Vicki's fate is pretty gruesome, but that P & P never touched the musical/dance genre again. Maybe there was just nothing left to do with it after Vicki lay broken and still.


Laura said...

Dancing amputated feet? Nothin' when you look at the Grimm Brothers' oeuvres: in Cinderella the stepsisters cut off their toes and heels to fit into the glass slipper, and in Snow White, as punishment, the dwarves force the wicked queen to wear red-hot iron shoes and she, mirroring the girl in Red Shoes, dances herself to death. Oh, and Snow White is supposed to be nine. Whee! Gee, Walt D., how come you left all that out?

Yeah, that dance sequence is sumpin' else. The movie's on Netflix streaming view, so every once in awhile I'll skip ahead and just watch that part over and over. The music is especially striking. Usually ballets or operas written specifically for film you'll forget once the credits roll, but not here. Incredibly haunting sequence.

And Moira Shearer? Probably one of the top five beautiful cinematic redheads ever, just sayin'.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

"The tragedy underlying this film is not how life imitates art, though Vicki's fate is pretty gruesome, but that P & P never touched the musical/dance genre again."

Not entirely true. Tales of Hoffman is what you would get if you expanded the Red Shoes ballet to feature length. Moira Shearer dances for this movie, too. It's amazing.

And there's a dance sequence in Peeping Tom, too, also staring Moira Shearer. Of course, she's brutally killed after her dance sequence, but Powell was perverse sometimes...

Ms.Zebra said...

Not sure how I missed these comments for so long (I'm not known for keeping up with such things), but, yes, I am aware of the darkness that is the Brothers Grimm. I also saw Peeping Tom a few years ago, but cannot, for the life of me, remember a dance sequence. Admittedly, my roommate and I were playing it as a backdrop to our quite successful Halloween party, so that could have something to do with it. I have also become recently aware of Tales of Hoffman, and am terribly excited to see it one of these days. (Here I would like to glare at my local library for not housing such a gem.)