#207. The Red Shoes (1948)

With Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and Black Narcissus it was obvious that Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the British writer/director duo who called themsleves the Archers, were masters of their medium, and that they probably put color to better use than anybody else on the List so far, but The Red Shoes is the first of their movirs to hit me hard, to thrill and delight me and get me thinking, and I think i’ts because this belongs to a sub-genre I never knew had a name: the backstage drama — of which I think I’ve seen five or six, with 42nd Street standing out as a favorite. A backstage drama is, I guess, pretty much always about a buncha people putting on a show (in this case, a ballet). It’s a common story but The Red Shoes is special for the way it trains an eye on artistic obsession. It manifests in our leading lady, played by Moira Shearer, who, when prompted by a scowling, pugnacious, intimidating master director to explain why she dances, says that she may as well be asked why she lives. It’s just a natural urge. So natural there’s almost no thought about Why. Only How, I guess.

That director guy, Lermontov (played by Anton Walbrook), would say the same of his own passion for ballet except he’s older, a master of his craft, so the success of his show is always contingent on the performers’ ability to meet the demands — which I’d never given much thought to. Guess you could call that the plight of the director. But yeah — Lermontov also appears to’ve shut everything out of his life so’s to better focus on his work.

On a date last ween I mentioned that I like reading and writing at bars and the lady made the remark people tend to make when I say that, something to do with Hemingway, and the attendant implications of a fragile masculinity and overcompensation, like there’s something performative about the whole thing. It’s kind of annoying but I understand that this is how it looks. I’m a cliche.

But I do, in a way, romanticize creative figures like this Lermontov guy: hermetic, haunted, obsessive workhorses who give everything over to their work (same can sorta be said about Hemingway). I think it’s something about the beauty (such as I see it) of discovering the thing you’re great at, appreciating that this is the way you can contribute something to the world, and then just putting your head down and toiling at it forever, at the expense of all else and in constant competition with your previous achievements, because you know that the big picture returns on committing to this one consuming thing will prove better than the sum of smaller daily pleasures.

But, of course, that’s pretty flawed. Family’s important and a love life and social one are important, recreation and exercise, the occasional marathon of sleep. I definitely partake in all that stuff and I know I’m not nearly as productive as I could be — and those two things seem to put me in the foolish position of admiring these sorts of guys whose work may be brilliant, sure, but who are also pretty clearly fucked up and miserable.

But yeah, the movie: it starts out with a young guy, an amateur composer named Julian (Marius Goring), attending one of his professors’ shows and finding that the music in the show is his own. Something he submitted for an assignment, I guess. The professor stole it and passed it off as his own.

When Julian confronts Lermontov, who I guess is the head of the show, Lermontov doesn’t quite apologize on behalf of his thieving colleague, but he does off Julian a job in the theater (which he accepts) and says something that stuck with me. Tells Julian that it’s better to be stolen from than to be so creatively bankrupt you have to steal other people’s work.

Anyway. Julian starts dating Victoria, the brilliant dancer played by Shearer, and a tormented love triangle ensues. Culminates in tragedy. But the heart of the movie is the performance itself of The Red Shoes, a ballet adapted from the Hans Christian Andersen story about a woman who puts on a pair of demonically-controlled red shoes that make her dance until she dies.

The metaphor is pretty clear, for all involved, and I think the movie might be the best meditation on creative work to’ve appeared on the List so far.

But, like with the other Archer stuff, it struck me as kinda tedious. Martin Amis would say, when teaching Philip Roth’s story Goodbye, Columbus (a story of young love), that part of what makes it so distinctly American is the speed with which Roth’s protagonist sets up a date with the girl. As Amis puts it, an English writer would’ve had the anxious young protagonist putz around and fret for 40 pages before calling the girl up.

These Archer films feel British in that same vein. Much ado about everything. Chatty. Very deliberate in their build-ups and payoffs. Which is good and it showcases tremendous skill but I think I’m a way more American-minded moviegoer. Need my action beats and curt & clever exposition.


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