music friday: cleaning out the lou closet
what i watched last week

by request: the red shoes (michael powell and emeric pressburger, 1948)

This is really stretching the concept of “requests”. The other night, my wife and I were talking about our (i.e., my) Blu-ray collection. I forget how it came up … maybe she didn’t understand why they were alphabetized by title, but at one point they go from Yojimbo to 28 Days Later. I explained that the first batch was the ones I hadn’t seen (they fill up most of one shelf). She instantly decided that I couldn’t buy any more Blu-rays until I watched at least half of the ones I already owned but hadn’t watched. And so began a new series, “Steven’s Blu-rays”, only I’m sticking it in the “By Request” category because Robin did request that I watch them.

The way I broke the discs in half was to choose the movies I haven’t seen before. Half of the discs are of movies I’ve seen … this seemed like a chance to catch up on some classics I’ve missed. Like The Red Shoes, which surprisingly I’d missed until now.

Coming to a movie this late in the game, I’m stuck talking about something everyone has already seen. “Everyone” is relative, though, in this case, because plenty of people have never even heard of The Red Shoes. But if you’re either old or like old movies, or if you like movies about ballet or dance in general, you’ve probably seen The Red Shoes. I think the ballet scared me away, to be honest. I don’t “get” ballet. I’m too much of a slave to narrative, and when I watch ballet, I don’t understand the stories they are telling. (I don’t make this demand with music … I don’t know why I single out ballet, although I have the same problem with modern dance.) I do appreciate ballet when I know the story in advance, and happily, there is a brief scene early in the movie where a character summarizes the plot of the ballet “The Red Shoes”, so I was able to follow it. You get about an hour of set up … we meet the characters, we see the company putting together the ballet … and then, in the middle of the film, we get “The Red Shoes”, which takes about 15 minutes. Then we get an hour of aftermath. I’m making it sound dull, and nothing could be further from the truth. The hard work of putting together a stage performance is shown in an interesting fashion, and the major characters are interesting in their own rights, almost stereotypes but with a little something that makes them different, so we don’t feel like we’re just watching Yet Another Backstage Musical. At least, that’s the case until the last hour. That hour is not really about backstage trials and tribulations … Powell and Pressburger have different, “bigger” ideas at stake.

I give them credit. They’ve made a musical that isn’t happy. It reminded me of It’s a Wonderful Life, another beloved movie that is actually quite dark. The Red Shoes has moments of exhilaration (mostly when someone is dancing), but overall, it’s pretty depressing. But I was never convinced that I was seeing great ideas bandied about. Life or art, family or art, commitment or compulsion … all of this enters into The Red Shoes, and I know most people take the way they are treated in the film quite seriously, but for the most part, I didn’t buy in.

The performances are great across the board, and Moira Shearer was a real find. It’s fascinating to think about how this or that effect was done … it makes sense that film makers like Scorsese are obsessed with the movie, because they can rhapsodize over how the damn thing was made. I feel like I’m missing something, but I can’t praise a movie for what I didn’t get. #151 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. I’m not sure why, but it seems indicative of something that Scorsese and director Ken Russell (Tommy) both rank it high on their lists. The ballet in the middle of the movie is a 10/10, but the film as a whole is 8/10.

If you’d like to see another, quite different, film directed by Powell and featuring Shearer, check out Peeping Tom, which is disturbing in ways The Red Shoes never approaches. And Black Narcissus is probably my favorite Powell/Pressburger movie.

As for the Blu-ray (I suppose I should say something about it, given the context of this “request”), Criterion has done its usual great job. Most important is that this is the post-restoration version. It looks wonderful. There’s the usual short that demonstrates the changes that were made (I always like them), and a bunch of other stuff (I don’t usually pay too much attention to the extras … I read the essay by David Ehrenstein).


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