The Red Shoes (Criterion)
There’s a real charge to the cinema of Michael Powell, a joy in the play of expressionist possibilities of the medium, that lights up his films with energy, color, and magic—the magic of love and life and art. That invention and play with cinematic technique sounds like another British director with great directorial control and imagination, Alfred Hitchcock, yet they couldn’t be more different. The unbridled imagination of Powell’s direction (especially in partnership with his creative partner, Emeric Pressberger, who Powell shared director credit with even though his contributions are largely in the writing and producing arenas) feels like an impish schoolboy running wild through the traditions of British cinema, finding ways to give us the subjective experience of his characters, letting the emotions overflow in explosions of cinematic excitement. (It’s no wonder that Scorsese responded to Powell so powerfully; at his best, Scorsese strives for the same kind of subjective perspective with his own style and sensibility.)
Yet where Hitchcock is celebrated by people who couldn’t tell you the name of even one of his films, Powell remains a cult director beloved by cineastes but known to the world at large mostly for the lush, lavishly realized The Red Shoes. To girls of a certain age and a predisposition to the romance and beauty of ballet, this film is a touchstone that remains an impassioned favorite long after their invitation to the dance is over. For me, it’s a film of dark fantasy, romantic passion and an infectious love of dance, music and cinema. In 2009, The Red Shoes was restored from scratch and the print premiered at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. This is what Criterion used for their new, freshly remastered edition, on DVD and making its debut on Blu-ray.
I hadn’t seen The Red Shoes in over 15 years when I sat down with the new Criterion Blu-ray. I remembered it as the story of dedicated young ballerina Vicky (Moira Shearer), who is elevated to world renown after taking her first lead in the titular ballet, only to become torn between to men: the demanding ballet mentor Lermentov (Anton Walbrook), who accepts nothing less than total commitment to the company, and the ambitious and frankly arrogant young composer Julian (Marius Goring), which whom she falls in love. And while that’s not incorrect, I became aware of how equally weighted all three stories, and all three characters, are in the film: each an artist striving to create their best work. I was even more surprised to realize that, while Vicky and Julian work in the same company from early on, they don’t actually meet until 50 minutes into the film, in the very scene in Monte Carlo where they are both promoted by Lermontov: he to composing the new ballet score “The Red Shoes” from top to bottom, she to lead dancer.
The opening is pure Powell: students charging the balcony of the ballet hall to get the best seats with unselfconscious rambunctiousness. The jocular talk and horseplay soon turns serious, though not out of respect for the ballet. The students, and Julian (Marius Goring) in particular, are there for the music, and Julian is distressed, hurt and most of all disappointed to realize that his beloved professor stole his work. The playfulness gives way to seriousness, and with it the film leaves the easygoing world of students for the demanding world of professionals.
The grand ballets are lovingly designed and presented with great cinematic invention, filmed like a narrative through choreography and gesture and color and texture, with all the integrity of a great movie musical sequence. Yet there is as much loving detail to the small, provincial stages (where a mounted fan provides what little circulation and records on Victrolas provide the music) and run-down rehearsal rooms where the hard work is done in advance of the spotlight. It is this drama on the way up to stardom, and behind the curtain in preparation for a production, that engages the viewer: the physical and creative effort put in to creating a ballet, to making art. Powell makes a point of showing just how many people, working at the top of their game, it takes to create the pieces that must be brought together by producer Lermontov. While they necessarily focus on their work almost to the exclusion of every other aspect of the whole, often refusing to compromise their vision for the good of the whole, and it takes Lermontov to negotiate the union and bring it all together. Like a conductor. Or a film director.
[Minor spoiler alert] Lermontov is a creator, an artist, a businessman, a mentor, a taskmaster and something of a dictator. He’s also, for all his circle of collaborators, alone, a man who seems unable to love and instead possesses through his direction. He demands total obedience and Vicky gives him that through her work but not her private life. “You can’t have it both ways,” Lermontov says early in the film, when he learns that his lead female dancer, Boronskaja, is getting married, and he turns his back on her with a coldness that chills the screen. But with Vicky he seems to have found a kindred soul, someone who dances because she cannot not dance. That he discovers her romance with Julian the very night he has attempted to break down the wall of professionalism with a private, intimate dinner, perhaps his first attempt at romance himself, is almost too much: the betrayal he feels is magnified by feelings he cannot even admit to himself. His response is vindictive: He drives Julian out of the company. But if he feels rejected or jilted like a lover, he loves Vicky and respects her art too much to ever stop her from dancing. For Vicky, Lermontov will break his commandments and take her back on her terms. It’s Julian who forces her to choose, and it’s his ultimatum that leads to the final tragedy. [End spoiler alert]
The appreciation for the work of the company director, the producer, impresario and namesake Lermontov, makes this a beautiful companion piece to Renoir’s French Cancan, another story of the impresario as artist. And the comparison to Lermontov as film director becomes more interesting when you look at Powell’s own history with female stars, often falling in love (and having affairs) with them and expressing his adoration through the cinema, building them up into the beautiful stars of his films.
While the world sees the film as Vicky’s tragedy, I think Powell sees Lermontov as the tragic figure, a man who has all his rejected human love for love of art, and dedicated his life to creating art. Though often shown imperious and cold in his relations, Anton Walbrook reveals a vulnerability in his eyes and a heartbreak upon his face. Julian offers something Lermontov cannot, or at least has not: a physical affection. But apart from a few scenes of courtship rituals, we’re shown little deep affection between the two, and none of the adoration in Julian’s eyes that Lermontov exhibits. That Lermontov shows his love by making her a greater artist—the one thing that Julian cannot or will not do—is, in the terms of the film, the greatest proof of all.
Nominated for five Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Motion Picture Story, a category that no longer exists) and it won two, for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color and Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture. Hard to believe that Jack Cardiff did not get a nomination for his magnificent cinematography.
For the 2009 restoration by UCLA and The Film Foundation, supervised by Robert Gitt, the engineers returned to the original (but deteriorated) three-strip Technicolor negatives and rebuilt the film from scratch with the help of archival prints and other materials for reference. Gitt describes the process in a short essay in the accompanying booklet, and Scorsese narrates a new four-minute featurette illustrating the damage to the original elements and comparing it to digital restoration. The exactness of the restoration and the details of the Blu-ray shows up the weaknesses of the optical effects in one sequence of the ballet, but the rest of the spectacle is so absorbing you barely notice the ambition of the special effects, only the resulting magic of the imagery. The color is not to be believed. In the right creative hands, three-strip Technicolor could offer a magical lushness that was like a dream of reality, the kind of color that the cinema hasn’t seen in decades, and this is one of the great showcases.
Along with the restored The Red Shoes comes another great Technicolor showcase from Powell and Pressberger and Jack Cardiff, this one of a more adult nature. Black Narcissus (1947) is a sweltering chamber drama of five Protestant missionary nuns whose resolve, chastity, and faith come under assault in an isolated, primitive Himalayan retreat, cut off from the anchors of their familiar world and left to struggle against their own uncertainties and worldly desires fanned by the heat and the exoticism of their place. Deborah Kerr’s defiant leadership is undermined by the earthy sensuality of the people and the place, and by the visits by the cynical but supportive British agent David Farrar. Jack Cardiff won an Oscar for his vibrant, rich work: a fantastic India of the mind created in Britain’s Pinewood Studios and a color saturated Technicolor hot-house atmosphere for Powell’s building hysteria. New to this release is a video introduction and a video interview by Bertrand Tavernier and the 25-minute documentary “Profile of Black Narcissus” from 2000, plus it includes the supplements from the Criterion’s earlier DVD and laserdisc release. Martin Scorsese kicks off the commentary track with a loving analysis of the color, images, and lush style of Powell’s direction, while the aging director Michael Powell offers halting remembrances (â€œThis is Michael Powell speaking and dreaming about Black Narcissusâ€) of making the film with a slow, slurring speech . Scorsese’s energy and passion helps move the track along. Also includes Painting with Light, a documentary featurette focusing on cinematographer Cardiff and his work on the film.
Galaxy of Terror / Forbidden World (Shout! Factory)
I love to see classic movies debut on DVD and Blu-ray simultaneously. Even when they are low-budget exploitation drive-in movies? Hell, especially when they are low-budget exploitation drive-in movies.
Okay, that’s a little oversold, but yeah, I like seeing Blu-ray editions of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and Death Race 2000. The point of Blu-ray is not to see flawless images. It’s about getting the most accurate representation of the original film experience that you can get at home. These editions deliver just that, complete with all the flaws that opening night audiences saw intact. What we see is likely a better presentation than those theatrical runs, thanks to home theater sound and perfect projection (no slopping reel changes or out of focus images for us), but they preserve the texture of those prints and remind us that imperfect production quality often has its own charms. They look handmade by real people, not manufactured digitally and scrubbed clear of individuality.
Thus I celebrate the minor cinematic glories and the major exploitation movie pleasures Galaxy of Terror and Forbidden World, a double feature of Alien knock-offs produced by Roger Corman and his New World Studios in the early eighties, as they make their respective DVD and Blu-ray debuts from Shout! Factory, a label whose dedication to the strange and wonderful (and sometimes simply kitschy) cultural artifacts of the recent past is something else. Not because they are great films (they aren’t, even by the most generous stretch of the imagination) or launched brilliant careers, but because they are entertaining pieces from a distinctive period of B-movie filmmaking, as weirdly fun and perversely creative in their own exploitative way as kindred films from the forties and fifties and sixties.
Galaxy of Terror (1981) features the Corman company equivalent of an all-star cast: Edward Albert (with a ridiculous porn mustache that make him look like an understudy for the Village People) is offered up as the dashing hero and if nothing else delivers an enthusiasm that in this film passes for personality; Erin Moran (of Happy Days fame, before her Joannie Loves Chachi dive) as a whiny empath who keeps pulling faces like an adolescent schoolgirl when the mission leader questions her vague feelings; Ray Walston (between his Popeye and Fast Times at Ridgemont High turns) as the strangely chummy cook and all around servant guy; future softcore auteur Zalman King as the trigger-happy team leader; pre-Freddie Krueger Robert Englund as an amiable navigator; cult actor Sid Haig as the token alien who lives and dies by the crystals, which he tosses around like Bruce Lee throwing stars; and Grace Zabriskie as a maverick pilot whose reckless approach to deep-space travel threatens the mission before it’s barely begun. The mission begins when some character named The Master, sporting red glow in place of a head, sends them to investigate a distress signal on Xerxes (“A small world on the fringes of occupied space,” a narrator helpfully offers). The vagueness of their mission turns out to be both part of the narrative design and a reflection of the fairly vague story, which is mostly an excuse for a menagerie of pulp sci-fi creatures to attack the crew members.
They careen to a stop on a planet with a vague resemblance to the Alien landscape by way of a post-apocalyptic wasteland, full of industrial wreckage and howling winds and unearthly color, and as luck would have it, the atmosphere is breathable (strike helmets from the production budget). There’s also a giant pyramid sprouting from the detritus (borrowed perhaps from Blade Runner), and after searching the wreckage of deserted ship, it becomes the logical destination. Meanwhile, the crew is slowly dwindling, thanks to mysterious tentacles, possessed shard of crystal, zombies and a slimy maggot that grows to mammoth proportions and attacks a female member, ripping her clothes off and humping her to death. Yes, she is slimed, stripped and raped by a space slug and in one of the most tastelessly mad bits of the film, her screams of terror and pain become an orgasm released as her dying moans. That bit of invention came courtesy of producer Corman, who concocted a patently absurd bit Freudian mumbo jumbo to justify the whole affair. I don’t doubt that it help inspire the scene, but let’s face it, he just wanted something notorious to give audiences to buzz about after the film and he got it. Even an exploding head seems old hat (but still fun) after that mind-warping spectacle.
Galaxy of Terror is a crazy mish-mash of elements borrowed from the sci-fi blockbusters of years past (right down to Ray Walston as a Corman-styled Yoda) with a twist out of Forbidden Planet and Solaris (hand it to Corman to rip off high art and pulp cinema with equal vigor). But the budget-minded art direction (courtesy of a young production designer by the name of James Cameron) and special effects are engaging enough on their own thanks to the invention and creativity of hungry young filmmakers meeting the challenge. The planet is constructed via miniatures, forced perspective, matte paintings and optical effects. We see stop-motion miniature and full-sized articulated monsters, animated computer screens and laser blasts, and sets equally indebted to George Lucas and Mario Bava. This is exploitation nirvana, weird and outrageous and silly and strangely compelling, delivering everything it promises without actually coming up with a coherent story, and executed with imaginative solutions to production challenges by a crew of aspiring filmmakers who fill every shot with such visual personality that the shortcomings seem like petty criticisms. Valid, yes, but beside the point of this exercise in generic exploitation and production ingenuity.
Forbidden World (1982) is not a sequel to Galaxy of Terror but it is, in the Corman way, spawned from it. Never one to waste a good set or a dynamic location, Corman offered New World editor Allan Holzman a shot as directing a feature if he could write a scene to make use of the Forbidden World ship set, with a couple of conditions: he had to deliver a script in a couple of day, shoot it with a minimal cast over the weekend before it was to be struck, and make sure it was open ended, an action prologue for a script to be named later. And so he did, concocting a space battle that calls for two-fisted space adventurer Mike Colby (Jesse Vint) to be roused from suspended animation by his robot sidekick SAM-104 and engage via Star Wars-ish miniatures and Space Invaders computer graphics, set to a score of classical music (a nod to Stanley Kubrick, or just another reference to plunder?). Who are the attackers? Does it matter?
It certainly didn’t to the screenwriters (among them exploitation legend Jim Wynorski) who delivered another Alien knock-off, this one set in an isolated genetics lab on a remote planet where they scientists are free to conduct experiments that “would be unthinkable elsewhere.” One of the unthinkable creations has just gotten loose and, after slaughtering every test animal in the lab, is cocooned in a not-particularly-secure chamber as it goes into its next metamorphosis. “That thing is trouble, I can smell it,” proclaims our somewhat rustic mercenary man-about-galaxy Colby. “I couldn’t tell a gene from a jelly bean,” he confesses, but who needs science when you’re a stud in lab where the women look like Playboy bunnies and the male competition consists of a meaty moron, a voyeur and chain-smoking mad scientist (Fox Harris, the man with the glowing trunk in Repo Man)?
The film depends on supposedly smart people doing absurdly stupid things, but for all dumb shit in the script (and there is plenty), it has some cool ideas, like a creature that devolves its dead victims into slabs of pure protein by changing its genetic structure (now there’s a 21st century solution to the food shortage!) and saves the humans on the hoof as cattle for future meals, or the weirdly ingenious solution to defeating a creature that apparently absorbs the genetic material of whatever it ingests. The rest is, well, pure exploitation: Colby beds one babe (June Chadwick) the first night (while the night watchman leers via video surveillance, his version of Cinemax at night) and lounges in the sauna with the even younger, cuter and more naked lab assistant (Tracy Baxter) the next morning. Apparently underwear is not part of the dress code and clothes are optional. When the men fail against the ever-evolving metamorph predator at every turn, the women plot a plan to communicate with the creature during a long, loungy sonic shower, delivering their dialogue without a stitch while scrubbing one another’s back. And for that, Forbidden World gets my vote for both the most gratuitous nudity ever perpetrated in a sci-fi movie and the most inventive distraction from dull exposition.
I can’t explain why Holzman opens the film with flashforward flash cuts of the action to come or ends it with another montage working its way back through the highlights, apart from padding the running time, but then I can’t explain a lot what passes for story, character and motivation here. In the right frame of mind, however, it can be awfully entertaining.
Galaxy of Terror features the superb hour-long documentary “Tales From the Lumber Yard: The Making of Galaxy of Terror,” which explains all via interviews with Roger Corman, director Bruce Clark, screenwriter Marc Siegler, production assistant David DeCoteau, cinematographer Jacques Haitkin and actors Robert Englund, Sid Haig, Taaffe O’Connell (the actress slimed and seduced by the amazing space slug) and Grace Zabriskie and many of the assistants and effects artists, and along with the story of the production, it provides an invaluable peak into the culture of Corman’s B-movie aesthetic and the freedom he gave his filmmakers to play around as long as they delivered the exploitation requisites he demanded. There’s also commentary by O’Connell, effects artists Allen Apone and Alec Gillis and production assistant (and future director) David DeCoteau, galleries of sketches and advertising art and trailers.
Forbidden World sports the less focused but almost as interesting half-hour “The Making of Forbidden World” featurette (featuring director Allan Holzman, composer Susan Justin, actor Jesse Vint and members of the production and special effects team, including future directors Aaron Lipstadt and Tony Randel), an interview with Roger Corman and a bonus DVD with the unrated “Director’s Cut” (from a low-definition video master) with optional commentary by Allan Holzman.