Thursday, March 28, 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Jackie Brown

I've missed the past couple of weeks of Nathaniel's Hit Me With Your Best Shot series over at The Film Experience because I've been too busy to do it, but Quentin Tarantino is one of my favorite directors and Jackie Brown is one of his best, so I forced myself to stay up late and do this one.

Say what you will about Quentin Tarantino, but whatever else he says or does, one thing is always true above all else: The man loves movies. Any and all kinds, especially maligned genres. It's this love that guides pretty much everything he does. At his best (Kill Bill, Vol. 1, if you ask me), this leads to some deliriously fun, often subversively smart films. At his worst (the "Director's Cut" version of Death Proof), this leads to some serious cinematic masturbation and sprawling, messy films. Jackie Brown, his third feature, is definitely one of his best. I remember at the time, the standard line on it was that it was just a repeat of his prior success, Pulp Fiction - resurrecting a fallen star from the 70s (Pam Grier taking over for John Travolta) while playing on their history and revealing previously hidden depths to their talent, hyper-literate gangsters in a catchphrase heavy underworld, a pleasingly obscure anachronistic soundtrack, and even Samuel L. Jackson coming in to steal the whole damn thing out from under the purported leads.

It's hard to be a woman in Hollywood, much less a woman of a certain age, much less a woman of color of a certain age. Pam Grier had worked pretty steadily since her heyday as Coffy and Foxxy Brown, but hadn't had a real lead role worthy of her talents until Jackie Brown (of course the name harkens back to her previous success). But it's more than just a great part, written with her in mind. Jackie would be the role of a lifetime for any actress, but for Grier, it's one of those parts that takes not just her well-known screen persona but her whole life and adds extra resonance. Like Darren Aronofsky did with Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler as a more recent example, Tarantino uses Grier to allow us to have an instant connection to Jackie, and to make her final triumph all the sweeter.

It should have netted her an Oscar nomination, and most likely would have if she had been a man.

But enough with all that. This is Hit Me With Your Best Shot, after all. And, as is typical for a Tarantino film, Jackie Brown has a surplus of wonderful shots, so many that picking one seems unfair. So I'm going to do what I hate to do with these kind of things and go with the very first shot of the film.

It's such a sweet moment for an actress to reemerge onto the screen decades after her last big triumph, blow everyone else off the screen, and not only own but earn that opening "above the title" credit. So few women even get the chance to headline at all, much less take top billing when the likes of Robert DeNiro, Samuel L. Jackson, and Michael Keaton are also in the movie, and even less in a film like this one: A crime thriller directed by a young upstart auteur who is coming off of a Palme d'Or-winning, Oscar-nominated, standard-setting instant classic.

Of course, that introduction wouldn't be complete without its sister shot, the last shot of the film.

The same music is playing, and it's another long take, but she's fully in control now. She's behind the wheel, not being moved by an unseen conveyor belt. And she's singing along, taking in the lyrics along with all that's happened, feeling the simultaneous joy and sorrow that come from finally breaking free.

You go, girl.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Connor - Where Did You Learn to Dance?

I'll be honest: I don't think Debbie Reynolds is a great dancer. If I ever decide to post about "Good Morning" from Singin' in the Rain here (which I'm sure I will, it being my favorite film of all time), I will probably point exactly when she starts cheating her steps. That's probably unfair, given the circumstances surrounding the shooting of that number, but I am what I am; I just can't help it!

I will say, however, that I find her so gosh-darn likable that I hardly ever actually care about her dancing. Even when she's putting all her effort in to getting the steps just right, she never betrays how hard she's working. She's just downright delightful to watch all the time. And that's doubly true here, in this number with Donald O'Connor (one of my favorites) from 1953's I Love Melvin (the song starts at about a minute in to the clip above).

Both Debbie and Donald are just a joy to watch here, easily navigating Robert Alton's busy choreography on and around a carpet, a table, a chair, and a sofa. I've not seen the film, but this is apparently the only dance number the two of them shared, a year after Singin' in the Rain (and even still, I'm very interested in seeing it after watching this number). Debbie's tapping is far better here than it was in their previous film, even though quite a bit of it soft-shoe on the carpet. She even manages to out-mug Donald O'Connor at one point (I love the man, but he was a ham of the highest order)! There's a lot going on here, but the choreography somehow never seems too much. Given that this is a story about a model and a photographer, it makes sense that Debbie would be posing a lot, but there's more than a few points where she's posing on every. single. beat. for bars on end. It should come off as choppy or schizo, but it somehow doesn't. The pair of them are in constant motion - when they're not moving their bodies, their eyes do the dancing for them, something probably only these two performers could pull off without seeming stupid. In fact, I can't think of a single performer of this era other than Debbie Reynolds that could have pulled off those precious poses while wearing that skirt (which spins quite fantastically), without coming across as completely juvenile. Such is the power of Debbie Reynolds: She's cute, but there's a maturity somewhere in there that cuts through the sweetness. In fact, I'm far more annoyed by the moment where the carpet gets in the way of Donald's tapping than by anything Debbie does throughout the whole number.

Like I said: She's just so gosh-darn likable!

Favorite Moment(s): Debbie's leap off the table and Donald's cartwheel over it
Length: approx. 3:20
Number of Cuts: 4

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Busby Berkeley - Dance Until the Dawn

Sometimes it's the dancers that are famous, sometimes it's the choreographer. Busby Berkeley was in all likelihood the first choreographer to fully recognize the potential of film as a tool to showcase dance in new ways. "Dance Until the Dawn" is from the 1931 musical Flying High, with Bert Lahr and Charlotte Greenwood. It wasn't first Hollywood production Berkeley choreographed (that would be 1930's Whoopee) and it certainly wasn't the last. Most of his signature moves are all here: the chorus girl "parade of faces", the synchronized precision line dancing, and of course the hypnotic bird's-eye-view kaleidoscope shots.

It's interesting to note that Berkeley wasn't credited as a Director on any film until 1933's She Had to Say Yes, despite having served as choreographer on 11 films before. He was apparently given a degree of independence in the direction of his musical numbers; they always have a very distinct style almost completely separate from the non-dance scenes in those early films. Did Berkeley's style come from the directors of those early pictures, or did it come from within? The general consensus seems to be that it all came from him, and I find it hard to disagree. The man was a genius. He was a visual artist using human bodies in motion to create a living work of art in a way that had never been done before.

This is from one of his earliest films, so some of it is a little rough (the dancers are notably not as tight as usual for Berkeley), but it's still hugely enjoyable in a way that only Busby Berkeley numbers are. He really showed off as much of the work of putting the film together as he could - look at those costumes on full display as the chorines enter, and later when they spin around! look at that multi-level set! look at each of these girls' faces! - which makes him even more unique among choreographers, who really do tend to be all about the movement.

Not that Berkeley didn't care about movement as well. Quite the contrary. After establishing the ensemble, the costumes, and the set, he goes about creating some great images - images that audience members couldn't possibly see if this number were performed on stage in a theater. I'm not just talking about those famous bird's-eye-view shots, either. There's one moment in particular (it comes at around 2:41 in the clip) that would be almost completely lost on theatregoers, and might have even been lost on the cinema patrons of 1931. While that line of men coming through the wheels of girls may have evoked gears to most, and might have received applause onstage as such, looking at it from this angle - one much higher than even the balcony seats in the theater - it's near-impossible to not see the sexual subtext.

Can't un-see it now, can you?

But moving on to those kaleidoscope shots. They really are unlike anything else on film. Pure poetry. You'd be forgiven for thinking it was special effects - completely animated, or each layer shot separately - but it's all done for real, in camera. There is something about bodies moving in unison that never fails to evoke wonder and amazement in human beings. It's one of the reasons why the Rockettes are still getting standing ovations for their kicklines after nearly 90 years. It's sublime, really.

If I can get a little serious, in intellectual circles "the sublime" is defined as the terribly beautiful. Watching a large group of human bodies in complete synchronization is beautiful, wondrous, even, but also unnatural and scary - we are creatures of free will, after all! Think about it: Other than chorus girls, what group of people most often march in strict, synchronized formation? Soldiers.

But enough with the serious, high-falutin' stuff. Busby Berkeley numbers are eye-popping in a way you just don't see anymore. Using the human body and the camera in perfect harmony, he created some of the most amazing sights you'll ever see. He really was the first person to conceive of dances almost exclusively for the camera, and even our greatest choreographers (Gene Kelly, Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse) couldn't match his ingenuity with a lens. What he did was so singular, even those later geniuses knew not to touch it. Dance on film has come a long way, but there's still nothing like a Busby Berkeley extravaganza!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - The Wizard of Oz

(Written as part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" series over at The Film Experience.)

In my Junior year of High School, we had to do something called "The America Project". We had to pick something - an idea, a place, a person, a thing - and present a portfolio explaining why that something is American. I, of course, picked the movies. The final product wasn't very good, for a lot of reasons, but I was a good enough writer to still get a B on it (although, to me, that was as good as failing. I'm serious). In my Senior year, I wrote my final research paper in Advanced Placement US History on L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz as the first American fairy tale. Clearly, that idea came one year too late. Because is there anything more American than MGM's 1939 film of The Wizard of Oz? I mean, besides apple pie and baseball?

It’s hard to think of another movie as well-known or as well-loved as The Wizard of Oz. It's so much a part of our collective DNA that it feels like we are all born into this word knowing the story, the songs, and the performances. In reality, Oz was just another film from one of Hollywood's Golden Years, until it became the first Hollywood film to be shown in one evening, uncut, on a commercial network. For many years between 1959 and 1980 (the years when it was shown on television as an annual special event), 49% of American households watched it. Nearly half of America tuning in to watch the same movie, for years on end. When people make the claim that Oz is the most-watched film of all time, it’s easy to believe it. It’s also easy to say that television made Oz what it is today. Without those yearly airings, would it be as popular as it is?

My instinct says yes. Because it’s not just nostalgia that makes people love Oz so much. It’s a really well-made movie, yes, but it’s more than that, too. It’s the magic of the movies, pure and simple.

In every frame, The Wizard of Oz shows us what movies can do that no other medium can. It can transport us, break the fourth wall in ways that theater, music, and dance just can’t. No matter how many times you see it, every time Dorothy opens her front door onto this new, strange, colorful world and surveys Munchkinland, it feels like the first time. Everything, the camerawork, the effects, the crafts, and the music, put you in that place. Everyone becomes a kid again in that moment, whether or not they watched The Wizard of Oz regularly as a kid. This is something that can really only be done in the movies, and even then only a select few do it as well as The Wizard of Oz (Star Wars and… The Lord of the Rings? Avatar?).

Given the collective love for the land of Oz, and all its inherent beauty, it may come as a surprise that my favorite shot is from the Kansas portion of the film. But then, if those opening scenes weren’t so great, we wouldn’t care about Dorothy’s journey. The decision to tint those scenes sepia is so smart. For a long time, the Kansas scenes were shown on TV in black & white, and I have to imagine that robbed the film of a lot of is beauty – the sepia makes Kansas feels not just drab, but a bit dusty in a way B&W does not, and in a way that enhances the feel of those scenes (and to the nostalgia of those watching, I imagine). But whether in sepia or in black & white, I think my favorite shot stands out.

It comes right after the timeless “Over the Rainbow”, easily one of the most beautiful songs ever written. Whenever I watched The Wizard of Oz as a kid, this shot had a really strong hold on me. It was an oasis, always prompting a contented sigh. For a little boy who so desperately wanted to go over the rainbow to Oz, through the looking-glass to Wonderland, or into the wardrobe to Narnia (or later, through a fake wall to take a train to Hogwarts), this was the epitome of everything I ever dreamed of. The ultimate escape. Even though it’s in sepia tones, to me, it was always in colors as bright as they are in Oz. Come to think of it, it's actually the first shot of that land beyond the moon, behind the rain:

Just as with that first scene in Oz, it isn’t the image alone that makes this shot work. The dimming music cue, the sound of birds, and the look on Judy Garland’s face in the shot immediately before it combine to give this image a huge impact. If you've ever dreamed of something better, of being something greater, of doing something more with your life, this shot speaks to you. And if you're a nerdy little boy who loves reading books more than anything, who always gets picked last in gym class, and who only has one friend in the world that isn't a stuffed animal or an action figure; who wants nothing more than to make friends and go on adventures... well, that one shot offers more hope than a whole lifetime of "It gets better"s. That's why The Wizard of Oz endures. That's the power of the magic of movies.

Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers - Pick Yourself Up

Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers are maybe the greatest duo to ever dance together on the silver screen. They're certainly the most prolific - ten films together, no small feat! Top Hat is their best-known film, and many say it's their best, but the final number ("The Piccolino") is a dud, and it's always left a bad taste in my mouth whenever I watch Top Hat. No, my favorite Fred & Ginger film has always been Swing Time, if only for the songs: "Never Gonna Dance", "The Way You Look Tonight", "A Fine Romance", and this one right here, "Pick Yourself Up," which is unfortunately presented as a pure dance number - just an instrumental with no lyrics.

But who needs singing when the dancing is this great? The story is that Fred's character, dancer and gambler Lucky Garnett, must make $25,000 in order to marry the gal he's in love with. While in New York, he gives his last quarter (which just so happens to be his "lucky quarter") to Ginger's Penny Carroll. His friend Pop steals it back for him, but Penny thinks it was Lucky. He follows her to her work. Naturally, she's a dance instructor, and naturally he apologizes for what happened by taking a lesson from her, and naturally he pretends he's terrible. When her boss fires her, Lucky professes that she actually taught him a great deal, and they launch into this, the first musical number of the film.

It's all in one take, and they use the whole space - even going over the barrier around the dance floor. It's often been said that dance in the Astaire & Rogers films was akin to sex, but this is all innocent fun. I particularly love how Ginger is marking (or, if you're inclined to be less charitable, faking) the tap steps, and how she spins like she's out of control, waiting for Fred to catch her and lead her, since this number really is his show. At the same time, though, they still feel like equal partners. It's just pure bliss - as most of their dances together are. I'm not sure this is my favorite dance of theirs (it might not even be my favorite in this film), but it's up there.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Dancin' Dan On Film

Welcome to the wonderful world of dance on film!

Dance is both a form of artistic expression and a form social interaction. You can learn a lot about people by watching them dance. Choreography or no, how people move says a lot about them and what they are feeling in a given moment. I love watching great dancing almost as much as I like to dance.

I started dancing at the age of ten, after seeing Singin' In The Rain with Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor. I remember turning to my mother after it was over and proudly proclaiming: "I want to do THAT!" I competed nationally for eight years in tap and jazz, and performed with a professional company in college. I've also choreographed for children's theaters, community theaters, and professionally. So I know and love creating dance as well as dance itself.

Choreography on film can be much more dynamic than it is on stage. It isn't always, but my favorite pieces of dance on film use the medium to make the dance more than what it really is. Watch any episode of So You Think You Can Dance and you will see at least one number where the camera circles around a couple, making a piece of the dance far more interesting and/or exciting than it would be when seen from the front (they tend to overuse this trick, but when it works, it works).

I hope you like dance, too. And I hope you will enjoy exploring it with me. This blog will mostly be just posting my favorite dances - mostly from films, but some from stage shows and some just performances that happened to be captured on film - with only occasional insight. Because dance is so much more fun when just enjoyed, don't you think?

 -Dancin' Dan