Tag Archives: Ballet

GUY MADDIN’S DRACULA: PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY (2002)

“Dracula” is a very old story. The first (and probably best) cinematic adaptation of Bram Stoker’s tale was ‘s Nosferatu (1922) with Max Schreck. Under ‘s direction, Hungarian actor personified Hollywood’s vision of the character in Dracula (1931). George Melford made what has become known as the “Spanish” Dracula (1931), which was more fluid than Browning’s version, but saddled with an absurdly inept vampire in Carlos Villarías. , as Alucard (spell it backward), a Count who needs to watch his carbs, seemed to have effectively staked the character for good in Son Of Dracula (1943). However, John Carradine made Dracula as a supporting character in the mediocre monster mash, House of Frankenstein (1944) and the even worse House of Dracula (1945).

By the mid-1940s, Bram Stoker’s vampire seemed as hokey, outdated, and timid as his penny dreadful precursor “Varney the Vampire.” The genuine horrors of the Second World War, Fascism, and death camps rendered a nightly bloodsucker toothless. Dracula (Lugosi for the second and last time) was resurrected, for laughs, in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), which by then seemed apt. Since then, celluloid incarnations of Dracula resurface with occasional, albeit brief vitality.

‘s animalistic performance highlighted ‘s spirited takes on the character for the Dracula franchise (1958-1974). However, under other directors, Lee was the only redeeming quality in increasingly unimaginative films. By the time the series petered out, Lee wasn’t even that. and  succeeded with a remake of Nosferatu (1979) that can stand with the Murnau original. In 1992, and delivered a uniquely opulent interpretation, which, despite flaws, inspired an entire school of makeup and costume design. However, these were rare exceptions, and the bulk of films produced on the subject of Dracula (and vampires in general) only confirmed how dull, silly, and repetitive the mythology had become.

Just when it would seem that nothing new could be done with the character, along came ‘s Dracula: Pages From A Virgin’s Diary (2002). For those familiar with Maddin’s work, it should come as no surprise that his approach is completely revolutionary or that his postmodern originality springs from antiquated classicist art forms: silent film and the ballet.

Browning actually made an eccentric choice to use excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s ballet “Swan Lake” as incidental music in his Dracula. Forgoing actual ballet music, Maddin utilizes Mark Godden’s choreography (performed by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet), which instead utilizes excerpts from Gustav Mahler’s First and Second Symphonies. Not surprisingly, Mahler’s Freudian baggage is an asset. Set to the often violent and macabre dancing, Mahler’s music here seems more related to Bela Bartok’s perverse ballet  “Miraculous Mandarin” than to his own “Resurrection” Symphony.

Still from Dracula Pages from a Virgin's Diary (2002)Maddin is aware that silent cinema at its best is a stylishly erotic, poetic art form, awash in an otherworldly Art Noveau milieu. The theatrical makeup, lack of dialogue, and overwrought choreography transports us to a plane separate from reality. Maddin, dialed into rudimentary cinema, often invites television-fed audiences to question the validity of his art as a “real movie. Dracula is as much fugue as it is moving picture, akin to a theater of the absurd homage to silent film.

Maddin concentrates on the vampire’s seduction, with the first half devoted primarily to Lucy (Tara Birtwhistle). Dracula (dancer Zhang Wei-Qiang) is Asian, lusty, vulnerable, and agile. In the first part, Mina and Jonathan Harker are relegated to minor characters (we don’t miss them). Dr. Van Helsing (David Moroni) is, as usual, apt to spoil the fun. It has been said that all literature is about sex, death, and God. Maddin’s Dracula likens blood to semen, which of course inspires much melodramatic Christian apprehension in the chaste, xenophobic doctor. There’s plenty of symbolism, too, about lust for money, the hypocrisy of Christian capitalism, celibacy, and martyrdom.

Despite its familiar source, Maddin’s Dracula, crepuscular and icy, is as startling as the productions of Murnau and Herzog, and perhaps even more so. It is paradoxically the coldest and most fiery interpretation of Bram Stoker to date. Knowing our familiarity with the narrative, Maddin wisely does not set out to spin yet another retelling; rather, it’s all about the aesthetics, baby. Primarily black and white (mixed with blood red and various tints) and filmed on super 8mm, and 16mm, Dracula is a director’s film, employing every fetishistic gimmick from the Expressionist bag. The choppiness is intentional and frantic, much in the same vein as Maddin’s justifiably famous Heart of the World (2000—probably his best film). The dull naysayers and vampire fans are actually right about one thing: Dracula is not a moving picture as much as it an overtly erotic icon.

90. BLACK SWAN (2010)

“It’s a Polanski movie, and then it becomes a Dario Argento movie. And maybe a little bit of David Cronenberg too.”–Vincent Cassell

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Darren Aronofsky

FEATURING: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, , Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder

PLOT: Nina, a goody two-shoes ballerina, wants to dance the lead role in a production of “Swan Lake,” but although she’s perfect for the role of the White Swan, she lacks the seductiveness to portray the Black Swan. Lily, a sexy, irresponsible dancer newly arrived from a San Francisco troupe, becomes her primary competition for the part, but also helps her loosen up by talking her out on the town for a night of drinking and meeting guys. Nina starts physically break down and hallucinate as the stress of preparing for the role takes its toll; by opening night, she can’t distinguish reality from the story she dances of the princess trapped in the body of a swan who takes her own life.

Still from Black Swan (2010)

BACKGROUND:

  • Natalie Portman danced many of her own parts, and actually dislocated a rib while dancing during the shoot. More difficult moves were performed by professional ballerinas, and for two sequences Portman’s face was digitally superimposed on dancer Sarah Lane’s body. There was a minor controversy over how much of the dancing Portman actually did herself and how much was performed by doubles; Aronofsky estimated that the actress executed more than 80% of the dance moves that appear onscreen.
  • Portman won the 2010 Best Actress Oscar for her role as Nina. The film was also nominated for Best Picture, Director, Cinematography and Editing.
  • Aronofsky received “The Understudy,” the original script that became Black Swan, while he was making Requiem for a Dream (2000). He described the script as Dostoevsky’s “The Double” meets All About Eve. Aronofsky combined that script, which was set in an off-Broadway production, with an idea he had to shoot a movie in the New York ballet world to create Black Swan.
  • Aronofsky and Portman had discussed doing a ballet movie together 8 years prior to shooting.
  • Made on a relatively small budget of about $12 million, Black Swan has grossed more than $300 million worldwide as of this writing.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Nina’s “triumphant” onstage transformation into the Black Swan: as she pirouettes, feathers sprout from her arms, thickening with every swirl, until her limbs have been replaced by wings.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Up until opening night, Black Swan is a backstage melodrama about backstabbing ballerinas, with an exaggerated, lurid psychopathology that’s thrust even further over-the-top by lesbian love scenes, hints of horror, and mirrors, mirrors, mirrors.  When the curtain rises on the big night, we experience the performance through the subjective perspective of an overworked, paranoid, demented dancer, whose psychology has been shattered by the film’s sledgehammer symbolism.  No avant-grade choreographer could stage as disorienting a “Swan Lake” as the one she hallucinates for us through her obsessed eyes.

Promotional Music Video for Black Swan

COMMENTS: Black Swan is the weirdest movie ever to win a major Academy Award (Natalie Continue reading 90. BLACK SWAN (2010)

LIST CANDIDATE: BLACK SWAN (2010)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Darren Aronofsky

FEATURING: Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder

PLOT: A shy up-and-coming ballet dancer lands the lead in a production of “Swan Lake.”

Still from Black Swan (2010)

Obsessed with perfection and paranoid that the dual role will be taken away from her, she struggles to become both the virginal White Swan and the seductive Black Swan characters.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: This is a psychological horror-thriller, no doubt about it, and in many ways it sticks to the conventions of that kind of film . But at the same time, Black Swan is so eerie, so unsettling, and so strange in its hallucinatory freak-outs and loosening grip on reality—and so good overall—that it probably warrants inclusion on the List.

COMMENTS: It is very difficult to write any kind of in-depth review of this movie without some spoilers, so if you don’t want to know anything, just take my word for it that Black Swan is a truly exceptional film and you should go see it.  Otherwise, I’ll try to avoid any big revelations, but will mention various plot points.

It seems the controversial Darren Aronofsky has found a way to combine the considerable and versatile talents he exhibited in his preceding films into one near-perfect thriller that’s both unsettling and emotionally gripping.  He infuses his new feature with all the depravity of Requiem for a Dream, the visceral surrealism of Pi, the visual splendor of The Fountain, and the grounded character of The Wrestler, while of course adding some beautiful dance sequences and a sapphic fantasy. His camera moves with the dancers as they bound across the stage, offering a volatile but accessible glimpse at a live art form and throwing in enough technical tricks to keep any camera geek guessing.

Nina is a quiet, innocent young woman—an obvious product of her coddling, controlling mother—and her quest for perfection in dance leads her to attempt a complete personality overhaul. To play the Black Swan role in Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” she must release the dark, confident, seductive force within her that’s been fighting to break out. This duality within her character is frequently hinted at throughout the film through use of mirrors, sex, and hallucination woven so seamlessly with reality that the viewer is frequently unsure what is real—as is Nina herself. The constant mind games Aronofsky plays with his audience—along with Natalie Portman’s dedicated performance—make for a captivating, tense experience. I was so engaged and so anxious during this movie I felt myself physically relax about twenty minutes after it ended, though mentally I still felt shaken.

A testament to the great struggles inherent to any artistic expression, Black Swan is an intense and passionate film. Every sound is acutely felt, every strange vision strikes a cord. At times things get as visceral as Cronenberg‘s body horrors. The horror is derived from how little we really know about anything outside of Nina’s own experience, and how unsure we are about how much worse it’s going to get. Everyone around her presumably leads a fairly normal, expected life (well, everyone except Winona Ryder’s tragic, boozy ex-dancer Beth), but we are rarely able to see outside of Nina’s self-constructed dual prison of home and studio, which is inflated in her own head. Indeed, the few times we are reminded of the outside world offer welcome comedic breaks to somewhat ease the ever-building tension.

All of Aronofsky’s stylistic flourishes and subtly terrifying images are tempered by several truly impressive performances. Portman perfectly embodies the conflicted Nina, capturing her fear, desperation, and exhilaration. Mila Kunis is an excellent foil, physically mirroring the shy protagonist while exuding the sexuality and abandon Nina strives for. Vincent Cassell is a superb jackass, channeling George Balanchine in his romantic, tyrannical choreographer Thomas Leroy, and Barbara Hershey is appropriately sympathetic and creepy as Nina’s obsessive mother Erica.

From the very beginning Black Swan reaches out and grabs its audience, never letting its grip slip until well after the credits roll. At times it may be hard to watch, but you’ll never want to look away, and what you see will certainly stick with you. And the combination of backstage ballet drama, pulp-thriller gore, and hallucinatory allegory actually is pretty weird.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Black Swan’ is a full-bore melodrama, told with passionate intensity, gloriously and darkly absurd.” –Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times