Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Red Shoes - a film critique

The Red Shoes

written, directed and produced by

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Once upon a time there was a young girl who longed to dance the night away in a pair of red dancing slippers. She put them on and laced them up and she was off. She enjoyed herself immensely. Once the ball was over, she found that although she was exhausted, she was unable to stop dancing. Through the magic of the red shoes and Hans Christian Andersen, she was compelled to dance or die.

In 1948, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger wrote, directed and produced The Red Shoes, a film about a ballet company's production based on Andersen's fairy tale. It is a drama and a tragedy. It has been been called a romance as well, but the romantic love that is supposed to be felt by the main characters comes across as secondary to the love for their respective arts, dancing and music composition. In a way, this only contributes to the overall theme of the film, that to dance is to live, and one must sacrifice all else, including love, in order to become truly great.

The Red Shoes is beautifully made of vibrant colors, graceful movement, and an Oscar-winning musical score. These three elements appropriately combine to lift the viewer out of real life and into a more beautiful fairy tale kind of world in both the ballet and the offstage scenes. This is a story about music, and about dancing, and about color as well; the red of the ballet shoes is strongly symbolic of danger and disaster.

The cinematography and the editing are first-rate, and to me, are the most intriguing aspect of the film. Not only is Technicolor (which was relatively new at the time) used to full advantage, but the cameraman employs other creative techniques with great success. There are several different point-of- view shots throughout the film (especially during the ballet sequences) which lend an artistic quality that is often missing in more conventional films. Sometimes we are viewing the ballet as if perched in the rafters of the theater, sometimes from offstage, and even through the eyes of the principal ballerina as she pirouettes successively across the stage. In fact, rarely do we view the ballet from where an audience would traditionally be seated, seeing the entire stage at once before us. During the twenty minute performance of The Ballet of the Red Shoes, we are treated to an experience that would not be possible for a traditional ballet audience. The combination of stage and film works magic before our eyes. Dissolving and fading and superimposition by the editors make it possible to convey the ballerina's personal feelings to us as she dances. We suddenly see the image of her lover superimposed over her dance partner, or the imposing figure of the ballet impresario attempting to force her choice between love and his promise to make her the best dancer in all the world. During The Ballet of the Red Shoes sequence, we are able to feel the conflict that is tearing Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) in half, and we realize that she is living in her real life the story she is portraying through the ballet: to dance is to live, not to dance is to die.

Moira Shearer beautifully and gracefully portrays Victoria Page, and not surprisingly, as she was a famous Scottish ballet dancer as well as an actress. In fact, many of the performers are both dancers and actors, which explains why the non-dance scenes are almost as smoothly executed as the ballet scenes. Anton Walbrook stars as Boris Lermontov, the head of the ballet company, and in spite of not being a professional dancer, manages to comport himself like one. Marius Goring as Julian Craster convinces us of his love for music and composing but not quite of his love for Victoria Page.

If one considers not just the credibility and power of the dialogue, but the plot and the means of carrying it out as part of the screenplay, one must judge the script to be exceptional. The parallel between the dancer's real life and the fairy tale of The Red Shoes is brilliant, and where it might disappoint a viewer who demands a happy ending, it doesn't disappoint one who appreciates a well-crafted story.

The editing of The Red Shoes shows great skill, not just as mentioned above in relation to The Ballet of the Red Shoes sequences, but throughout. The film flows smoothly in spite of being rather long. Various techniques are successfully employed to create fluidity, including one using shots of destination labels being pasted to wicker trunks in order to show the passage of time and the movement of the dance company between different cities.

As directors, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger had a distinct style which came through in most of their work. Known for taking risks by making films that went against the prevalent trends of their day, Powell and Pressburger specialized in passion, beauty, and fantasy, all of which sing out in The Red Shoes. Many of their films, including this one, were projected box office failures, but managed not only to survive, but to succeed with audiences. Powell and Pressburger believed in their work, and believed in the ability of viewers to recognize them as the artists they truly were.

The Red Shoes has helped impress on me the importance of the arts, and has helped me to appreciate what must lie behind the scenes of any great work of art. It reminds me to consider and value the sacrifice that accompanies great art. The theme of The Red Shoes carries over into all art forms, including the making of a great film. To create is to live. This theme may apply in another sense as well. After all, Powell and Pressburger created a masterpiece that is very much alive decades after they finished production. To create is truly to live, and Powell and Pressburger and their unique style live on in their classic film, The Red Shoes.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Sourdough Start - World's Best Pet

My husband and I have never been big on the whole pet idea. We both grew up with a dog in the house, and that was fine, but neither of us has ever felt the need to take one on as adults. Our kids never even seriously asked us for a dog. We let them know what our attitude was before they ever had a chance: dogs shed and they poop in the yard. And who almost always ends up taking care of the dog? The mom. And this mom had her hands busy with four children.

No dogs.

Cats were never going to be an option because my husband is allergic to them. Besides, they poop in the yard, too. And why would we need a cat of our own when every cat in this part of our state uses our flowerbeds as a litter box?

We had parakeets for a while. They were fun, but guess who usually had to clean the cage?

 And we did the fish tank thing a couple of times. Guess who always had to clean the tank?

I thought we were done for good, but about a year and a half ago I acquired the ideal pet. My sister-in-law gave me a sourdough start. A living, breathing sourdough start. It resides in a plastic container in the fridge. It doesn't whine to be let out. No pooping. No barking. No shedding. No obedience training. I feed it a little flour and water every couple of weeks, if I think about it. It handles neglect very well; I once totally ignored it for six months and it's still fine. And the best part is, YOU GET TO EAT IT.

Sourdough Pancakes

Take your sourdough start out of the fridge the night before you want the pancakes. (You don't even have to talk to it. Of course, you can if you want to...) Put one cup of the start in a medium bowl. Add a cup of flour and a cup of water to each container - the medium mixing bowl and what's left of your pet. Stir both very well. Put your pet back in the fridge. Cover the mixing bowl lightly with plastic wrap and leave on the kitchen counter until morning. In the morning, add 3/4 tsp baking soda, 3/4 tsp. salt, 1/2 to 3/4 cup sugar, and 3 eggs. Mix well and cook on a hot griddle.

Sourdough Bread (my sister-in-law Ruth's recipe)

In the morning: Take starter out of fridge. Transfer one cup into a medium bowl. Add one cup water and one cup flour. Mix well. Cover lightly with plastic wrap. Leave on kitchen counter.

Feed original start one cup each of flour and water. You can let it sit out on the counter for a little while until it starts to bubble and then put it back in the fridge.(This is kind of like taking the dog out for a little fresh air and then returning it to its kennel.)

In the evening: Add 2 1/2 cups each of flour and water to the medium mixing bowl. Mix well. Cover lightly with plastic wrap. Leave on counter overnight.

In the morning, put the contents of the bowl into the bowl of your large mixer. (You can also do this by hand.) Beat for two minutes. Add about three cups of flour and beat with paddle for five minutes. Let mixture stand for thirty minutes to let the flour absorb. Change to dough hook. Add one Tablespoon salt and about three more cups of flour. Knead until the dough is no longer sticky. (Takes a while.) Place dough in a greased bowl, turning the dough so that the top is also greased. Cover with plastic wrap or a clean dish towel and let rise until double in bulk. Put dough on counter and let it rest for ten minutes. Form into loaves and place on greased baking sheets (or in loaf pans, I guess, or bake on a baking stone) and let them rise until double. Brush with beaten egg with a little water added to it. Make slashes in tops of loaves with a very sharp knife just before putting in oven. Bake for ten minutes at 425 degrees and reduce heat to 375 degrees. Bake for twenty-five more minutes. You can spray water from a spray bottle on the sides of the oven every few minutes for the first ten or fifteen minutes. This is supposed to produce a chewier crust.

Sourdough start - the pet that keeps on giving!