It’s apparently impossible to make a film about an institution and not fall into comparison with Frederick Wiseman. Especially if that institution is a creative one and doubly so if Wiseman already made a film about it, one of the best documentaries of the last ten years, La danse: The Paris Opera Ballet. Yet Jean-Stéphane Bron has done it, with this film about The Paris Opera, and while it isn’t Wiseman, lacking both his exact sense of rhythm and his patience, it’s not bad. Skipping along among the massive company over a season as it puts on nine operas and eight ballets, from high level meetings with the company director involving everything from fundraising to the size of the programs to where Natalie Portman should sit during a performance (she is married to Benjamin Millipied, who was director of the ballet during filming: we’ll catch a glimpse of the fallout from his resignation in 2016). There are interstitial shots, as in Wiseman, of the craftspeople at work: preparing costumes and wigs, wrangling an enormous bull for the opera Moses und Aron, cleaning up the stage and the auditorium after the show. And of course we see the performers in rehearsal: opera singers, dancers, and a young group of violinists in an outreach program. It packs so much into less than two hours, you begin to understand why Wiseman needs four or more for his films: there’s not enough of any one thing, just as you begin to understand a performers struggle with a line, or a step, we’ve moved on to something else.
Jody Lee Lipes’s documentary Ballet 422 solved the Wiseman problem by focusing intently on a single artist, a choreographer prepping his first ballet. We follow him throughout the process and see it begin to take shape, while learning about the backstage aspects of the company in breaks between rehearsals and other dramatic high points. Bron attempts something like that with the story of a mop-haired young Russian opera singer, who joins the company with evident talent, yet has to learn both how to speak French (he already manages pretty well in English and German) and sing to the company’s lofty standards at the same time. But he largely disappears through the second half of the film, which is true to life (not everyone’s life is always dramatically interesting) but makes for a disjointed through-line for a feature film. The film suffers from a lack of performance footage as well: we catch only peeks from the wings of the final productions, it’s almost like they didn’t have permission to properly film the shows and so had to content themselves with stolen sidelong glances. What performances we do see are very good, though heavily weighted toward the opera side (perhaps because Wiseman covered the ballet already). The film is at its best in small, intimate moments: a singer stands just behind the curtain, her body drenched with sweat which she dries with handfuls of Kleenex; a moment of silence on-stage and for the audience for the victims of a terrorist attack, which extends backstage, to the security office and even to the kitchens; a ballerina dances beautifully offstage then collapses to the ground, heavily panting with the effort, catching her breath just in time to dance some more.
The movie Ballerina, cruelly renamed Leap! for American audiences, which goes to show that the Weinsteins’ desire to give distinctive non-American movies the most generic titles possible has not diminished since their heyday of butchering Hong Kong releases, is easily the best animated film I’ve seen in the theatre with my daughter since Shaun the Sheep two years ago. That’s not saying a whole lot considering the competition (Sing, Despicable Me 3, The Peanuts Movie, LEGO Batman), and Ballerina has many of the same faults: generic plotting and a reliance on the chase sequence as a substitute for real drama or suspense. But these flaws are balanced by a commitment to art and the work necessary to become good at it, and its rendering of both its Paris locations and the movements of dance is thrilling, relatively (compare for example the first time we see the grand school of the Paris Opera Ballet, the sense of wonder as we linger of its elaborate details, to the blurry, partial and indistinct images we get of the library in the remake of Beauty and the Beast).
For the American release, several voice actors were replaced (bringing in Mel Brooks, Kate McKinnon and Nat Wolfe) but I don’t know if any of the plotting has been altered, scenes reshot or not. Elle Fanning plays an orphan named Félicie who wants to become a dancer. She and her best friend Victor escape their orphanage (in the film’s most egregiously silly chase) and head to Paris, where she quickly cons her way into a dance class. Victor meanwhile gets a job working for Gustave Eiffel, who is simultaneously working on both the tower that bears his name and the Statue of Liberty, just one of the many historical errors in the film (the Statue is already green, for example, when its copper wouldn’t become so oxidized until it had been in New York for some time). Félicie’s story follows the traditional training arc: given the illogical demands of a plot-structuring contest (one dancer will be eliminated every class until the final one wins a part in the Nutcracker), she works hard doing a variety of non-dance things to build strength and skills. In the meantime, she’s wooed by a handsome, wealthy, blond Russian dancer, setting up a love triangle with Victor, which has largely-ignored class overtones (your classic Ducky/Blaine scenario). The real conflict of interest though is in the repeated question: “Why do you want to dance?” Her opponent, a petite combination of Ivan Drago and Todd Marinovich has one answer, and Félicie has another, but its a knee-jerk response, one produced without ay real thought: it’s her dream. That’s not enough though: until she learns a depth of self-understanding largely absent from kid movies (a shamefully phony world where even Charlie Brown is revealed as a winner), she’ll never be a great dancer. It’s not quite the psycho-sexual conflict between art and romance at the heart of The Red Shoes, but for a soon to be six year old who just signed up for her third year of ballet class, it’ll work.
This is a big week for documentaries on Seattle Screens. The big name, of course is the new Frederick Wiseman film, In Jackson Heights which plays Friday through Thursday at the Northwest Film Forum. We’ll have a review of that sometime soon, once we’ve managed to see it. But two other non-fiction films of interest open this week as well. The Grand Illusion is presenting a 2014 restoration of a 1980 updating of a classic 1926 documentary, Moana, the second feature from Robert Flaherty, the man who more or less legitimated documentary filmmaking as an art form with his first feature, Nanook of the North in 1924, while at the same time muddying for all time the distinction between fiction and non-fiction film. A few blocks south on the Ave, the Varsity is playing director Nelson George’s glowing tribute to Misty Copeland, who just this summer became the first African-American principal dancer at the prestigious American Ballet Theatre.
Continue reading “Two Documentaries: Moana with Sound (Robert Flaherty/Monica Flaherty, 1926/1980) and A Ballerina’s Tale (Nelson George, 2015)”
Ballet 422, which opens this week at the Sundance, owes a very great debt to the great documentarian Frederick Wiseman (seen recently haunting Seattle Screens with his National Gallery) especially his dance films (Ballet, La Danse and Crazy Horse). The film follows 25-year-old dancer/choreographer Justin Peck as he has two months to put together the New York City Ballet’s 422nd original production, his first choreographic work on such a large scale. As in the Wiseman films, the movie consists mostly of length footage of people at work, proceeding from the early rehearsal stage through the final performance, with occasional looks at the backstage workers (particularly the wardrobe department) and “pillow shots” (prominently close-ups of shoes, a favorite subject in the Wisemans as well) providing syncopating breaks in the narrative. As with Wiseman, there are no direct-to-camera interviews or explanatory voiceovers; the cinematic apparatus remains for the most part invisible (though there is a moment when the cameraman hilariously realizes he can see himself in a rehearsal mirror and quickly reframes himself out of the shot). Lipes does employ a very few un-Wiseman-like explanatory title cards, which are necessary in the beginning to set the story, but also serve to mark time as the clock ticks on our hero’s deadline.
Continue reading “Ballet 422 (Jody Lee Lipes, 2014)”