As a post-Christmas treat, I went to see a classic movie at the BFI (formerly the National Film Theatre). It was The Red Shoes,
by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, an oldie and goldie.
It’s a sweet, colourful, beautiful film with acid in its veins. It tells the story – the deceptively simple story – of a young composer who writes the music for a ballet based on the Hans Christian Anderson legend of the red shoes. And it intertwines that with the story of the young ballerina who dances the lead role in that ballet, and is acclaimed. It’s the classic ‘star is born’ formula which Simon Cowell milks to this day, but which he did not invent.
As always with Powell and Pressburger’s movies, I watched this piece growing amazement. For the films of these two men – close collaborators who wrote, directed and produced their films jointly in Coen Brothers style – are not structured or conceived in orthodox ways; they don’t fit the template for ‘popular movie’. They are simple, yet complex; conventional, yet bafflingly weird. In A Canterbury Tale, the main story concerns a man who pours glue on women’s hair in wartime England; but the real story is about England itself, its buildings, its music, its people. And in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp we are introduced to the old fartiest of old farts – an elderly, bald moustachioed military man (who resembles the period newspaper cartoon caricature known as ‘Colonel Blimp’, a by-word for reactionary military types) and then we flash back in time to see what the old fart was like when he was young, and dashing, and magnificent.
I saw a screening of Colonel Blimp in front of an audience of young screenwriters in Yorkshire – and they were visibly stunned at the strangeness of the approach, and the acidity of the wit. These Powell and Pressburger films are the most bizarre blend of hokey oldfashionedness and audacious art.
And so The Red Shoes – which I saw many years ago, and vaguely remembered as being a rather pretty ballet drama – slowly and eerily evolved into a tragedy about the mania of art. The driving force of the story is Boris Lermontov, impresario and chief of the Ballet Lermontov, whose genius is such that he can transform other, ordinary mortals, into geniuses. He’s a talent spotter and a mentor rolled into one; he inspires the young composer Julian Craster into creating a work of shimmering wild brillance; and he has total faith in an untested ballerina who he has discovered, despite the reservations of all his trusted advisors – and his judgement is totally vindicated as she dances with passion and grace and terrifying frenzy.
A long section of the movie consists of an uninterrupted but edited version of the final ballet, merging stage magic and movie magic, and conjuring up poetry and colour in motion of a kind that would give James Cameron’s Avatar a run for its money.
And that, pretty much, for a good hour or so, is the story of the movie! The ballet company goes about its business. They stage a ballet. It’s successful. And the legend of the red shoes – magic red shoes that dance and dance and dance until the dancer who wears them dies of exhaustion – helps launch the career of two artists.
But then, slowly, the real story unfolds. I won’t give away the final twist; but I will say that there’s a reason this is one of Martin Scorsese’s favourite movies. For this is a movie about power, and about art. And above all it’s about the mania of art – the belief that nothing, nothing, nothing matters more than creating beauty that will last for eternity.
This, of course, is not true. Friendship is more important than art; love is more important than art; raising a child is a greater achievement than writing a poem, or making a movie, or writing a novel.
But it doesn’t always feel that way. Every time I read a blog or an article about the process of writing, I can smell the heady exhilaration of creation; the supreme conviction that nothing matters more than the white-hot frenzy of creating a work of fiction, or a piece of screen drama. Often, for much of the time in fact, the process of writing is boring; much of it is sheer hard labour; but every now and then, the work writes itself – the characters come to life – the dancer becomes the dance – and very few things can beat that joy.
That’s why writers write; it’s not for fun, it’s for the opposite of fun. It’s for those moments of exaltation. Creativity is a dangerous drug; though, fortunately, a legal one.
And this is the real story of The Red Shoes. It’s about a man – Boris Lermontov – who forsakes his humanity in order to enable others to create great art. He is of course a madman, and a fool, and a devil.
But sometimes, I have to admit, it seems like a tempting trade…
If you enjoyed this post, you might find these others interesting: