Archive for the Dance Category

It’s Chinatown

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 23, 2014 by dcairns

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After watching THE WILD AFFAIR, in which Nancy Kwan is delightful, Fiona wanted more, so we ran THE WORLD OF SUZIE WONG (some nice elaborate Richard Quine long takes) and then FLOWER DRUM SONG.

FLOWER DRUM SONG is an interesting period piece — some of the DVD extras consider the ways in which the passage of time has changed it from a rather forward-thinking piece, in the days when the very act of making a musical about Chinese-Americans was a radical and positive thing, to a slightly embarrassing hangover from an earlier age. But nobody quite gets to the nub of it, I think.

Rodgers & Hammerstein’s musical is entertaining and funny, and pleasingly presents its Chinese and Chinese-Americans as being just regular folks, with a few different customs but with all the same drives and qualities as anyone you might meet in a movie about white folks, which is fine. It’s just that a lot of the jokes are based around producing Asian versions of conventional situations or dialogue — so someone talks of being “left with egg foo yung on his face,” which isn’t a real expression, just a silly version of an American expression with a bit of cod Chinese culture tacked on as a laugh. It might or might be amusing, but it’s certainly inauthentic, and there’s a point at which the inauthentic becomes slightly racist.

Any time you can’t be bothered to get the details right, you’re showing a lack of respect. In Fellini’s CITY OF WOMEN, we are told that all the feminist statements are based on actual proclamations by feminist thinkers. If this is true (always highly doubtful with Fellini) then the filmmaker would be showing a kind of respect to the people he is satirising — he lets them condemn themselves as absurd out of their own mouths. He plays fair. But in HORSE FEATHERS, not only is Groucho’s anatomy class complete gibberish, the serious class he interrupts is equally nonsensical, basically just a stream of long words most of which have nothing to do with the ostensible subject. In this way, the writers show themselves to be above the subject, disinterested in accuracy, and ally themselves with the Marxes’ anti-intellectual side (Harpo is seen gleefully shoveling books into a roaring fire, in hindsight a disturbing image for 1933).

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The racism in FLOWER DRUM SONG is super-mild, it doesn’t mean to offend, and it doesn’t even mean to be disrespectful. It’s just levity, but not quite the right kind for us today. I’m not even sure if it would offend anyone, but it does embarrass.

Still, there are great pleasures, some of them quite odd. Kwan is a knockout, and though she couldn’t do her own singing. she could certainly dance. James Shigeta has a fine speaking voice and he does seem to be doing his own vocals, but he evidently couldn’t dance to save his life, so he’s doubled in the big dream ballet number. For part of this he wears what looks to me like a Japanese mask (the film also blurs Chinese and Japanese cultures and casting), but for part of it he’s just blatantly replaced by another performer. The shot is head-to-toe wide to show the dancing properly, but it’s not like you can’t notice it’s not him anymore: the new guy doesn’t look anything like Shigeta. Sometimes, when faced with a continuity problem with a plant pot or cigarette or glass of wine, a director will say, “Well, if the audience is looking at THAT, we’ve lost them anyway.” But you can’t use that argument when the continuity problem consists of your leading man being suddenly replaced by someone else. When Balthazar Getty replaces Bill Pullman in LOST HIGHWAY, we’re supposed to notice. One does hope that Henry Koster, the director in this instance, was not trusting to the old dictum that “they all look alike.”

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At one point in the film, a Chinese character actually says, “They all look alike,” referring to white folks, which I guess is intended as a kind of satire, but is actually sort of true — we often find it harder to tell apart people of different races from themselves, since what we notice first are the “racial signifiers” of the other. The problem is solved by spending time around people of different races.

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It’s not a problem one could ever have with Jack Soo (a Japanese-American who changed his name to a Chinese one in order to get a role in the Broadway production), though. He’s incredibly distinctive, though, and a lovely presence — he talks like Robert Mitchum, only even more hep, and looks like Brundlefly. I wish he was in more movies.

 

 

Ready to Rumba

Posted in Dance, FILM with tags , , , on September 22, 2013 by dcairns

Thanks to regular Shadowplayer La Faustin for sending me George Raft, Lewis Yablonsky’s as-told-to bio of the Hollywood tough guy/hoofer. An unusually frank account — Raft admits his mob connection but tries to minimise/contextualise them, while being quite open about his days as a gigolo in New York “tea rooms” alongside Valentino.

He also manages to make ballroom dancing sound macho and dangerous — on stage, he would dance so fast he risked injury — if a foot accidentally hit a footlight it would be so painful he wouldn’t be able to continue, so he numbed his feet by replacing the shoelaces with wire, cutting off his circulation. In this manner, he was able to break a toe without feeling it.

George also recounts being set upon by a jealous lady during his dance hall days — she stabbed him through the chest with a long hat pin, missing his heart by inches. George drew a surprising lesson from this: “Up to then I never knew I was handsome. I felt I was the black sheep and the ugliest kid in my family. But I realized then that women could really go for me.”

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Another Fine Mesopotamian

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , on September 11, 2013 by dcairns

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Minnelli’s KISMET — for some reason Fiona was reluctant to watch this, despite being a confirmed fan of  choreographer Jack Cole and having enjoyed a ton of Minnelli recently. Maybe because she generally prefers his melodramas to his musicals. About ten minutes in she pronounced this “great” — maybe by the end it isn’t quite up there with the very top films of the Freed unit, but the witty lyrics, zesty playing, strong plot based around improbable reversals of fate, and some bracingly disrespectful use of Borodin results in something very enjoyable.

Weirdly, it starts out looking kind of cheap — interior exteriors often have that effect, however lavish they may be. The “Not Since Ninevah” number is a riot, and a moving mass of gaudily coloured costumes make the eye rattle around like a pinball, but it’s all happening against a Star Trek cyclorama in a sand pit.

What makes the film start looking suave is the slow fade to dusk and night — the story has an unusual 24 hr runtime and Minnelli takes the gradations of the day seriously — the later it gets, the more beautiful Joseph Ruttenberg’s cinematography becomes, and the better E. Preston Ames’ sets look.

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