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IttDMB: Independent Film

May 6th, 2008 (11:59 pm)

Three movies I love, that bend the rules...

© 2008
D. Gordon


While it's true that there are few truly "independent" films anymore - the major studios set up units to cover that market after the success of Sex, Lies, and Videotape - there are still films that made more for art than profit, that will never have massive audiences. And some of them are dance films...

Lars von Trier, well known for his films and Dogme 95 filmmaking philosophy, creates films that address social issues, tell tales that tumble almost into parables, and sometimes poke a few eyes while they're at it. Dancer in the Dark (2000) is very much in keeping with that: it tells the story of Selma, a Czech immigrant in a small Pacific Northwest town; she lives a quiet life as a single mother, but she's also going blind from a congenital disease. She has her pride, and tells no one, but she also saves her pennies for an operation to prevent her son going blind; however, a misfortune occurs to wrenches her life in an entirely new direction.

Surprisingly, von Trier's realization of his vision follows Filmsite.org's definition of a dance movie very closely. There are several full-scale song and dance routines. Björk, who places Selma, is both a star and a musical artist, and her lyrics (she wrote the film's entire score) very much describe an escape from a harsh reality. But, this being von Trier, there's a twist: while we're watching a musical, it's really Selma who's living a musical of the mind as she becomes more and more isolated from the real world. Her increasing blindness, her attempt to pile on extra shifts at the plant where she works, her run-in with the law, and her trial are all accompanies by dances that expose her hopes, her fears, and in a way her soul. In her dreams, she's always the star and everything is reassuring. In some sense, this is in the spirit of the 1930s dance films: Selma dances through events in her head to escape the horror her life has become.

The songs and dances are very organic: they're smooth and simple (although never simplistic), they come from the sounds of the world and they move to the rhythm of life. This gives them the feeling of daydreams; when they're the inner workings of a mind, dreams are always more perfect than reality. This is reinforced by the one dance Selma attempts in the real world. She's been cast as Maria in a community production of The Sound of Music, and the whole effort goes badly. That's in part because she can no longer see enough to do the dances, but there's also a suspicion that Selma just isn't good at dancing in the real world. Indeed, she's just not good at the real world, period.


Guy Maddin could give Lars von Trier a very good run for his money in the quirky department. He isn't working off the strict philosophy that von Trier at least talks about (in fact, he reportedly got into film because two of his friends had), and his films more center on his life and his experiences (especially involving his hometown Winnipeg) than tackle social issues; but his movies come across as the kind of disturbed dreams your mother warned you result from eating right before bed. Which makes it all the more interesting that his one dance movie, Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary (2002), was a commission from the Royal Winnipeg Ballet for Canadian television.

This is a fairly straightforward retelling of Bram Stoker's Dracula, but it goes beyond recording a ballet performance. Far beyond. Maddin, being Maddin, turns it into a cerebral-technical exercise, making a silent-style film filled with odd gizmos and gadgets, pokes at Victorian (and current) fears and mores (his Dracula is Chinese, an immigrant, the Other creeping into "polite society" and his women skirt around life beyond being Good Girls). There are no lyrics and no dialogue beyond intertitles. Maddin also uses technology to add to his effect, adding tinting and filters, and using a range of cameras to follow the dancers around the stage and have them determine what to emphasize in the shooting. It's a feast of the weird, done as only Maddin could do it.

For someone who is not a dancer (my ballet lessons ended which I was four), it was incredibly easy to lose yourself in the action. The effects, the angles, the dancers - especially Tara Birtwhistle as Lucy - all blend into Maddin's vision. With all the elements flying across the screen, I actually did forget I was watching a ballet; I was busier watching the story unfold. And maybe that's the highest complement anyone can pay.

I couldn't find a clip that really does the film justice; you'll just have to find the DVD. But as long as you have some tolerance for the unusual, you won't be disappointed...


And then there's Sally Potter. Quirky isn't her style; she more creates pieces with a unique, uncommon voice. The Tango Lesson (1997) is no exception to that, and may be one of her most personal pieces, as it's based roughly on her relationship with Argentinean dancer Pablo Verón.

"Sally," the director's stand-in, is having problems writing her screenplay, so she takes some time off to visit Paris. While there, she stops in at a tango performance. The dance - or is it the dancer? - fascinates her, pulls her in; she then starts lessons with Pablo, one of the dancers at that performance, and their own personal dance begins.

This is clearly a dance film, and yet it's more. Except for Sally's thoughts on her screenplay, the film is in black and white. There are no song lyrics. Both of these make the dance stand out and the film more dependent on it. The one twist here, which makes this one of my favorite films of the blogathon, is that the tango is also the language that Sally and Pablo use to communicate. (While Potter is not the professional that Verón is. she has no trouble keeping up with him.) Sally doesn't know much Spanish and Pablo doesn't know much English; they compromise with passable French and fluent tango (both known as languages of love).

But the two have a contentious relationship, with conflict and resolution - and conflict - playing out through their dancing. The steps, the movements, even when and where and how they dance become words and weapons. They dance through airports, along the Seine, in the streets of Buenos Aires where other couples would run, kiss, share words. However, Pablo has a need to control the relationship, while Sally has a need to control the filmmaking (she's making a film featuring Pablo's dancing, complicating the relationship even more). The tango brings them back together when they've fallen apart; rather than discussion, they have dance, which is just as eloquent. The tango is their relationship, and their relationship is the tango. As an Argentinian cabbie tells Sally, "You have to have lived... suffered... to know our tangos"; she's learning how to do that, through the dance.

There is one beautiful scene, where they stand beneath a painting of Jacob fighting with an angel and replicate the painting's pose. On the wall the pose is not dance; but Sally and Pablo turn it into both a dance pose and an expression of the conflict between two strong-willed people who are attracted to each other. I can't think of a more eloquent way to express it.


I always love films that push boundaries and play with perceptions of what's common and uncommon. It's great to have examples of that in dance movies, where expectations are tweaked but the essential dance kept intact.

But then again, that's the kind of thing that independent artists do.