October 10, 2011

Bacon, Singer, Footloose

Footloose is something of a throwback to those 1950s movies in which the conservative town elders would try to stamp out that satanic menace called rock and roll, a newfangled music that was turning their kids into a tribe of fornicators. These quickie movies were usually an excuse to string a bunch of musical numbers together and sell it as a film. At the end there was always somebody who would turn to the camera and say, “You can’t kill rock and roll!”

They were right. The beat goes on, but now we have pictures that are specially designed to go with the music. In case you’ve been comatose for the last year, it’s all because of MTV, the cable network that shows nothing but non-stop rock epics. It’s the new narrative form: three minutes long, just long enough so that no attention spans are unduly taxed.

Footloose weds the plot about the preacher who wants to crush rock music in a small Utah town with the splashy visuals of an MTV video. And, borrowing a leaf from Flashdance (although I found Footloose more enjoyable, in its own mindless way), there’s a lot of jazzy dancing and superficial characterizations.

A kid from the big city (Kevin Bacon) finds himself in Utah when his mother moves in with relatives there. He’d like to fit in, but things just keep tripping him up. When he gets interested in a girl (Lori Singer), it turns out she’s the daughter of the fire-and-brimstone preacher (John Lithgow) who instituted the laws against sinful music. Great.

Then when Bacon steals the girl away from her boyfriend—a creep who drives a pickup truck with moose horns welded on the hood—he invites even more trouble. There’s nothing for a guy to do but, you know, dance, and that’s what Bacon does. Soon it’s his mission to convince the city council to lift the ban on dancing so the kids can have a senior prom.

It goes on like this, and there’s lots of music. Director Herbert Ross, who took over this project after (of all people) The Deer Hunter‘s Michael Cimino dropped out, tries to give the proceedings some emotional subtext.

Ross is a hack Hollywood director, even though he’s got some well-regarded credits to his name (The Turning Point; Play it Again, Sam), and when he tries to supply subtext, it usually means somebody talks in hushed terms about a lost father, or some other vaguely Freudian explanations. These sequences in Footloose were treated with impatience by the preview-night audience, who wanted to get to the good stuff. In general, the movie did not let them down.

The preview night, incidentally, was marked by a weird extravaganza that preceded the movie in which various local high-school cheerleading teams did routines in front of the curtain at the Town theater. A panel of “judges” rated the squads against each other. (Mercer Island High School won.) After a half an hour of this, the movie began to seem superfluous. And perhaps it was, after all; although you wouldn’t know it from the crowd, which reacted to the entire evening as though it were a pep rally.

First published in the Herald, February 18, 1984

I don’t have to tell you that this is the week the remake of Footloose comes out, thus the re-visit with this review. The movie caught on, in case you hadn’t heard, and it does indeed resemble a model of storytelling next to Flashdance. Seattle’s Town theater no longer exists, by the way, having long since been replaced by a downtown office tower.


December 14, 2010

It’s weird: Herbert Ross is this choreographer-turned-director, and one might expect that he would bring a quality of dance to his films. One would be wrong, though, because Ross, even when ostensibly dealing with dance in his movies (in The Turning Point and now his latest film, Nijinsky), photographs his action in the flattest manner possible; and what’s worse, he shoots the dancing sequences as though they were stretches of dialogue. The clumsy direction of the ballets in Nijinsky (cutting off George De La Pena’s brilliantly gliding figure at the waist, or using slow-motion that is absolutely awe-deflating during jumps) is the biggest disappointment of the movie; dance is quickly dispensed with so we can watch more very unshocking soap opera.

There is one aspect of this movie that is potentially intriguing: the film begins with a lengthy dolly into the insane face of Nijinsky, strait-jacketed in an asylum. Dissolve into the story proper, and then at the finish of the meat of the movie (volatile relationship between Diaghilev and Nijinsky, teacher and student, master/slave—you know) another dissolve into Nijinsky’s eyes, still mad, as we saw him in the first shot. Hey! Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, right? The whole thing was from the point of view of a crazy man, so everything in the movie is thrown into question…that would be great, if the movie worked that way, but nothing’s made of it; this framing device is no more than just that: a device, and the subtle ways in the Nijinsky’s point of view might change and disrupt the narrative are not dealt with. There’s nothing like the expressive Expressionism of Caligari here: is the director trying to tell us that the vision of an artist like Nijinsky is as pedestrian as that of a Herbert Ross?

Gee, this is sounding more down than I intended it to be—Nijinsky is a watchable film, nice to look at (the adjective “handsome” keeps cropping up in reviews, and it seems appropriate—well-tailored but unexciting), with a good feel for the backstage maneuvering and compromises of a traveling company (true of The Turning Point as well), and featuring a very funny supporting performance by Alan Badel as the weary, bitchy benefactor of the Ballets Russes. But at the end, when a series of stills of Nijinsky are flashed on the screen, we’d like to feel, ah, yes, here is the man as history can remember him, motionless and flat, but we’ve been privileged to view him in full vibrancy, defying gravity—except that that isn’t the way we have seen Nijinsky. By the end of the movie, there’s very little evidence that he is any less ordinary than the other people, and perhaps that’s the film’s greatest failing.

First published in The Informer, May 1980.

Yes, I sensed the popular demand growing: give us something on Herbert Ross’s Nijinsky! This one feels like a Seventies film, which in some ways it is, with a certain over-dressed, air-brushed aspect. I was just coming to the end of my own “career” as a “dancer” at about this time, which might explain some of my tsk-tsking at Ross’s ham-footed shooting of the ballet scenes, but whatever—I still don’t understand how a former dancer like Ross could fail so thoroughly to visualize the dance scenes. I haven’t seen The Turning Point since it came out, but I think it was shot better than this.