Monday, November 23, 2009

Behind the Scenes: The Ordinary Highlighting the Extraordinary

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - I've just come off a full weekend of voracious cinephilia, in which I took in six films (all of them of the art-house variety, so no sexy vampires and werewolves for me) in the span of two days in New York. Lots of revelations to share with you all—but I find myself with a fairly healthy backlog of films I've seen in the past couple of weeks that I have yet to write about! As usual with me: so many movies, so little time.

For now, then, here are some brief thoughts on two films that are more thematically connected than you might think:

This Is It (2009; Dir.: Kenny Ortega)
La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet (2009; Dir.: Frederick Wiseman)

One focuses on the backstage rehearsals of a late pop star's never-to-be-seen-in-its-final-form stage show, while the other closely examines the entire backstage environment—the creative and business sides—of a ballet company. Two totally different worlds, yes, but the focus is essentially the same:  the sometimes arduous process of artistic creation. I usually find this kind of subject to be inherently fascinating, and these two films are no exception. Your mileage may vary.

For me, the Michael Jackson media freakshow long overtook the brilliant musical artist/showman in my mind before his recent death finally forced me to fully appreciate his considerable talent. The value, then, of Ortega's documentary tribute to Jackson is to brush off the tabloid cobwebs and train its eye almost entirely on Jackson the way he arguably ought to be remembered: as a tremendously hard-working and soulful entertainer first and foremost. In that way, I can't entirely get on board with the claims of "exploitation" that some critics have lodged against This Is It. I understand how some might see this footage as unsuitably morbid, and I suppose inherently it is. To me, though, the passion, imagination and attention to detail he exudes—his life force, in other words—even in this rehearsal footage presents its own argument. Even after all of his grotesque antics of the past two decades or so have been beaten to death by the media, here is Michael Jackson, ever the perfectionist, performing with nary a hint of world-weariness and creative burnout. His essential innocence—a quality that, even at less than 100 percent, still remains in his voice—seemingly remained intact until the end. (He even tries to pass it on to his stage collaborators, most memorably with a female guitarist trying to fill Eddie Van Halen's shoes in "Beat It.")

So yeah, I enjoyed This Is It. The performances, some of them undoubtedly rough around the edges, are generally invigorating as vocal and visual spectacles; and as a portrait of the King of Pop himself, it doesn't so much illuminate Jackson as it crystallizes some of his longstanding mysteries: how, for instance, he manages to be so close with his collaborators and yet remain so aloof and above them at the same time. For others, though, the film, with its worshipful "Chorus Line"-style interviews and lack of interest in touching on his troubled past, would most likely muster up all the cinematic weight of an extended DVD extra. Veteran documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman's La Danse would probably be more up their alley.

As usual with the ever-inquisitive Wiseman, La Danse takes a particular environment and digs deep into its nooks and crannies. His subject this time is the Paris Opera Ballet, but Wiseman's scope is far wider than Ortega's in This Is It. Dancers, choreographers, artistic directors, even down to costume designers and janitors: Wiseman observes them all in in his 158-minute film as they proceed through the processes of putting together an entire season of ballet performances. There are no mysterious and charismatic central figures here, and no direct interviews (both these non-attributes are Wiseman signatures, from his 1967 debut Titicut Follies onward); La Danse keeps a rigorous and immersive distance throughout.

What Wiseman, through his patience and curiosity, unearths is not necessarily groundbreaking. We all probably realize, in the back of our minds, that the process of artistic creation can sometimes be strenuously difficult, and the business of trying to fund a whole season of performances while maintaining a high artistic standard is about as hard. But when Wiseman presents the fruit of their labors on screen, the results—unobtrusively edited and beautifully shot records of seven lengthy dance selections, ranging from Baroque settings to spiky modern choreography—surely justify the immense dedication on all sides. And yet, in this particular cinematic context, the dance performances here feel less like creative climaxes than mere facts of life for these performers: This is what they do, and soon afterward they're back rehearsing something else. Perhaps the major achievement of La Danse is that it creates the feel of daily life being lived even as these dancers pull off wondrous artistic miracles on a regular basis. The extraordinary becomes ordinary, and yet the ordinary highlights the extraordinary.

(This Is It is still playing in theaters nationwide, while La Danse has been held over at New York's Film Forum.)

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