Thursday, February 11, 2010

Movie: The Red Shoes (1948)

Patience, ladies and gentlemen, is rewarded.

I had deliberately avoided the landmark Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger film The Red Shoes on TV because I knew it demanded to be seen on the big screen. Last night I not only watched a gloriously restored new print, but it was introduced by Thelma Schoonmaker, the widow of director Michael Powell and Martin Scorsese’s longtime (and multiple Academy Award-winning) editor. She cut Goodfellas, people.

The film, about a ballet company and the dancer who becomes muse to two men, overwhelmed me. It’s unmatched in its depiction of a collaborative art form and the ways one individual can unite others in service of a vision. The boldness of its filmmaking still astounds. The CGI in, say, Avatar is about making a physical world seem real. The effects deployed in The Red Shoes are used to bring an emotional universe to life. They’re far riskier, and the rewards that much greater when they succeed.

The evening began with a brief before-and-after comparison highlighting the work of the UCLA Film & Television Archive with the support of The Film Foundation. The restoration was an extraordinarily difficult one; The Red Shoes was shot in three-strip Technicolor on a camera so enormous Powell nicknamed it “the cottage.” Over the decades the individual strips shrank at different rates and were damaged by mold. The result is astonishing. Jack Cardiff’s photography contains colors I’d only previously seen on the insides of my eyelids. A single shot of several pairs of the title shoes presented for the approval of the company’s impresario features so many discernable shades of scarlet that it’s almost unseemly.

Ms. Schoonmaker walked us through the film’s history. Powell’s determination to cast a ballet dancer (Moira Shearer) in the lead role, his willingness to replace technical personnel when they told him he was going too far. Producer J. Arthur Rank loathed the movie, finding it too “artistic,” and did everything he could to bury it. Only the efforts of a pair of New York exhibitors changed its fortunes. They converted a legitimate theater to screen it, and it wound up running for two straight years.

Gene Kelly dragged studio executives to showings in order to make his case for the ballet at the end of An American in Paris. Ms. Schoonmaker talked about the many others who had been inspired to commit their lives to the arts after seeing The Red Shoes, including writer Nicholas Pileggi and painter Ron Kitaj. To say nothing of the legion of girls driven to join the ballet.

She said that The Red Shoes was the one constant on Scorsese’s list of desert island films. “Every movie Marty has made was influenced by this one,” she said, going so far as to point out a specific homage that appears in the upcoming Shutter Island.

The Red Shoes screens at the Northwest Film Forum beginning Friday, and next week it returns to New York’s Film Forum by popular demand. A DVD is due out later this year, but see it in a theater if you can. As Ms. Schoonmaker observed, Michael Powell didn’t make his movies to be watched by one person on a small screen. He meant for them to be shared by strangers in the dark.