January 2017, arsenal cinema

Magical History Tour
: Of Forms and Figures – Choreography in Film


Motion sequences that merge into filmic choreography—arrangements of people in space, orchestration of objects, even constructions of facial expressions and gestures—appear in the most diverse forms and in almost all genres. Beyond precisely coordinated and meticulously timed arrangements of figures, objects, and single movements, exact correlation of tracking shots, storylines and sequences can consolidate into complex cinematic choreographies. Though far from always dancing, they all almost always do have a dancerly element: choreography in film adds rhythm, renders abstract, stylizes, creates pictorial space and webs of relationships, reflects stasis and movement, and results in an often physical cinema. A cinema of compact mise-en-scènes, which, this month, we’ll be exploring in 16 programs.

THE BAND WAGON (Vincente Minnelli, USA 1953, 1. & 5.1.) The most obvious manifestation of choreographic form is the musical, which represents a thoroughly choreographed "total arrangement," beyond the sum of its dance scenes. One spectacular such "total arrangement" is without doubt THE BAND WAGON, in which Fred Astaire plays a former Hollywood dance star who agrees to perform in a Broadway revue whose wrongheaded director threatens to turn it into a flop. Only the in all respects sublime prima ballerina Gabrielle (Cyd Charisse) can save the production. The breathtaking dance numbers are among the best in film history. 

CASABLANCA (Michael Curtiz, USA 1942, 2. & 8.1.) Casablanca, 1941: the North African port city has become a way station for emigrants fleeing from the Nazis and headed to America. Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) and her husband (Paul Henreid) hope to get transit visas here to continue their journey, but first they run into Ilsa's former lover (Humphrey Bogart). An immigration drama as choreography of experiences of flight (on-screen and off): Curtiz filled many of the refugee roles with well-known German(-speaking) actors, including Peter Lorre, Conrad Veidt, Curt Bois and Szöke Szakall, who themselves had years earlier fled either Germany or Europe.

MARTHA (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, West Germany 1974, 3. & 11.1.) Michael Ballhaus's complex camera choreography in Fassbinder's unfussy drama has been much discussed; the high point of its precision and compression is undoubtedly a 360-degree tracking shot that occurs relatively early in the film. The ominous sequence shot depicts the first encounter between the protagonists—Martha, who has been taught to be dependent and obedient, and the inscrutable Helmut; not long afterward, they will marry. A dizzying arc shot is the crystallization of a sadistic merry-go-round.

A STUDY IN CHOREOGRAPHY FOR CAMERA (Maya Deren, USA 1945, 4. & 12.1.) "In this film through an exploration of cinematic techniques, space is itself a dynamic participant in the choreography. This is, in a sense, a duet between space and a dancer – a duet in which the camera is not merely an observant sensitive eye, but is itself creatively responsible for the performance." (Maya Deren)

LIVES OF PERFORMERS (Yvonne Rainer, USA 1972, 4. & 12.1.) In the early 70s, longtime choreographer Rainer turned to film with LIVES OF PERFORMERS. Her experience as a dancer and choreographer manifested itself in a close attention to the representation of bodies and physicality in the film, but also in her use of framing and montage. In the form of a drama about a man caught between two women, Rainer weaves together with great precision and humor sequences of stillness and movement, groupings and re-groupings, documentary and feature film scenes, text and dance passages, photos and her own voice-over commentary.

TIMBUKTU (Abderrahmane Sissako, Mauritania/France 2014, 6. & 10.1.) A group of youths in colorful, fluttering jerseys runs around a sandy sports field. The seemingly cheerful scene quickly turns into its opposite as it becomes clear that the kids are playing soccer without a ball. The scene functions as both a marking of lunacy—Islamic groups have occupied the mythical city of Timbuktu and forbidden the playing of soccer, among other things—and as a poetic choreography of rebellion, of resistance, of the imagination. In other parts of the city, similar small gestures of resistance on the part of the populace agitate against the rebels’ strict fundamentalist rules. 

VICTORIA (Sebastian Schipper, Germany 2015, 13. & 17.1.) Choreography and improvisation, timing and flexibility, focus and whirl—what at first glance seem to be contradictory elements fuse in VICTORIA into a breathless two-and-a-half-hour trip, a dizzying story of the night, a restlessly moving one-take film. In a Berlin club, the young Spanish woman Victoria (Laia Costa) meets four German petty criminals. What begins as a cautious interest leads over the course of the night to her participation in a criminal act that gets out of hand. A high-frequency tour de force for the protagonists and for movie-goers, a mesmerizing waking dream, a cinematic rush.

TSUBAKI SANJURO (Akira Kurosawa, Japan 1962, 14. & 16.1.) An ironic and comedic pendant to Kurosawa's film "Yojimbo", released a year earlier: another re-mix of the popular genre of the samurai film, including elements from the gangster and thriller genres as well as a nod to the musical. A fit Mifune as thoroughly unconventional samurai is surrounded by a group of naive samurai novices who've overstretched themselves in a revolt against a powerful clique of rulers. In the formation of a kind of "corps de ballet," the (re-)actions, interventions, and movements of the young samurais operate like numbers in a revue, meticulously timed and acted with great precision.

SENSO (Luchino Visconti, Italy 1954, 18. & 21.1.) The story of a destructive passion in the foreground of the expiring Risorgimento, suffused with cinematic opulence and theatrical choreography. In his first film in color, Visconti wove the private tragedy of the Contessa Sarpieri (Alida Valli), who falls in love with an Austrian lieutenant (Farley Granger) in Venice, into a study of society. The chaos of the war and the chaos of feelings are complementary. An "amour fou" as history painting.

TO METEORO VIMA TOU PELARGOU (The Suspended Step of the Stork, Theo Angelopoulos, Greece/France/Italy/Switzerland 1991, 18. & 19.1.) On Greece's  northern border, a journalist films the plight of refugees and realizes that he has no real access to the situation on the ground. This film’s philosophical, universal, and still relevant reflections on borders, border protection, and border crossings culminate in two artfully choreographed sequences: in a mutely articulated wedding ceremony in which the wedding parties stand across from each other on either side of a bordering river, and in a suspended act of border crossing, as workers span new power lines over the frontier.

PICKPOCKET (Robert Bresson, France 1959, 20. & 22.1.) An artful ballet of hands, a brilliant roundelay of wallets, envelopes of cash, briefcases and watches—in a fascinating montage, Bresson lifts the seamlessly interdependent work of a small band of pickpockets at a train station into a dance of hand movements, objects, and glances. The nimble-fingered Michel, a member of the group, extricates himself from his few social ties and succumbs completely to the art of pickpocketing.

EL VALLEY CENTRO (James Benning, USA 1999, 23.1.) Benning describes these 35 contemplative takes, each on average two and half minutes long, of California's Great Central Valley as "found choreographies" — all of them striking observations of brief vignettes of movement, whether it be combines, field workers, freight trains, cotton pickers or backhoes positioned within the enormous distances of the landscape. A kaleidoscope of individual actions results, alternating between nostalgia and sharply critical commentary, motion and stillness: peaceful, highly concentrated and full of lyric power.

LA CHASSE AUX PAPILLONS (Butterfly Hunting, Otar Iosseliani, France/Germany/Italy 1992, 20. & 24.1.) Two elderly women live in a castle somewhere in the French countryside. When one of the women dies, her sister, who lives in Moscow, inherits the property, which soon afterward falls into the hands of Japanese businessmen. The final shot of the film shows the castle with new windows, and in the foreground a modern, remote-controlled entrance gate with large Japanese characters on it. Both a lightly ironic choreography of dissolution and a sensitive orchestration of mourning, in this film Iosseliani depicts the disappearance of a world, of an attitude toward life, of an entire culture.

NO (Sharon Lockhart, USA/Japan 2003, 25.1.) Two Japanese farmers enter a field and, at regular distances, pile hay into stacks. Slowly they work their way into the foreground, forming haystacks in tapering lines toward the camera. When they have reached the front edge of the image, they then go back and distribute the hay evenly over the entire field. The result is at once a choreographed version of the daily labor of farmers, a visual interaction with the landscape, and the construction of a landscape painting.

GOSHOGAOKA (Sharon Lockhart, USA/Japan 1998, 25.1.) In the gymnasium of a suburban Japanese middle school, a girls' basketball team runs through complexly choreographed training drills. In six ten-minute takes, a subtle and multilayered social portrait comes into being through the interplay of voices, noises, and movements. The movements form the frame inside which the line between the documentary and the aesthetic begins to dissolve.

Dance without dancers: in a continuation of the ideas and films of Maya Deren, the American dancer, choreographer and filmmaker Shirley Clarke also occupied herself with the relationship between dance and film. In her text "Cine-Dance" (1967), she wrote: "Whether I'm working with dancers or actors, I'm always interested in the choreography of what is occurring on-screen, with the patterns, rhythms, movements therein—all elements of dance, but also of life. For me, that is the dance that exists in film: not dance as it happens on a stage, but as an extension of the world itself." We're showing a selection of her early, recently restored experimental short films (26. & 31.1.): DANCE IN THE SUN (USA 1953), IN PARIS PARKS (USA 1954), BULLFIGHT (USA 1955), A MOMENT IN LOVE (USA 1956), BRUSSELS LOOPS – GESTURES (USA 1957), BRUSSELS LOOPS – WORLD KITCHEN (USA 1957), BRIDGES-GO-ROUND (USA 1958), and SKYSCRAPER (USA 1959).

TROUBLE IN PARADISE (Ernst Lubitsch, USA 1932, 27. & 29.1.) The "director of doors" (as an exasperated Mary Pickford called him) at his best: Lubitsch's Pre-Code film is also a choreography of doors, windows and staircases. Doors and windows open and close, open up and obstruct; people walk up and down the staircases; and these architectonic elements are as important a part of this masterly menage-à-trois comedy as the three protagonists: the rich widow Mariette (Kay Francis) and the pair of crooks Lily (Miriam Hopkins) and Gaston (Herbert Marshall). The latter have set their sights on Mariette's riches. But when Gaston falls in love with the young widow, their plans threaten to fail. A featherweight, ironic hymn to immorality, money, and sex.

THE KILLER (John Woo, Hong Kong 1989, 28. & 30.1. ) "When I film action scenes, I often have the feeling that I am choreographing a ballet, a dance" (J. Woo). Woo not only choreographs the complex movements of his protagonists, but also the flight paths of the whirring bullets ("bullet ballet"), the splintering furniture and the shattering windowpanes. This is a film of opponents circling each other in a continuous particle storm. The contract killer Jeff (Chow Yun-Fat) just wants to fulfill his "final assignment," in the course of which, however, Inspector Li (Danny Lee) and others are hot on his heels. (mg/jpk)

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