So would you die for art? I believe that at certain points in this movie – a magnificent work of beauty and passion called The Red Shoes made in 1948 by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger – every soul in that audience would have answered “yes. Yes, I will.” Now I am not fool enough to think that the popcorn-chomping burghers of Louisville or Laguna Beach, shivering in their Gallerias, would even understand the question. But this was a special venue, my favorite place to watch a film. This was Cinespia, the outdoor film series in the Hollywood Forever cemetery (the last resting place of Rudolf Valentino, among other lights). On Saturday nights through the summer months, artists, hipsters and film buffs foregather on a lush green lawn, quaff their Imperial Tokay, nosh on their caponata and laugh over the terrors of the week. A DJ spins, usually the grooviest of music, reminiscent of a Tarantino soundtrack. Slides of vintage movie posters in every conceivable language (The Passenger in Hrvatski, anyone?) flash across the mausoleum wall. And when the dark has descended sufficiently, the films roll. This week’s was a particular favorite of mine and so, it seems, of the audience. It’s not often that this jaded group will cheer, but when the “Finis” title appeared the place erupted last night, with your Servant’s among the loudest and most sustained voices.
You see, I knew the director and worked with him when I was in college. Michael Powell came to my college for a semester to teach a class in advanced filmmaking, and at the time I was faced with a choice. I had decided that the cinema was my life, and had applied to several film schools as a transfer student. I had been accepted at NYU, one of the most prestigious in the country, when I learned of Powell’s imminent residency. Would I leave my liberal arts program in film theory for NYU’s more practical (and vocational) filmmaking degree? Or would I stay for the chance to work with a legend? I chose Powell and finished my undergraduate work at Dartmouth. And today I am a teacher, not a filmmaker.
Now remember, I believe I am not a fool. My choice pales to insignificance when compared to Vicky’s. But at root they may come down to the same thing, the same question many people, if they are lucky, must answer in their lives: What will you give up for art?
The power of The Red Shoes comes from its ability to make that question real, meaningful and important for people who will never have to answer it. In the context of the film, Vicky’s total self-sacrifice for the pure joy of art seems natural and inevitable, if tragic, so that when she makes her decision, you can’t really question it. Between loss of true love and of true art yawns the abyss, preferable to either option. When she makes her leap, we leap with her. Why?
There is a moment when art is made, and here I distinguish between Art and the commerce which passes for art in our contemporary “post-beauty” world. Art is made when the fragile envelope of fears and insecurities can no longer contain the vision of the artist. Now this line of inquiry could evolve into something not suitable for this space, but it’s clear that real art, the creation of the beautiful or profound without regard for its “exchange value,” is seldom enacted in commercial space. We may grow attached to, say, Happy Gilmour but no thinking person ascribes to it the permanent value of The Duchess of Malfi. And while people certainly write Lost or All My Children, few of us can remember who wrote the Emmy-winning shows of 2005… or even what they were. Wyeth loved and painted Helga in secret for twenty years because the value of that art for the artist lay in the perfections of her image. Yet that series may be his purest, most perfect work. Beethoven wrote the Late Quartets, his most revolutionary and, I believe, inspired work, when he had become profoundly deaf and could never hear them performed. True art such as The Red Shoes effects us as it does because we sense the shedding of the everyday to reveal the sublime. We leap with Vicky because we know that the merely conventional choice, marriage or dance, will no longer suffice. We have crossed the Rubicon and cannot go back. “How you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm/after they’ve seen Par-ee?” And that, my merry artistic friends, is what Vicky chooses: not art nor love but the emptiness between them. That emptiness is either bliss, or it is nothing. God or the void. You pay your money, you take your chance. But to one who is enamoured of art, it may be the ultimate act of creation. And that is a choice every artist, or lover of art, understands.
This piece will continue with a discussion of love in The Red Shoes.