Monday, 22 March 2010

Ballet, History, and Science Fiction.

I’ve had a great weekend… Ballet, Sci-Fi, pizza, sunshine and a stately home.

What did I say a week or so ago about Science Fiction being a great genre when well-handled? I watched two movies this weekend, both of which, in very different ways, were worth watching. One was fun, with beautiful period costumes and lovely settings in the Czech Republic, but it had plot holes you could ride a bicycle through and a casual amorality that left an aftertaste. The other was terrific; thought-provoking, intelligent, scary and moving, and full of really big ray guns. More of this anon - you can have fun guessing what the two films were, while I talk about ballet for a bit.

On Friday evening I was at a Masterclass at the Linbury Studio, watching two young ballerinas being coached as the fairies of the seasons in Ashton’s “Cinderella”, followed by two Ugly Sisters going through some of their comedy scenes. I started off drawing the dancers, and as before I got a couple of good sketches and a lot of zen spaghetti. I couldn’t draw the fellas (the Ugly Sisters are danced by men, as classic Pantomime Dames) as I was laughing too much.

Masterclasses are fascinating. They give one a chance to see just a scrap of the hard work that underlies those polished performances one sees in the main theatre. To watch a lass being taken through a series of fiendish variations, over and over, till she is dripping with perspiration and puffing for breath, yet all the time continuing to move with grace and precision, is astonishing and a bit alarming, and fills one with respect for the dedication needed to attain that skill – and that level of fitness.

And to watch Philip Mosley’s snub-nosed hobbit of a shorter Ugly Sister and Gary Avis’s rubber-faced (but still very cute) taller Ugly Sister ramping up their comedy till your sides are aching is awe-inspiring in a different way, too. I do like Gary Avis, and it is nice to see him get to do some comedy, after all those villainous gaolers and vicious Tybalts, and noble French Princes who never get the girl, and doomed Hilarions.

Yesterday I had a day out, with no grocery shopping or cleaning; instead I went into Richmond, mooched in the shops, had lunch at Pizza Express and then walked along the Thames towpath to the beautiful National Trust property of Ham House. The sun was out and along the river bank groups of people were strolling, walking dogs, birdwatching, going fishing... Buds were breaking and the willows were just starting to turn green, and there were clumps of daffodils in the water meadows. I watched the rowers and the ducks and made friends with a lot of dogs, and came down to Ham feeling full of good will to all men.

I last visited Ham House on a school trip when I was about fourteen; my O’level History course included a module on “The Social History of the English Country House”, which at least got us some good field trips. But I haven’t been back since. Walking around yesterday, what struck me was how much my dim memories of Ham had informed the fictional house of Falmory in “Gabriel Yeats”. I have spent a lot of time “in” Falmory in recent years, so much so that at times it felt like a homecoming.

The smells of dust and furniture polish, the tapestries and shining furniture and checkerboard marble floors, the paintings looking down with their distant smiles, and the magnificent carved staircase, it was all so right, somehow, so purely and truly the imagined Falmory itself; it moved me strangely, to find myself there, “- and know the place for the first time.”

As the NT were having a free entry weekend, I spent money in the shop that I would otherwise have spent on my entrance fee, and then treated myself to the luxury of a full Cream Tea (with proper Cornish clotted cream), sitting in the sun in the formal kitchen garden behind the House, where the first hyacinths were blooming in the shelter of old brick walls, and buds were opening on the espaliered peaches. Then I went back across the water meadows to the bus stop at the bottom of Richmond Hill, and home again with a heart full of sunshine and history.

My Saturday night movie was “The Illusionist”; Edward Norton being handsome and enigmatic as stage magician Eisenheim, in a mystery set in an alternative 1900 Vienna (the give-away is that there’s a Crown Prince who never existed). It’s good fun; not a film to take too seriously, but classy entertainment. The protagonists are credible, as are the villain and the compromised Chief of Police, and it looks fabulous (and Edward Norton is startlingly sexy in a gangly, repressed-intensity kind of way).

As regards Eisenheim’s illusions, the film makers want to have their cake and eat it; to say “yes, of course it is all just stage magic, all illusionism” while not actually showing how most of it is done, so that it still looks beyond belief. I felt that was a bit of a fudge, to be frank.

There are two other big problems. One is that the main big plot development is so full of holes that it doesn’t do too well to think about it afterwards. Of course, being me I did think about it, and so found myself also reflecting on our hero’s rather dodgy moral choices. We are asked to accept and approve the fact that he sets an innocent man up as a murderer. A very unpleasant man, it’s true, a licentious and violent man and one who is plotting treason; but a man who would be entirely innocent of the particular crime for which he is framed. With hindsight it sapped some of my sympathy for Eisenheim, and it also seemed out of character in Chief Inpector Uhl to be so cheerful when he discovers the truth, given that he also discovers he has been duped into contributing to the accused man’s downfall.

My Sunday night movie, on the other hand, was a winner; “District 9”. If you haven’t seen this (and always provided you are an SF-lover) see it asap. It's marvellous.

Sometimes, when something is much-praised, when one finally gets to experience it it is a wash-out in comparison to the hype. “Tectonic Plates” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral” both fell into this category for me (and that may well be the first time they’ve ever been lumped together!). But equally, sometimes things live up to their preview hype. And just occasionally they exceed it. “District 9” exceeds it.

It’s one of the best science fiction films I’ve seen in years; intelligent and nuanced, quite terrifyingly scary at one point, and full of subtle historical references, not only to the obvious issues of South African history (the whole thing is set in Johannesburg, mostly in a nightmarish slum township) but also to the Palestinian intifada, Europe under the Nazis, the Cherokee Trail of Tears... It’s intensely moral, but also scrupulously honest about moral decisions and personal valour - the hero is pretty deeply unheroic until he realises it’s all up for him and the only worthwhile thing he can do is save someone else. It’s horribly violent, but the violence is to a purpose, and one which would not be properly served if the violence were not shown (and a lot of the time the violence is also off-screen, illustrated by reactions and by a sudden splattering of gore, or seen in long-shot, rather than graphically foregrounded).

The leading man revels in the name of Sharlto Copley (Sharlto; is that one of those odd Afrikaaner names, like Charlize and Tarryn? I suppose it must be) and is astonishingly good. The aliens look real, and are refreshingly uncliché-d. There’s no attempt to make the ending conventionally happy. The filming style, slewing between mock-documentary and normal narrative action, ought to be an instant fail but instead works marvellously. It is, quite simply, brilliant.

What was I saying about Science Fiction being a great genre when well-handled? Well, there you are; a perfect case in point. Brilliant.

1 comment:

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