Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Snow Walker

“The Snow Walker” is a mystery to me. How could a movie this entertaining, this well made, and this gorgeous not be a huge hit? I’m sure its impassioned director Charles Martin Smith was more than puzzled. He was certainly heartbroken to see something, so clearly a labor of love, vanish as if engulfed by a blizzard, seldom to ever be seen again.

Based on a story by Farley Mowat, “The Snow Walker” has Smith on familiar terrain. He previously starred in Carroll Ballard’s superb film of Mowat’s “Never Cry Wolf.” Both are fish out of water stories where a man is gradually humbled by nature. Here, the man, Charlie, is flying about delivering goods to Inuit homesteads – and hoping for some lucrative trading – when he gets stuck with something unexpected, transporting a very sick young Inuit woman to a doctor.

While transporting her – characteristically far from his flight plan – his plane blows an engine and crashes in the middle of – at least to his eyes – nowhere. All he can see is tundra and water and more tundra, and a strange young woman who is so ridiculously calm that she simply climbs out of the wreckage and starts fishing. His reaction is yelling and sobbing and throwing broken bits of airplane into the air.

“The Snow Walker” opens with a shot of a mysterious figure emerging from a blizzard. It is a religious image. It immediately made me think that this is how legends are born. The impossible sight of a bearded and battered white man emerging from the frozen wasteland must have seemed only possible to the Inuit people who greeted him as an act of the gods.

Of course, behind every legend is a story and “The Snow Walker” rolls back the clock to tell that tale, one full of humor and sadness, and one that reveals an unsung and unexpected hero behind the hero, a young woman named Kanaalaq.

Once stranded, the film takes on a comedic, circular structure. Charlie is a man too self-centered to stand a chance. He’s one to believe it is him against nature while he will only survive as him with nature. And Kanaalaq will teach him this, but, first, he must lose his self, bit by bit.

He tries to fix the radio and accidently breaks it. He throws a tantrum. You can almost hear her laugh. He celebrates finding a rifle only to slip and fall, losing the remaining bullets. He leaves her to trek away for help, but you can still sense her sad amusement as he gets stuck in the mud and loses a boot to the muck.

But, after he awakens surrounded by a storm of mosquitoes and flees shoeless across the jagged rocks before collapsing, defeated; she can laugh no longer. She appears above him and begins treating his wounds and bites with mud and grass.

He has been reduced by his arrogance to little more than what he had at birth – later, Kanaalaq will scamper away with his clothes to mend them leaving him naked in a pond – and now the very earth he was fighting heals him. When the pair arrives back at the site of the crash, their real journey can finally begin.

Hopefully, when the movie plays at The Grand Theaters on Thursday, April 23 as the final movie in the Cinema 100 film series, it will emerge like Charlie from out of that blizzard, at least for one night for everyone fortunate enough to be in attendance.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Red Shoes

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, known as The Archers, regularly opened their movies with an arrow striking a target. If the arrow struck the bull’s eye, that was their opinion of the finished product. In “The Red Shoes,” that arrow hits the bull’s eye. Boy does it ever hit it.

Set in the ballet world, “The Red Shoes” tells a tale of three principle characters. Julian Craster (Marius Goring) is a talented young composer, brimming with enthusiasm, perhaps too much so. Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) is a beautiful and eager ballerina. Asked why she lives she says, “To dance.” And the master of the company is Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook in his most memorable performance). The three form one of the great tragic triangles in movie history.

I could write on and on about how gorgeous “The Red Shoes” is and how the Technicolor images are so vibrant and alive that they jump from the screen and envelope the viewer. It is stunning. Film director Martin Scorsese listed it among the greatest color films ever. But I’d rather describe to you my two pet ways of interpreting the movie.

The movie begins with college students rushing the cheap balcony seats of a ballet performance. Craster leads the way and nearly trips and tumbles over the balcony before sprawling out to hold three front row seats. He is there to hear the music. He immediately starts to bicker with two students there to see the dance. It is ears versus eyes, music against image.

The movie climaxes in an extended performance of the ballet of the title, which very quickly leaves realism behind and becomes a heart-stopping ballet of the cinema. Music and images clash and overlap and then merge with ocean waves even crashing into the stage at one point. It is also the passionate beginning of a romance between its composer/conductor Craster (ears) and dancing star Page (eyes, and her eyes are unforgettable).

Powell and Pressburger were celebrated for their innovations in the interplay of image and music. They pioneered the technique of playing music on the soundstage during shooting and choreographing character movements to the movement of the music. “The Red Shoes” is their ultimate showcase.

Horror director George Romero (“Dawn of the Dead”) has long admitted Powell and Pressburger among his favorite directors. And watching “The Red Shoes” makes this seem perfectly natural. The movie is dark, obsessive, and tortured. It plays like a horror film. And at the center is Lermontov, a character of brooding intensity. He constantly emerges from and then retreats back into the movie’s many expressionistic shadows. He is a character whose destructive nature borders on bloodlust.

Yes, in its aching heart, “The Red Shoes” is one of the all-time great vampire movies. As you watch, consider this: Lermontov is an elegantly dressed man with a pale complexion who is seen almost exclusively indoors or at night. When we see him outdoors in daylight, the cinematography is pointedly, blindingly bright and he always wears dark glasses as if cringing from the light.

And consider the way he treats Craster and Page as people to be sucked in, bled dry, and then discarded. “The Red Shoes” is like “Nosferatu” with the neck bites tastefully removed.

So, mark your calendars for Thursday, April 16 when Cinema 100 will screen “The Red Shoes” at the Grand Theaters. You will be in for a treat and one of the greatest movies the cinema has to offer.

“The Red Shoes” doesn’t carry a rating. It is a beautiful film, suitable for adults and teens, but maybe too dark – and in at least one particular moment too scary – for young children.