Tuesday, September 8, 2009

2, 3, Kick, Turn, Turn, Turn, Kick, Turn


I may lose some street cred (net-cred?) for this sentiment, but I love memes. Really, I do. Especially the last few months, writing here has been stressful. I know it comes easy to some, but writing is generally a struggle for me; a worthy and rewarding one, but a struggle nonetheless. I tried to step up my game this summer in giving this site substantive content that would generate good discussion, and I feel that, for the most part, I succeeded. I certainly generated good discussion (and a hearty thanks to all those who have helped in that department), but I still feel that my writing doesn't quite reflect my personality in the way I would like. It reflects my ideas about movies and personal sensibility, but I'm still not completely satisfied with the tone. That's why I enjoy Greg Ferrara, Bill R., and Glenn Kenny so; they manage to be eloquent, perceptive, and humorous all at once. And their love of movies shines through in everything they do.

So a meme gives me a chance to both wax poetic about movies, and lighten up the mood around here. This one comes courtesy of the wonderful Marilyn Ferdinand from Ferdy on Films. It states that the participants pick their 15 favorite film dancers; but, I must be quite honest, I'm not so sure I could pick 10, let alone 15. Admittedly, this just proves Marilyn initial point, that dancers aren't given enough credit for their craft, but she has kindly allowed me to break the rules a bit, so I'm going to pick my favorite dance sequences in film. And I think this is interesting because this opens the doors to non-musicals as well.

As with all memes, any other day and I may have picked completely different set. Here are ten dance sequences that have always stuck with me (when the information is available, I'll list the choreographer as well):

Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding (1951)
Choreography by Nick Castle

There are actually two sequences from Royal Wedding that I was considering, ironic because outside of two exemplary dance sequences with Astaire, the movie really is quite lousy (one of Donen's lesser musicals, for sure). Both speak to what an incredible dancer Astaire was, as well as how innovative and imaginative he was with dance sequences. One involves Astaire dancing with a coat-rack and Astaire, with his incredible grace, makes the inanimate coat-rack feel like a living, breathing partner. The other, more memorable sequence, involves Astaire dancing alone in a room, and he starts dancing on the walls and ceiling, defying gravity. It's a breathtaking, incredibly innovative sequence; as was typical of Astaire's dance sequences, this is all done in one unbroken take, and this makes the sequence all the more phenomenal. They used a rotating set to capture this incredible illusion, and it's a technique that was borrowed for films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Fly.

Donald O'Connor in Singin' in the Rain (1952)
Choreography by Gene Kelly

In the case of Singin' in the Rain, it's tempting to be obvious. Of course, the titular dance sequence is among the most memorable sequences in all of film, dance or otherwise. But a musical number in the film that impresses me every bit as much is the "Make 'Em Laugh" number with Donald O'Connor doing a kind of slapstick tap dance, and O'Connor is really given a chance to show his stuff in this solo dance sequence. Throughout the film, he manages to keep up with the incredible athleticism of Gene Kelly, proving to be his equal in that respect. Too bad he decided to do Francis the Talking Mule pictures for most of his career, because he shows an incredible amount of talent throughout Singin' in the Rain.

James Cagney & Bob Hope in The Seven Little Foys (1955)
Choreography by Nick Castle

13 years after James Cagney won an Academy Award for playing George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy, he reprised the role in the film about Cohan's 'rival', Eddie Foy (it's worth noting that Eddie Foy Jr. played his father in Yankee Doodle Dandy, but here he is played by Bob Hope). I could have picked a number of sequences from Yankee Doodle Dandy, but I actually prefer this cameo appearance in The Seven Little Foys; it's an extremely energetic, inventively choreographed sequence. Again, the movie isn't exactly great (or good, even), but this sequence is a real treasure, in no small part because Cagney, over a decade after he first played the role, (and a few years older than Bob Hope) completely upstages the film's star (though I've always found Hope somewhat insufferable). But watch the sequence closely, and you'll see Cagney is far lighter on his feet than Hope is.

Ann Reinking & Erzsebet Foldi in All that Jazz (1979)
Choreography by Bob Fosse

My favorite of all of Fosse's memorably choreographed sequences (both in films he and others directed), because in addition to being a spectacular dance sequence (set to Peter Allen's "Everything Old is New Again") in its own right, showcasing the talents of the beautiful Ann Reinking and the 12 year old Erszebet Foldi, it's also an extremely dramatically affecting one as well. As Joe Gideon watches his girlfriend and daughter put on a show for him to cheer him up after the poor reception of his latest film (paralleling Fosse's own experience with making Lenny), you see in his eyes that he recognizes that this is the closest thing he'll ever have to a real family. And, considering how intensely personal this film was to Fosse, that revelation is damn near heartbreaking.

Rosie Perez in Do the Right Thing (1989)

This might seem like an unusual pick, but I love the way this title sequence combines a music video aesthetic with the film's uniquely counter-cultural, broadly comic sensibility. Set to Public Enemy's "Fight the Power", Rosie Perez does a dance that I can only describe as "interpretive boxing"; imagery that is simultaneously rhythmic, aggressive, and empowering. It gets me excited for the movie to follow it in a way that few other title sequences do.


John Travolta & Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction (1994)

There are many memorable dance sequences involving Travolta (he has an entire movie dedicated to these abilities), but I'd have to go with this one because it's cheeky, almost self-conscious about the fact that John Travolta simply must dance in movies he appears in. He's dragged into a dance contest, unwillingly, by Uma Thurman's Mia Wallace. She not only exerts her power of him by reminding him that it is he who must do what she says (she is the boss' wife, after all), but she challenges his ego by saying that she not only wants to dance, but she wants to win. Well, dance he does, and win they do, and Tarantino wonderfully uses this sequence to illustrate the powerful sexual connection these two characters feel towards each other, complete with some Chuck Berry on the soundtrack.

Woody Allen & Goldie Hawn in Everyone Says I Love You (1996)
Choreography by Graciela Daniela

A wonderful sequence that caps a wonderful film, Woody Allen uses special effects for one of the few times in his career to create an enchanting, otherworldly dance sequence set to "I'm Through With Love". As Allen and Hawn dance on the Parisian riverside, Hawn literally defies gravity as she spins and leaps through the air. Magical.

Tim Robbins & Connie Nielsen in Mission to Mars (2000)
Choreography by Adam Shankman


Adam Shankman is the credited choreographer on Mission to Mars, but surely Brian De Palma deserves as much credit for choreography as Shankman, because his camera is as much a dancer as his characters in this sequence, set to Van Halen's "Dance the Night Away". De Palma's camera here floats weightlessly as he captures this intimate zero-gravity dance.

The Company (2004)

I'm cheating a bit here: I found it impossible to choose one image from Robert Altman's penultimate film The Company, let alone one dance sequence, all of which are extremely visually striking and memorable in their own right. Altman, using high definition cameras (his only use of the format), beautifully captures the art of dancing as the kinetic combination of theater, painting, and athleticism that it is, all the while giving an intimate behind the scenes portrait of the members of the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago. It's a wonderful film that pays much respect to the art of dancing, and those who dedicate their life to that craft.

CGI Penguins in Happy Feet (2006)
Choreography by Kelley Abbey

For a movie that goes to such painstaking lengths to portray accurate, organic dancing (through a brilliant use of motion capture technology), Happy Feet bizarrely doesn't actually credit the live-action company of dancers that brought life to the film's animated penguins (though I remember reading a New York Times article that discussed the dancer whose movements were used to render the main character Mumbles, Savior Glover). As with The Company, I'm not choosing a specific dance sequence here, as any time Mumbles or any of the other penguins dance, I'm positively enchanted.

So, those are my ten. This is the part where you're supposed to tag people to do it, but everytime I tag someone, no one does it. So I'm tagging everyone. And don't be like "Oh, I'm not gonna do it and he'll never know." I will know. Trust me.

19 comments:

Marilyn said...

This is a lovely entry, Ryan, and thanks for sharing your thoughts about this thing called dance that I love so much. I haven't seen some of these - like Happy Feet (though you show the great taste to admire Savion Glover, one of the finest dancers in the world today) - and others I haven't seen in a while. But you show a sensitivity to the things I look for in dance on film - the magic a camera can add. From Royal Wedding to The Company, film really can add so much to a film - and we owe a good deal of the marriage of camera and dancer to people like Busby Berkley and especially Gene Kelly.

As for Hope and Cagney, they have very different styles. Hope is a hoofer - very flat foot, lots of buck and wings (he does a whole series of half wings) - plus he doesn't dance from his core, which is why his body is so wild. He should have done more sit-ups. Cagney's style is called eccentric and it's up on the toes. He looks lighter because he's using a different part of the foot. He's also got a very solid core that helps him keep his body still.

Rick Olson said...

I like memes, too. Good entry. Especially Ann Reinking, whom I chose too, although I used a clip from another dance from "All That Jazz."

Miranda Wilding said...

Oh, baby, baby, baby...

This is a spectacularly imaginative list. No surprises there.

Bravo for ANN REINKING in ALL THAT JAZZ. She's a scorch.

But two of the sequences that you described were ones that immediately came to mind when Pat tagged me and I had to work out my own personal choices. They're quite unforgettable and they linger in memory for a variety of reasons.

Having seen PULP FICTION in the cinema several times (and once again recently) I can firmly attest to the power of that UMA THURMAN/JOHN TRAVOLTA scene. It's a fantastic film. But as soon as they hit the dance floor the movie STOPS COLD in a brilliant, bracing way.

It's awesome.

Then there are the few moments in Paris where WOODY and GOLDIE dance in EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU. I concur with your assessement, sir. It is decidedly magical and deeply poignant. In the film, they play former spouses. Goldie remarried and is very happy with ALAN ALDA.

Woody is still at loose ends. He pursues a romantic relationship with JULIA ROBERTS who is still quite connected to her husband. Certainly not a brilliant move. But I think he was so smitten by her that he wasn't watching the signs. She's a bit flaky.

Even for him.

When Woody and Goldie dance, you can see that there's still a spark there. Goldie's not tempted enough for a revisiting at that point.

But you never know what the future may bring...

And her flying (though hilarious) was genuinely sublime.

A lot of people don't know that Goldie (despite her fluffy image) is a trained dancer that's driven and disciplined. She ran her own dancing school when she was 19.

But if playing ditsy (INITIALLY) is what gets you in the door, maybe it's not such a big sacrifice after all? The 60s were a long time ago. She's a famous, well respected, wealthy woman of long standing.

I'm so glad Marilyn thought of this meme. People keep coming up with such fascinating selections.

I'm so proud of you, Ryan. You did GOOD, sugar.

Juan Leon said...

Interesting Monsieur Kelly. Make'em Laugh is great, but you forgot the greatest dance scene of them all. Marlon Brando's frolicking around on the dance floor in "Last Tango in Paris" sans pants.

Adam Zanzie said...

Glad to see Robbins and Nielsen's air-gravity cha cha from "Mission to Mars". I rewatched that film earlier tonight to prepare for that review of yours coming up.

The sequences from "Singin' in the Rain" and "All that Jazz" are top-notch, totally. Everyone knows that I'm catching up on my Altman, but I must not have been aware that "The Company" was so good! I'll add it to my Queue.

I was baffled at first that nothing from "Yankee Doodle Dandee" showed up on here, but I'll look into that alternative title you posted with Cagney and Hope. What's it called, again?

One unforgettable dance piece I would like to add is Gregory Hines' silent tap-dancing solo in Coppola's "The Cotton Club" (1984), which is all the more eerie because Coppola juxtaposes it with a mob shootout in an Italian restaurant. So dancing and violence really DO go together like bacon and eggs!

Adam Zanzie said...

and what Juan said: Brando pulling his pants down in front of the outraged dancing judge in "Last Tango" is one for the ages.

Sam Juliano said...

"You know, not many people knew it, but the Führer was a terrific dancer. (now shouting with rage) That is because you were taken in by that verdammte Allied propaganda! Such filthy lies! They told lies! But nobody ever said a bad word about Winston Churchill, did they? No! "Win with Winnie!" Churchill! With his cigars, with his brandy. And his ROTTEN painting! Rotten! Hitler, THERE was a painter! He count paint an entire apartment in one afternoon! TWO COATS! Churchill. He couldn't even say "Nazi". He would say "Nooooozeeehz, Nooooozeeehz!" It wasn't NOSES, it was NAZIS! Churchill! Let me tell you THIS! And you're hearing this straight from the horse - Hitler was better looking than Churchill. He was a better dresser than Churchill. He had more hair! He told funnier jokes! And he could dance the PANTS off of Churchill!

Jill said...

Not crazy about musicals but I enjoyed the post. I agree with you about the Mission to Mars scene - it is very touching and then becomes more so a scene or two later.
Maybe I am just going to add this because I have very fond memories of Emily pirouetting in front of the television, but the dance scene in Beauty and the Beast was a pretty good one too.

Ryan Kelly said...

Marilyn, thanks for the praise, and most of all, thanks for the meme! This was a great topic, and thank you for letting me bend the rules a bit to reflect my sensibilities a little more clearly. I too love the way a camera can make a dance sequence feel all the more visceral and kinetic --- sometimes through lots of cuts, sometimes through no cuts! And I'm glad to hear that you love The Company as well, it seems like Altman's later films (sans Gosford Park) aren't all that highly regarded, when I think a lot of his later stuff is pretty wonderful.

If you like Savior Glover, you simply must see Happy Feet. He supplies the dance moves for the main character in that movie, and he's probably the real star of the movie on those grounds. And come on... they're penguins... and they dance! Who could ask for more?

And thank you for your comments on Hope and Cagney, you flesh out their differences better than I could. So, on that note, would you say Hope is as good as Cagney? I've only seen him dance in that one movie and, as I wrote, never really 'got' Bob Hope.

Marilyn said...

Hope is definitely NOT as good as Cagney. Look at a dancer's midsection. It should be an anchor. Hope's isn't, and it makes his entire body look awkward, flailing. He doesn't have the control he needs to do anything artistic with his movements. All he can do is make noise. As for style, I'm not a huge fan of hoofing. They always look like they're stomping around, aka Ruby Keeler, but it's a style not a basic flaw. You note that Cagney does the same choreography in the clip you linked to as he did in the "Yankee Doodle Dandy" number in the film of the same name. Great body memory.

Ryan Kelly said...

Miranda, yes, Reinking is positively smokin' in All That Jazz. What a body she had.

And I can't say I'm surprised that you and I thought of some of the same sequences. Agreed, that Pulp Fiction scene is positively brilliant; pure indulgence, but inspired indulgence nonetheless. Plus, the fact that they shake their asses in time with one another suggests their burgeoning... shall we say, feelings?

Glad we at least agree on that Woody Allen movie, as I'd honestly have to question anyone who didn't like a movie as pleasant and gentle as Everyone Says I Love You. It's just so sweet, even if there are touches of Allen's cynicism (everyone cheats on everyone all the time), but he doesn't let that bog down the joy that permeates the movie. I almost went with the Ed Norton dance sequence in the jewelry store, but that ending is just perfection.

But, earlier in the movie, Allen sets up that finale in an interesting way. It's implied that it didn't work out between he and Goldie Hawn's character because... well, because he's Woody Allen. But I think he implies that she is at least somewhat unhappy in her marriage with Alan Alda's character during the sequence when he sings Cole Porter's "Looking at you" to her. The camera pans over two pictures; in the first, clearly on their wedding day, she has a frown on her face --- doesn't look happy in the slightest, the next she's in a hospital bed holding a newborn baby, with a positively radiant smile on her face. That little detail says so much about those characters, I think.

Yes, Hawn is far more talented than she's given credit for, a trained singer and dancer (she even had to sing below her ability for Everyone Says I Love You, to keep in with the naturalistic singing in the movie), and quite beauitful as well. And, plus, playing ditzy and doing comedies isn't as easy as some would make it out to be. She had a real gift for comedy. My favorite performance of hers is in Spielberg's first movie, The Sugarland Express, where she kinda plays that ditzy girl but she gives it a very different dramatic spin.

Ryan Kelly said...

Ponce de León! It's so great to have you back here. Your absence has left a hole in my heart the size of the state of Florida. And yes, I'd considered the Brando sequence, but a few fellow bloggers and I made a pact to keep Brando's ass far away from the internet.

And how goes the search for the fountain of youth?

Ryan Kelly said...

Adam, that movie is called The Seven Little Foys, but if you watch the sequence I linked to in my piece, with Hope & Cagney, then you've seen the best part. Seriously, how did Bob Hope convince so many people he was talented? It baffles me.

Ryan Kelly said...

Sam, I was wondering who, if anyone, would catch The Producers reference in the title. Congratulations, you win the prize! The only problem is I blew all the cash I'd set aside as prize money. First, I gambled most of it, spent the rest on whiskey, and then the damned IRS started breathing down my neck...

So, sorry, you get nothing but the satisfaction of knowing you won.

Ryan Kelly said...

Well, Jill, most of these aren't musicals! And yes, the Beauty and the Beast dance sequence is wonderful, but it was the beginning of the end for Disney. After that, they just relied on computers to make their movies, instead of using them effectively like they did in that sequence.

Ryan Kelly said...

Marilyn, that's the only thing I'd ever really noticed about the two of them, that Hope is pretty much loose and all over the place with his body, whereas Cagney is able to keep his body mostly rigid. Even if he's not a great dancer, he dances with such confidence that he pretty much convinces you he is (I think we can agree that he couldn't sing, though).

Marilyn said...

Most dancers couldn't sing. Astaire was barely passable, Kelly, fuggetaboutit. Ginger Rogers, nada. Ruby Keeler, even worse. Brando in "Guys and Dolls" is the worst case of miscasting in the history of motion pictures.

Adam Zanzie said...

Astaire's singing is pretty good in "Finian's Rainbow", not to mention his voiceover as Special Delivery Kruger in Rankin/Bass's "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town". His version of that song is soooo much better than Perry Como's. (I'm kidding)

Sam Juliano said...

Thanks Ryan!

No prize is necessary (LOL!)as this is my favorite American comedy of the past 40 years, even eclipsing a few Woody's and Ashby's BEING THERE. So I soon as I saw your chosen title, I smiled. Ryan, this was truly a tremendous post. Nice work here!