From the first moment I saw Gene Kellys dress shoes splashing through the puddles on that marvelous cutout MGM set to the skintight cat suit gyrations of Olivia Newton Johns hips while she belted Youre the One That I Want, I have personally been a fetishistic slave to the power of bodies in motion on film. When I was a kid, I was captivated by the way that Gene Wilder rolled from geriatric frailty into his true Wonka wonder during his inimitable introduction and would often attempt to recreate the song-and-dance routine that Wilder brought to life with Peter Boyle in Mel Brookss masterful Young Frankenstein. Was it simply the magical music and undeniable rhythms these movies presented that made me want to move? Or is there something more that makes bodies in motion on celluloid (or digital, though Im trying to think of any films in recent memory with memorable dancing which were shot digitally) so provoking and communicative? I think Ive figured it out.
Before I lay out my big answer, though, I want to just indulge a bit here and talk about the things that have made my experiences watching dance in movies so captivating. Mind you, when I say, dance I mean quite literally ANY way in which actors have been choreographed or directed to allow their bodies to just well, get weird. Dancing is kind of weird and when bodies start to get weird, wonderful things can happen. Remember what happened to your brain the first time bodies started shaking at Babss birthday party in Pink Flamingos (or MOST of Hairspray?!)? Or the way your mind melted when Magenta started Time Warping?
In one of the most impressive feats of physical limit-pushing, the entire experience of Bob Fosses All That Jazz works on such a gut-twisting primal level because Joe Gideons (Roy Scheider) Inferno-like descent is marked and whipped by the frenetic and exhausting physical demands of motion he and every other character around him experiences. Its one of my friend Jimmy McDermotts favorite films and I think its effectiveness derives from Fosses ability to hook us through the eyelids as every body in crisis collapses throughout the shooting.
Along those lines, I remember sitting in a theater in extreme discomfort (thats a good thing) while Older and Younger Daughter danced relentlessly to their brothers guitar strumming in Dogtooth. (Heres my chance to plug Arturo Ripsteins stronger Castle of Purity from which Dogtooth borrowed, well, almost everything but the dancing.) Or sitting at the Oak Park Plaza theater alone in sixth grade watching Ted Levines bizarre and sad self-serenade in Silence of the Lambs. Linnea Quigleys graveyard seduction in Return of the Living Dead, Liz Taylors way-out wiggling in Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,Miranda Julys bizarre modern dance sequences in The Future The list goes on
Since the subject has been dancing around my head lately (Yeah, I did that.), Ive concluded that my two favorite cinematic dance moments are probably the best ever captured by a camera. Theyre both classics. First and foremost is the brutal, unforgiving and gorgeous way that Moira Shearer is whipped up and across the screen to near-death exhaustion by the devil himself in Powell/Pressburgers The Red Shoes. That Dance of the Red Shoes" sequence takes it all out of me. My number one comes from you guessed it Singin in the Rain. Its not the namesake scene or Gotta Dance even. The only scene that wrecks me more solidly and leaves my jaw on the floor every time I behold it is the inhuman way that Donald OConnor abuses his body in the most acrobatic and hilarious style in Make Em Laugh.
OConnors character, Cosmo Brown, is the funny bone of the picture but the scene actually conveys something deeper. His desperation to appease an audience has made him a physical slave to a point of self-destruction all while staying in tune and keeping a smile on his face. When a filmmaker conveys the deep and extreme emotions in an actor without dialogue, something compelling happens to us both visually and narratively that has a wholly unique and powerful effect on the audience. Thats what Im talking about.
Theres just this incredible thing that can be expressed by a camera focused (or out of focused) on a body in motion. The way its lit, the movement of the camera, and the bodies in or out of sync, dancing together as the story comes to life even the best writing cant explain in parenthetical descriptives.
The hips, baby. Its all in the hips. As Bob Fosse said, Choreography is just writing on your feet.