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Dancing in the Dark: Cyd Charisse (1921 – 2008)



Dancing in the Dark: Cyd Charisse (1921 - 2008)

It’s often been said that Cyd Charisse was the greatest female movie dancer, and she was able to partner the very different styles of the two great male movie dancers, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Her only real rival is Eleanor Powell, a prodigious hoofer who came from the world of slightly klunky tap-dancing, whereas Charisse had trained to be a ballerina and even danced with the Ballet Russes when she was a young girl. Ballet provided the backbone of her rock-solid technique, yet when she danced straight ballet on screen, something was missing; in trying to be overly correct for ballet dancing, Charisse looked too tall, too leggy. But give her something jazzy, something modern, something fifties, and she does things with her body that are hard to describe, let alone understand.

She was born Tula Finklea in Amarillo, Texas, and the name “Cyd” came from her brother calling her “Sid” instead of “sister” as a child, while the “Charisse” came from her first husband, a dancer named Nico. “Cyd Charisse” was a fantastic name for her: it sounds like back alleys strewn with colored streamers, a mix of grit and fancy style. MGM signed her in their forties musical heyday, smoothing out her Texas accent and giving her the full treatment in lessons and grooming. This early training would show itself in the stiff, anxious rectitude of her acting; Pauline Kael once cracked that in The Band Wagon (1953) it sounded as if Charisse “learned her lines phonetically,” and that’s not far from the truth. Charisse seemed worried that Texas would somehow come through in her voice, and she is very uncomfortable with dialogue in The Band Wagon and her early films. However, by the time of It’s Always Fair Weather (1955), her acting is perfectly serviceable, though no match for her ring-a-ding-ding, pugilistic dance number with boxers in a ring.

There are five essential Cyd Charisse films. The first is Singin’ in the Rain (1952), where she shows up with a Louise Brooks hairdo in the final big number. First, we see her shapely foot in close-up. Then, the camera moves up her leg, and moves, and moves, and moves. This is a woman with legs for days, and after we finally get to her torso, the camera moves up, and we see that she has a face that seems to be hard and humid with insatiable sexual appetite. Charisse was only five foot seven, but the incredible length of her legs and arms made her seem like an Amazon, a creature from another world. Her thighs were very fleshy, and she delighted in using their sensual amplitude for erotic effect, slyly sliding down Gene Kelly’s leg to the floor, a “bad woman” to dream about.

The second essential is The Band Wagon, where she moves into definite Queen of the Goosebumps territory in her two major dances with Fred Astaire, “Dancing in the Dark,” a lyrical romantic number, and the extended “Girl Hunt” number, a parody of Kelly’s “concept” ballets; these two numbers are Charisse’s clearest ticket to immortality. During “Girl Hunt,” when Astaire enters a dive and sees Charisse seated at a bar, she hesitates for just the right amount of time before doffing her greenish cloak and revealing the reddest damn scarlet woman red dress in movie history, with unapologetic little tassels hanging from her beautiful breasts. When the music speeds up, we’re in a kind of no man’s land: I really don’t know how Charisse does what she does here. Part of the magic is her technical skill, of course, but a huge part of it comes from her, and it has to do with a kind of taunting yet witty sexuality that actually makes the icy Astaire look randy in response. At the height of their pulsating, “are we being serious?” interplay, Charisse extends her epic legs out to Astaire on five horn blasts: one, two, three, four, five, and on the fifth beat she turns. Then, one, two, three, four, five, and on that crucial fifth beat, she flings her whole upper body backwards to the rhythm. That’s math, maybe, or dance. But the way that she throws her head back on that second beat of five is quite possibly the most thrilling single moment I’ve ever seen in a movie.

The boxing number in the underrated It’s Always Fair Weather is Charisse’s third marvel, and her fourth is Rouben Mamoulian’s musical remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (1939), Silk Stockings (1957), a flawed movie, but a high point in Charisse’s development as a movie dancer. Let’s remember the exploratory sexiness of her solo dance as she unwraps delicate Parisian underwear, and the late tour-de-force with Astaire in long takes where they go through more emotions in movement than most actors do in a whole Shakespearean performance. Best of all, let’s remember and resurrect Nicholas Ray’s Party Girl (1958), Charisse’s fifth wonder, an underrated, modernist Technicolor noir full of pain and discomfort.

Charisse has two major dances in Party Girl, and they’re so detailed, so intense, so sexual, that they stand as her apotheosis. When I rented the film and saw these two dances, I could barely believe what I was seeing: I re-wound and watched them again and again, and then I called friends and told them to come over and watch the two Charisse dances in Party Girl with me. Jaws dropped, and the tape was re-wound many times for many people. Then I saw it on the big screen at the Museum of Modern Art: it wasn’t a pan and scan tape, but in widescreen, as it was meant to be. And I still can’t get over those two ineffable, indescribable Charisse dances in Party Girl. That’s the thing about dance: even professional dance writers (which I am not) have difficulty capturing just what it is we are seeing when we see a great dancer like Cyd Charisse.

She lived a long and presumably happy life with her second husband, singer Tony Martin, and she was surprisingly effective as the be-feathered wife in Vincente Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town (1962), but her real legacy is those five films from the fifties. Late one night on television, I caught Astaire and Charisse doing “Dancing in the Dark” from The Band Wagon. As I watched the two of them dance with each other, I suddenly felt, with total certainty, that life can’t possibly be completely meaningless, not if something like Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse dancing together was created and still exists. That must mean something, I thought. And by that, I mean Charisse’s endless legs coming to a point on the beat of the music, the line of her body as her arms make their playful, often challenging and always heartfelt points in the air. Cyd Charisse died yesterday. That body that moved like no one else ever has will make no more movements. But her dances negate her death more resoundingly than any book of poems, any supreme novel, any gallery of paintings. On screen, she will always be moving, in both the literal and figurative sense, and that must mean something.

“Girl Hunt” from The Band Wagon:

“Baby, You Knock Me Out” from It’s Always Fair Weather:

Party Girl:

“Dancing in the Dark” from The Band Wagon:



Review: That Was Something Lays Bare the Ephemeral Desires of a Lost Youth

By the end, the lesson we’ve learned is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft.



That Was Something

Film and theater critic Dan Callahan’s witty debut novel, That Was Something, chronicles the young adulthood of Bobby Quinn, a gay Midwestern transplant who’s just moved from Chicago to Manhattan to attend New York University. Retrospectively, it examines his obsession with the two leading players in the story of his early days in the city in the late 1990s: the enigmatic Ben Morrissey, an irresistible fellow student destined for fame in the art world, and the mysterious Monika Lilac, a dramatic and performative slightly older cinephile whose devotion to silent films is emblematic of her entire character. “I was looking for the keys to the kingdom, and I found them or thought I did in Manhattan screening rooms, in the half-light and the welcome dark,” Bobby declares to the reader in the novel’s opening, and so begins a provocative—and conspicuously wine-drenched—narrative that serves both as a paean to a bygone era and an emphatic testimony about how we never really leave behind the people, experiences, and places that shape us into who we are in the present.

For a fleeting period of time, the lives of these three characters become intertwined and united by their shared passion for the cinema—and for each other. While Ben and Monika enter into a tumultuous romance, Bobby watches from the sidelines as he privately explores his own sexuality, mostly in dalliances with anonymous older men who he meets at bars in Chelsea, having learned to offer himself up “as a kind of virgin sacrifice.” Throughout, Callahan’s frank descriptions of Bobby’s early sexual experiences are a welcome departure from metaphor, while still seeming almost mythical in the way that Bobby recalls them, just like how all of the liminal moments in our lives—the moments in which we cross a threshold and permanently abandon whoever we had been before—seem to mark our personal histories almost like the transitions between the disparate chapters of a novel.

Bobby has been deeply in love with Ben ever since the two met for the first time in a common area of their shared dormitory at NYU, and Ben keeps Bobby only barely at arm’s length—sexually and otherwise—throughout the dazzling weeks, months, and even years of their relationship as young men. He constantly reminds Bobby that they would probably be lovers if only Ben were gay, which is obviously music to Bobby’s ears, fueling many of his private fantasies. And Bobby is also the prized subject of Ben’s budding photography career, often photographed in the nude, and both the photographs themselves and the act of bringing them into the world blur lines of sexuality and masculinity as the friendship between the two young men deepens and becomes increasingly complex.

Callahan cocoons his characters in what feels like a time capsule, capturing them at their most beautiful and glamorous and then presenting them to us as if on a stage—or on a screen, which the characters in the novel would agree is even more intimate, even more akin to a grab at immortality. Other characters drift in and out of the central narrative in the same way that one-night stands and people we’ve met only at dimly lit parties can sometimes seem blurry and indistinct when we try to recollect them later, but the love story that Bobby is most interested in sharing with the reader is that of a queer young man’s obsession with his larger than life friends during a time when everything for him was larger than life.

Callahan’s previous book, The Art of American Screen Acting: 1912-1960, demonstrates the author’s talent for dissecting the subtlety and nuance of the many nonverbal ways in which the icons of the screen communicate with one another, and here too in That Was Something is close attention paid to the power of performance. The novel is also a story about falling in love with a city, even in retrospect—and even after the version of the city that you originally knew is gone forever. And in the familiar yet always poignant way in which the sights and sounds of a lost New York typically wriggle their way into a novel like this one, the city is at first a backdrop before it inevitably becomes a character.

Monika Lilac hosts a silent film-themed party at her house during which the guests have been cleverly instructed to pantomime their communication to one another rather than speak out loud, and to write out any absolutely necessary dialogue on handmade title cards. At the end of the party, the various revelers—wearing only their underwear, at Monika’s command—all together “streamed out into the night and ran like crazy” through New York City streets while being pummeled from above by heavy rain, not caring at all who was watching. And Bobby, from the vantage point of years in the future, recalls:

In any other place, we might have been harassed, arrested, or the object of wide-eyed stares. Not in Manhattan. And that has its flip side, too. Because Manhattan will let you do whatever you like, at any time of the day or night, but it won’t ever pay attention to you. You can be world famous, and Manhattan still basically doesn’t care, most of the time. And if you aren’t world famous, Manhattan regards you at several ice-slicked levels below indifference. And sometimes, on less wonderful days and nights, some attention might be welcome.

In a blurb on the novel’s back cover, Wayne Koestenbaum describes That Was Something as “The Great Gatsby on poppers,” and there’s definitely something of Nick Carraway in the voice of Bobby Quinn as he looks back at his disappearing New York and the people who populated it, the ghost of a city that disappeared forever the moment he looked away. Callahan’s novel enters the canon of the queer roman a clef—as well as the literary New York novel—by mixing vibrantly realized memories of a fleeting youth, ruminations on the origins of desire, and a deeply felt nostalgia for the way things once were into a cocktail that tastes exactly like growing up and growing older in the same city in which you were once young. And the hangover after a night spent knocking them back in the dim light of a Manhattan dive, as anyone who still occasionally haunts the haunts of his youth can tell you, is always brutal.

Bobby is now many years older as he narrates That Was Something, his desires tempered or at least contained by realistic expectations of how and in what ways they might be satisfied, and his relationships with Ben (now famous) and Monika (now vanished) are either nonexistent or else greatly demoted from the centrality that they had once firmly occupied in the narrative of his life. But there’s still urgency in what Bobby is telling the reader. In the novel’s brilliant final pages, we come to realize that the act of looking back at our younger selves is both masturbatory and transitory, mostly an exercise in framing. Bobby has been explaining how age has made him wistful about his moment in the sun, but then he’s suddenly remembering a fantasy that he once enacted alone one afternoon in his dorm room, back when he was still a virgin—and back when all of his fantasies were about Ben Morrissey:

I entered another place with my mind. It felt like what stepping into the past would feel like now, maybe. It was forbidden, and I was getting away with it. … Looked at from the outside and with unsympathetic eyes, it would be pitiful and grotesque, maybe even laughable. So why am I still so certain that something else occurred?

The lesson we’ve learned by the end of That Was Something is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft. Just think of all that film that ends up on the cutting room floor during the editing process, to be forgotten and swept away with the garbage after the best take has been safely delivered. Only with the benefit of hindsight can we wipe away the shame and growing pains of early stabs at love and failed expressions of desire and instead render the past beautifully, artfully, just as the cinematic film frame limits our perspective so that all we can see is what the director has meticulously manufactured specifically for us. The equipment that made the image possible in the first place has been painstakingly concealed, so that all we notice—all we remember—is whatever ends up remaining beneath the carefully arranged spotlight.

Sometimes a great novel, like a great film, can at once transform and transport us, offering a glimpse into a lost world made all the more beautiful by the distance it asks us to travel into our hearts and minds. At the end of one of the last film screenings that Bobby attends in the company of Monika Lilac, she says wistfully to him, “You know, you’re downhearted, and you think, ‘What’s the use?’ and then you see a film like that and it speaks to you and suddenly you’re back in business again!” And the film they’ve been watching, she has just whispered to Bobby as the credits rolled in the emptying theater, was the story of her life.

Dan Callahan’s That Was Something is now available from Squares & Rebels.

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Blu-ray Review: Peppermint Soda Gets 2K Restoration from Cohen Media Group

Diane Kurys’s poignant debut powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth.



Peppermint Soda
Photo: Cohen Media Group

Diane Kurys’s Peppermint Soda is like flipping through a young girl’s diary, capturing as it does snippets of the small-scale tragedies, amusing hijinks, and quotidian details that define the lives of two Parisian teenage sisters over the course of their 1963-to-‘64 school year. Through a delicate balancing of comedic and dramatic tones, Kurys’s debut film taps into the emotional insecurities and social turmoil that accompany the awkward biological developments of adolescence with a disarming sweetness and subtlety, lending even small moments a poignancy that shuns overt displays of sentimentality or nostalgia. As evidenced by the opening title card, in which Kurys dedicates the film to her sister “who has still hasn’t returned my orange sweater,” Peppermint Soda’s authenticity arises from its specificity, both in its characters’ tumultuous inner lives and the detailed rendering of their friends and teachers, as well as the classrooms within which they passed their days.

Structured as a series of loosely connected vignettes, the film bounces between the introverted 13-year-old Anne (Eléonore Klarwein) and her outgoing, popular 15-year-old sister, Frédérique (Odile Michel), who both attend the same strict, bourgeois private school. While Anne’s concerns often verge on the petty, be it her frustration at her mother (Anouk Ferjac) refusing to buy her pantyhose or at her sister for preventing her from tagging along to social gatherings, Kurys depicts Anne with a uniquely compassionate eye, mining light humor out of such situations while remaining keenly aware of the almost insurmountable peer pressures and image-consciousness that are the driving forces behind most irrational teenage behavior.

Some scenes, such as the one where Anne’s art teacher ruthlessly mocks her drawing in front of the class, are representative of the emotionally abusive or neglectful relationship between Anne and many of the adults in her life, and throughout, Kurys understands that it’s how Anne is seen by her classmates that most dramatically affects her state of mind. In the heightened emotional state of teenage years, the sting of simply not having a pair of pantyhose can be more painful than a teacher’s overbearing maliciousness. But Peppermint Soda isn’t all doom and gloom, as the bitter disappointments of youth are counterbalanced with a number of droll passages of Anne gossiping and goofing off with her friends. Particularly amusing is a conversation where Anne’s friend confidently, yet with wild inaccuracies, describes sex, eventually guessing that boy’s hard-ons can grow to around six feet long.

In Peppermint Soda’s latter half, Kurys seamlessly shifts her focus toward Frédérique, broadening the film’s scope as current events begin to shape the elder sister’s political consciousness. Everything from John F. Kennedy’s assassination to a classmate’s terrifying firsthand account of the police’s violent overreaction to a student protest against the Algerian War lead Frédérique to slowly awaken to the complexities of the world around her. But even as Frédérique finds herself becoming quite the activist, handing out peace pins and organizing secret meetings in school—and much to the chagrin of her mother and her sexist, conservative teacher—she’s still prone to fits of emotional immaturity when it comes to her boyfriend.

It’s through these frequent juxtapositions of micro and macro concerns, when the inescapable solipsism of childhood runs head-on into the immovable hurdles and responsibilities of adulthood, that Peppermint Soda most powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth. Yet the sly sense of whimsy that Kurys instills in her deeply personal recollections acts as a comforting reminder of the humor tucked away in even our darkest childhood memories. Sometimes it just takes a decade or two to actually find it.

Peppermint Soda is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Cohen Media Group.

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Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing

If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt.



First Man
Photo: Universal Pictures

If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt, because we’d much rather give birth in a tub while surrounded by murderous blind creatures than have to once again write our predictions for the sound categories. As adamant as we’ve been that the Academy owes it to the nominees to air every category, which they agreed to after an extended “just kidding,” it might have given us pause had the sound categories been among the four demoted by Oscar. But no, we must now endure our annual bout of penance, aware of the fact that actually knowing what the difference is between sound editing and sound mixing is almost a liability. In other words, we’ve talked ourselves out of correct guesses too many times, doubled down on the same movie taking both categories to hedge our bets too many times, and watched as the two categories split in the opposite way we expected too many times. So, as in A Quiet Place, the less said, the better. And while that film’s soundscapes are as unique and noisy as this category seems to prefer, First Man’s real-word gravitas and cacophonous Agena spin sequence should prevail.

Will Win: First Man

Could Win: A Quiet Place

Should Win: First Man

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