Gene Kelly centennial

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John F
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Gene Kelly centennial

Post by John F » Sun Jul 15, 2012 2:56 am

The Film Society of Lincoln Center is showing 23 of his films in a retrospective. (MGM refused permission to include "Singing in the Rain," and I haven't yet found out why.)

July 13, 2012
He Made a Splash, and Dance History

A downpour makes me think of dance. Who hasn’t been caught in the rain and felt the urge — at least once — to swing around a lamppost? Blame Gene Kelly.

Martha Graham choreographed as a way to keep dancing, but Kelly danced in order to choreograph. It’s not exactly the image many of us have of Kelly, whose defining and deceptively casual approach centered on virility and athleticism. He embodied a new ideal of the American male dancer that contrasted with Fred Astaire’s debonair elegance. Kelly’s elegance was carefree.

Still, Kelly, who came from working-class Pittsburgh, wasn’t afraid of beauty. With a seductively light touch, he turned the prospect of dancing in puddles into a vigorous, masculine act. He was more than a dancer; he was a game changer in how society viewed, understood and ultimately embraced dance.

Yet in a way his charismatic dancing has held him back from being recognized as a choreographer and director who helped change the look of dance on film. This month “Invitation to the Dance: Gene Kelly @ 100,” a program of 23 films presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, aims to rectify that. The screenings run Sunday through July 26 at the Walter Reade Theater.

“Very often he is left off of lists of directors and choreographers,” said Kelly’s widow, the film historian Patricia Ward Kelly, who is taking part in the series. “People remember him up on the screen but forget he was behind the camera,” she said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. “That’s what he wanted to be remembered for.”

In “Singin’ in the Rain,” which is not included in the Film Society series because of a studio-imposed moratorium, Kelly created what may be the most recognizable dance number preserved on film. The snapshot moment of the dance — when he hops onto a lamppost amid the falling rain — doesn’t tell the whole story. The number is about being in love, about opening your heart to the elements. As he glides across the screen crisscrossing his feet, water shoots from his ankles like liquid sparks. He shows that a two-dimensional form can’t destroy a kinetic impulse. “Singin’ in the Rain” isn’t a dance for the stage but for the screen, in which the choreography and the camera, which Kelly referred to as a “one-eyed monster,” work in stunning tandem. It’s a conversation.

For Kelly, even more meaningful than individual steps is the greater whole: How does everything on the screen relate and, though flat, pulsate with life? How can the human form appear to float and then, in another instant, compress itself tightly? As the camera pulls back, Kelly opens his umbrella and takes wide, space-engulfing steps while spinning in circles on a cobblestone street; as it moves in for a closer shot, he stomps both feet at once, sending sprays to create a human fountain.

According to his widow Kelly recognized that there was no peripheral vision in film; the camera is essentially each viewer watching the movie. He discovered that dances for film needed to be shorter than those for the stage; he also took dancing to the streets — as “Singin’ in the Rain” attests — expanding the possibilities of what a dancer could express through movement.

Relishing the sheer motion of higher jumps and bigger turns, Kelly found that dances taking place in open spaces could hint at a third dimension. Lighting and costumes — he generally had no use for ties and tails — were carefully cultivated. And he didn’t like to crop bodies.

Why does a piece of Kelly’s choreography look more alive than much of what is available today, even on 3-D? Part of it has to do with lighting — 3-D can create murky conditions — and part of it is that dance, while a visual art form, leaves more open to imagination than you might assume. In Kelly’s world dance is partly about transference of feeling from his dancing body to your stationary one. It’s a visceral experience; even though we’re not moving, we become animated too.

Current techniques of quick cuts, which highlight body parts instead of the total form, create less of a dance than a collage experience. On an episode from “Glee,” in which “Singin’ in the Rain” is reframed as a mash-up with Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” Gwyneth Paltrow and others splash around while the camera — in this case less a one-eyed monster than a violent, twisting fire hose — takes a dizzying tour of the stage.

This scene of umbrellas, stamping feet and copious puddles is a mess. Where is the innovation? The only discouraging part about watching a handful of Kelly films in one sitting is the sinking realization that dance on film — with exceptions like “NY Export: Opus Jazz,” in which two New York City Ballet dancers adapted a 1958 Jerome Robbins dance to urban environments — is leaning backward rather than forward.

Part of Ms. Kelly’s mission is to show how her husband advanced the form of dance on film. When she met Kelly, she said, she had no idea who he was. A self-described “nerdy Herman Melville scholar,” Ms. Kelly was hired as a writer for a television special about the Smithsonian Institution, for which he was host. They connected, not through his films but through their love of poetry and etymology. It goes against his image, right?

At the time she was 26, and he was 73. It’s a big age gap, but even when Kelly was in his late 60s — as proven in “Xanadu,” part of the series on July 21 — he has a sexy twinkle in his eye. While that film is generally awful, it’s worth watching for a poignant ghostly duet that Kelly choreographed for Olivia Newton-John. It marks his final appearance in a feature film.

“ ‘Xanadu’ is the hardest thing for me to watch,” Ms. Kelly said. “That’s Gene. Even the way he gets out of the chair and walks across the room. The way he answers the phone and the way he’d say, ‘Babe.’ That’s the man I met.”

Ms. Kelly is working on a book about his work and life. During their marriage she interviewed him daily, and they watched his movies together; he did so, she said, begrudgingly. She continued, “He was not a guy who liked to sit and watch his films.”

Kelly did admit to her that he was proud of the luminous ballet that concludes “An American in Paris,” starring Leslie Caron. (It’s scheduled in the series on Sunday and Tuesday.) And he called “You Wonderful You,” a duet from “Summer Stock” (screening July 22) for Judy Garland and himself, probably the classiest number he ever created because it is so deceptively simple. In it Garland must appear as though she is a novice dancer, which is harder than it sounds.

Today Kelly’s essence — his fresh, energetic way of moving, paired with his generous personality — is in evidence off the screen in any number of recent American ballet dancers, including Damian Woetzel, Ethan Stiefel and Robert Fairchild. But the masculine grace that Kelly prized above all else resides in modern dance too, specifically in the work of the choreographer Paul Taylor, who preferred Kelly to Astaire. (Mr. Taylor, when he was in junior high, sent a fan letter to Kelly; he got a signed photograph in return.)

The bodies, the rugged grace, the man’s man approach that epitomizes Mr. Taylor’s sensibility: these are pure Kelly. And just like Mr. Taylor, Kelly was conscious of natural movement. “He thought John Wayne was the most graceful man,” Ms. Kelly said. “He told me to watch him walk across the screen in ‘Hondo.’ He was very aware of how you would hold yourself, how you would walk, how you stand gracefully.”

Kelly was known for putting his partners through their paces, but he didn’t restrict his perfectionism to them. Early in their relationship he fixed Ms. Kelly’s walk. “I got those ‘Pygmalion’ lessons,” she said with a laugh. “ ‘Go up the stairs. Go back down the stairs.’ I’m grateful for it now. Everyone asks, ‘Are you a dancer?’ He said that I walked like I just got off a horse.” ... eries.html
John Francis

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Re: Gene Kelly centennial

Post by Tarantella » Sun Jul 15, 2012 5:29 am

How fortunate you are there in NY to have this Kelly retrospective (and everything else, I might add). I enjoyed him in Minnelli's "The Pirate", though the film is often under-rated. I love the crane shot/camera movement in "Singin' in the Rain' - it's beautiful rhythm perfectly suits the music and the choreography.

And Kelly was right about John Wayne's elegant, panther-ish stride. I read Todd McCarthy's biography of Howard Hawks some time ago and Hawks really admired Wayne and his walk and how it 'graced' the screen, particularly in "Rio Bravo". There's a famous parody of it in "The Birdcage" - no doubt everybody knows that scene!!!!

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Re: Gene Kelly centennial

Post by lennygoran » Sun Jul 15, 2012 8:00 am

Tarantella wrote: There's a famous parody of it in "The Birdcage" - no doubt everybody knows that scene!!!!
I didn't know of that scene or that movie but thanks to youtube!

Regards, Len :)

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