Frederick Wiseman’s latest documentary operates as a potent antidote to the gnawing worry, fed by the grim global economic news, that the social fabric and civilization as we know it are at a precipice. If that accomplishment is somehow insufficient, La Danse: Le Ballet de l’Opera de Paris does double duty as a coolly furious rebuttal to the entropy that is the natural state of practically everything. Rust never sleeps, no question, but neither (it seems) do the dancers, choreographers and artistic director of the Paris Opera Ballet. For an equally truthful and more familiar perspective on workplace satisfaction in the Age of Diminishing Expectations, there’s Frazer Bradshaw’s Oakland-set, understatedly eloquent Everything Strange and New. Wiseman’s doc (opening today at the Balboa and Elmwood) and Bradshaw’s feature (ditto at the Roxie) aren’t what you call typical holiday fare, though they assuredly provide An Education for Brothers and Avatars on The Road or Up In the Air.
If you’ve ever seen a Wiseman film—from Titicut Follies to High School to Welfare —you have a pretty good idea what to expect from La Danse: Le Ballet de l’Opera de Paris. Or what not to expect: talking-head interviews, archival footage, narration, news clips, shaky handheld camera on the go and lower thirds identifying the people on camera. The filmmaker’s aesthetic is unhurried and uncluttered, and it feels particularly refreshing these days. He gives us scenes instead of sound bites, life being lived at its own pace instead of shaped and manipulated drama.
We’re granted access to classes and the cafeteria, the costume shop and artistic director Brigitte Lefevre’s office. The filmmaker even ventures onto the roof, where a beekeeper does his work high above the Paris bustle. But the heart of the film is in the rehearsals, and the performances. Wiseman has always focused on the inner workings of institutions (see the titles above) though, frankly, he doesn’t capture or communicate a great deal about the mission, philosophy or challenges (artistic or financial) of the Paris Opera Ballet beyond a few pithy utterances by Mme. Lefevre. Sure, it’s fascinating to sit in her office while a prized veteran dancer asks for a lighter load in a particular ballet, or a tour operator negotiates a lunch and guided stroll (but not a rehearsal visit) for 20 major American donors with Wall Street ties. But the real action is in the studios and onstage, where we watch the dancers at work and come to understand the essence of this artistic enterprise.
Almost immediately, we discern the respect, community and collaboration that define the Paris Opera Ballet. Every word of instruction, direction and criticism is constructive. The common goal is plumbing every movement for meaning and nuance and effect, with the aim of being precise and natural at the same time. We witness the creation of a work of art through practice and repetition, with wonderful, telling glimpses of the dancers developing and understanding their characters.
The focus and dedication on display, combined with Wiseman’s still daytime and nighttime shots of Paris, convey the sense that the Ballet is a privileged enclave in the city, as isolated and self-sufficient as a monastery yet at the same time an essential player in a vibrant cultural capital. Is this place, this school and dance company, with its tradition and dignity and standard of quality, the last bastion of civilization? I’m being a tad melodramatic, but it’s difficult to name very many other places where beauty and discipline and work are esteemed so highly and so resolutely. For two-and-a-half hours, La Danse: Le Ballet de l’Opera de Paris lets us watch men and women on a mission, and we are mesmerized.
If that title hadn’t already been used, it would have been a good fit for Frazer Bradshaw’s low-key, quietly wonderful narrative debut. Everything Strange and New centers on a man and his family who embody the reduced expectations of the downwardly mobile. Wayne’s a construction worker—not building new homes but rehabbing old ones, it’s worth noting—while his frustrated wife Beth (played by Beth Lisick) takes cares of the kids and waits for freelance jobs from her old ad exec cronies. They’re able to cover the mortgage but that’s about it: No car, no vacations. And not much sex, either, which is not as incidental as you may think.
Wayne’s primary problem, which he alludes to in his perfectly modulated narration, is that he’s detached from his own life. He bears some vague resemblance to the existential modern man singing Talking Heads’ "Once In a Lifetime," only far more numb, distant and depressed. It’s not just the economic malaise and dwindling prospects for a better life that grind on him, but the helpless feeling of having slipped into a banal adult existence that bears no resemblance to his naïve teenage fantasies or the fun-loving, sex-filled years with his wife before the children arrived. Wayne (winningly underplayed by Jerry McDaniel) is a passive, deadened fellow, which makes it all the more impressive just how deeply the director insinuates us into his world.
See, not much happens in Wayne’s life, or in the movie. He goes to work and comes home, has beers with a couple friends, bickers and makes up with Beth. By contrast, the everyday folks who populate the Dardennes brothers’ films (Rosetta, L’enfant) compel our attention by rushing about on the verge of some action. The mumblecore movies, which are also about regular folks with no special talents or ambition, are filled with half-funny dialogue and allude to the rhythms of sketch comedy. The classics of neo-realism (from The Bicycle Thief to Pixote to Salaam Bombay) infuse their portraits of the underclass with acres of drama.
Everything Strange and New does none of that. It pulls us forward with a mix of unforced ambiguity, barely measurable suspense and genuine high stakes. No, a loan shark isn’t going to show up and break Wayne’s legs; no brother-in-law is going to call with a scheme for a big score and the chance for "freedom." The stakes are Wayne and Beth’s lives, and the lives of their kids, at a time and place where the American dream is a distant memory, if not an outright con job. Bradshaw uses the recurring motif of static shots of streets and houses, as if to evoke the misdemeanors, compromises and general unconsciousness going on under every roof in the city (and, by extension, the country).
Without the faintest whiff of pretentiousness, or the remotest desire to wallow in pity or despair, Everything Strange and New depicts a man with no idea how to stem the slide into oblivion. Wayne tells us at one point that he tried working harder, as a way to buy a little peace and possibility for he and Beth, but it didn’t help. It’s a damned shame, but there’s not a movie that speaks to more people in this country right now than this one.
Note from the publicist: Co-star Luis Saguar, a much beloved force on the local theater and acting scene, passed away suddenly this past summer leaving behind his wife Nancy and 3-year-old daughter Carmela. Lucky Hat Entertainment will honor Luis by contributing the proceeds of the 7 p.m. and 9:15 p.m. screenings on both Friday and Saturday of the opening weekend to his family. Please remember Luis and help ease the futures of Nancy and Carmela by attending one of these screenings. Each screening will be preceded by a short tribute to Luis. Advance tickets are available for $15-$10 will go directly to Nancy and Carmela. Go to www.brownpapertickets.com/event/89797.
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