Andrew Bujalski’s third feature means business; Frederick Wiseman on the high art of ballet.
Even if they’re more likely to stumble softly over their words than mumble them inaudibly, the actors in Beeswax can’t help but draw attention to the ‘mumblecore’ brand of filmmaking that Andrew Bujalski has become indefinitely associated with—a shame, given the film’s worldview is a maturing one. Centred on another threesome of indecisive young people, this third feature from the talented writer-director strives to break free of the stuffy, hipster milieu witnessed in Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation, all the while shifting its emphasis from slacker romance to the mechanics of business and work. In dumping his characters in the thick of commerce—namely, owner-operator Jeannie (Tilly Hatcher) whose thorny partner in a vintage clothing store is threatening to sue—Bujalski actually makes the ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ more conspicuous when contrasted against the stiff, carefully trained language of solicitors and other professional adults. Closer inspection though reveals an older, wiser—if still hesitant—perspective where money now has as much bearing on tensions as friendship and sexual encounters used to. Meanwhile, Bujalski’s eye and ear for the way his cast interacts—particularly in snug, one-on-one scenarios—is as sharp as ever, contributing to a naturalism that, unlike some of his peers, never comes across as forced. Also eschewing the indie movement’s preference for digital is his loyalty to film stock—the warm, inviting tones of Matthias Grunsky’s 16mm photography another reason why Bujalski’s moviemaking continues to engage and is a cut above the rest.
If features shot on film are becoming increasingly scarce in low-budget cinema, the medium is even more endangered in documentary circles. Cue the great, prolific Frederick Wiseman—his latest documentary testament to the richness of shooting on film. Wiseman, whose portraits of social institutions are difficult to see from this side of the world (they screen in America on PBS, are generally limited to cinémathèques or retrospectives, and are only available on DVD exclusively through Zipporah Films), has cultivated and maintained a direct, uncluttered method of observation over four decades, one which would retain its integrity regardless of the format it was captured in. In the case of La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet, however, there’s something to be said for the sensuality of celluloid when ingrained with the grace, beauty and vitality of world-class dancers in motion. Following Wiseman’s 1993 study of the American Ballet Theatre and a rare foreign subject, The Comedie Francaise in 1996, La Danse camps out at the Paris Opera Ballet’s vast headquarters, where the daily routine of performers, choreographers, administrators, and designers is detailed in earnest. Interspersed throughout are a series of entrancing ballet recitals: some exquisitely classical, others outrageously contemporary, each sublimely shot.
Those unfamiliar with the director’s forthright style—there are no titles cards, voiceover narrations, or other signposts to guide the viewer—might come away from La Danse wanting more (the distinct lack of melodrama or creative friction is surprising), and yet to feel distanced by Wiseman’s rigorous viewpoint is to overlook how intensely absorbed by the people, the environment, and the work, his camera is. Attention, in fact, is placed equally on the unglamorous and mundane (lunchtime in the cafeteria, building renovations, janitorial duties), as well as the tireless efforts of the committee behind the running of the Opera Ballet. Here, artistic director Brigitte Lefèvre is at the foreground of the film’s reflection on art, commerce, and the fragility of high cultural institutions in economically uncertain times (Lehman Brothers, in a rather surreal moment, are discussed as potential corporate sponsors). Wiseman’s documentaries typically, sometimes angrily, reveal such issues beneath the surface of the institutions they set out to examine, and La Danse is no different, though as an appreciation of ballet, the art form, and a marvellous piece of filmmaking in its own right, possesses a different kind of power. Like The Red Shoes, the festival’s other glorious salute to ballet, the sheer quality and captivating nature of Wiseman’s film demands that it be seen on the big screen.