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Emanuel Litvinoff and the nature of TS Eliot’s antisemitism

Emanuel LitvinoffIt completely passed me by that Emanuel Litvinoff had died in 2011.

Unfortunately for a writer who wrote many plays, novels and poems, he seems to be mostly remembered for his incredible poem To T.S. Eliot, an attack on Eliot’s antisemitism, which he amazingly read out in front of Eliot himself at the ICA in 1951. Previously an admirer, he was horrified when poems such as Gerontion and Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar were reprinted in 1948 in his Selected Poems. There is little doubt of the antisemitic content of these poems; they are downright nasty:

“And the Jew squats on the window sill, the owner [of my building] / Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp.”
– Gerontion

“The rats are underneath the piles. / The Jew is underneath the lot. / Money in furs.”
Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar

It’s always a shame when a writer is remembered primarily for something he probably wishes he had never had to write in the first place. Especially so since most of his novels seem to be now out of print. His memoir of Jewish East End life, Journeys Through a Small Planet has a Penguin Modern Classics edition that I’ll be making sure to get my hands on.

Looking at the history of Eliot’s antisemitism and political/religious trajectory is interesting in itself. There is no doubt that Eliot was a reactionary in the Tory tradition. You could call him a ‘very English’ reactionary, but I generally hate the self-mythologising ‘very English’ label the English like to apply to anything that paints us in a good light. A Very English Civil war, a Very English General Strike, blah.

Of course, Eliot was not English, but he was desperate to firmly root himself in English society, especially upper-class society. The most obvious expression of this is certainly his conversion from the Unitarianism of his childhood to Anglicanism, identifying not only as a member of the Church of England but as an Anglo-Catholic. Then in its heyday, Anglo-Catholicism is a branch of the Anglican church that retained the most Catholic aspects of worship from the Elizabethan Settlement; sacraments, incense, veneration of Mary, confession, and even Latin Mass in some instances. Traditionally, it disdains the Protestant, or ‘low church’, aspects of the Church of England, and sees itself as part of the continuous church founded by the early Christians. Unsurprisingly, many of the original adherents to Anglo-Catholicism in the mid-19th century, known as the Oxford Movement, converted to Catholicism itself, including Gerard Manley Hopkins, who continued to write poetry as a Jesuit priest. Many High Church Anglicans in recent years have also converted, unhappy with the modest attempts at liberalisation in the CofE.

Devotional image of Charles I, from the Eikon BasilikeHigh Church Anglicanism has always been the embodiment of the traditional English establishment, and none more so than in Eliot’s time, when the aristocracy still existed as a viable economic class. Toryism, the political wing of Anglo-Catholicism and the precursor to modern conservatism, growing out of the Royalist faction of the Civil War, was clearly where Eliot found himself most at home. He stated that he was a “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic [sic] in religion”. As if to amplify his reactionary politico-religious credentials, he was a life member of the Society of King Charles the Martyr, an Anglo-Catholic devotional society that venerates Charles I.

The essence of the modernism that Eliot portrayed in The Waste Land, that general unease associated with complete collapse of absolutes and the assumed survival of the political and social order, led him to embrace a totally pre-modern form of conservatism. The royalism of the Cavalier and Jacobite tradition, the religious conservatism, and in the vein of all European reactionaries since the French Revolution, the suspicion of materialism, capitalism, liberalism, and democracy. Eliot’s radicalism was one of traditional, authoritarian, paternalistic hierarchies.

In this embrace of the political and religious tastes of the inter-war aristocratic classes, it would almost be surprising if somebody like Emanuel Litvinoff had not had to write a poem denouncing Eliot for his antisemitism, which was hardly a rarity among the pre-war aristocracy.

The British Union of Fascists had many prominent aristocratic patrons, and was flocked to by the sons of Earls and Barons, although many eventually were turned off by the ‘unseemly’ violence endemic at their meetings. David Redesdale, father of the Mitfords, was notorious for his antisemitic views. While sections of the aristocracy were actively sympathetic to fascism, in particular Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, the anti-democratic, traditionalist, religious absolutes of High Toryism often expressed themselves in casual, or not so casual, antisemitism during the inter-war years.*

TS EliotThere have been defences of Eliot, which are as predictable as nightfall when any great artist turns out to have held unfavorable opinions, or to have done something that might make them a flawed human being. Terry Eagleton counters this very well:

“Why do critics feel a need to defend the authors they write on, like doting parents deaf to all criticism of their obnoxious children? Eliot’s well-earned reputation [as a poet] is established beyond all doubt, and making him out to be as unflawed as the Archangel Gabriel does him no favours.”

Despite having felt ‘nervous’ when he saw Eliot enter, Litvinoff finished reading his poem at the ICA in 1951.

So shall I say it is not eminence chills
but the snigger from behind the covers of history,
the sly words and the cold heart
and footprints made with blood upon a continent?
Let your words
tread lightly on this earth of Europe
lest my people’s bones protest.
To T.S. Eliot

Eliot reportedly said afterwards, “It’s a good poem. It’s a very good poem.”

Having dispatched Eliot, Litvinoff later led high-profile campaigns against official antisemitism in Soviet Russia and, expressing the universality of his belief in human dignity, his last novel, Falls the Shadow, written during the 1982 Lebanon War, was set in contemporary Israel and is critical of Israeli policy towards Palestinians.

Like many obituaries and short biographies of Litvinoff, this post has ended up saying more about Eliot than him. When I’ve got a hold of Journeys From a Small Planet I’ll write something for the man himself.

*check out European Aristocracies and the Radical Right, 1918-1939, by Karina Urbach.



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2 Or 3 Things Godard Knows About Paris, And Capitalism, Obviously.

The storyline of 2 Or 3 Things I Know About Her, directed by Jean-Luc Godard and released in 1967, is, like much of Godard’s work at the back end of the New Wave, completely secondary to the political message of the image and narration. In fact, its so unimportant to the film as a whole that describing it as a vehicle for the message would probably be too generous.

It is ostensibly about a housewife, Juliette, played by Marina Vlady, who lives in one of the many newly built housing developments springing up on the edge of Paris, who spends her day working as a prostitute.

2 or 3 Things can be termed a ‘Paris film’, as Godard makes clear at the beginning with a message in typically Godard-esque brightly coloured lettering, that the ‘her’ in the title refers to ‘the Paris region’. But instead of taking the shape of what are often called ‘love letter’ films to the city, defined through Godard’s own New Wave work in A Bout De Souffle or Masculin, Feminin, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her is intended as a warning about its future, socially, politically, and aesthetically.

The aspect of Juliette’s surroundings is the most important element of the film. We first see her standing on the balcony of a high tower block, and the film is puncuated throughout by bleak shots of depressing housing developments that contrast wildly with the, again typically Godard, aggressive colouring of the film. Nearly every scene is divided by a shot of a building site, a crane, a new motorway, an unfinished bridge, a rising towerblock, a cement truck, or containers on a river, and in this the idea that the face of Paris is changing is constant. Early on, Godard’s whispering narration puts this in the context of Charles de Gaulle’s economic reforms of the mid-sixties, and what he sees as the increasing encroachment of unopposed capitalism in to people’s everyday lives. France in the mid-sixties found itself in the middle of the Trente Glorieuses, the thirty years of almost uninterrupted economic growth that lasted from the end of the war to the mid-seventies, where the economy enjoyed unprecedented levels of productivity and consumer consumption supplemented by rising wages. By showing the estates in a state of constant construction, Godard is showing that, as if mirroring the rapidity of economic reform in France in the mid-sixties, the rising housing estates are produced with the same speed, aesthetically ugly, dull and grey, and alienating to those who live in them, or whom Juliette is the example in this film.

The film demonstrates time and again Godard’s concern for the impact capitalism has on the everyday lives of Parisians. This idea is taken to the extreme, where capitalism interferes with humans even in their most private moments, demonstrated absurdly but brilliantly in a scene where a woman enjoying a bath is interrupted by a man from the electricity company walking in on her. Completely uninterested in her nakedness and absorbed in his work, he merely asks where the meter is and informs her of the size of the bill. The other constant message is that of capitalism providing a fall back for itself; to supplement the alienation of one who is living an alienated existence, a constant stream of consumer goods are available, but, as Godard’s narration whispers;

‘The mere fact of suddenly enjoying an appliance spurs power consumption without regard for the bill. It’s the same old story. Either no money for rent or no TV, or else a TV but no car, or else a washer but no vacation. In other words, in any case, no normal life.’

Part of the film does take place in the centre of Paris proper, when Juliette goes in to the city for her work, but outside shots of the city itself are fleeting, and she soon returns back to the suburbs. Every shot we are presented with of a tower block, a building site, or a new motorway is a warning from Godard, that if left unoppossed, capitalism will render every city and the lives of its inhabitants lifeless, as it does to Paris in the construction of these new suburbs. He also condemns the apathy and passivity of the population as a whole, represented in Juliette, whose lacklustre observation that,

‘Nobody will know what the city of tomorrow will look like, some of its semantic richness will be gone, undoubtedly, undoubtedly’.

could not be more resounding as a statement by somebody who is alienated, but lacks the will or the opportunity to attempt to do anything about it one way or the other. Godard is willing the audience to condemn her for not being harsher in her lamentation. It is also a quick and effective testement to the extent to which Godard believes the rapid rise of consumer goods are pacifying the nation, both politically and culturally. A good contrast to make would be in the early films of New Wave, the apartment of the Doinels in The 400 Blows, or that of Jean Seberg’s character in A Bout De Souffle, austere and almost empty in comparison to Juliette’s flat with its collection of consumer goods and branded products, which, in the final shot of the film, are laid out on the grass outside her tower block, and the film fades over them.

As we see in this century, Godard’s observations and condemnation of the ugliness and alienating aspects of the new suburbs could not have been more starkly vindicated. The clean and new, although obviously dull and lifeless suburbs of Godard’s sixties have now evolved into the banlieues of the 2010s, notorious throughout Europe as being rife with endemic poverty, crime, unemployment, and making the headlines every few years when instances of rioting break out, as happened during the 80s, 90s, and most recently in 2005, when rioting spread to cities all around the country, from the Belgian border to Marseille, after the deaths of two youths in an electrical substation after being chased by police in the banlieue of Clichy-sous-Bois, an eastern suburb of Paris. The perfect cinematic partner for 2 Or 3 Things can be none other than Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 release La Haine, a bleak depiction of a life of boredom, rioting, and unemployment in the banlieue of the nineties. Godard’s doubt as to the suitability of the suburbs for long-term human habitation have been proved correct.

This film should also be required viewing for students of architecture, and especially those who may still be unconvinced of the inherent ugliness and unsuitability for the practicalities of city life of the urban renewel schemes of the sixties. The disregard of aesthetic value is there to see in the film, and still obvious in many town centres across Britain. While French architects were tearing up the land on the outskirts of Paris in the mid-sixties, British architects, when not erecting tower blocks of their own, were systematically ripping up and redeveloping the historical centres of towns across the country to make way for larger roads and shopping malls. What was once a town square, the traditional meeting and gathering point of any urban area, became the Arndale in Manchester, or the Birmingham Bullring. If anyone had ever harboured an impossible desire to make bedfellows of an English Tory, lamenting the passing of the traditional town centre, and the films of Jean-Luc Godard, this may be a good place to start.

2 Or 3 Things I Know About Her stands out among Godard’s films as one of the most pertinent warning for the future and the quietness of the film, urged by Godard’s soothing narration, does not detract from its apocolyptic tone. The subject for concern is Paris in this instance, but it could be any city around the world. Godard sees the rapid expansion of capitalism, and, more so than ever before, in to the everyday lives of people, and the film is a warning to the audience to reject passivity and adopt a permenant vigilance, because if we don’t, we may end up in the same tower block of Juliette, or at least the one next door. The serenity of the film, and its slow pace, only add to the urgency, and as if the director feels that the subject at hand has gone beyond the usual political grandstanding, instead, he quietly and politely attempts to persuade. Watched alongside earler New Wave films set in Paris, where we see the city in all its glory, it is Godard’s lamentation to the possible decline of a city that has yielded to the brutalising effects of capitalism.

Luckily, Paris has largely escaped the brutalising effect in regards to its appearance, partly through awareness and panic raised by those like Godard, and the city proper we see now looks much as it did seventy years ago. It is in these instances that France should be thankful for its cultural zealots. Through uncompromisingly strict planning regulation, often, I imagine, to the detriment of the city’s economy, the city proper retains its overall character. Londoners should look at Paris with a hint of jealously, for while the financial district of that city is relegated to its outskirts, a thankfully distant series of skyscrapers glimpsed through the window on a suburban train, few people would disagree that the square mile of the historical City of London, and central London in its entireity, has been mangled almost beyond recognition by faceless glass office blocks, the designers of which making no attempt to fit in with the aesthetics of their surroundings in any way. In turn, this has ensured that the centre of the city is no longer for people, but for companies and finance; unless you’re on a pretty hefty salary, you’re not going to be living anywhere near the centre of the London, even in a bedsit.

When considered in this way, the title of 2 Or 3 Things itself seems like a conversation response from somebody who has been away from Paris for a long time, and refuses to acknowledge its changed state. A friend could be welcoming them back, telling them about the new suburbs and warning him that things have changed for the worse, and the response to this is, ‘Well, there are two or three things I know about her’. Perhaps this is Godard’s belief that Paris will always have two or three things up her sleeve, and will never surrender to ugliness completely.

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The First Blow

I’m a big fan of French New Wave, and as this blog continues I’ll hopefully get a chance to write more on it. I’m currently working my way through the five films Francois Truffaut made charting the life of his restless alter ego, Antoine Doinel, played in each film by Jean-Pierre Léaud. Starting with The 400 Blows in 1959 when he was just 14, Léaud and Truffaut give us Antoine realising unrequited love at the age of 17 in the 1962 short Antoine and Colette, through to his courtship and marriage of violinist Christine in Stolen Kisses and Bed and Board, and ending in 1979 with Love On The Run, by which time Léaud was in his mid-thirties.

Although Jean-Paul Belmondo is often held as the defining figure in French New Wave, due to his appearence in Jean-Luc Godard’s defining New Wave debut A Bout de Souffle in 1960 and his continued association with Godard throughout the sixties, Léaud’s claim to the title is resoundingly stronger. Along with his role as Antoine Doinel, he featured prominently in Godard’s Masculin, Feminin, Made in USA, La Chinoise, and Week End, as well as appearing briefly in Alphaville and Pierrot Le Fou. His involvement with both directors was such that when Truffaut and Godard eventually broke off their friendship, as documented in the excellent documentary Two In The Wave, released last year, Léaud was so torn between the two that he felt bartered with and bandied about like a child caught in the middle of a messy divorce.

Long before the degeneration of their friendship, when both Godard and Truffaut were critics and friendly rivals on the burgeoning film magazine Cahiers du Cinema, and Truffaut had just released the opening volley of fire at French cinema in the form of The 400 Blows, Godard wrote of his friend’s film;

‘The face of the French cinema has changed.’

Just a year after being banned from the 1958 Cannes Film Festival because of his uncompromising attacks upon the French cinematic establishment, Truffaut had successfully transformed his sobriquet from the ‘gravedigger of French cinema’, to its saviour. The 400 Blows was selected by de Gaulle’s culture minister André Malraux to represent France at the 1959 Festival, at which it won Truffaut the award for Best Director.

If The 400 Blows was the opening volley against an out of touch French cinema, the opening scene in the film presented traditional French society with no question of what it was to expect from this new age. We find Antoine Doinel at school, in trouble with his teacher having been caught passing a picture of a bikini-clad woman amongst his classmates. He is sent to stand in the corner as punishment, and is not allowed to play with his friends at breaktime, leading him to scrawl on the wall behind the blackboard;

‘Here poor Antoine Doinel was
punished by Sourpuss
for a pin-up fallen from the sky
it will be an eye for an eye’

The scene plays out as a condemnation of the old forms of learning and expression, and the target identified can clearly be seen as French cinema and the cultural establishment. We see the disciplinarian teacher boring his pupils with rote learning of an uninspiring poem called ‘The Hare’, and the teacher himself is shown to be representative of the generation of wartime Frenchmen and women who confronted the sixties, and everything that came with it, including the New Wave, with disdain and a feeling of powerlessness. At one point, the teacher laments the rebelliousness of his pupils with a cry of,

‘Poor France! What a future!’

In the same way the New Wave was rebelling against the cinematic age its founders existed in, so too are Antoine Doinel and his classmates unwittingly rebelling against traditional French society. This is even more pertinent when we consider the political situation in France when New Wave was born.

The Fourth Republic had collapsed in 1958, after what was essentially a coup d’etat by army officers in Algeria, leading to the founding of the Fifth Republic and the return of de Gaulle as president in an almost dictatorial capacity, having granted himself extraordinary powers and an unchallengeable seven-year term.

The radicalising effects of the Fifth Republic, the opposition to the war in Algeria, the continuous liberatory movement of the young through France during the 1960s, all these factors exemplified perfectly in the films of New Wave, manifested itself in the largest uprising in Europe for decades, and the largest since; the near-revolution of 1968. Students rioted and occupied their universities, and even more threatening to the established order, the country experienced the largest general strike in its history, with hundreds of thousands of workers occupying their factories and running them independently of their bosses.

The uncompromisingly emancipatory nature of the uprising, along with its potential for victory, was such that the workers and students were eventually forced back to work by ‘their own’ organisations, the French Communist Party and the official trade unions. The level of political liberation was such that workers and students found themselves in direct opposition to their traditional representatives, who sided with the state against revolution.

The changes in culture, sexuality, political structure, ideology, gender relationships, in France in the sixties were massive. Antoine Doinel and his classmates are at the age of twelve in The 400 Blows, and in 1968 they will be students or young workers, and likely to be involved in some way in the 1968 uprising, and it is easy to imagine an older Antoine with a paving stone in his hand.

In this way the opening scene of The 400 Blows is a metaphor for the changes France is about to experience, and just as many of the older generation felt a sense of helplessness when confronted with the liberated young of the sixties, and the ’68 uprising, the teacher can do nothing in the face of his rebellious pupils but lament for the future of the country. Their rebelliousness is not without a check however, for the immediate image we are confronted with when we leave the classroom is a looming close up of the powerful emblem of traditional French republicanism outside the school, the immovable ‘Liberte, Egalitie, Fraternitie’, carved in stone, a reminder of the power and constant presence of the state.

Refusing to remain passive observers and documenters, when 1968 came around Truffaut and Godard didn’t leave it up to Antoine Doinel and A Bout de Souffle’s eternal gangster Michel to voice their rebellion, and they became actively involved in protests, notably in the campaign for the reinstatement of the dismissed director of the Cinémathèque Française, Henri Langlois. Langlois had been dismissed by culture minister André Malraux, who had by this time turned against New Wave and sought to replace him with a government-appointed board of directors. The incident was a massive error of judgement on Malraux’s part, who had vastly underestimated the symbolic importance of Langlois and the Cinémathèque to filmmakers around the world. The campaign for Langlois provided a major rallying point for filmmakers’ involvement in the uprising and the campaign attracted support from names such as Hitchcock, Fellini, Chaplin, Fritz Lang and Akira Kurosawa. Nicholas Ray was also a robust supporter of the campaign and attended demonstrations in Paris, including one a week after Langlois’ dismissal alongside Truffaut, Godard, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Marie Epstein, Bertrand Tavernier and others, during which the crowd was baton charged by the police.

After successfully forcing the Cannes Film Festival to shut down in 1968, Truffaut and Godard organised demonstrations in support of Langlois and he was reinstated later that year, although their partnership in the campaign was their last, and their friendship was bitterly broken soon after.

The 400 Blows heralded not just a new era of artistic and cinematic expression, but also the massive shifts that French society was about to experience. Antoine Doinel’s rebellion against his teacher and his parents exemplify this, as does his rebellion against the army in Stolen Kisses but nothing in the early New Wave films rivalled, as an opening declaration of opposition to all that had come before it, the first scene in which Antoine is chastised by his teacher. It is little wonder that the poetic lament for his situation and statement of revenge he scrawls on the wall is so reminiscent of the revolutionary slogans painted over Paris during the uprising of 1968. Sous les pavés, la plage – Antoine Doinel?

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The Red Shoes vs Black Swan

The similarities between Black Swan, which was released earlier this year, and The Red Shoes, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and released in 1948, are obvious. Both tell the story of talented young women engaged as ballet dancers, both relatively unknown, who are suddenly propelled to the limelight as prima ballerinas, dancing the principal role in a new ballet for their respective companies. In Black Swan’s case, a bold new reworking of Swan Lake, and in The Red Shoes, a brand new composition also called The Red Shoes. Loosely based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, The Red Shoes tells the story of a young girl given a pair of red shoes by a mysterious and sinister cobbler, which, as soon as she puts them on, possess her and make her dance uncontrollably until she dies from exhaustion.

Black Swan shows Natalie Portman’s character, Nina, who, having been a minor member of her ballet company, attempt to unburden herself of her self-consciousness and attain a near impossible level of excellence expected in her new role, while at the same time dealing with her fragile mental state which is exacerbated by her overbearing mother, herself a failed ballerina, played to an often frightening intensity by Barbera Hershey. In The Red Shoes, Vicky Page, played by Moira Shearer, is a relatively minor dancer in the Lermontov Ballet company, and is thrown in to the limelight when her director, Boris Lermantov, chances to see her dance in a small, run down hall somewhere in London in front of a handfull of people. She is offered the lead in the new play, The Red Shoes, and it is a resounding success, as proudly exhibited to the viewer in a magnificent, and completely hallucinatory and Fellini-esque fifteen minute sequence in the middle of the film.

Nina struggles with her new role; she is precise in her delivery of the part of Odette, the angelic White Swan, but, in the eyes of her director, Thomas, played brilliantly by Vincent Cassell, passionless, restrained, and lacking in the sexual energy he sees as essential to the part of the Odile, the Black Swan. Vicky’s adaptation is smoother, although conflict soon manifests itself when she falls in love with Julian Craster, the young, up-and-coming composer of The Red Shoes.

Both women suffer the machinations of manipulative directors; Leroy is passionate and lecherous towards Nina, whereas Lermontov is an ice cold Russian exile, who fires Julian from the company once he finds out about their relationship, believing Vicky’s love for him compromising to her art. Vicky leaves also, in solidarity with her lover, leading Lermontov to sink in to a depression, believing no one else capable of dancing The Red Shoes but Vicky. She eventually returns, without the knowledge of Julian, and agrees to dance. However, moments before she is due to go onstage, Julian turns up, and, incensed at her betrayl, demands she choose between their love and the ballet. She chooses the ballet, he storms off, but as she is walking down the long corridor to the stage, wide-eyed before the camera, the red shoes she is wearing, representing her conflict between love and art, carry her off, and she runs out of the building and commits suicide by jumping from a balcony. In an equally dramatic parallel, Nina is broken by her fragile state of mind, and unwittingly stabs herself during the intermission of the opening night, then completes the second half to rapturous applause, and dies on stage.

The material likeness of both stories are obvious, but what is more important is the believability of the principal characters in their adaptation from obscurity to the unbelievable pressure of performance, and as both films adopt the familiar story-within-a-story formula, attention must also be focused on both Natalie Portman and Moira Shearer in their performances. The idea is to see the ballet in the film through their eyes, as we are seeing the film through our own eyes.

Black Swan opts for a simple psychological thriller angle, showing Nina’s struggle with her role through the prism of her faltering mental health. Vicky’s adaptation to her role stands on Moira Shearer’s performance alone, without the aid of any psychological gimmickry, and in many ways that is enough. Moira Shearer herself was a professional ballet dancer, a rising member of the Sadlers Wells Ballet, and The Red Shoes was her first film. It shows, and, as brilliant as she is, her nervousness and innocence is obvious, especially during conversational scenes, where she spends most of her time staring in to space when she is both listening and talking. Her nerves and earnestness are translated perfectly through Vicky, who through a quiet, although shaky at first, dignity confronts her own impending stardom. In comparison to this genuine manifestation of both a character and an actor/dancer’s response to art, in both Vicky Page and Moira Shearer’s response to ballet and film, the conflict of Black Swan seems artificial and forced, resting on the psychological angle alone.

The Red Shoes was a bold film for the time, a jump in to near fantasy when realism owned post-war cinema, and was a testement to art over real life. As Michael Powell later reflected,

“For ten years we had all been told to go out and die for freedom and democracy; but now the war was over, The Red Shoes told us to go out and die for art.”

In the tragic endings to Black Swan and The Red Shoes, both Nina and Vicky lose their lives to their art; Nina after sacrificing her mind for it, and Vicky after sacrificing love.

As a side note, it is interesting to note the response of the ballet world to both films. Upon its release, The Red Shoes was celebrated as an accurate portrayl of ballet, as well as during filming when several ballet critics were given access to sets. With its later popularity however, it began to be criticised as portraying ballet in a cliched and negative light. The attacks often bore a resemblance to the condemnation by other art forms of early cinema, laced with ignorance and disdainful of the medium as a whole, which, in 1948, seems a bit of a stretch. Moira Shearer herself later attacked the film also, although this seems mostly from exasperation with the technical side of filmmaking; during the dance sequences she was only allowed to dance for short periods at a time, often having to repeat the same thirty seconds of dance continuously, and it took some time for her to adapt back to the structure and technique of a full ballet.

The response from ballet to the release of Black Swan was, by comparison, caustic. Critics saw it was portraying dancers in a negative light, as ruthless, selfish, and egotistical. Not entirely unfair claims, although I have no idea how cut-throat ballet dancers might be having spent little time with any, but it is no stretch to imagine competition in companies to be fierce. Reactions weren’t helped by the portrayl of Nina by a non-ballerina, and the dance scenes were attacked as amateurish (which, by their own definition, they obviously were) and the subsequent claims by a professional dancer to have performed some of the dance scenes only added to the controversy.

As a modern art form, ballet is distinct in the way it seems to be disdainful of publicity, and often actively hostile when it receives any. Following the reaction to Black Swan, various following articles criticised the ballet world for its insularity. These observations were not unjustified, for example, in an age where nearly anything popular to someone has an in-depth article on Wikipedia, the page on ballet, for a major form of artistic expression, is surprisingly short, and goes in to little historical or technical detail. In comparison, the page on the Basque variant of the sport pelota, hardly a pursuit with the same worldwide appeal, is over double the length. But maybe this is a positive attitude for ballet to take, and a perceptive one.

Those in ballet know it is never going to have widespread appeal today, and instead of compromise itself to the cheapening effects of mass culture in an attempt to broaden its appeal, as so many other art forms have done, it closes itself off, and retains its integrity. In refusing to debase itself to a lowest common denominator of pure entertainment value, it refuses to even engage in the arguement on the terms defined by those of mass culture, that of entertainment value itself. In this way its insularity is positive, and it can remain a pure art form. Of course, the attention ballet has received from the recent release of Black Swan will be unwelcome to many of those who wish it to remain anonymous from mass culture, and they will be hoping the momentary popularity will fade like many Hollywood-inspired fads.


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