An interview with film editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who helped restore the 1948 classic, "The Red Shoes," written and directed by the legendary filmmaking team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The movie, starring Moira Shearer, plays in Seattle Feb. 10-18.
Lermontov: Why do you want to dance?
Vicky: Why do you want to live?
Lermontov: Well, I don’t know exactly why, but I must.
Vicky: That’s my answer too.
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Do artists really talk this way? Does it matter? In “The Red Shoes,” that glorious 1948 ode to art, love and color, a young ballerina seems to whirl off the screen into our hearts. She must dance — particularly when she dons a pair of magical red ballet shoes for a fairy-tale ballet that seems to be mirroring her life — and yet, when she finds a connection with a talented young composer, she also must love.
Written and directed by the legendary filmmaking team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, “The Red Shoes” is one of the most beautiful films ever made — and one that nearly disappeared from view, twice. Starring the enchanting Moira Shearer, whose blue eyes and flame-red hair were made for Technicolor, the film is both exquisite melodrama (will she choose love, or art?) and vibrant visual poem, in which every frame finds beauty. From its opening shot — an ominous, shadowy figure of a theater manager on a stairway — to its final haunting images of a crazed impresario’s terrifyingly blank stare and, on a stage, a pair of empty pointe shoes, “The Red Shoes” never stops dancing.
Film buffs love the movie for its pioneering techniques with color and camera: a famous, dizzying shot of Shearer racing down a spiral staircase; the innovative way that the camera becomes a dancer. Dance fans revel in the glorious ballet sequences, particularly the 15-minute “Red Shoes” movie-within-the-movie, choreographed by Robert Helpmann (though Jack Cardiff’s cinematography and Reginald Mills’ editing deserve co-choreography credits). Creative souls connect to the film’s message of art as a guiding principle in life. And everyone who’s ever seen Shearer, in a dress the color of bluebells, ascending a seemingly magical Monte Carlo staircase (weeds peer through the cracked cement steps, as if nobody’s set foot there in a very long time) like a princess in pursuit of some unknown fairy tale, knows that they’ve seen something very special.
This week, every sort of “Red Shoes” fan can see the film as it should be seen: on the big screen, at Seattle Art Museum and Northwest Film Forum. (See box for details.) It’s the Seattle premiere of the film in its new restoration, presented at the Cannes Film Festival last May.
The Oscar-winning film editor Thelma Schoonmaker (“Raging Bull,” “The Aviator,” “The Departed”), who is Powell’s widow, will be in Seattle to introduce the film at its SAM screening Wednesday. In a telephone interview from her New York editing suite last month, she said that “The Red Shoes” disappeared from British theaters quickly at its original 1948 release — distributor J. Arthur Rank hated the film — and was saved from becoming just a postscript in film history by two Americans from United Artists, who had previously had success with a U.S. release of Powell/Pressburger’s “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.”
“They saw ‘The Red Shoes’ and they said, let’s take a chance,” Schoonmaker said. “So they converted a legit theater here in New York to a movie house, and it ran for two years solid.”
And then, decades later, “The Red Shoes” almost died again — because its original film negatives were being eaten away by mold. “The storage of them had not been terrific,” said Schoonmaker of the negatives, which were made in the three-strip Technicolor process — each recording a different color. Not only were the strips mold-encrusted and dirty, but “they had shrunk at different rates — you couldn’t get the three images to line up on each other.”
A major digital restoration began in 2006, with support from the Film Foundation (a nonprofit founded in 1990 by Martin Scorsese, Schoonmaker’s longtime collaborator and a devout “Red Shoes” fan), the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the Louis B. Mayer Foundation, and many individuals who donated their time and expertise. Robert Gitt of the UCLA Film & Television Archives supervised the project, with Scorsese and Schoonmaker as restoration consultants.
Schoonmaker described what seemed to be an insurmountable task: to restore more than half a million frames of film. Each one had to be painstakingly attended to, said Schoonmaker, to have mold, scratches or dirt removed. Color had to be meticulously checked, frame by frame.
The final step was that of conversion back to 35-mm film. “In the restoration process,” wrote Gitt, in an essay describing the project, “the entire film was turned into ones and zeros, repaired, and then converted back into a motion picture again.”
The new print was unveiled at the Cannes Film Festival last spring, with many family members of the original “Red Shoes” cast and crew on hand. It was, Schoonmaker remembered, a sensation. “Many people said it was the best thing at Cannes this year. The audience went nuts and started applauding after the Red Shoes ballet — I’ve never heard that happen. At the end, they just wouldn’t stop. I turned to look at Marty, and he had a look on his face of such happiness, I can’t tell you. Just a thrilling evening.”
It’s appropriate that a film ultimately about artistic collaboration took such a village to be brought back to the screen. “The Red Shoes” revels in the details of creating collaborative art, from the sweat on a ballerina’s brow to the scribbled, smudged pages of a musical score to, ultimately, the fluttering nerves of opening night and the low-key return to daily class the next morning. Dance, here, is a force that must go on, in the worn pointe shoes of a low-level company member hoping to be noticed at the barre, or the blood-red slippers of a mythical girl who has danced her last, giving her life for her art.
Schoonmaker said that Powell, who died in 1990, would have been thrilled by the attention given to a film so close to his heart. “I think for him it was like almost the pinnacle of what he was able to do as a filmmaker and an artist, and to show the powerful attraction of art and yet the danger of it to your personal life, which all of us suffer from. You have to do it, as Marty says — it’s not that you want to do it, you have to do it. That’s what [Powell] wanted to lay down, and God knows he did it.”
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or email@example.com