The second day of my New Zealand International Film Festival adventure was exactly how I imagined it to be. By that, I mean that it included two completely different yet equally as compelling film experiences – one at a documentary about legendary modern dance choreographer Bill T. Jones (A Good Man), and the other a French period costume drama about the final days of Marie Antoinette (Farewell, My Queen). Prepare yourselves!
I have less to say about Farewell, My Queen partly because 1) this is a long post and 2) I actually have less to say, so I’ll just get it out of the way first. The movie is a sumptuous, dark take on the last days of Marie Antoinette and the terror that grips the household of Versailles as the French Revolution begins in earnest. Diane Kruger plays a frivolous, easily distracted, and vaguely lesbian Marie Antoinette (who knew she spoke fluent French?!), but the storyline rotates around the character of Sidonie Laborde, a sullen, haughty, and calculating maid who serves as the Queen’s Reader. She spends her days moving back and forth between the household staff and the nobility, separated from the peasants outside the castle walls but simultaneously divided from the aristocracy. It’s a typical period costume drama with all of the extravagant detail you’d expect from a movie about the infamous queen, but the director(s) do attempt to make it a little more interesting by adding a twist of sexual deviance, brooding jealousies, and impending disaster. Kruger’s Antoinette has a doomed lesbian relationship with her close friend the Duchess of Polignac, and Sidonie is likewise infatuated with the queen, which provides for the main conflict of the movie (except for, of course, the spectre of the howling mobs and M.A.’s impending decapitation). I couldn’t help feeling that the movie struggled to say something relevant, and I was a bit disappointed with the ending, but for those looking for a beautifully executed, dark twist on a costume drama that doesn’t demand much mental energy – this is it!
In contrast to Farewell, My Queen, A Good Man is a decidedly more realistic film. Originally produced for the television series American Masters (for those familiar with PBS), the documentary follows famous African-American dance choreographer Bill T. Jones as he develops his latest work: a dance performance for Lincoln’s bicentennial celebration that explores the question, “Was Lincoln a good man?” Before talking about the documentary though, I have to explain that in many ways I feel like modern dance is a foreign language to me. More than foreign: alien. While I am deeply drawn to modern art – both visual and movement-based – I am often left with a deep sense of inadequacy in my inability to ‘understand it.’ I want to be able to translate the message, the meaning of each minute movement, the purpose behind the work, but I rarely feel adequately equipped to decipher it. I know that in many ways dance and art is an ‘alien’ language precisely because it attempts to express that which cannot be adequately expressed through words. It defies one’s attempts to explain it. I also tend to think that modern artforms are meant to evoke emotion as much as they’re meant to trasmit a precise message, so perhaps searching for ‘meaning’ is not exactly the correct way to approach it. Despite these feelings, I’m often frustrated by the gap between the performer/creator and the audience. Dancers (and visual artists) are lucky in their opportunity to immerse themselves completely in their work – to spend months developing a deep understanding of each movement and its meaning (for the choreographer, for themselves, and for the audience), or to dedicate hours of thought to each minute detail. For someone not versed in the specialized, often superior language of “art,” it can be frustrating to attempt grasping the same meaning in a comparatively brief experience of their work.
Having said that, Hercules/Quinn’s documentary doesn’t require the viewer to have anything more than an intellectual curiosity and an interest in human expression. Bill T. Jones wants to ask “Was Lincoln a good man?,” but the work, its goals, and its questions are left to evolve until the very last second before the work’s inaugural performance. As the documentary develops, Jones’ work moves beyond an exploration of Lincoln’s persona to asking questions about love, liberty, justice, equality, and the American Dream. It asks whether heroes are something we can believe in. Is there such a thing as a ‘great man?’ What does our cynicism mean, and how have we developed since Lincoln’s time? How do we relate to one another, and how can Jones say something relevant about Lincoln – through dance, no less! – that hasn’t already been said in the 15,000 books published on the man since his death?
The demands that Jones places on his dancers throughout the 2-year creation process is equal to the amount of pressure he places on himself, and in this way the film is also an exploration of Jones himself. While he continually points out that the focus should be on the work and less on his involvement, I appreciated the documentary for the same reason I do all documentaries: they satisfy a deep sense of empathy, compassion, and curiosity about the lives of other people. Bill is a fiercely intellectual, articulate, and passionate man who is haunted by a sense of inadequacy that drives him to continually improve his work. His presence is inspiring, volatile and prone to violent outbursts (very similar to Mrs. Witten, for those of you who knew me in the Sounds of South days!), but he’s also a deeply thoughtful and intellectual man who inspires the love and complete trust of his collaborators. In this way the film is not only an exploration of great men from the perspective of history, but also a rumination on the greatness of Jones himself. The idolization of his creative genius is paralleled by the glow of Honest Abe’s mythology, and I left the film asking, “Can we idolize great men while accepting their fallibility?” I certainly hope so. What do you think?