Saturday, May 18, 2013

Best Live Action Short Highlight: Pas de Deux (1968)

Pas de Deux was a film that was nominated in the Best Live Action Short category, and I decided to skip writing about it back in October because for one reason I was struggling to keep my queue up, and for another reason I didn't really think it was animated. Why, the question even came up in the Canadian module of my History of Animation course, and I argued that it was live action. However, while doing some research about A Chairy Tale I found that Norman McLaren won a BAFTA award for Pas de Deux in the Best Animated Film category! Then it hit me. Who gives a buck about what I feel? My opinions are more worthless than the garbage you threw away a few days ago (which makes it kind of dubious as to why you're reading this in the first place.) I may not be as much of a fan of the BAFTA awards as the Oscars, but if they say Pas de Deux is an animated film then by golly we're going to review it like it's an animated film, which means it's going to be another highlight post. Yes, after going what seems like ages without a Saturday post, we're having our fourth Saturday post in a row, and we're not closed to finished yet.

With Pas de Deux we're dealing with a filmmaker that should be rather familiar to us now, the great Norman McLaren. After all, we had discussed his work in the Oscar nominated Christmas Cracker and A Chairy Tale. One thing we can say about him is that he is always trying to trying new things in film in both technique and expression. With his earliest work he was scratching on film stock as a way to create meaningful art without the luxury of a large budget. With films like A Chairy Tale and Neighbours (which we'll be talking about shortly) he was using film as a way to try to push a social agenda. And in Pas de Deux, he used film to try to capture and study form and motion. At least that's what I feel.

The phrase Pas de Deux is French and means "Two Step," and it's a term that is used in ballet as a type of duet between two dancers. I don't know enough about ballet dancing to understand the difference between the "pas de deux" and other types of duets, or if it is just a general term for a duet, but at any rate this will be a film about ballet. A lone ballet dancer appears against a black background and begins performing a solo. Or at least it would be a solo if she wasn't dancing with images of herself. However, her solo/duet quickly becomes a real duet when a male dancer enters the stage. The female dancer hesitates, seemingly being unwilling to leave her double, but eventually goes into a passionate routine with the male dancer, one that is so heated that their bodies seem to leave an echo.

Pas de Deux is a film about ballet, a popular form of art, but under the direction of Norman McLaren it becomes something more than just plain ballet. It's like art squared. McLaren filmed the two dancers, and then went to the optical printer and used it to make magic. Specifically, he would superimpose images of the dancers to create interesting visual effects. He would have the dancer's double follow the dancer exactly, something that was emulated in certain levels of Super Mario Galaxy 2,* or he would have the double in a specific pose that the dancer would achieve. He would even have the dancer dance to the mirror image. However, he saved the most impressive effects for the actual duet. He'd superimpose the dancers several times with each image playing at slightly different times, leading to visuals that can best be described as surreal. (Because I don't know the official term for these effects.) The images may sometimes look downright inhuman. For example, in one scene the female dancer lifts up her arms while the male dancer holds her in place. The superimposed images of the rising arm makes her look like some sort of an insect. At any rate, the visuals are downright spellbinding and will leave you amazed even if you think ballet is a bear riding around in a little car. The Romanian panpipe music is incredible, even if it's not Gheorghe Zamfir, the panpipe artist everyone knows (who performed for the Oscar nominated Paradise.) And the professional dancers are terrific as well.

I still consider this a live action film with impressive visual effects more than an actual animated film, but Pas de Deux is still an impressive film. Unfortunately, there was one group that did not think so, the Academy. And they were the ones whose opinion counts for the Oscars. They instead voted for Robert Kennedy Remembered, the RFK tribute film that played during the contentious Democratic National Convention. Still, Pas de Deux lives on as an amazing visual spectacle by one of the greatest short filmmakers in history.

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