01/01/2017

Danse Serpentine/American Beauty - Beauty, Light & Movement

Thoughts On: Danse Serpentine/American Beauty

An exploration of cinema through Loïe Fuller’s famous dance caught in early film format and the pivotal scene in American Beauty with the plastic bag.

 

This is a somewhat irregular post, a comparison of films around 100 years apart with next to no obvious connection, but it’s with these two films that we can find a rather profound view point of cinema and a question of its beauty. To build towards this we’ll start with Danse Serpentine. Translated to English, the Serpentine Dance is a skirt dance, a form of burlesque, invented by Loïe Fuller. Fuller was a non-professional dancer and created this dance in opposition to academic forms of ballet. This is clear with its comedic and sexual undertones - burlesque essentially implying both the obvious connotations...


... as well as ones of parody, exaggeration or absurdism. The incorporation of popular folk dances such as the can-can into Fullers dance combined with these elements seems to insinuate a rigidity and lack of beauty in traditional ballet. At the very least, this dance seems to provide something of a commentary on the form of technical dance. If you look to what are widely considered some of the best examples of ballet in Svetlana Zakharova...


... you see a form of dance that is undeniably beautiful. However, if you, like me, know nothing about ballet, this beauty is partly an intuitive one and partly an assumed or implied one. That is to say that we assume there is astounding technical craft in the movement of Zakharova, that there is mechanical perfection and natural superlative fluidity to every stretch of her limb. We, the average person, have no idea how to recognise or describe this, but, we will humbly assume it is there. When we look to Fuller’s dance, however, what we are seeing is a dance that probably doesn’t have anything near the same level of technical prowess as Zarkharova’s dancing, but a dance that is undeniably mesmerising nonetheless.


Thus, we have the implied commentary of this dance. There is a push against the perception of beauty in dance, a push that is purely aesthetic and populist rather than steeped in textbooks and academia.

A question to be asked of this non-professional projection of eloquence is, how does it work? What makes Fuller’s dance beautiful? Before getting into this I’d like to look at the approach people usually take in answering a question featuring a phrase synonymous to ‘beautiful’. Whether it’s looking at a painting, reviewing a film, dance or song, many people will say a piece of art is beautiful (or something tantamount) and then justify this simple opinion with feelings. For example, one may say that Dalí’s, The Persistence of Memory...


... is beautiful as it evokes feelings of sorrow; a melancholy and existential awe of ones own mortality as confined by the whims of time itself. Conversely, someone else may feel the painting evokes feelings of freedom and levity with said confines literally melting away. Nonetheless, with this form of assessment we see a very nuanced and intangible approach to communicating exactly what the worth of this painting is. Unfortunately, this is the weakest form of critique as it is so subjective and unquantifiable. To challenge this critique all you have to say is, ‘I don’t feel that way’. This weakens the emotional review because it nullifies it as a point of debate. Some may retort that this doesn’t matter as art is about subjectivity, is about a personal connection between art piece and audience. However, this is only one particular element of art in my opinion. A huge overshadowing factor beyond post-modern parameters is one that is immersed in the philosophical inherency of art. As is clear, art is ideas, thus, art is essentially philosophy projected through fantasy and imagination, through emotion and creation. This is why I can write seemingly with no end about films. In being art, films are philosophical assertions and so the entertaining tip of an iceberg - their below-water-line substance being the cacophony of thoughts people can have on them. In such, we stumble upon the second layer, or approach, to artistic criticism. If one looks at Dalí’s painting once again...


... they may draw upon the conceptual links it has to dreams, to the Freudian concept of dreamwork and the significance of a realm behind closed, dozing eyes as well as physics. In such, the surrealist prominence of this painting depicts the human consciousness or psyche as an entity subject to the idiosyncrasies of relativistic time. This draws upon a misreading of Einstein’s work, reducing the concept of special relativity to science fiction so that Dalí may use dreams as a form of assessment on cosmic order; our place in this universe. Nonetheless, it’s here where we have a deeper kind of review of art, one that embraces its philosophical core and one that doesn’t really use the term ‘beautiful’, but certainly implies it via profound notions.

This somewhat tangential exploration of art criticism is one that begins to imply where beauty comes from. To find the epicentre of this term, you only need to look at the direction of deepening criticism. There is a movement from basic, subjective feelings to an objective, formalised assessment that considers context and wider ideas of art. This formal contextualised assessment is one that implies an emotional view - and such is its strength. It takes a purely subjective perspective and discusses it in a manner that is somewhat objective, though still subjective in part, but formalised to a point where an emotional reading is justified - hence, is not made null with a simple ‘I don’t feel that way’. ‘I don’t feel that way’ is something you cannot seriously say to a surrealist interpretation of Dalí’s painting above - you can have a differing perspective, but won’t be able to nullify a properly constructed assessment of this type. This is all because of its objective nature facilitating a subjective opinion. What this says about the review of art under our subject of beauty is that to find and define what is truly beautiful about something you must not simply think-feel an answer, but introspectively explore a mechanical web of objective view points and philosophies.

To put this into action we can review beauty itself, firstly considering it an emotion and then a cog in the mechanical works of the human body. In such, to answer the question, what is beauty, you may simply say it’s a feeling of awe. However, to push beyond this basic assessment, you may draw upon what might be the evolutionary purposes of beauty. So, in seeing things as beautiful people both label an entity as beyond themselves and out of reach, yet attractive. This may account for a piece of land...


... space above...


... a person before you...

  

... or a tiger charging at you...


All of these are archetypal symbols of beauty. There is the constructed, the conceptual, the sexual and insurmountable. These are the four cruxes of beauty. Constructed beauty is the most subdued form of the perspective. This can encompass everything from a building to a baby to a landscape. Constructed beauty thus reveres both natural design and human construction and is there to imply a serenity, peace and control for somebody to attain and protect.

Conceptual beauty is somewhat linked to constructed beauty as it admires the space between the world and us; in turn it admires perception. Space is a great symbol of conceptual beauty. Whilst we find its beauty to be in its perfect construction and incomprehensible nature, the essential beauty of space is in the ideas it evokes within us - ideas of the greater universe, our place in it and so on. As a result, conceptual beauty encompasses ideas such as God, fate, self and purpose - deeply engrained aspects of people. This means that some people see the beauty in things you can only believe in, ideas such as God and fate, because there is a profound feeling summoned in their chest. For those who don’t believe in these ideas, there is still such a thing as conceptual beauty in a belief in oneself, others, purpose and science.

Sexual beauty is the third and most self-explanatory form, also, the most practical (sometimes). Sexual beauty simply encompasses the perception of another person for procreatory goals - the fun of it and the existential purpose of it--that being children and continuing ones life through another.

The last form of beauty is the insurmountable type, is the tiger about to kill you. The tiger is beautiful, just like a powerful object or person is, because it summons inordinate emotions of finality, mortality, truth and reality in ourselves. Despite fear, this type of beauty is probably the most pivotal as it recognises the crux of beauty as a concept relative to ourselves. What this means is that each class of fear I’ve defined are all symbiotic and you cannot fully explain the beauty of something without at least a coupling of each class. For example, space...


Whilst space is conceptually beautiful, it is also a constructed as well as insurmountable. In such, space is attractive because of all the scientific and philosophical notions it conjures, but also because it’s scary, a place we neither understand or can live in. This defines beauty by one simply concept: weakness. Beauty is weakness. We recognise all that is beautiful by the capacity it has to make us feel small, feel in need, feel belittled and unworthy. This goes for sexual, constructed, conceptual and insurmountable beauty - transparently so.

It’s having delved into the depths of beauty in respect of artistic assessment that we can now return to Danse Serpentine...


What is beautiful about this dance is its sexual and constructed elements, those that draw upon the burlesque attraction, but also the awe inspired by the complex fluid movement of the dress. Moreover, there is a conceptual beauty in its commentary on technical dancing, one that profoundly asserts that it is not just the likes of Zakharova that may be beautiful in the art of dance.


I bring this up because of its relation to cinema. Fuller’s dance has been the subject of a plethora of early silent films. This is, in large part, because of an aspect of the dance not yet discussed. It was Loïe Fuller that was drawn to this dance and could put on such a mesmerising show because of her use of lights that would reflect off of the billowing dress. Whilst this could only be documented in text, the filmed versions of her dance replicate her lighting through colour.


To anyone unfamiliar with film history beyond 1939...


... the use of colour here may be shocking. Technically, The Wizard Of Oz wasn’t the first colour film because of pre-existing primitive attempts to colourise cinema. Many filmmakers from the Lumière Brothers to Méliès to Griffith would have added colour to their films by either dying the celluloid or painstakingly painting over every frame...



This is what we see across the many versions of Danse Serpentine. And such is the crux of this film’s draw. It is because of the kaleidoscopic waves of colour that this dance may be so dazzling, may draw the eye in an almost hypnotic manner. Once we consider this under the subject of beauty we’ve been focused on, we can delve into the central purpose of this essay. What Danse Serpentine represents is an early archetype of cinematic beauty. By this I mean to start defining how cinema itself may be beautiful. To clarify I must make a point of what I’m not defining. I do not mean cinematic beauty in respect to the content of a frame. If you stopped reading a moment and looked out your window, looked up at the sky or to some place you may find beauty, you will see an example of this content I speak of. To further explain...





When you look to a film such as Samsara, a non-narrative compilation of beautiful shots, there are two levels of aesthetic. The first is inert or latent - it is like that of the world beyond your window that isn’t being captured by a camera - it is content. The second is cinematic - the aesthetic constructed by the presence of a camera, cinematic language and the fact that reality now exists in a frame. Because there are two types of aesthetic, there are thus two measurements of beauty. You may measure the first type, the content of a shot beyond cinematic language (something virtually inaccessible), with the theory of beauty outlined previously. However, you cannot judge the cinematic veneer veiling this in such a simple manner; you must consider two further details.

The first as touched on is (kind of) colour. The second is movement. This distinction is so important to make as it recognises the formal mechanics of cinema. Cinema, unlike any other art form, deals with spacetime. To understand what spacetime is, you’d only have to return to Einstein and his special relativity again. In the simplest terms I can conjure, spacetime is our reality; one that is dependent on space - a physical arena - being made fluid and alive by time. The implication of spacetime is that the two counter-parts are inextricably linked. Without time, space could not change, we could not move. Without space, time could not be measured nor quantified. Such is our apparent reality - at least the one we can perceive. Because cinema deals with this physical idea of spacetime, it has two components: light and movement. These elements are tantamount to space and time as related to a human perception. Movement is the product of space and time meeting. Light, or photons, (whilst also the product of movement, of space and time meeting) is the unique substance in our universe that allows us to perceptually perceive it. This is why light and movement are the primary components of cinema - they are unique to the form and it could not be without them.

Taking this into account, we now can assess the form of cinema, the veneer that masks the latent content that it captures. This brings us back to this image...


... and light expressed as colour. As said, a significant component of this film’s beauty is colour, is the mesmerising realisation of the movement wherein. This singular component, as you may already be thinking, cannot be defined by our rules of beauty already outlined. In such, we can’t really quantify this type of aesthetic as constructionally, conceptually, sexually or insurmountably beautiful. The question as to why light is so beautiful is just far too fundamental for this. The same may be said for the second pivotal component of this film’s beauty: movement.

This is the paradox that cinema presents through Danse Serpentine. Cinema expresses its beauty, in the purest sense - meaning a cinema not imbued with dialogue, audio or anything non-visual - with a contorted aesthetic beyond the basic everyday. That is to say that all that makes pure cinema beautiful is how light plays with movement and that this is something not comprehensible with concepts such as awe and lust (simple understandings of beauty). This is a gap in the philosophical question of cinematic beauty we’ll delve into with American Beauty.

Before this, however, I want to recognise a few confounding details. The first is that cinema is not just visual as one of the most important components of it is audio. The second confounding detail is that light and movement aren’t the only concepts too fundamental to be explained by our theory of beauty. An example of a concept too fundamental is audio. You can thus see that I focus on the two primary tenants of cinema without considering audio because it further complicates an already sprawling essay. So, as I continue, keep in mind that there is a great and ambiguous beauty layered into cinema through sound - something that will be indirectly explained through our exploration of light and movement.

Coming back to our gap in cinema, I’ll reiterate; cinema is made up of light and movement - individual elements of aesthetic that cannot be defined through concepts of insurmountable, constructed, conceptual or sexual beauty. Looking to the pivotal scene in American Beauty with the plastic bag in the wind...


... we can begin to understand that the beauty of pure cinematic form is about the existential application of cinema itself under the guise of human weakness. As you may have picked up on, there is something of a connection between our previous definition of beauty and the one we will develop now. This means that each class of beauty (insurmountable, constructed, conceptual or sexual) is united by one core recognition: weakness. This means that beauty is no more than a complex euphemism for human weakness. That is not to say that seeing things as beautiful is a sign of ones physical or emotional fragility. Much rather, it is the other way around. Beauty is a recognition of weakness. To see things as beautiful doesn’t make you weak. To further clarify, beauty recognises a weakness in ourselves in respect to the subject of beauty. This was touched on previously, but we’ll go over it once more. Beauty signifies a yearning and/or a recognition of personal lacking. What this means is that when we see a constructed kind of beauty, we recognise we are in the presence of something larger and more complex than ourselves...


When we see sexual beauty, we see a person in an objective sense - a procreatory device of pleasure and or existential fulfilment (continuing one’s life beyond their death with a child) - a person we want and/or aren’t getting...

  

Further examples should now be self-explanatory. So, taking this core idea of weakness to the mechanics of cinema, light and movement, we emerge at the revelation that cinema is all about control. Cinema uses light and movement to parallel the human perception of reality, of spacetime. Cinema thus creates its own shade of reality with its manipulation of the latent content wherein. What this reveals is that we don’t in fact find the beauty of cinema in light and movement, but in our control of it. And control is certainly a concept that adheres to our initial four classifications of beauty. Control is beautiful in an insurmountable manner as we arguably do not have it - especially on a profoundly universal level. Control is beautiful on a constructional level also. In fact, the terms mirror each other and are almost one and the same. Construction is thus a projection of control, our ability to manipulate the world. Moving to sexual beauty, we could delve into pornographic sub-genres of dominance, but I’ll leave that to your imagination. However, the crux of cinematic beauty in respect to control is partly constructed and insurmountable, not often sexual, but is overwhelmingly conceptual. It is here where the existential aspect of cinema comes into play with American Beauty.


This moment of Ricky’s is the most beautiful things he ever filmed as it demonstrates to him his place in the world. As he says, the bag ‘dances with’ him. What makes the bag dance is of course wind, is the atmosphere on the precipice of snowing. In such, the profundity implied by the bag’s movement is all we don’t see that caused it. We don’t see the wide-scale nature of weather, nor do we feel the movement of our planet through the solar system, our solar system through the galaxy, our galaxy through the universe, our universe away from its big bang and towards something unknown. We do not know all of these things, but...


... this is what the bag stands as evidence for. This bag is the product of space and time; of the universe physically existing. This is true of everything; the movement of your eyes as you read, the flow of electrons in this screen, in your brain, the blood coursing through your body. Recognise this overwhelming conceptual beauty of causality and connectivity in the universe and you understand the beauty that Ricky sees in his video and the beauty that Lester feels here...


These are people made to feel their place in the universe, and whilst it is a crushingly weak and minute one, it is a revered one nonetheless; such being the epitome of beauty. Layer onto this cinema and you layer on the fact that humans can begin to control and captivate this conceptual idea of movement and light, of space and time of existing in a world with a universal causality and connectivity.

This, whether you consciously know it or not, is true cinematic beauty. With audio added to this we have yet another resonating physical implication of beauty, of our existential weakness in this world that, in spite of itself, still stands, still exists. From Danse Serpentine to American Beauty and beyond, this is what cinema has stood as silent testament to. Control is beautiful. Beauty is weakness. Cinema is controlled beauty.





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