I lost my fairy tale. It had followed me around when I was a child, constantly tapping me on the shoulder to ask for a dance. Sometimes it wore the face of Frankenstein or Dracula or the Wolfman or the Mummy. Sometimes it came with a note from Walt Disney, truly animated and dancing past my eyes in a wash of sweet color. Later it took on extra tones, dark red (blood red in fact), and the dance became more mature. Child-like but not as child-ish. I became less apt to bring my own agenda to the steps and let myself be led. Sound color lights.
Then I lost the damned thing.
You can only ignore so many of those tap tap taps; only fail to turn around so many times. You get a callous there, hard, dry, a chip of indeterminate matter impervious to feeling that takes roots all the way to the soul. After a while you barely even know what you're missing. All that stuff that used to make your feet shuffle under the seat just passes you by while you doze. That lizard critic thing flicks it's tongue out pretending to take the temperature of the air but in reality you're in a lazy daze. The dust settles, the motes in the projector light are the only things that dance anymore til something whispers, "Hope."
We're born, we suffer, find a little joy if we're lucky and then we die. By the time that happens we've long ago settled into the above mindset. Hope? Seems just a passing fancy like the one described by Orwell's singing prole. But then the whisper comes and turns into a fine fingered hand, prying at the edges of that chip and tearing it away, inviting us to suffer the wound, the place where we can feel again, paining us back to wonder, spinning us around, pushing us back to the dance floor.
We've had cinema for over a hundred years now. New technologies make it possible to take those long dead faces and make them look like they made their movies yesterday. I had been watching quite a bit of silent cinema courtesy of The Criterion Collection in the last year including first viewings of Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush (1925), Harold Lloyd's Safety Last (1923) and the criminally under-seen Swedish film The Phantom Carraige (1921), which had a profound impact on Ingmar Bergman. I had found in these and other silent classics dance partners, ear whisperers. Blancanieves, which directly translated means Snow White, arrived on the heels of much anticipation, cutting in and almost making me forget everyone else on the floor.
Set in Seville, Spain during the 1920's the film can't be said to be an updating exactly. It is instead a fantaisie verite taking real world settings and shifting viewer expectations away from the real into the heart of the fairytale. Snow White becomes Carmen, daughter of a famous bullfighter, orphaned by Encarna a black-hearted usurper/wicked stepmother played with brilliant cruelty by Maribel Verdú. Encarna eventually decides o kill her but Carmen escapes her assassin, losing her memory in the deep woods and is saved by a traveling troupe of bullfighting dwarves. Dubbing her Snow White, but unaware of her background, a dramatic incident leads them to adopt her as part of the team.
Sumptuous. Say it out loud. Allow your lips to purse into that final syllable and trail it out. Close your eyes. That final s is like a path to a place where what really matters is how a story makes you feel. A place where the storyteller himself picks you up in massive hands so he could kiss your cheek. You are a child again in a world big enough to get lost in, a world where adventure can happen and nothing is quite as it seems. The music soars, roars and then quiets down to a strum doing all the work dialogue could hope to do and more. Except for a few interstitial title cards the film communicates everything it has to say via the delicate masterful score by Alfonso Vilallonga.
To say more about the film misses the point. Set design, costuming, casting, mere human artifice, combine, coalesce, become individually invisible. Director Pablo Berger has fashioned an amalgam of the past and the future in an act that can only be described as cinematic alchemy. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) comes to mind for it's raw ability to evoke deep sympathy. But it's as if Dryer had time travelled to our era watching films along the way. This is a story full of Dryer closeups, pleading eyes, tears, joyful smiles and humanity. But suddenly we ourselves break out! Whirling into a participatory power that silent cinema hadn't quite learned yet. We are there, fighting the bull, crying the tears, triumphant. Around the hat of mis 'en scene we stab our toes lost in the moments until Berger rouses us with a series of Gothic reminders that life itself is no fairytale.
Yet there is hope.
As a child I had often hoped for a snow white heart. Not for a heart that had never suffered or been blackened by it's own sin. But a heart that was snow white after all was said and done. That past the rages and pettinesses of my human condition and the misadventures and outright meannesses of others I might still know something of what I was created to be, a creature with a happy ending, made snow white by hope. Blancanieves is hope for a Snow White heart.
Video Reflections is a column examining the effects of watching movies at home. Blancanieves is available from Cohen Media with an excellent documentary The Making-of Blancanieves, Director's introduction, Blancanieves: Live Concert in Barcelona & Madrid.
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