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Reviews

The Dancer Upstairs (2002)

Cynthia Fuchs

John Malkovich and Javier Bardem shed welcome light on their thinking about this sophisticated meditation on terrorism, trust, and desire.


The Dancer Upstairs

Director: John Malkovich
Cast: Javier Bardem, Laura Morante, Juan Diego Botto, Alexandra Lencastre, Oliver Cotton, Marie-Anne Berganza
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
First date: 2002
US DVD Release Date: 2003-09-23

The commentary track for Fox's DVD of The Dancer Upstairs, by director John Malkovich and star Javier Bardem, begins four minutes into the film. Most filmmakers jump right in to tell you what they think they've done. Here the wait is exceedingly appropriate and not a little courteous, as it allows the film's soundtrack to play along for a bit, that is, Nina Simone's introduction to her live performance of "Who Knows Where the Time Goes?", playing on a pickup truck radio. "Sometime in your life," she observes, "You will have occasion to say, 'What is this thing called time?' you go to work by the clock, you get your martini in the afternoon by the clock, and you have your coffee in the morning by the clock, and you have to get on a plane at a certain time and arrive at a certain time. And it goes on and on and on."

"Why does she talk?" asks one of the characters bumping along in the pickup, the night sky blackening the frame around him. The answer is not at all impatient: "She's preparing to sing." Just so, Malkovich's "late" entry onto the audio track ("I'm here, in this little booth," he specifies) suggests his own appreciation for warming up, for letting viewers absorb and refract what's in front of them, before the elucidating of intention and the rearranging of memory begin. It's a form of respect, for the movie and the audience that he assumes can make their own readings.

Notoriously original, Malkovich brings his striking affect to the commentary, just as Bardem brings his usual grace and carefulness. Together, the artists shed welcome light on their thinking about this sophisticated meditation on terrorism, trust, and desire. As you might expect, Malkovich doesn't deliver anything like a definitive statement of his intentions or his film's meaning. Instead, he touches on ideas and recollected fragments. He starts, "The only thing I remember about this, really," says Malkovich, "Is there were a couple days when we were shooting up at the volcano in Ecuador outside of Quito, and we were shooting 21 hour days." Just at that moment, Simone's monologue is winding down: "And you say, 'Where did the time go?'" Indeed.

Adapted from Nicholas Shakespeare's 1995 novel of the same name, The Dancer Upstairs concerns shifting meanings and temporal fluidity, the ways that violence might punctuate experience, but can't circumscribe it. Time is forever, and ever elusive. More interested in the process leading to an act than the act, The Dancer Upstairs is brainy, absorbing, and meticulous. It is, above all, never impatient.

Taking the general shape of a political thriller (Malkovich is careful to note the appearance of Costa-Gavras' State of Siege on a television in his film, extolling its politics and its profound impact on him), as well as an investigation and romance, the film is set in an unnamed "Latin American" country on the verge of revolution or collapse, sometime in "the recent past," that is, several years following the opening scene. The truck, it turns out, was carrying the eventual leader of a terrorist group, a Maoist professor called Ezequiel, headed to his destiny. When the film picks up again, his guerillas (based on Peru's Shining Path and its leader, Abimael Guzmán) is assassinating officials and recruiting young children as suicide bombers. The people are frightened, the police are stumped.

Chief investigator is Agustin Rejas (Javier Bardem). Increasingly disinterested in his bourgeois wife Sylvina (Alexandra Lencastre), he's barely listening as she reads him her book club speech, but also plainly in love with his young daughter Laura (Marie-Anne Berganza). The domestic scenes are small and telling: he does household chores, takes Laura to ballet class, reads Kant (in particular, as Malkovich helpfully points out on the commentary track, The Critique of Pure Reason). Mostly, Agustin works long hours on the job, supported by his young, charismatic, somewhat naïve partner, Sergeant Sucre (Juan Diego Botto) and troubled by occasional racism; part Indian, Agustin was raised in the same village as some of Ezequiel's current followers, and so he catches local resentment that has nowhere else to go.

He also faces local doubts about his quietness, his seemingly endless patience. When his captain, Merino (Oliver Cotton), challenges him to define his position -- "Do you have a feeling about [the case] or are you the Gary Cooper type?" -- Rejas resists. He exists quite apart from such categories per se, in his gentle demeanor as much as in his thinking. He can be silent and self-possessed, passionate and elusive.

Agustin's complexities are reflected in the film's intricate rhythms and structure. As Malkovich watches a scene that cuts from flashback to present (in the cops' office) to activities occurring elsewhere, he notes it's a means to link, across time and space, events and characters that inflect one another, even when they're unaware of one another. "All of these shots sort of alternate," Malkovich says, "which was one of the big, I think, difficulties for my actors. It wasn't a big difficulty for me, because I knew all these places, and I knew sort of what to do. But in this sequence, we're back and forth in several countries in Europe and South America, and so many locations, all for the same scene."

Such richness of texture and theme is often most visible in Bardem's subtle face. It comes into narrative focus when he falls in love with his daughter's ballet teacher, the vulnerable, mysteriously distressed Yolanda (Italian actor Laura Morante). It's also available in the fact that the actors (and crew) worked across multiple languages and cultures, to make this film in South America and Europe, and in English (Malkovich confess that he still has moments when he wishes he had made another choice). This gives rise to one of Bardem's most remarkable observations, a bit of poetry in itself.

Malkovich initiates, when he tries to describe acting in a language not your own: "It's funny how it changes you, and not at all in a bad way." And Bardem lays it out:

There's a point where you are working so much about the dialogue, about the meaning of the words, about the music of the language, that really puts you in contact with something else. Also, what I found extremely difficult for me, is that my whole life, my experiences, which is what I have to work with, as an actor, has been made in Spanish. So far, I haven't loved or hated, or whatever you want to name it, in English, so those words lack experience for me. It's like a surgery, you have to put that experience in every word, so when you name it, when you mention those words, they have a personal meaning to you. That's the point. But also, you play much more. Because you are not stuck with the language in an emotional way, so you are more risky about it, you take more risks.

If you ever wondered how Bardem has become such a respected and frankly astonishing artist, this might be a clue.

Rejas and his team examine a series of crime scenes (and dead dogs, hanging from lampposts and gates, a real-life practice that accomplishes its goal, freaking out the locals, as well as movie viewers). As they work, the connections between art and politics -- as spectacles and as audience projections -- become increasingly obvious, but also increasingly ambiguous. He observes, "It appears a revolution may be going on, but a revolution that has yet to declare itself in that orientation." (His Captain rubs his face in frustration: "A strategic equilibrium. Does anyone here know what the fuck that means?")

What such lack of declaration might mean -- for the revolutionaries, for the administration that is all too eager to call in the military and crack down on all "artistic" activities, or for the good-hearted detectives who want to keep (or invent) the peace between these sides -- remains uncertain. Without a name, without a face to identify and arrest, Ezequiel can function as an idea, filtering through the citizenry that may or may not trust its government.

The film's violence is harrowing, fast, and, at least when it happens, incoherent. (It's up to the cops, and you, to make sense of it; the DVD's two documentaries, Sundance Channel's "24 Frame News: Journeys with John Malkovich" and "Revealing The Dancer Upstairs" will help.) For the most part, Malkovich's commentary only offers up possibilities, not answers. At one point, a small boy enters a bar to be a suicide bomber, at another, schoolgirls in plaid skirts pull weapons from their book bags and shoot up a car full of diplomats ("Most people wouldn't do a panty shot in a sequence like this," says Malkovich, "but I'm not one of them, happily").

At another moment, a chicken is tied to some lit dynamite sticks. Here Malkovich offers, "Now here's a pretty funny shot. This film was banned in England, for that shot, for a time, then they sort of rescinded that ban. But they felt that chicken showed signs of distress." Though Malkovich goes on to explain that the explosives were fake and that the chicken is still "living happily somewhere in Ecuador." "Maybe," he adds, deadpan, "It's become a chicken sandwich somewhere too, but not by me." Aside from Malkovich's dry humor, what's striking here is unspoken, but surely available: a critique of the kind of violence that triggers official concern and censorship. Where a fretful chicken is apparently too much to see, the average action film's multiple explosions, murders, and car wrecks are not.

Commercial uses of violent spectacles have their places, on CNN as much as in Bad Boys II. But such hyperbole also loses sight of how violence does its work, after the blasting and perfectly synced soundtrack. Here the various participants in spectacle -- Ezequiel's group and the administration -- invest in a paradoxical faith in the power of seeing and remaining unseen ("A thousand eyes are on you," reads one spooky poster carried by a boy in the darkened street). And so, the terrorists commit god-awful violence against innocents as well as authorities, while the government commits violence as well, in broad strokes of oppression as well as in increments, in any number of classist and racist subjugations. The official line is that such abuses are efforts to maintain order. But the order always benefits those already in power before anyone else.

The Dancer Upstairs, like its painstakingly self-reflective protagonist (flawlessly portrayed by the incredible Bardem), refuses to pull its many threads all together, to name its outcome or claim explicit triumph. Rejas is instead haunted, by his past and his present, aware that he is unable to save the world, except a little bit. Watching young Laura's dainty ballet performance, his sad eyes reveal all and not enough. He's still preparing, endlessly patient because he has to be.

Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Woodstock each did their stint as a lonely Mexican cowboy, it seems. These and other things you didn't know about A Charlie Brown Christmas.

How Would You Like to Be the Director of Our Christmas Play?

It's really a beautiful little movie and has affected my life in numerous ways. For years, especially when we were poor, we always tried to find the littlest saddest Christmas tree possible. In fact, my son Eli has a Christmas tree set up right now that is just one single branch propped up in a juice bottle. And just a couple weeks ago we were at a wedding, everyone was dancing, and me and my wife Amy and my friend Garth started dancing like the Peanuts characters do in the Christmas special.

-- Comic artist James Kochalka.

Bill Melendez answers questions with the sort of vigor that men a third his age invest thousands in herbal supplements to achieve. He punctuates his speech with belly chuckles and comic strip taglines like "Oh, boy!" and "I tell 'ya!" With the reckless abandon that Melendez tosses out words like pleasure, it's clear that 41 years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains one of his favorite topics of conversation. "It changed my life," he states simply, "being involved with this silly little project."

Melendez celebrated his 90th birthday in November. "When I think of my last 40 or 50 years, I can't believe it," he says, capping off his comment with that inevitable one-man laugh track. The curly-mustachioed animator was born José Cuauhtemoc Melendez in Hermosillo, Mexico, in 1916. "I was literally a cowboy," he says. "From there, I crossed the border and started growing up. Just recently I went back, and when I got there I realized where my home was: across the border. When I was a little kid, I would have killed myself had I known such a thing was going to happen. I'm one of you. Whether you like it or not, I'm one of you."

Melendez recalls his blind leap into the world of animation as though the story's end still managed to catch him by surprise. "I was working in a lumberyard, and one of my mates said, 'Hey, I read in the paper that some guy up on Hyperion Avenue is hiring young guys like you who can draw.' So I went to this stranger and said, 'Hey, I understand someone here is hiring young artists.' The man asked me for my samples and I said I'd show them to him tomorrow. I went home that night and made the samples. I brought them in the next day, and he asked me what art school I went to. I'd never been to an art school. He said, 'Well, you have talent,' and he hired me to work in a place called Walt Disney."

Four years later, after lending his hand to Disney canon fodder like Bambi and Fantasia, and after fighting for his new country in World War II, he spent the next decade or so hunched over the drawing board, producing animated commercials and industrials by the thousands, including a number of spots featuring syndicated comic strip characters. Among them were the Peanuts characters.

Of all the Charlie Browns in the World, You're the Charlie Browniest.

I was around 10 when it first premiered, and seeing A Charlie Brown Christmas for the first time was enough to prove even to a young child that a well-written thing is superior to most of what is out there. I'll probably be watching it again tonight or tomorrow, because I have a copy of it and a six-year-old daughter. She loves it.

-- Comic artist Gilbert Hernandez.

By 1959 Charles "Sparky" Schulz's Peanuts kids found themselves at the center of their first print advertising campaign, pushing Ford's new Falcon make of cars. As the story goes, the idea of using Schulz's characters came from a daughter of one of Ford's advertising people.

"I think Sparky was flattered when they wanted to use his characters, says Schulz's widow, Jean, who now is one of the driving forces behind the Charles Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California. "It was a new way of extending his creativity. From the get-go Sparky always said a comic strip is a commercial venture. Newspapers put the comic strip in to sell newspapers. He would then bitterly say, 'No one considered comic strips art in the first place, so why would you get on your high horse about that?'"

When the time came for the characters to make their animated debut in a Ford commercial, Melendez was brought into the fold, and he brought along a cast of unknown child actors to voice the parts. The team reunited five years later, when Lee Mendelson, a filmmaker from San Francisco, requested two minutes worth of animation for a film he was shooting based on a Peanuts story line.

"I had done a Willie Mays documentary in 1963, A Man Named Mays, which had done really well," Mendelson says. "Then I was reading a Charlie Brown baseball strip, and the idea came to me: I've just done the world's greatest baseball player; now I'll do the world's worst." It's an old joke -- the same he used to open his 2000 coffee-table retrospective, A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition -- but it's one for the ages. "Two years later Coca-Cola called, and I thought they were calling to do the documentary," Mendelson explains, "but they said, 'Have you guys ever thought about doing A Charlie Brown Christmas?' I said absolutely. And that's how I got in the animation business." His executive producer role on that film was the birth of a career now well into its fourth decade.

"So Lee called Sparky and said, 'Well, I just sold our Christmas show," explains Jean. "Sparky asked, 'What Christmas show?' and Lee said, 'The one we're going to write tomorrow." Sparky said, 'If we're going to do it, we need to have Bill.'"

Melendez was brought into direct, and as with the Ford commercial, he gave the parts of the Peanuts kids entirely to children, many of whom had never acted. Getting them to learn their roles was a trying task, given that Schulz's script had his characters regularly waxing philosophical and tossing off words like ailurophobia (a fear of felines, for the record). Melendez had to teach the young actors long portions of the script phonetically. "Sometimes they didn't understand a word," he remembers. "They'd say, 'Just tell me how you want it said.' Then they'd say it, and I'd turn to the engineer and ask if he recorded it. The kids were all startled when they got screen credit and happily startled when they started getting royalty checks."

Melendez's also tried to coach a voice actor for the part of Snoopy, whose lines were limited to a handful of non-words. "I recited Snoopy's lines for the actor, and the actor turned to the engineer and said, 'Did you record that? Just use what Bill has done. I don't want to repeat your words.' " This happy accident left Melendez playing the role of Snoopy and, later, his yellow bird companion Woodstock for the next 40 years.

For the film's soundtrack, Mendelson and Melendez embraced Schulz's love of jazz. "Driving back from Sparky's over the Golden Gate Bridge I heard a song called 'Cast Your Fate to the Wind,'" Mendelson writes in The Making of a Tradition. The song was written by Vince Guaraldi, a jazz pianist from the beatnik-dense San Francisco neighborhood of North Beach. It had won the musician a Grammy Award for best original jazz composition in 1962. Guaraldi enjoyed Schulz's script and happily accepted his invitation into the Charlie Brown Christmas fold.

This Doesn't Seem to Fit the Modern Spirit.

The one thing that has always bothered me about the Charlie Brown Christmas special is that the other kids never admit to Charlie Brown that he was right about the little tree. They ultimately accept the tree, but no one ever says, 'Well, Charlie Brown, I guess you were right all along. We were idiots.' However, it's still cool to see a mainstream children's program show that is so stridently nonsecular, which could never be done in this day and age. Linus gets some good face time with all that shepherd talk.

-- Pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman.

Beyond the inclusion of Schulz's cast of wildly popular characters, 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas seemed a production earmarked for failure. The special's small crew was given a mere six months between the film's conception and its maiden broadcast. At his own insistence, Schulz signed up to pen the script, his first attempt at a screenplay. "He said that if he was going to get screen credit for something, he wanted to be doing something," says Melendez. "He was very proud and curious and didn't want credit where he didn't deserve it."

Despite the Ford commercials that gave birth to the collaboration, and Coca-Cola's strong sponsorship presence in the special, Schulz's script centered around a pensive Charlie Brown attempting to find the true meaning of Christmas. "The 1960s were when Christmas first began to start the day after Thanksgiving," says Mendelson. "There was an irony to this, given the commercialization of the comics. That wasn't really his doing. He said, 'If people want to buy stuff, that's up to them. I'm not in the business of making stuff and selling it. I'm in the business of making a comic strip, and if people want products, then so be it.' "

"We're all a little schizophrenic in that way," adds Jean Schulz. "You live in this world, and you despair. If you think at all, you're always wrestling with this. I think that's exactly what Sparky was expressing." The special opens with a characteristically distraught Charlie Brown, speaking to the perpetually blanket-wielding Linus on a snow-covered version of the brick wall, the bald third-grader's preferred location for vocalizing his ever-present inner despair. "I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus," he begins. "Christmas is coming, but I don't feel happy."

In case that wasn't enough to threatren the film's commercial potential, the producers added one final nail to the prime time coffin: Schulz's script called for Linus to deliver a subdued monologue at the film's climax, a word-for-word recitation of Jesus's birth, taken from the Gospel of Luke. "Bill said, 'You can't have the Bible on television!' Sparky said, 'If we don't do it, who will?' By the time that Coca-Cola and CBS saw it, they had no choice but to play it. They had nothing else to put in there."

What the roomful of executives saw upon the first screening was a shock -- a slow and quiet semireligious, jazz-filled 25 minutes, voiced by a cast of inexperienced children, and, perhaps most unforgivably, without a laugh track. "They said, 'We'll play it once and that will be all. Good try,' " remembers Mendelson. "Bill and I thought we had ruined Charlie Brown forever when it was done. We kind of agreed with the network. One of the animators stood up in the back of the room -- he had had a couple of drinks -- and he said, 'It's going to run for a hundred years,' and then fell down. We all thought he was crazy, but he was more right than we were."

I Never Thought It Was Such a Bad Little Tree

That show is probably the closest I've ever come to having any interest in religion. That part where Linus quotes from the bible is extremely touching and very deftly handled. I was raised in a nonreligious household, and that was a moment that actually had some religious significance to it just because Schulz expressed it so well.

-- Comic artist Seth.

Upon its airing, the special received a 50 share. The network immediately ordered four more films from the team. "We watch it every year to make sure that it actually happened. We thought it would be on one time and be gone," Mendelson says. "The message is simple. Schulz wanted to do a show on the true meaning of Christmas. Any good writer like Schulz deals in truisms and things that are timeless. There are themes about unrequited love and bullies. They work as well now as they did in the 1960s, and they'll probably work for another 50 or 100 years as well."

"I think it touches something in the viewer. We didn't do it on purpose, but there's something ethnic about it," Melendez adds. Schulz expressed his own surprise that the film found its way into the canon of holiday classics. "He would say things like, 'I never thought it would be around 25 years later,'" Jean remembers. "One of the reasons that Christmas is so great is that back in 1965 there were no VCRs or DVDs, so you saw that show once, and you had to wait a whole year to see it again. And when it came on, it still held up. It was still charming."

Forty-one years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains a towering if unassuming presence in holiday TV. It's an oasis of sincerity, managing never to be drowned out by its overzealous neighbors' rush to cross-promote themselves. It's a quiet testament to what children's programming could be: introspective, unpretentious and, above all, respectful of the intelligence of its target audience. "Children's programs were held in low regard by everybody -- including me," says Melendez. "But I realized that it wasn't just for kids. I was dealing with adults. They were giving me suggestions and criticism."

For a film with an anticommercial message, A Charlie Brown Christmas produced its own market bonanza. But it still suggests the spirit of its writer, who sensed the real magic of Christmas was not in the spectacle of lights, commerce and big aluminum Christmas trees, but in those fleeting moments of silence, which seem to become rarer with each passing day. "They weren't afraid to have quiet," Jean says. "Most of the time when the kids are walking, it's very quiet. We came out of a new animated movie one day, and Sparky said, 'I missed the quiet places.'"

Over the years, the Schulz-Mendelson-Melendez team created more than 75 half-hour television specials and four feature films, and five Peanuts films have been made since Schulz's death, in 2000, at the age of 77. Outside of the films, Peanuts continues to be an incredibly lucrative license for its owners, United Features Syndicate. "If Sparky had the volume of stuff crossing through the office that we have today, it would have driven him nuts," laughs Jean. "He probably would have walked through the office and said, 'We're cutting all of the licensing off. I don't want to do it anymore.'"

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