The waltz is a vexingly difficult yet beautiful, even sexy dance.

If you imagine to yourself its thumping rhythm — that ONE two three, ONE two three pace — you can imagine the strict rules that undergird this dance, even as it permits for flourishes. You can also picture in your mind the beauty of a waltz well-danced: the sexy, closed position of the dancers, who face each other in an intimate pose of coupling, the man’s hand on her waist as he leads and she follows. You can imagine the mistakes, the possibility for breaking the mood, for stepping on a toe.

To call this film Take This Waltz — after the Leonard Cohen song, which is a loose translation of the beautiful Federico García Lorca poem Pequeño vals Vienès  (“Little Viennese Waltz”), which itself replicates the pace of a waltz — is to connote the haunting, sexy unforgivingness of a dance so formal as the waltz. This conceit is both relentless and fragile, and the film is so beautifully acted and shot, that you need to see it (and you can! Rent it on iTunes or Amazon right now for $9.99; it’s also available On Demand, and it’ll come out in theatrical release in the US at the end of June 2012).

To call this an infidelity story is to reduce it to something very un-waltz-like, but at its bare bones that’s what the story treats: Margot (the always-wonderful Michelle Williams) meets Daniel (Luke Kirby) on a plane and finds herself drawn to his slim, dark knowingness. Who wouldn’t be? He glows below his tan; like a chess player, he always seems a step ahead of her in conversation, in knowing how to unnerve her, how to gaze at her with sexy purpose. At heart perhaps all of us want to have an affair — and let me assure you, we all want to have an affair with Daniel, whose good looks are not done justice by these images below. Where might he lead, if she allowed herself to dance with him?

The problem is, of course, that she and Lou (Seth Rogen) have been married for five years, and they have their own habits of movement, of dancing and quirky joking. There’s nothing wrong with their relationship: he’s a great guy, she’s fully folded into his family. And yet. When she learns that Daniel lives across the street, she can’t help but start to find loose threads in her marriage to toy with, to pull, to see faults in their fabric. She wants to abide by the rules, like her sister-in-law Geraldine who’s struggling to stay sober. But like Geraldine, she feels as if it’s only a matter of time before she fails.

To be sure, in the course of their marriage together they’ve developed some strange tics. They started as jokes, perhaps, but now they feel more like stutter-steps. Margot’s tic is an odd propensity to want to distract him while he does other things, perhaps even to rest a bit too much of their relationship on whether he can be turned away from the task of cooking or talking on the phone to kiss her. Is it still a joke after all this time? or is it a way to poke at him, to see if he’ll resist, pull away?

And then there’s Daniel. Their conversations become freighted with meaning, they grow physically closer in their flirtation with one another, yet they dance this waltz without touching, as if worried about breaking a spell, during this hot Toronto summer.

Cohen’s song is not the only one that propels this film, but its lyrics are so insistent, so sexy — they thump more than García Lorca’s, but with such driving sexual images and luscious sounds, like hot summer sex:

…Oh I want you, I want you, I want you
On a chair with a dead magazine
In the cave at the tip of the lily
In some hallway where love’s never been
On our bed where the moon has been sweating
In a cry filled with footsteps and sand
Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay
Take this waltz, take this waltz
Take its broken waist in your hand…

Writer-director Sarah Polley (Away From Her; Polley has also acted in numerous films and TV series including Go, The Sweet Hereafter, Slings & Arrows, and John Adams) has an extraordinary gift for shooting scenes with no dialogue — scenes in which the actors simply move, like dancers, through moods that rely on one another, that push back against one another. Between Daniel and Margot these scenes are some of the sexiest, most dynamic I’ve seen recently — when they ride The Scrambler together at the amusement park to the pulsing tune of The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” we can see in their faces that they have allowed themselves to pretend, to imagine other scenarios.

“I want to know what you’d do to me,” she later confesses — unexpectedly — over a martini. She squints up her face girlishly, as if to mitigate the effect of those words. He doesn’t let her take any of it back. It is such a sexy scene. And he’s right: that conversation makes the martinis redundant.

We all know how flirtation works, don’t we? We love to dance that dance. Flirting has its own rules, an innate nostalgia for past flirtations, its pleasures in unexpected twirls and secret improvisations. Flirting is as much about language as looks, smells, furtive touches. Cohen tells how it is:

And I’ll dance with you in Vienna
I’ll be wearing a river’s disguise
The hyacinth wild on my shoulder,
My mouth on the dew of your thighs
And I’ll bury my soul in a scrapbook,
With the photographs there, and the moss
And I’ll yield to the flood of your beauty
My cheap violin and my cross
And you’ll carry me down on your dancing
To the pools that you lift on your wrist
Oh my love, oh my love
Take this waltz, take this waltz
It’s yours now. It’s all that there is.

Does Margot feel a connection to Daniel that’s so powerful because she’s drawn to a grass-is-greener fantasy? Or could it be true love? If it’s the former — she wants something new — will that something new merely get old over time, the way things have gotten old with Lou?

The film touches lightly on those perennial questions asked by would-be adulterers everywhere, but ultimately the real question is Margot’s alone: “I’m afraid of wondering if I’ll miss it. I don’t like being in between things. I’m afraid of … being afraid.” What it is, what those things are, remain to be seen. Whether she can get over those fears also remains an open question.

This film has an unusual pace — it’s not perfect; it leaps over a couple of matters, moving the plot along. The dialogue sometimes feels … awkward? stage-y? But it’s still worth every penny of that $9.99 rental fee to see Michelle Williams play this role, to watch her flirt with Daniel in The Scrambler, to let her strange face register emotions. (I really need to dedicate a whole post to her face, especially her mouth, which I find poetic.) So what if it’s not a perfect film? It’s somehow relentless and yet delicate all at the same time, just like a Leonard Cohen song, just like a waltz, with its rules and the threat of making mistakes. ONE two three, ONE two three. Take this waltz, take this waltz.

Love and marriage are hard. Like the waltz.

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Bereft for “Slings & Arrows,” I turned to the only thing on TV that looked watchable:  “Justified,” the new Elmore Leonard-based show on FX — it had been getting a lot of good press, and after watching Timothy Olyphant play Seth Bullock in “Deadwood” for three seasons, I was prepared to watch anything in which he dons a cowboy hat again. 

But let’s make no mistake about the gender politics of the show.  Set in eastern Kentucky most of the time, “Justified” takes advantage of what Hollywood sees as a back-assward locale to trot out tried-and-true stereotypes about rural Southern women and the men who protect them.  Olyphant’s character seems mighty courtly, to be sure, but that quality mostly allows him to be an enlightened sexist.  That is, they pay some lip service to the idea that gender roles aren’t locked in prehistoric times, but only long enough to allow the characters to go Neanderthal again.  It’s plain old sexism — dressed up in slightly more knowing clothes, as Susan Douglas shows us.

Olyphant plays Raylan Givens, a U.S. Marshal who’s managed to shoot a few too many of the fugitives and renegade prisoners he was hired to oversee, so they transfer him back to Kentucky as punishment.  Although it’s awful close to his hometown, he’s too stoic to talk much about his misgivings about going back home again (instead, we see him suffer silently when he runs across his ex-wife, now happily remarried).  Luckily, Raylan’s views of cowboy justice — and his frequent refrain that his shootings were justified because those other guys drew first — fits right in with Kentucky lawmakers. 

Olyphant gets a lot less actorly exercise here than he did in “Deadwood,” but it’s hard to separate the two characters. Both make great use of the actor’s skill in speaking softly, as if he might be a modern-day Gary Cooper, but his dark, beady eyes show him to be a closet sociopath.  In short, he’s an absolute pleasure to watch.

If only the show had decided to give him any other three-dimensional character to work with.  Instead, he plays with the usual suspects:  comically fat white supremacists (because…being overweight and racist go together?), a sassy black woman co-worker, a bunch of hillbilly drug runners, and — for love interest — a hot, blonde, rifle totin’ missy, Ava, who’s had a crush on Raylan since she was twelve, and who just shot her abusive husband to death. 

In Episode 4, the show indulges in enlightened sexism to try to assuage haters like me — it’s a textbook scene.  Although Raylan was supposed to cede control of a job to Rachel (sassy black woman co-worker, played by Erica Tazel), he’s gone and taken charge.  He brings this up in the car as they leave.

Raylan:  “I’m sorry if I crossed a line with you at the office.  If I shouldered my way to the front of the line it wasn’t intentional.  I can only imagine how hard it’s been for you to get where you are in the marshal service.”

Rachel, smiling wryly:  “Because I’m black, or because I’m a woman?”  …

Raylan:  “Look, I understand I’m the low man on the totem pole—I understand that.  But Rolly and I have a long history and I should be walking point.”

Rachel:  “This isn’t just about this case. You did walk to the front of the line.  And I don’t know if it’s because you know the chief from Glenco but you walked in and you went right to the front.”

Raylan:  “Yeah. You ever consider I happen to be good at the job?”

Rachel:  “And you being a tall good-looking white man with a shitload of swagger?  That has nothing to do with it? You get away with just about anything.”

Raylan:  “What do I get away with?”

Rachel:  “Look in the mirror! How’d you think it’d go over if I came in to work one day wearing a cowboy hat?”  (Raylan smirks.  Rachel persists.)  “You think I’d get away with that?”

Raylan:  “Go on, try it on.”  (Rachel looks at him curiously, as if she might.  End of scene.)

See?  It’s really Rachel’s fault that she’s not more assertive.  Not only did she fail to take control in her own case, but in this very conversation she permits the subject of the white man’s aggression to drop.  After this scene, the episode spends zero more time fretting about the fact that Raylan has completely taken control.  He continues to use the same tall, good-looking white man with a shitload of swagger persona, and he wins.  Now that we’ve had a moment to take feminism into account, we can go back to appreciating a 1950s version of gender/race relations, where the white guy is always in charge.

And what happens at the end of the episode?  Rachel does try on the cowboy hat.  But it doesn’t fit.

“Slings & Arrows”

29 March 2010

For a moment, let me sing a song about the magical moment we enjoy in history:  not only are we fully in the middle of a renaissance for television shows, but we don’t have to pay attention to their schedule.  Between DVRs (I don’t have one, but I envy those of you who do), Netflix sending us DVDs by mail and streaming over the internet, and Hulu and all its cousins, we’re free to partake of the wonder and glory that is television today — and on our own schedule.

Give me the chance and I’ll be one of those people who gets derailed from all normal human conversation at dinner to insist, without blinking, that you should watch “The Wire.”  This is not a short conversation.  Discovering a great new show that’s already available on DVD can be dangerous, as it leads to the binge.  After my first, horrible year of teaching I watched the first two seasons of “The Sopranos” in about four days, only slowed down by the drive back and forth to the video store; I described the show as akin to crack cocaine.  Last summer, with my partner away for a few days, I swallowed the first season of “True Blood” in about a day and a half.  Steven Johnson tells us that watching these kinds of complex shows makes us smarter, but I don’t think he meant watching an entire season in one crazed, unwashed lost weekend.

Almost every night we have a routine:  we finally stop working, we drink a glass of wine and have a late dinner, and we settle down to watch something to cleanse our brains so we can sleep without having dreams about sentences, paragraphs, or teaching anxieties.  About half the time we watch a film, but the problem with film is you have no idea where it’s going to take you.  It feels like a big emotional commitment (and can haunt your dreams, as my previous post showed).  Television shows, in contrast, have a snappy pace and severely delimited structure.  Even if you’re sitting down to a couple of episodes of something dark, complex, or full of cliffhangers (“Lost,” for example, or the Shakespearean “Deadwood”), you know it’s merely a part of something longer.  It’s tidy, like a Lean Cuisine.

The problem is, we occasionally run out of shows — and we were in precisely that condition until we remembered the Canadian comedy, “Slings & Arrows.”  It’s a terrific comedy about a somewhat hopeless theater troupe trying to stage “Hamlet” after its artistic director dies and is replaced by one of his old protege/enemies, played by Paul Gross — a less malevolent Ray Liotta with Dionysian hair and raw sexuality, who’s still nursing himself back to mental health after a breakdown while acting in “Hamlet” seven years earlier.  Gross’s character is promptly haunted by the ghost of the old artistic director, and the show is off and running with Shakespearean jokes, swordfights, jealousies, young romance, and overblown theatrical egos.  We were hooked immediately.  (It doesn’t hurt that Gross can be funny, eminently watchable, and ridiculously sexy all at once.)

There’s no laugh track.  The cast is having fun, but they’re not just playing for yuks — I don’t quite know how the show does it, but it feels substantial.  It’s punctuated with some stock characters, but are they stock for Shakespeare or for modern television comedy?  There are two old queens who offer chorus-like eye-rolling and one-liners for the viewer’s benefit; an aging leading lady who sleeps with a series of hot young delivery boys; a pretentious director in leather pants who announces that the production’s unifying ethic will be “rottenness”; and the uxorious financial director (played by the great Mark McKinney from “Kids in the Hall”) and his new girlfriend, the aggressive Texas transplant determined to replace Shakespeare with productions of “Mamma Mia.”

Oh, to discover a new show — heaven.  My only regret is that it’s only three short seasons long — only six DVDs.  So I’m accepting recommendations for future viewing.