John Malkovich’s film The Dancer Upstairs presents time as a woman in a flowing red costume. This cinematic technique brings to postmodern film-making Plato’s definition of time—“A Moving Image of Eternity,” as translated by B. Jowett in Plato Bilingual Anthology (Timaeus, 37c-e).
What better way to highlight a subject, as Ezra Pound also required of art? Officially, imagism began in the West with Pound’s focus on the image as the very core of art. Thus, this movie moves its audience with flickering images which wind through cinematic aesthetics, tilting with Pound both west and east.
The dancer in the film’s title, then, becomes a series of photographs recording on the eye and yet flowing with the dancer’s costume into the next photograph and epoch. Each reminds us of the last and harkens of the next. Exquisite artistic structure characterizes this motion-picture.
First, of course, the red in this costume represents blood—the blood of martyrs in causes both worthy and unworthy. The religious sanctity granted by devotees to hideous acts rings eternal here, applying not only to demonstrations by the Shining Path in Peru but to IEPs in Iraq.
Second, the carnivorous beast of revolution rears its head where we least expect it--both here and next door, probably, too—upstairs, certainly, but, maybe, downstairs as well. This movie insists that politics survives in the air we innocently breathe—always circulating.
Third, politics and art become as inextricably inter-bound in this film as lovers, always undulating through our fantasies of a better tomorrow or better lover or better neighbor than Peru, with its savage past—as if America’s past or present has been a sedate tale set securely in Iowa.
“A tale of a photographer-cowboy always bringing light into women’s lives”: This description of a tale within the movie’s plot reveals the fourth level of fire imagery here. Red signals moving tail-lights, yes, but their flowing appearance in the night raises the image to the level of liquid.
This impression captures the fifth level of imagery present in this movie. Just as a dancer must connect each movement seamlessly to the next, so lives in Peru and the US function as one ambiguous whole, whether we grasp their unity in the moment, or not. As if in a hypnotic trance, characters do-si-do.
Within time, lovers and criminals here sing, dance, and act. By movement, they define themselves as heroes or lepers. But Malkovich is one director who leaves no stage empty in the search to find meaning in unpropitious occasions or subjects—like dead dogs dancing from street-lights.
Using photographs from the history of the Shining Path becomes here an entire aesthetic philosophy. Like the Shining Path itself, the movie’s characters shine on our eyes as reflections of our best and worst selves. If only the best could divorce the worst, all would be well.
All is well for film-buffs when we discover one great work. Here, an audience may find the most seductive of stories. May it survive on the screen forever, for Nina Simone’s music—wrapping the film like a red silk scarf—deserves celebration in reality, where, maybe, we dwell.This film’s meditation on time effortlessly opens into endless philosophy. Consider Thomas J McFarlane‘s conclusion on Husserl’s thought in his 1998 publication “The Nature of Time”:
The mystery of time opens up to the mystery of consciousness itself. A mystery that is at once a kind of self-knowledge and identity of knowing with the known.
Time is the most basic and, simultaneously, the slipperiest of subjects. While delivering his ponderings in an explosive package which creates revolutionary theater, Malkovich shines. His audience circles with him into poetic truth.