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The Dancer Upstairs
John Malkovich has made a clever movie about the hunt for a fat, cardigan-wearing philosophy professor with blood on his hands. Rich Guilfoyle watches The Dancer Upstairs.
John Malkovich’s directorial debut, The Dancer Upstairs, is based on Nicholas Shakespeare’s 1995 novel by the same name. Shakespeare’s own screenplay adaptation of the novel is inspired by the tale of Peru’s Shining Path leader Dr Abimael Guzman (aka Chairman Gonzalo). Guzman, a former philosophy professor at the National University of Huamanga in Ayacucho, Peru, is a Maoist – by way of Kant! In the 1960’s, Guzman hosted a pedestrian ‘Tuesdays-with-Abimael’ affair equivalent to a Monday night bowling league, for discussing political thought. In the 1970’s the group evolved into a civil activist organization called the Shining Path (aka Sendero Luminoso). By the mid- 1980’s, the dam of civility crumbled and the blood flowed.
Malkovich calls The Dancer Upstairs “a love story about a policeman who captured Guzman.” It is also a detective story and politico-historical story, and though these narrative threads weave a gauzy surface to the film, they are thin at best. The temptation is to redeem the film by suggesting it is layered. It is not. Directorial sculpting of frame, rather than the warp and woof of storied tapestry, drives the film. It is an elegant, provocative and gripping film in the best possible way, never letting you quite in and never quite letting you out.
Malkovich’s masterful painting of frame creates a strategic equilibrium in psychological tension. The film steers clear of preachy and didactic dialogue; there is no narrative voice-over and scenes pass in a Chekovian slice-of-life way. The Dancer Upstairs taunts with elusive and illusory imagery to be mined for meaning. The subtle cinematic clash of titanic ideas makes the film a must-see for philosophy buffs and patrons of the big screen.
“Film isn’t about what really is, film is about what appears to be,” says Malkovich. And so writes Kant about things as they really are (noumenal) and things as they appear to be (phenomenal). Malkovich’s unnamed South American country, sometime in the recent past, is a Kantian stage, a kingdom of ends, a metaphorical realm to which characters in the film are acted upon and are acting in accord to moral laws.
We meet Rejas, deftly played by Javier Bardem, at the border of this unnamed country. Rejas reveals that he began as a coffee bean farmer. The farm was forcibly taken by the military “in the name of the people” and Rejas became a lawyer trying to understand his fate. Disenchanted with corruption, lack of justice and truth seeking in lawyering, he joins the police department. In time he becomes Captain Rejas, a lead detective pursuing Ezequiel. But we begin the tale with Rejas guarding the border.
The bloodied bumper of a pickup truck alerts Rejas’ subordinate officer to possible foul play. The driver says the blood is from a dog they’ve hit along the way. The Indian in the bed of the truck gives the dog’s name as Tupac. In historical time, the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement are rivals of the Shining Path. Both operate in rural jungle, both claim to champion the downtrodden indigenous Peruvians and both compete for the same ‘taxes’ – that is, collections from cocaine smugglers – to fund their terrorist operations. (Peru is the second largest cocaine producer in the world) Shining Path adherents, Maoists, hold the Tupac Amaru, Marxists, in disdain as traitors to communism. Of course, this is not Peru; it is an unnamed South American country with the particular case exemplifying the general. One word, the name of a dead dog, and the plot thickens.
In five seconds of running time, we arrive five years later in narrative time to a sequence of unnerving scenes. Mixed breed dogs, excepting a few poodles, dance on air from lampposts with placards strung about their necks; one dog has a stick of dynamite inserted in his trachea. Whodunit? Now a high-ranking police detective, Rejas says, “I wouldn’t entirely rule out a cat lover.” Ah, Mr Malkovich! Wry and quirky Malkovichianisms provide critical, fleeting relief, to this Kantian tease of a flick, this phenomenal and noumenal half-step high-wire act of strategic psychological equilibrium.
A placard dangles from a dog’s neck; it reads: “When I hear the word cultural I reach for my pistol.” The wacko slogan, signed Presidente Ezequiel, draws a subconscious shiver of sympathy as Rejas’ wife, annoyingly steeped in a culture of commerce, rehearses a speech on The Bridges of Madison County to address her book club comprised of equally giddy, glittery and glib members. Rejas’ landlady asks what to wear to a revolution and, later, what to wear when martial law is declared.
Rejas is romantically drawn to Yolanda, played by Laura Morante. Yolanda, the dancer downstairs, is Rejas’ daughter’s dance instructor. As Rejas and paramour Yolanda sit hand in hand, a simple display of fireworks appears on the horizon. No it’s not that cheap. Is it a lovers’ cinematic gloss, a pyrotechnical first volley to revolution, a soldier’s salute to impending independence, or a good old fashion spit in the face of despair and poverty?
Words, as used by Ezequiel, are fused signifiers to rouse passion rather than guide reason. Words matter to Presidente Ezequiel, yet he eschews a manifesto on the premises of revolution. A professorial colleague from Ezequiel’s past explains the frenetic Kantian’s rationale as “text assumes its own reality”, citing Jesus and Socrates as exemplars. Ezequiel seeds sharp-edged jingoistic slogans to urge the people to insurgency. He invokes the revolutionary power of simple impassioned words.
Who is this Ezequiel? The Old Testament prophet Ezekiel championed the cause of Jews exiled from Babylon, promising a restoration to freedom from their captive condition. God will restore the people to their rightful place. The other Ezequiel foretells the same by way of Kant, Plato, Marx, Mao, dead dogs and dead children in this unnamed South American country.
When an Ezequiel-mesmerized nubile coed appears in a hiked-up plaid skirt to attract the attention of some well-to-do men, she gets their eye and slaughters them with an AK-47 concealed in a bookbag and all does not end so Singer sweet. Fire is returned and she is hit. Slithering away in a glistening trail of blood to a disheveled hovel shingled in signage reading Club Sao Paulo and Le Marin, she lies in bed gasping, her angelic face shredded, and her throat rattles with the last of her breath. Paradise becomes moot.
Enter ‘the Bomb Boy’, identified as such in the rolling credits, approximately ten years of age. He enters a café, ostensibly to bring his father a briefcase. While handing it over he shouts, “Viva Presidente Ezequiel!” Boom! Blown to a Kantian kingdom come! We know nothing more of him than the empiricist judgment of the forensic pathologist: he consumed meatballs and rice two and half hours earlier.
Doggedly pursuing his charge, the capture of Ezequiel, truth-seeking Rejas cradles a book in his workmanlike hands, How Democracies Perish. Authored by French philosopher Jean-Francois Revel, How Democracies Perish theorizes that the West has softened its ideal of a free, open and market-oriented society while insidiously buying into the fatally flawed agenda of collectivism. For Revel, racism, class bias and sexism are not the devils that the Left claims, and freedom without development is meaningless. He cites the thousands of Africans tortured at the bloodied hands of Marxist regimes and socialistproduced famines ending in harvesting millions of lives in the naïve reductionist scheme that is communism.
We do see in the film something of a counterclaim to Revel’s position, specifically, that democracies more often succumb to military coups and fascism, which may be a greater threat to democracy than communism. The unnamed South American country unravels and martial law is declared in the name of stamping out terrorism and the evildoer Ezequiel Duran. Convoys of tanks and soldiers fill the streets, usurp Rejas’ authority, invade homes and imprison suspect and, often, innocent citizens.
Fiction aligns with fact. Former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimoro, an elected official, declared martial law and assumed dictatorial power in April 1992. Congress was disbanded, courts disenfranchised and innocents were jailed. Rid Peru of Guzman and Shining Path terrorists at any price, even the creation of a fascist totalitarian regime.
Meanwhile, back in the film, a citywide search for evidence of the elusive Ezequiel’s whereabouts leads to combing through the plentiful garbage in this unnamed South American city. Ezequiel has psoriasis, a dermatological fate that also plagued another of his political kinsman who lost face, Joseph Stalin. The detectives look for trashed evidence of medication and vestiges of Camel non-filtered cigarettes, knowing Ezequiel smoked the same. The sequence takes on overtones of an archaeological dig as the detectives unearth cartons of condoms, drug paraphernalia, alcohol bottles, bodily fluid stained clothing and popular magazines, altogether a dark inventory of cultural artifacts from a lost and dead civilization.
A dog-eared copy of Introduction to Marxism is culled from the refuse. We move in on the crazed Kantian who considers Marx a communist wimp. Eureka! They find medication wrappers and crumpled cigarette packs, though the latter turn out to be Winstons with nearby evidence of the filtered tips snapped off. The discarded bottle of psoriasis medication reads: “Keep away from children.” Especially angelic Peruvian boys bearing briefcases and leggy schoolgirls in short plaid skirts.
Captain Rejas stakes out the suspect trash near the address 423 Diderot. The 18th century Lockean philosopher and encyclopedist Denis Diderot critiqued the political system of France and wittily attacked moral convention, leading the intellectual charge to the French Revolution. Though wholeheartedly an advocate of democracy, his forte lay more in provocative speech than tightly reasoned philosophy. He stirred the revolutionary impulse with the word. Where better to find the elusive Ezequiel than near the house of Diderot?
One of Rejas’ charges, a police officer, sits in wait for things to unfold at 423 Diderot. She reads Plato’s Republic. Enter the Philosopher King!
And what of the title, The Dancer Upstairs? The historical Guzman, like the fictional everyman’s dictator Ezequiel, was captured in a room above a dance studio. But 423 Diderot glows with an aesthetic of metaphysical space. A dancer rhythmically moves both feet and body in a prescribed pattern of steps. So, too, the dancer upstairs, where upstairs is an informal nod to mind and higher authority, moves rhythmically in a sequence prescribed by systems of truth. Or maybe the dancer upstairs is simply a mad medieval St Vitus dancer. The duality of mind-body, the necessity of inescapable union and insufficiency of each alone is brilliantly crafted into the brick and mortar image of 423 Diderot.
Nearing the conclusion of the film, Ezequiel Duran clearly morphs into Abimael Guzman, with the narrative frame shifting to the historical. Guzman, played by Malkovich, looks something of a hybrid black bearded and bespectacled Allen Ginsburg and Charles Manson with a smidgen of Maynard G. Krebbs. Guzman wears a near-parody black and white horizontal zebrastriped prison uniform that contrasts the vertical lines of the cage hoisted aloft like so much cargo or a zoo animal.
Guzman’s famous ‘Speech from a Cage’ took place on September 24, 1992. The Peruvian government orchestrated the event, intending to ridicule Guzman and the Shining Path in front of 200 international journalists. Instead, Guzman delivered a moving speech – mess with a murderer but never a philosopher! His lot, he said, was “simply a bend” in the stream of history and he proceeded to rouse the ‘people’ with rhetoric of “strategic equilibrium” and “Glory to Marxism, Leninism, Maoism… Glory to the Peruvian People.”
The caging of Guzman extinguished the light of the Shining Path. Maoism, even Guzman’s self-proclaimed form, succumbs to the claim that it is a cult of personality. So much for the light of the Fourth Flame of Communism or, as one of Rejas’ detectives put it, “a big fat man in a cardigan.” Malkovich chose the talky beginning and end of Who Knows Where The Time Goes? to frame the entire film. The late Nina Simone says in the live recording, “Time is a dictator.”
And time is a revolution and one revolution of the earth is only the pace of a day in degrees of turn and irresistible force.
© RICH GUILFOYLE 2003
Rich Guilfoyle is a Hellenist Philosophy fanatic, rabid moviegoer, and a graduate student in English Literature.