In the days after his death, I was struck by an interview with Roger Ebert on Fresh Air about how he tends to avoid watching films more than once in a decade, and sometimes his relationship with them evolves. He gave the example of La Dolce Vita that he saw as a teen in Central Illinois and felt it was a glimpse into a world that he longed to be a part of. Years later he saw it as the world of a man whose problems he had long since outgrown.
I don’t like to watch many movies more than once, or at least in the same decade. My enormous selection of DVDs would seem to belie that and probably speaks more to my need to collect and hold onto the past.
Thus I was pleased to come across 1980’s Nijinsky on Blu-Ray. I wouldn’t call it a pivotal film in my life nor a particular strong one. And I have not seen it since I sat in a darkened theater in Oklahoma City in March 1980 with maybe five other people. It grossed only a bit more than $1 million. Directed by Herbert Ross whose credits included an odd range of films that included The Turning Point, Owl and the Pussycat and The Goodbye Girl. Compare it to Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers of Valentino and it comes across as reasonable, tasteful and lush without the excesses of those films. But, as many have noted, it feels dry and devoid of emotion, even though it deals with some of the most revolutionary art and movements of the early 20th Century.
The Olive Films DVD is crisp but devoid of any extras. It’s not one of those flops that is sloppy and incoherent. It’s perhaps too coherent and logical. It deals with the issues of same sex relations reasonably directly but without any juice. George de la Peña in the title role is attractive and sweet but has none of the intensity of what one would expect of the legendary dancer whom few first hand witnesses are left to relate what made him so unforgettable. No film of his dances exist to show how he moved, even though he had an influence on dance for the next century.
Interestingly, the bulk of the film takes place exactly a century ago. The year 1913 was pivotal in the arts with the riots erupting at the premiers of The Rite of Spring and Transfigured Night and the Armory show in New York introducing radically new art that shook the world. It was the year after the sinking of The Titanic and just a few months before World War I.
For better or worse, the emotional center of the film is not the title character but Alan Bates as Diaghilev, giving him just the right touch of elegant perviness and power. There are echoes of Visconti’s Death in Venice, from a few years before that, and Diaghilev who had a fear of water died there in 1929. The nature of the relationship reminded me a bit of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master — the mentor and manipulator who will banish his protégée if the rules of conditional love are betrayed.
The story of the Diaghilev-Nijinsky-Romola de Pulszky triangle is one worthy of telling, and its sad that this passionless white elephant of a film is so elegant looking and so dull. But I will settle for watching it without insights but pleasing sounds and images.