Late last year Chicago-based documentary filmmaker Bob Hercules co-directed Bill T. Jones: A Good Man, a sensational portrait of the modern dance maven. Now, in Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance, Hercules relates the story of Robert Joffrey, another innovator in the field who, along with partner Gerald Arpino, meshed the worlds of classical ballet and modern dance within their own company. Informative rather than inspirational, the film nevertheless imparts a story that reminds us of the tremendous impact these two gay men have had on the world of the arts and, perhaps more importantly, mainstream culture.
Robert Joffrey was just 16 when he met the 22-year-old Gerald Arpino in 1945. However, already the wunderkind had mapped out his future and soon he and his lover headed for New York, where the two worked to become recognized in the field of dance. In 1954 they co-founded the Joffrey Ballet, with Joffrey as its artistic head and Arpino as its principal choreographer/dancer. Two years later the tiny group began to make a name for itself outside of New York. Joffrey had hit upon the idea of bringing dance to the masses and, from humble beginnings (via a station-wagon tour of high schools and community centers with six dancers in 1956), this is what they did. The strategy proved very successful in helping the company make a name for itself with the general public; however, Joffrey's egalitarian attitude toward dancers was considered very controversial within the rigid world of dance.
Joffrey's strategy and a series of financial and creative ups and downs are detailed in the film via narration by Mandy Patinkin and archival footage, along with memories and insights from former company dancers, biographers and dance journalists (including Hedy Weiss of the Sun-Times). With the help of financial backing by a wealthy patron, the company had achieved worldwide recognition; however, by 1965 Joffrey and Arpino, after parting ways with the patron, had had to start over. Although no longer lovers, they continued to live and work together until Joffrey's untimely death at 57 from AIDS in 1988. Arpino then became the company's artistic director and, in 1995, permanently moved the company to Chicago. He died in 2008, just a month after the dedication of the Joffrey Tower in the Loop.
"The American Dance" in the title of Hercules' movie underscores his theme that Joffrey and Arpino's companyby combining classical and modern as well as populist works and including dancers of varying heights and ethnicitieswas truly the country's first democratic dance corps. Also, it's clear from the archival footage that this democratic approach included a frankness about male sexuality and the male form that were clearly revolutionary.
The travails and triumphs of the Joffrey's long history naturally lend the film (which is less a movie and more an installment of American Masters on PBS, where it will probably end up) an episodic quality that doesn't allow Hercules screen time to delve deeply into a lot of personal sidebars that the movie could have used. Most disconcertingly, the long history of the company precludes anything much more than 30-second glimpses of the Joffrey repertoire. The emphasis is on talking about dance rather than showing it and there is nothing here that mirrors the sensual splendor of Pina, Wim Wenders stunningly evocative tribute to the German modern-dance choreographer Pina Bausch. Hercules is also robbed of a living subjectlike the fiery, eloquent Bill T. Jonesupon which to anchor the movie. But given that and the fact that this is the first full-length portrait of Joffrey and Arpino and their company, it makes Hercules' approach both understandable and laudatory.
The film plays exclusively at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., at 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18, and Wed., Feb. 20. Each of the screenings will be followed by a discussion that will include Hercules and panelists made up of local dance journalists, Joffrey dancers and associates of the company. www.siskelfilmcenter.org
Why haven't audiences warmed to Woody Harrelson in his serious roles as they have when he plays comic flakes, stoners and wackos? Is it because he brings such a scary, single-minded intensity to his characters? Or because the common link between all these complex performances is that they are antiheroes? Whatever it is, Harrelson's fearlessness and willingness to plumb the depths of these emotionally scarred, morally reprehensible characters is once again on display in Rampart. The movie reteams Harrelson with Oren Moverman, who directed the actor in the criminally overlooked The Messenger.
Harrelson plays Dave Brown, a career cop who doesn't suffer fools gladly; lives with his two ex-wives (sisters, played by Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche) and his two daughters; and nightly picks up another woman (two of them being Audra McDonald and Robin Wright). It's Los Angeles in 1999 and the police department is in the midst of dealing with the fallout from the Rampart scandal (caused when widespread corruption with the department's anti-gang division was revealed). Brown is a dirty cop, long used to having his way on the streets and in his personal life. However, Brown's career begins to implode after he's set up by one of his enemies and is caught on tape beating a suspect nearly to death. Nothing he seems to do after that point in either his career or personal life seems to stop his downward spiral.
Moverman, co-scripting with James Ellroythe crime-writing expert upon whose story the material is basedhas a knack for giving his tremendous cast scant moments to make their presence felt (sometimes, literally, in slivers of screen time) and Harrelson's talent for these bad apples, as noted, is wondrous. But all that good acting is in service to yet another story about a rogue cop and if I never see another movie focused on a cop drinkin', smokin', womanizin' and behaving with violent disregard of the law, it won't be too soon. Enough with the soulless, corrupt cops Hollywoodfamiliarity has bred contempt.
Oscar talk: Here's your chance to pit your Oscar predictions against the pros and support your local queer film critic. On Monday, Feb. 20, Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips will host an Academy Awards preview (complete with clips of the nominated films and more) at Victory Gardens Theater (former home of the historic Biograph) at 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. at 7 p.m. Phillips will be joined by fellow critics Adam Kempenaar of the popular WBEZ podcast "Filmspotting," Tasha Robinson of the Onion's AV Club and yours truly, representing the group that views the Oscars as the gay men's national holiday. Avid movie fans of all persuasions are invited to attend. Tickets and further info are at www.chicagotribune.com/news/tribnation/events.
Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitymediagroup.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.