Although not a movie about art or artists, John Malkovich’s’s debut directorial feature The Dancer Upstairs contains an exquisite art moment. Set in an unnamed South American country, a police detective named Agustín Rejas [played with aplomb by Javier Bardem] begins to notice a number of bizarre acts taking place in the capital city, namely the hanging of dead dogs from lamp posts with cryptic messages from “Ezequiel”. Since detectives always want to know who did it and why, Rejas begins to investigate the possible identity of the mysterious dog killer. Meanwhile, the repressive regime that governs the country starts to come under random attack with a rising death toll from assassinations and bombings. It is only then that Rejas connects the dog killer to the terrorist acts and realises that “Ezequiel” is the leader of a revolution – albeit one with no demands, no claims of responsibility and no manifesto. It is a revolution without any apparent aim except the creation of complete anarchy. In the middle of all the destruction, a crack down by the government, – which institutes a police state with military control over the police and new, ever more repressive laws – people somehow still find the time to visit the theatre to see bad performance art.
Is everyone in? The performance art is about to begin…
The audience is led into a makeshift theatre inside the gym of a local Catholic girl’s school. Like most classic performance art, people are there to be confronted and soon half naked women and men appear daubed in fake blood with the arms and legs of dolls stuck to their heads and bodies.
Performance art is about breaking down the bourgeois boundaries of theatre by destroying the proscenium or “fourth wall” of the stage, addressing the audience directly, involving them in the drama or provoking an extreme reaction. In The Dancer Upstairs, the film captures the moment perfectly when a beautiful woman dressed as kind of nurse/angel comes forward from the dancers, hisses at the audience, then after picking out a nicely dressed young woman to her left, dumps a bucket of water over the young woman’s head. Sticking close to reality, far from being outraged, the drenched young woman laughs meekly as the audience roars with laughter.
The aim of this performance art/contemporary dance troupe is to confront the audience. A smartly dressed man and his wife – later identified as the government minister in charge of culture – are picked out for special treatment by the performers who climb over the front row seats and rub their pantyhosed arses over their heads and shoulders. The audience is tittering, but more is to come…
Audience participation may be dangerous.
In a moment dreaded by anyone who has ever attended a performance evening, the audience in The Dancer Upstairs is asked for volunteers to come forward and be part of the action. Keen to be seen as enthusiasts of the arts and good sports, the minister and his wife and a third bloke in a business suit do not protest when they are taken forward by performers and asked to sit in chairs facing the rest of the audience. The crowd menwhile is starting to get justifiably annoyed at this relentlessly pretentious performance, one audience member cat-calling “Bring back Robert Wilson” while another yells back “No don’t!”. Much laughter ensues as a third person yells “GET ON WITH IT”. Suddenly the lights go down. In the darkness, three shots ring out… The audience laugh nervously.
Political power grows from the barrel of a gun.
As someone grabs a flashlight and shines it on the floor, the now terrified crowd discover that the gunshots were real. Instead of a lame work of art, they had witnessed the execution of government members by Ezequiel’s hit squad – leggy women in leotards. The performers disappear leaving Rejas to try to piece together what happened. Unfortunately, as the movie progresses, it turns out that Ezequiel’s revolution has wide spread grass roots popular support and although the government begins round ups of political prisoners and imposes imprisonment of all suspects – not to mention to the widespread militarization of the country and its culture – nothing can stop the revolution.
Art Performance Overall Accuracy: 7/10
Actual Art Performance Motivational Accuracy: 1/10
Art World Wish Fulfillment Accuracy: 10/10