Double Feature

The New York City Ballet on Sunday, May 27.

I think it must be almost impossible to see silent movies—really see them—as they must have been seen back in the nineteen teens and twenties. To my own jaded eyes, the air of camp hangs over almost every film, in the hyperstylized acting or the ridiculously melodramatic scenarios or the hopelessly stilted intertitles. That's not fair, and I'm sure it keeps me from truly appreciating any number of great works, but it is what it is. The conventions of cinema have changed so much since the silent era that it's hard to go back.

People try, though. Martin Scorsese's movie Hugo is nothing if not an earnest love letter to the work of visionary silent-film director Georges Méliès, and Hugo is surprisingly effective at bridging the gap between modern sensibilities and Méliès's luminously imaginative aesthetic. Choreographer Susan Stroman isn't as ambitious as Scorsese, but I wonder if she had a similar motivation in creating Double Feature, two short ballets inspired by silent films. It definitely is an interesting idea, as ballet, too, relies on exaggerated acting and simple, elemental story lines. But while Scorsese works to banish the kitsch that has gathered around silent films, Stroman giddily embraces it—in a way that feels a bit condescending, to both the movies and her own audience. To be sure, Double Feature is cute and funny, with a few especially great scenes, but it's also rather shallow and flighty. There are worse things, of course, but I can't help wondering if this merely good ballet had had the potential, with higher aim, to be great.