As loyal readers of the Satellite Show know, Louis hates Black Swan. And this isn’t the kind of run-of-the-mill hatred one would have for, say, a wifebeater or war criminal. To Aronofsky’s film Louis is the anti-sun, Destroyer of Life, the One Foretold in the Doomsday Prophecies, the Rachel Weisz. I actually liked Black Swan. I don’t think it solved the most central of dilemmas for the modern cinephile, that Sphinx’s riddle “Can Natalie Portman Act?” I do think it was worthwhile, if only for the slashfic ready throughline. Why am I talking about a psychosexual horror film when I should be discussing the wholesome entertainment of a twenty-two year old After School Special? Ballet.
Ballet is oppressively twee, like a Wes Anderson movie with an eating disorder. I have only seen a handful of ballet performances, and I haven’t enjoyed a single one. Dancing a story is just stupid to someone like me. I can’t help but think that if any of these skinny well-endowed people would just talk to one another, the goddamn plot would be resolved in seconds and everyone could get something to eat. Instead, they’d rather pose and preen, drinking in audience adulation because they’re not allowed calories. Though that ridiculous prancing around is completely lost on me, the aesthetic beauty of a ballerina is readily apparent. I wouldn’t mistake her for an avatar of femininity (those have boobs, see), but her graceful lines and confident motion is pleasing to the eye. It’s only when you get close and see the bloody and bruised feet, the jagged bones poking through crepe-thin flesh it becomes obvious that ballerinas are beautiful like volcanoes: from a distance.
This week’s episode, “A Special Gift,” is about a fourteen-year-old farmer’s son who would rather dance than play basketball. Peter is a handsome, athletic kid that lives in terror of being discovered to be just as weird as everyone else. He hides his shame from his friends until the inevitable third-act scheduling snafu in which he must choose between two pastimes: one socially acceptable that he’s terrible at, and the other for which he possesses a special gift. This being what it is, he chooses ballet and everyone important in Peter’s life accepts this. This is where the forty minute running time really benefits the protagonist. The supporting characters have a hard deadline by which they must be cool with everything or the whole episode ends up teaching the wrong lesson.
Even by the lax standards of television in 1979, the acting in “A Special Gift” so stilted that everyone looks about one botched pizza delivery from a bow-chikka-wa-wa to kick in on the soundtrack. Several actors appear to have been hired for their ballet rather than acting abilities. The dance sequences are thus quite convincing to the untrained eye. The episode gives its finale over to a performance of the Nutcracker while Peter’s dad tearfully watches, no doubt thinking about how much he loves his dead gay son.
Because Peter is gay. Not dead, although if this special were about accepting a homosexual ballet-dancing zombie it would officially be the greatest episode of anything ever. “He’ll steal your heart and eat your brains…” the trailer guy would say in that obnoxious snarl of his. Peter’s homosexuality is never confronted explicitly, since gay people did not exist until 1982.
Instead, Peter is merely coded gay. One of the ballerinas is interested in him romantically, but he never pays attention to her beyond her ability to reveal his secret. He would much rather make nice with his understudy, which, if Black Swan taught me anything inevitably leads to murder and hot gay sex. Upon learning Peter’s secret, his friend George gives him the cold shoulder, later admitting that he believed that being a ballet dancer might somehow rub off on him. A lecture in history class (which we previously have established, will pertain to the protagonist’s dilemma) is all about prejudice. The revelation of Peter’s hobby is treated as coming out of the closet. When Peter admits that he dances to one of the local farmers, this farmer gives Peter’s dad a significant and flirty look and says, “I suppose we all have our little secrets.” Seriously. That actually happens.
If this plot and subtext sounds familiar, that is because “A Special Gift” shares a great deal of DNA with “The Skating Rink.” Not too challenging, since that DNA was ready to be harvested from all over Tuck’s lower back. Both episodes are about talented young men overcoming conservative farm-based parents. What “A Special Gift” lacks is the apparent pederast that made “The Skating Rink” so wonderful. There was no man waxing poetically about Peter’s strong legs (or just waxing them). All of the adults in Peter’s life behaved appropriately toward him, with the exception of his father, who as it turned out was burdened with similar urges to Peter’s. Remember the rules of these fictional pocket dimensions. A father’s intolerance is never because he is a small-minded bigot. It’s because he used to sing soprano and got beaten up for it one time. Of course, what with the look the one farmer gave him, it’s possible dad had a couple other little secrets.
Because this was 1979, the film and television industries were still based in Los Angeles. This one is no exception, despite large parts of its running time being set on a farm. In the world of the episode, a trip into LA is significant, but not impossible. Peter and his sister Elizabeth have their ballet lessons in the city, making the trip once a week. I assumed their farm would be somewhere in the deep valley, possibly out by Santa Clarita. The point of all this is that in the end, when Peter has to choose between basketball and ballet, he has a game at one location at 10am, and the rehearsal at 10:30 at another location. He goes to the basketball game, plays a quarter and decides that he would rather dance. This means that he had, if he was lucky, eighteen minutes to change out of his basketball clothes, get to a theater and change into his ballet clothes. Unless he’s Jack Bauer, I’m calling bullshit on that one.
As though to underscore the importance of dance, the final scene is Peter’s performance of the Nutcracker. The audience applauds rapturously, cementing my low opinion of ballet. The freeze frame signifies that Peter has come out of the closet and perhaps can begin to date that long-limbed understudy of his. We’ll never know, as the pocket dimension has gone spinning out into earth-toned space.
Next up: “The Gold Test” which is yet another one about fucking figure skating.