Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Festival Review: “Cat Dancers”


Cat Dancers” tells the true story of Ron and Joy Holiday and Chuck Lizza, successful dancers and show people who forged masterful careers in a world that regarded them as outsiders from the get go. Unsentimental and even-handed, the complexities of love and the, or so society makes us believe, unnatural bonds between humans and animals are explored in the context of a sympathetic portrait of life in show business, and the reality of the situation, while dealt with tastefully, is one of the most tragic stories I have ever seen, ominous from the start, yet uplifting in its arguments as well.

Ron Holiday is narrates the film by means of a running interview, and he is now seventy-years-old, well beyond his sell by date, in terms of the dancing world’s requirements. From the start, he gives an honest and unflinching look into a story told entirely in his own way, at his own pace, and with his candid demeanour, it is nothing but mesmerising. He starts at the beginning, not just the beginning of this particular story but at the beginning of several stories which all eventually intertwine in a manner so reasoned it seems as though fate had planned it to end up in the way it does all along. With the vagueness of the order of his reflection of past events, you are never certain exactly when the events took place, but the focus should not be on when they happened, but rather how and why, and that is exactly what we are told.

We become aware of how Ron and Joy met, and that there was never a sexual attraction between, the fact that they were kids has nothing to do with it, it was more of a bother-and-sister type bond, formed out of a shared set of hopes and dreams. Both wanted nothing more than to become famous dancers, and dreamt of dancing in their childhood playground, Radio City Music Hall. After teaching various techniques of dance, mainly ballet, in Florida, the couple met Tennessee Williams and from then on, their dreams became sparkling reality – they were booked to play at Radio City Music Hall, in a sold out show no less. When tedium and old age set in, being thirty-something in the world of dance is considered “old,” Ron started thinking about calling it quits. Until he had a light-bulb-above-the-head moment, and came up with the idea of integrating wild animals into their act, particularly wild and exotic cats. With the help of their friend, William Holden, they got hold of a black leopard. Things just kept getting better and better for them, and eventually ended up with a whole lot more rare and enticing animals dancing by their side – the popularity of this allowed for them to hire runaway circus worker Chuck, which proved to be every much a business deal as it was a romantic bonus. Work and love all wrapped up in a frowned upon ménage à trois.

As interesting as the dancing with the ferocious felines must have been, it is less interesting in the film – but that is not what the film is about, much to my satisfaction. It is much more a personal story, laced in controversial intimacy which is never fully explored, but obviously, the divisive details were toned down so that the doc would achieve a more conventional and accepting audience, which I don’t think has been achieved internationally. Suspense is warranted from the start, mainly because we know that Ron is most probably the only living member of the romantically linked and wedding ring, not an official legal marriage but a bonding of souls, bound trio, as we never get input from the other two members. When the fine points are dished, nothing can prepare you – not the clever use of imagery of the cats, in their moments of adorability or evilness, and when the emotional impact hits, it strikes hard.

Present day footage, detailing Ron’s loneliness with only two of his cats still alive, and archival footage are woven together to great effect, contrasting the good times, the bad times, the blinding intensity of the spotlight and the portentous quality of what may come after the final curtain call. Production values are good, especially the musical score – particularly over the archive footage of the shows, and the film says so much when nothing is vocalised at all, you can sense all there is to feel just by letting go and allowing the pure tragedy of reality to wash over you. Overall, “Cat Dancers” is an effective documentary that has never seen a theatrical release, but if and when one gets the chance to see the film, you won’t regret a second of it.

Fatac Rating: ***
Cat Dancers. Directed by Harris Fishman. Cinematography by Amanda Micheli. Music by String Theory and Peter Salett. Edited by Alexis Spraic. Featuring: Ron Holiday. Running Time: 75 minutes. Age Restriction: TBC. Festival: Encounters ‘08. Rating out of five stars.