#617) The Lead Shoes (1949)

#617) The Lead Shoes (1949)

OR “El Sid”

Directed by Sidney Peterson

Class of 2009

The Plot: Based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, “The Red Shoes” is some of the finest ballet ever captured on film. Set in the theater world of London, a young- I’m sorry what was that? It’s the wrong movie? Okay, I thought it was weird to be covering a British film. What movie is this? “The Lead Shoes”? What’s it about? It’s an experimental film about a woman disposing of a scuba diver’s dead body? And it has an off-putting soundtrack and distorted lenses? Oh boy.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “a dreamlike trance showing the unconscious acts of a disturbed man”. An essay from the Northwest Chicago Film Society’s Kyle Westphal is a detailed breakdown of Peterson and this film.

But Does It Really?: Well that was a weird one. Even with a 16 minute runtime, “The Lead Shoes” packs in a lot of unpleasantness (If you love dead bodies, rats, and a bone covered in blood, this is your movie). While this kind of filmmaking isn’t my cup of tea, I won’t deny Sidney Peterson his place in film history, unintentionally leading the charge for San Francisco’s experimental art scene of the 1950s. A pass for “The Lead Shoes”. 

Everybody Gets One: Sidney Peterson is one of those artists who lived more lives than a cat. Prior to becoming an experimental filmmaker, Peterson was a medical student at UC Berkeley, a reporter for the Monterey Herald, and a sculptor and painter in southern France. An “all-around autodidact”, Peterson picked up experimental filmmaking in his mid-30s, with his first film – 1946’s “The Potted Psalm” – earning him a job teaching filmmaking at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute). Using his students as resources (and their $10 materials fee to buy film stock), Peterson and his class created a new experimental film every semester. “The Lead Shoes” would be Peterson’s final film with his Workshop 20 class.

Seriously, Oscars?:  There’s no way in hell a film like “Lead Shoes” would have ever made it to the Oscars, even today. For the record: 1949’s Live-Action Short Subject winners were films about a state-of-the-art swimming pool (One-Reel) and Van Gogh (Two-Reel).

Other notes 

  • Most of “The Lead Shoes” is shot through distorted lenses, giving the film an elongated, surreal quality. Peterson started experimenting with anamorphic lenses in his 1947 film “The Cage”, and even he admitted that he didn’t know why he was drawn to them: “I don’t know exactly how this works. I only know that it does.”
  • The soundtrack is credited to “The Three Edwards and a Raven”, a reference to the poems being recited in the background: “The Three Ravens” and “Edward“. These recitations are seemingly random and, when mixed with a Dixieland band, quite disjointed. It helps to know that the soundtrack is an entirely separate undertaking from the film, with no attempt at synchronicity, except for – as Kyle Westphal calls it – moments of “occasional harmony”. Turns out “The Lead Shoes” was the “Dark Side of Oz” of its day.
  • The actor in the scuba diving gear is Harlan Jackson, then a student in Peterson’s class, later a famous abstract painter.
  • In my attempt to dissect the sights and sounds of “The Lead Shoes” to decipher its meaning, I came across this quote from Sidney Peterson in response to his film’s more literal reviews: “Do you suppose movie audiences will ever learn to take works as experiences instead of merely as expression, what does it mean? etc?” Point taken, Sidney. Perhaps my initial reaction of “What the hell was that?” is more in line with what Peterson intended his audiences to take away from his movies.

Legacy 

  • Among Sidney Peterson’s professional highlights following his departure from the California School of Fine Arts: directing MoMA’s educational television program, penning his novel “A Fly in the Pigment”, writing and directing for UPA (including two episodes of “The Gerald McBoing-Boing Show”), working for Disney on one of their many abandoned attempts at a “Fantasia” sequel, and returning to filmmaking one more time to make 1981’s “Man in a Bubble”. Sidney Peterson continued writing and lecturing up until his death in 2000 at age 94.
  • Man, that was a weird movie. I’m having a hard time shaking it off. Maybe I will watch “The Red Shoes” after all. Take me away, Powell & Pressburger!

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