An hour-long parade of topless women... and yet, Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger is focusing on the actual scenery.
Should love enter thine eyes and go to thy heart, beware. For should he whom thou choosest not return thy love, thy gods will frown and disgrace will befall thee…
Legong: Dance of the Virgins is probably unlike any other DVD in your collection. According to the trusty Internet Movie Database (which is not perfect, but gives an idea), roughly 383 films made before 1936 have been released to DVD. Of those, only 26 are in color. Of those 26 films, I doubt that many of them heavily feature topless women.
Legong: Dance of the Virgins meets all of those criteria, which makes it a rare DVD by any standards. But that isn't what makes it so unusual. For me, Legong is unusual in that it features a literal parade of topless women, but my attention was consumed by other things. Clothing. Statues. The scenery. The exotic dances, burial ceremonies, and temples. The world depicted was so far removed from mine that I couldn't help but stare.
Even among exotic foreign locales, the island of Bali is particularly exotic. In 1933 it was relatively unspoiled by Western influence or technology. The Balinese thrive on custom and ritual, and they've crafted elaborate costumes and buildings to support those rituals. Undaunted by the camera, the people of Bali perform their ceremonies, do their trading, bathing, and smoking, and carry on with their Edenic lives. Legong is like a National Geographic photo spread come to life, replete with the gaudy temples, weather-worn faces, and vaguely erotic naked torsos. From historical, sociological, and ethnographic standpoints, the footage in this film is fascinating.
It is also interesting from an artistic standpoint. Legong was the next-to-last commercial film to be released in two-strip Technicolor, a process that uses red and green channels to produce a sepia-toned image with brilliant green, red, and gold highlights. Recent Hollywood flicks have spent millions to achieve similar desaturated effects, so Legong was ahead of its time. It is also one of the last silent films. The net effect is a warm, retro vibe. When combined with the lush tropical scenery and epic scope of the Balinese rituals, Legong achieves an exotic surrealism.
Legong was created by Marquis Henry de la Falaise de la Coudray, the husband of a popular Hollywood starlet. The picture seems to have been made on a lark. He enlisted the aid of veteran cinematographer William H. Greene, who shot Legong with careful composition and interesting shots. Unfortunately, Marquis Henry de la Falaise de la Coudray wrote and directed the film, and this is where the hints of amateurism sneak in. The story is so plain as to be archetypal, leaving no hint of suspense or tension. If you read The Charge above, you already know what happens. The only surprise left is whether the spurned lover will commit suicide or the illicit members of the love triangle will collapse under the weight of tragic karma.
The modern story of Legong is much more interesting. The original film was censored in various forms in Canada, England, and the United States. Through the effort of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, these three nations contributed their versions of the footage to produce this original cut. Because of the various splices required, the video and sound quality are uneven. It is unfair to critique them at all, but since that is my job I will briefly mention the copious specks, scratches, warbles, image instability, and other bits of character. Really, the point is that a hacked-up anomaly from the past has been restored into impressively watchable condition. I was surprised by the brilliance of the reds and greens in many shots, and able to overlook the relative dimness in certain segments of the film. Watching Legong is like traveling back in a cinematic time machine and peeking in on a nearly alien culture.
Another interesting side story is that Richard Marriott, I Made Subandi, and members of Gamelan Sekar Jaya and the Club Foot Orchestra created a new soundtrack for the film. Purists need not balk, because the original (and somewhat cumbersome) soundtrack is still intact. That said, the new soundtrack is much better than the old. It has the benefit of a modern approach to cadence and syncopated rhythm, yet it feels more authentic and true to the material. The new music is catchy, dramatic, and somewhat darker than the brassy swells of the melodramatic original track. If National Geographic produced an hour-long music video, it might look and sound something like this.
But wait, there's more! Milestone Film and Video made the right call by making Legong the feature film, but two more features are included. One is a dry but suitably impressive documentary on Balinese customs by Oscar winner Robert Snyder. The more interesting feature is another Marquis Henry de la Falaise de la Coudray film, Kliou the Killer, which details the hunt for a murderous tiger (live action too, no CGI!). The jungle hunt scenes are almost shocking in their mix of civilization and savagery. Neither film captures the compelling vibe that Legong is able to achieve, but they are suitable accessories to the main feature.
The other features are a mixed bag. I wasn't enthralled by the conversation with the composers; the music speaks for itself, though I don't begrudge them the chance to gush about the project. The DVD-rom articles are more interesting, full of tidbits such as this one from the director: "Our first task was to find capable interpreters for these roles. This turned out to be quite problematic. In the first place, it was difficult to find young girls with a pretty face and fine physical build, whose teeth had not yet been filed to sharp points." Ouch.
As a package, Legong: Dance of the Virgins is a treat for the academically inclined. I use that word for a reason, because there is little about the film itself that is gripping from the standpoint of story or acting. No, you watch Legong for the unique experience it offers: the idyllic scenery, the exotic men and women, the foreign customs and routines. Film buffs will also enjoy the experience of seeing one of the last two-strip Technicolor silent films. Legong: Dance of the Virgins isn't the first film that comes to mind when you are planning your new DVD purchases, but you'd probably enjoy this singular cinematic experience.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
• Optional New Score by Richard Marriott and I Made Subandi, Performed by Members of Gamelan Sekar Jaya and the Club Foot Orchestra
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