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Thursday, 22 March 2012

Girl Walk // All Day

I first heard about Anne Marsen via The Good Wife, because I'm the kind of square who learns about viral-video street dance phenomena via TV shows about lawyers. In The Good Wife and, as far as I can tell, in the real world, Anne Marsen is a charming-badass-weird improvisational dancer who combines talent and training with an irresistable aura of total balls-out glee. Marsen started off in classical ballet before she quit and began to study as wide a variety of dance styles as New York City could provide. Girl Wall//All Day, the feature-length dance video inspired by Girl Talk's mashup album All Day, mirrors this journey to a certain extent, with the heroine freaking out during a ballet class and fleeing for the Staten Island Ferry in a jacket stolen from her teacher
All Day by Girl Talk is, first of all, a brilliant album. I'd been listening to it for months before I had any idea that there was an accompanying film, so I can confirm that it stands up on its own. You can download it free from Girl Talk's homepage or (as I prefer, because I'm a geek) listen on Mashup Breakdown, where each component sample is highlighted onscreen while you listen. But Girl Walk//All Day transforms each track into more than just sections of a great album -- they become memorable moments of a narrative. Girl Walk is very much a product of the internet and remix culture: funded on Kickstarter, produced with no official involvement from the creator of the (free to download) mashup album it's based on, and screened on Vimeo.

The jacket The Girl steals from her dance instructor is iconic enough that it was chosen as the logo of the film. She wears it for the first couple of chapters, a symbol of her don't-give-a-fuck attitude, weird and out-of-place as she dances through the crowds at the ferry terminal and out into the city.
One of the things that makes Girl Walk so entertaining is the fact that it embraces the hand-shot Youtube video culture, with all the pitfalls and unscriptable moments of true improvisation. Improv Everywhere's videos (motto: "We Cause Scenes") are so ubiquitously viral that I expect most people reading this will either have seen one, or some kind of advert that plays off the flashmob craze. Successful feel-good viral videos, like jokes, tend to rely on the element of surprise, whether it's fifty people breaking into song in a suburban shopping mall or a girl dancing fearlessly through crowds of tourists and commuters, and Girl Walk manages to sustain this for 72 minutes. And because the audience for a 72-minute improvisational mashup dance movie is most likely made up of the reality TV/Youtube generation, we're invited to notice and accept that yes, the camera person does exist, that this is more like documentary footage than pure fiction. When any of the dancers are further away from the camera, you know for sure that the reactions of the people around them must be genuine, because how could spectators even know they're being filmed? Sometimes the camera will be on one side of the street, filming The Girl as she dances unselfconsciously through the crowds on the other. Most of the participants in this movie are bystanders: laughing, gawking or attempting to ignore the crazy girl dancing to music (it's fairly likely) only she can hear.
The idea of a full-length film of a girl dancing through New York does, I admit, sound a little on the cutesy side. But honestly, even my cynical British self didn't feel a fraction of the discomfort I experience when put into contact with something by Zooey Deschanel and the rest of the Free Hugs brigade. The Girl of Girl Walk may be charmingly child-like in parts, but she's not remotely infantilised. She's childlike in the splashing-through-mud sense, in the sense that she's openly doing what she wants and not caring what other people think about it, but she's not a Manic Pixie Dreamgirl.
Aside from the few street-dancers The Girl meets on her travels, the other principal characters are The Gentleman and The Creep. While The Girl's style is a jumble of music video references, sloppy improv and classical training, The Gentleman and The Creep are more traditional street-dancers. To the casual observor, The Girl might give the impression of being a nonprofessional dancer having a total bug-out in public (at one point she's even escorted from a NYC landmark by the police), but The Gentleman and The Creep are a little more conventional, which only serves to highlight the freshness of her style.
The Gentleman lives up to his name. Dressed in a pristine white shirt and wearing a fedora, his style harks back to the golden age of musicals. He's also something of a silent movie hero: romantic, distant, and beset by difficulty. As a side-note, I particularly appreciated how in Girl Walk's trailer, The Girl is described as "courting" The Gentleman as opposed to being courted by him. Instead of the expected Male Gaze moment where the the camera might pan up and down The Girl to signify The Gentleman's interest, The Girl spots him dancing at the park, and, well:
You'll have noticed that by this point, The Girl's first costume change has taken place. When samples from Beyonce's Single Ladies appear in the mashup -- one of the most memorable music video dances of the past few years -- The Girl persuades some passers-by to act as her backing dancers, and in true diva style their resulting performance requires a costume change. The black leotard and leggings may be a reference to Beyonce's own outfit in the video, but more likely they just provide a comfortable basic backdrop to her cheerful pink blouse, another outfit that makes it easy for us to pick her out of the crowds.
The Girl and The Gentleman travel together for a while, taking part in an impromptu subway dance party with commuters including this gentleman:
Like Anne Marsen, the dancer playing the part of The Creep has a real skill for physical comedy. His moves are a mixture between body-popping street-dance and Looney Tunes villain. He sports a skeleton tracksuit, for extra added evil:
The Creep, as his name suggests, is a creeper, following The Girl until she (with a little help from The Gentleman) discourages him. When he first meets her, the heart on his skeleton shirt becomes exposed, but is that necessarily a good thing?
Not being a New Yorker, I'm sure there are many locational details and in-jokes that I'm missing in Girl Walk. However, there is one thing I did recognise: an accidental cameo from Bill Cunningham. Girl Walk's camera person catches the back of the famous photographer's head for a few seconds as he comes across The Creep dancing outside a department store.
The Girl's next transformation comes via a shopping spree through various famous shops, making her over into a New York fashionista. Amusingly, her over-the-top Paris Hilton strut down the street draws more stares than outright dancing had done earlier, maybe because in this case it's harder to tell whether she's for real or not. Later on comes one of my favourite parts of the film, when The Girl, still in character as her newly commercialised New York self and laden down with designer shopping bags, comes across the Occupy Wall Street protesters.
The Shopping Spree sequence was an interesting moment for me because it made me realise how odd it was to have watched a woman dance for so long and not throw any "sexy" moves. Along with a hot new outfit bought from some glossy NYC department store, The Girl's dance style makes a brief foray into sexy pop routines before returning to its usual free-for-all.
The final change is sparked on by The Girl meeting a child who rejects all of The Girl's new purchases, making her realise the importance of things that aren't Louboutins:
The Girl's last outfit is by far the weirdest-looking, and is perfect for when she joins the far more exotically-dressed crowds of people dancing through the streets in a passing city parade. This costume includes traditional elements of dance clothes (leotard, leggings and a tutu-like skirt) and the colour-scheme of the jacket she was wearing in the first act, combining her roots with her rebellion.
Girl Walk//All Day is 12 chapters long -- one sequence for each track -- and can be viewed here in its entirety, although if you're a US resident they seem to be holding live screenings/dance parties in some cities. I recommend one chapter per day before breakfast, as a panacaea against the horrors of real life.

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