As part of my drive to collect favorite films and shows on physical media, I’ve been buying lots of compilation sets simply because it’s the cheapest way to get what I want. Instead of buying a single movie, you can often get 10 for less, and that’s what I’ve been doing. An unforeseen side effect is that a lot of the ‘extra’ movies are great.
That’s how I came to own White Nights and let me tell you, this is an incredible film. Even if you aren’t into musicals, you need to watch this because it not only demonstrates modern artistic mediocrity it also speaks lost truths about Communism.
When Hollywood Actually Had Talent
If you watch older films, one of the things that sticks out is that it uses longer, continuous cuts of film. This makes the pacing slow by our current frenetic effects-driven standards, but it allows the actors to deepen their portrayals and creates more fulfilling performances.
This is particularly true in action sequences, especially dancing. Go watch any modern dance film and you’ll see quick cut after quick cut, maybe a closeup of footwork and then a group shot. This is necessary to hide the fact that modern performers can’t dance and their choreography is a bad joke. Watching White Nights was a revelation to just how quickly our civilization has collapsed into artistic mediocrity.
The film opens with an extended modern ballet sequence that may seem bizarre (my kids were totally confused), but don’t bother yourself about its weird symbolism, just watch Mikhail Baryshnikov. The man’s physical strength and control is freakish. He is literally doing super-hero stuff in real time. Again, notice the long, continuous takes and full frame views that show you how the guy isn’t just doing one move and then resting, he’s bouncing around the set in a grueling endurance contest.
The movie is peppered with sequences like that, and Baryshnikov is ably assisted by Gregory Hines. Hines is an accomplished dancer in his own right, but his job is primarily to add dramatic strength.
One of the problems of musicals is finding a plausible way for people to break into song or dance. White Nights does this by showing actual performances and then what appear to be workout sessions. The music itself almost always has a visible source, usually Baryshnikov’s high-end tape deck.
He has great taste in music. While I never saw the movie in the theater I certainly remember the radio play of its music. Again, this was an era when world-class dancers could have films built around them and the music backing them up would dominate the pop charts. It truly belongs to a lost age.
The Ugly Racist History of Communism
The plot of White Nights is quite simple: a Russian defector (Baryshnikov) is on tour with an international dance troupe and his plane has to make an emergency landing at a Soviet military base in Siberia. The film takes its name from the “white nights” of the arctic region where sunlight lasts almost 24 hours a day during the summer months. Upon learning Baryshnikov’s identity, the Soviets plan to have him “re-defect” in order to score a propaganda coup. He disagrees and immediately plans his escape.
The Soviets enlist Hines’ character to stop this. He plays an American who defected to the USSR as a result of his experiences in Vietnam and his belief Soviet propaganda about the anti-racist nature of Communism. This has gone down the memory hole, but a key element of Soviet propaganda was that the United States irredeemably racist and that only Communism could provide true equality. The American Communist Party was very strident in preaching this and while the Soviet Union has collapsed, the race-baiting lives on.
The supreme irony is that Communist regimes are in fact far more racist than anything in the West, and the movie powerfully highlights this. Hines escapes America’s “bigoted society” for what he thinks is a post-racial one and yet how does he end up? Endlessly playing Porgy and Bess and doing minstrel shows for white audiences.
Just as Communist China practices genocides against disfavored groups, the Soviet leadership likewise used mass deportations and planned starvation to crush non-Russian ethnic groups. Hines’ character has married his Russian translator (Isabella Rossellini in her first role), and the couple is treated with open contempt.
Hines thus has to decide if this is how he wants to live his life or if he will join Baryshnikov in an attempt to escape Communism.
The Original Cancel Culture
The core of Communism is the total subordination of the individual to the collective. Everything must flow through the state, especially art. Self-expression is therefore tightly regulated and White Nights does a great job of showing just how artists are constrained by its rules.
There is a deep irony in that many of the biggest supporters of Communism today would be the most adversely effected by its adoption. Cancel culture seems like a great thing when you are doing the canceling, but that can change very quickly. There’s a powerful scene where Hines is driven out to a rock quarry to underline the point that there are other career options than dancing open to him in the Soviet Union. Do what we say or you can break rocks until you die.
Who wouldn’t want to live under that system, right?
The film is not idealistic, and the problems of American culture are front and center. The point is not that freedom is perfect, only that it beats the known alternatives.
That message is what allows White Nights to transcend the musical/dance genre. This is a tense film, full of brooding suspicion and unexpected turns. While I’ve highlighted the dancing and artistic angle, this is truly a Cold War thriller, filled with tension and unexpected turns. Even if you have zero interest in 80s music, the fusion of tap and ballet, it’s a story worth watching.