“Poolside Manners” is a curious and engaging short by Ed Rankus, which features Kirstin Elliott in a series of movement studies with props. The short scenes alternate between two locations: an elegant outdoor pool, where Elliott is dressed in a blue gown (first seen in the pool, with the gown floating around her), and an empty room with sunlight streaming in through venetian blinds. Like the Judson Church school of dances from the 1960s, “Poolside Manners” concerns itself with a detailed, formalized study of bodily movement, often with a kind of deadpan humor, but contains nothing that would traditionally be called “dancing.”
In the pool scenes, Ms. Elliott is seen rollerblading around the pool’s periphery, using her hand or a long pole for momentum, rather than her legs. In another sequence, she uses a pair of rubber yellow kitchen gloves on her feet as if they were fins. The entire film is in the form of a theme and variations, in which various props and movement motifs are introduced and then varied. The camera is stationary, with Elliott often skating across the frame, and the highly formal framing of the shots give them considerable, almost classical beauty.
In the interior scenes, Elliott creates formal arrangements with a chess board, chessmen, and an aquarium filled with water. At one point, a certain chessman makes her smile, and we see a shot of Charlie Chaplin at the pool. A second piece makes her fearful, and we see Lon Chaney. A third piece fills her with longing, and we see Valentino. Apparently, the game of chess is similar to the formal possibilities inherent in film itself, where there are numerous aesthetic strategies available to the filmmaker.
In a strange coda to the film, Elliott appears to dunk her head into the water in the tank repeatedly, each time turning the water a different color or pattern. She is seen again rollerblading around the pool, holding the tank of water, causing most of it to spill. For me, this recalled the familiar idea of water as representing the realm of the unconscious and emotional, a place you can visit for short spurts, and discover all sorts of new colors. But try to contain and control that world, and it always gets away from you.
“Poolside Manners” can also be thought of as a kind of formalized physical comedy of manners, but without the humor. Many of Elliott’s antics with the props have the form of comic pratfalls, but are performed much more slowly and seriously, rendering them as formal objects of study. In the end, I experienced the film as a set of variations on related themes, ideas, and physical experiences. Since these variations are rendered with beautiful clarity and taste, the film itself becomes a unique object of beauty.