11 August 2010

BLOCKBUSTER HISTORY: DANCE PICTURES

Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: nothing says "desperately garish" like a dance movie sequel titled Step Up 3D. But isn't that exactly what we want from our dance movies? Obviously, yes, as ultra-mercenary producer Jerry Bruckheimer proved at the very start of his career.

Once upon a time there was a young woman who wanted, more than anything else, to be a ballerina. Unfortunately, she came from an impoverished world, and there were no opportunities for her to show off the real talent that burned inside of her. But she struggled and fought, and always kept her sunny disposition intact, and one day she finally got her chance, thanks to a charming wealthy man who fell for her breezy innocence and used his influence to help her get that one big break. If it were 1982, and I were a movie studio executive, this is the point at which I'd be glowering at producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer. and telling them that this idea was a musty cliché before the technology for movies even existed, and if they wanted to get my attention, there had to be something more to it. At which point Bruckheimer would allow the smallest smug grin to flicker across his lips before shrugging nonchalantly, and telling me, "Oh, well to support herself, she's a welder by day and a stripper by night." After my spontaneous high-concept orgasms had subsided, I would offer the two men a pick-up truck full of $100 bills, with the promise that they'd come back the minute they needed more.

My fanciful little fable doesn't actually describe the truth behind Flashdance, which was in fact scarred with the taint of pre-ordained failure at Paramount during its production. The studio tried to pawn it off in bits and pieces before its release, in fact, but ended up stuck with it - stuck with the third-highest-grossing film of 1983, and the third-highest-selling single of the same year. The massive success of such an unlikely picture spurred the Simpson/Bruckheimer team (this was their first collaboration) to levels of financial success that even today seem kind of fucking insane. It also set the film's director, Adrian Lyne, and one of the two screenwriters, Joe Eszterhas, on the fast track, though both of those men got knocked off the fast track right around the same time in the late '90s when it became clear that they were both incredibly sleazy hacks.

How odd - how bone-chilling, in fact - to consider Jerry Bruckheimer producing a Joe Eszterhas script directed by Adrian Lyne! Hard to say whether the misogyny, the low-rent pay-cable sexuality, or the bombastic popcorn sensibility would override it all, but we can surely agree that it would be a nightmarish fiasco. Back in 1983, though, none of those men had a brand attached to their name, though; just the desire to put together a cheap little moneymaker. Which is exactly what Flashdance must have seemed to be at the time, although armed with history, it's kind of fun to go back and look at how each of those men's future personality is prophesied by the on-screen action (co-writer and original scenarist Thomas Hadley, Jr. had no real career future in movies, and so can be lightly, if regretfully, dismissed from this conversation; the late Don Simpson was so tightly bound to Bruckheimer until his death that it seems fair to consider them as the same figure). From Lyne, the dis-erotic auteur of Fatal Attraction, 9½ Weeks, and Indecent Proposal, comes the glossy smuttiness, self-conscious artistry tarting up a weird puritanism about sex; from Eszterhas, whose Basic Instinct script almost looks classy next to his later work on Showgirls, we can see certain scuzzy fingerprints along with what can only be described a nasty-minded, functional concept of femininity; and Bruckheimer, whose eye for giving the broadest possible audience exactly what we didn't know we wanted until he gave it to us ("A movie based on a theme park boat ride with Johnny Depp playing a pirate captain as a cross between Keith Richards and a drag queen? Sounds good.") remains entirely unmatched in modern blockbuster history, is surely the prime mover behind the concept, which, viewed from a certain angle, looks exactly like something that a canny young executive would dream up while searching for an underserved niche audience. Because when you get right down to it, the most basic description of Flashdance is "Rocky for girls".

It's all there: the economically ravaged Pennsylvanian setting (though Flashdance is set in a more overtly industrial culture); the archetypal sports movie structure of "underdog wants something, is laughed at, pursues it, gets it in the inspiring final freeze-frame"; plenty of montages; and at heart, the only reason anyone gives a shit about the movie now is because of one song. Actually, Flashdance has two hit songs to Rocky's iconic "Gonna Fly Now", though I don't think that Michael Sembello's "Maniac" (which was, insanely, originally written for the hyper-violent William Lustig slasher of the same name) would have moved such an extraordinary number of soundtrack albums and kept the film alive in the hearts of people who ought to know better. No, the film is now, and has always been, about Irene Cara's "Flashdance... What a Feeling", one of the earwormiest damn things that has ever been recorded. You are, I have little doubt, humming it right now, simply because I've named it. If you're not, allow me to help out:
What a feeling
Bein's believin'
I can have it all, now I'm dancin' for my life
Take your passion
And make it happen
Pictures come alive, you can dance right through your life
And if that doesn't do it, you're either dead, or young enough that "Flashdance... What a Feeling" has no meaning for you, in which case, I envy and pity you in equal measure (I myself was 15 months old when the film came out, but its iconography was inescapable for most of the 1980s, the period to which my heart still and always belongs).

You can't talk about Flashdance without talking about "Flashdance... What a Feeling".* You might as well try to discuss Grand Illusion without mentioning camera movement, Written on the Wind without color, Breathless without jump cuts. 14 years later, people couldn't stop listening to Celine Dion bellowing "My Heart Will Go On" because it reminded them of Titanic; I think that in contrast, people went to see Flashdance because it reminded them of the song. Composed by Giorgio Moroder (the composer of the incidental music throughout the film, which largely conisists of orchestrations of "Flashdance... What a Feeling"), with lyrics by Cara and Keith Forsey, the song isn't particularly distinguished from all the other synth-heavy dancepop of the early '80s; but a song needn't be distinguished to encapsulate the Zeitgest. In fact, it specifically shouldn't be. And there is no denying that this song carries in its every synthetic note the very essence of 1983 in its plaintive verses, its bouncy melody, it's crazily cheerful "we can do it!" message, and especially in a stupefyingly catchy hook that much better artists than Irene Cara would sell their immortal soul for.

But since this is a film blog and not a music blog, I should probably get around to actually talking about Flashdance. Which is kind of hard to do, because like its theme song, it's not very distinguished. Crudely-made in just about every possible way, Flashdance has only nostalgia going for it - and far be it for me to deny that nostalgia. It flooded me with an aching feeling for that long-gone time, and I had never even seen the damn thing until three days ago. A good movie, though, is not the same as a movie that floods you with nostalgia.

The film begins simply, with red credits over black - simple, did I say? No, in fact, the film's title scrolls by in letters that fill every inch of the frame, like Adrian Lyne thought he was making the goddamn Gone with the Wind of trashy dance movies, or something. Alongside the opening notes of That Song, we then see a few shots of Pittsburgh in the morning mist, as an indistinct young woman rides a bike from one place to another, all captured by cinematographer Don Peterman with a dappled, painterly richness. It's probably fair to say that Pittsburgh has never looked as beautiful as it does during the opening credits of Flashdance (and also fair to say that Peterman probably deserved his incredibly random Best Cinematography Oscar nomination, for the film is throughout lit with an eye towards heavenly beauty that makes no sense for a film of this mercenary intent - but a talented craftsman will always find ways to make the banal meaningful).

In short order, we're inside a factory, with several shots of a welder hidden behind a mask that reads "Alex". We keep bouncing around the factory, returning to this figure, until eventually Alex pulls of the mask, and we see - oh my God - it's a girl. Jennifer Beals, to be exact, the result of a nationwide search, who became something of an It Girl for a little while, until it sank in that she is a terrible actress. This sequence, by the way, typifies one of the many things wrong with Lyne's choices as director: his visual treatment of this moment is indecently anxious to make the moment a big WOW reveal, a thrilling moment in which we're stunned to see a pretty girl in all that grit - but more on the film's pronounced gender issues in a moment.

The rest is easy to put together: 18-year-old Alex wants to dance, and is being encouraged by the old ex-ballerina Hanna Long (Lilia Skala) in her dream; but it takes money and time, and most importantly bravery. While waiting for the third of these to kick in, Alex earns some extra pennies at Mawby's Bar, a gentleman's club of some sort (it's not a nudie bar, for the film later visits an actual nudie bar, viewing it with the apprehension of Dante standing at the gate of Hell), where the closest thing to "friends" that Alex has also work; the one who matters the most is Jeanie (Sunny Johnson), who is dating the cook, Richie (Kyle T. Heffner). One night, Alex's daytime boss, Nick Hurley (Michael Nouri) sees her at her nighttime job, and starts crushing on her. She intelligently rebuffs him, but eventually he convinces her to go on a date, and before you know it, they're spending all their free time together in the industrial warehouse she's converted into a loft, and he's joined Hanna's crusade to make her a Real Dancer.

There's only one way to say it: the biggest problem out of a host of problems with Flashdance is that Beals can't act. She also can't sing, and crucially, can't dance, even a little, so why the hell cast her? Legendarily, it's because she was chosen as the most sexually desirable out of the three finalists (Demi Moore and Leslie Wing were the others) for the role after Melanie Griffith passed. That has the scent of apocrypha to it; but I can't think of a better explanation. Really, her total inability to sell even the most innocuous line is almost hypnotic, and the desperation apparent in the editing used to hide the fact that she's never doing the tricky steps in any of her routines (and half the time, it's not even hidden successfully: particularly in the big finale dance, it couldn't be more obvious that there were multiple body doubles involved if one of them was a man with a full beard. Which, one of them was) is distracting as hell. All she brings to the table is a beatific innocence, which theoretically sands the edges off the character's sexuality, but only really serves to give that sexuality a creepy, Lolita-style ick to it; after the scenes set to the two hit songs, the most famous part of the film is a moment in which Alex guilelessly removes her bra without taking off her shirt, and it's uncomfortably pervy in a way that the raunchiest hard-core pornography couldn't aspire to.

That's just par for the course in the film, and reading forward into the careers of Lyne and Eszterhas, wholly unsurprising. On paper, Flashdance sounds like it could be almost a grrl power story, about a young woman who thrives in a "man's job", takes a sexually-charged dancing gig without allowing herself to become sexualised, and pursues her own hopes. As presented, though, Flashdance is an immaculate example of the Male Gaze, a construct of feminist media theory that can be and has been overused - but Christ, when it fits, it fits. Alex, in this film, could only have been created by men; visually represented by men; presented for the edification of men, despite the obvious market-driven desire that this should be a "women's picture" in the parlance of the '40s, a "chick flick" in the parlance of the '90s. I don't know what they called them in the early '80s.

What is done to poor Alexandra Owens is worse than just sexual objectification, although it happens, all throughout the movie. It's flat-out Exotic Othering, male writers and a male director trying to get their head around this mysterious object that is their main character. They give her lines to say that express her opinions in flat terms that no human would speak; for otherwise, they cannot find their way into her mind. And the camera always regards her from a noticeable distance, encouraging us to look at her without identifying with her. Beals's performance, in this respect, is exactly right for the filmmakers' needs: she suggests no interior whatsoever, a blank slate into which anything can be read, and from which nothing can be confirmed.

That's when the movie is just purring along like normal. When sex enters the picture...! There is one scene in particular that stands out for how jarringly it plays from the male perspective: Alex and Nick are eating dinner in a fancy restaurant, when she puts her stockinged foot on his crotch and rubs. Just then, his ex-wife (Belinda Bauer) storms in and screams incoherent invective against Nick. It's a scene that shrieks Eszterhas's influence (the foot-on-crotch bit plays exactly like a rehearsal for Showgirls), and feels like nothing in the rest of the film: we are in exactly Nick's position, befuddedly by all the woman-ness going on around us, whether it's the shrewish ex, or the nymphet whose existence, in that moment, consists of nothing but sexual urgency. Like I said, this isn't typical of Flashdance, but it's in some ways only an extension of what happens every time Alex is presented sexually; the film always, in those moments, adopts a leering, masculine perspective that's frankly gross.

Really, though, for an R-rated movie about an exotic dancer, sex doesn't happen too often. Mawby's is a remarkably chaste gentlemen's club - the clientele apparently has not just a tolerance, but a marked enthusiasm for interpretive striptease numbers which use strobe lights and white walls as part of a critique of the emotionally crippling effects of television (that's an actual scene, and I've made it sound less weird than it is in the movie). And since Beals can only radiate innocence - even her sexy moments are, as far as the actress is concerned, entirely non-carnal - the whole movie has a whimsical lightness that conflicts with its sleazy overtones in an extremely peculiar way. Yet it's not off-putting; somehow, it all seems kind of dear.

The fact is, for all that it has a toxic lining, Flashdance is mostly cheese. Sheer '80s cheese. Its attempts around the edges to be serious in any way (it's actually surprising how much of it is concerned with the plight of Richie, trying to claw his way out of the hellhole of industrial Pittsburgh, and I must assume that this material is the bulk of the alleged 50 minutes that Bruckheimer and Simpson slashed out of the film in the aim of making it more commercial - in which they were plainly successful) are hollow but effervescent, and the dominance of the music in the film means that virtually everything else has faded way within minutes. Leaving us with a pretty girl who can't dance shaking in close-ups, as Irene Cara croons against a wall of electronica. It's hard to get overly infuriated by Lyne's attempts to art-up the tawdry plot with his artless gestures, or the writers' unbelievable chauvinism, when the most memorable parts of the movie engender nothing but a feeling of "Ooh, remember those clothes? Remember 1983?" It is both the profound failing and the secret triumph of Flashdance that it does make you remember 1983, even if you weren't there in the first place.

3 comments:

Rebecca said...

I remember hearing a story about how one critic said Jennifer Beals was terrible and the only good thing about her was her dancing. And then later everyone learned the truth.

But I still love this movie. Somewhere in my parents' house is my way overplayed edited-for-TV VHS copy that I was obsessed with. And of course Dirty Dancing as well. I wanted to be Cynthia Rhodes when I grew up.

Zev Valancy said...

And in the inevitable way of things "Flashdance, the Musical" is opening in London in October.

javi75 said...

I just realized Bruckheimer practically remade this movie as "Coyote ugly"... clever man. I guess this summer is turning out his worst ever though.