Strictly Ballroom

The expressionistic film “Strictly Ballroom” composed by Baz Luhrmann is about the spectacle of ballroom dancing. Tough not always in a literal sense, the film is not strictly about ball room dancing but also a “microcosm of society”. Moreover the contradictory forces within the society and the use of image to mediate social relations. This piece also fits in very well with Guy Debord’s “the society of the spectacle”. Debord’s work is a critique of modern capitalism.

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But more specifically for our reasons a critique of image as a form of social control. Debord wrote in his aphoristic style that social relations are mediated by an image, the image being an accumulation of things and the omnipresent mediation of social relations by image is the spectacle. This core analyst of culture in modern society also applies to the relationships in Strictly Ballroom. The way in which someone dresses and dances is their image and that mediates the way they conduct relationships in the micro-society. The spectacle begins.

The opening stages present itself as a fairy tale, the first thing we see is the red drape and “Strictly Ballroom” written like it was taken straight from a Children’s classic. This technique is used to let people know they are watching a fair tale, a spectacle. The first we see of the characters is them awaiting the competition, exuberant for the coming contest. The composer shows them in the old black and white style presentation, again an idealised spectacle, a collection of image. Scot, Liz and the other couple take to floor.

The composer changes the colour from a back and white fairy tale presentation to a more harsh light. This technique makes the dancers look less attractive in conjunction with over done make up and costumes. The ugliness of the spectacle manifests itself here, though the spectators (dancers included) are unable to spot this because they are taken in by the end goal, the ‘need’. The dancers including Scott and Liz are living up to the pre-determined image of the dance federation. But during the first dance Scott and Liz are blocked in by Ken railings and his partner.

This leaves Scott in a tight spot and to get out of this position he does the unbelievable he dances unorthodox steps. This means Scott and Liz are unable to win the competition which Shirley Hastings thought was “Scott’s year”. They are unable to win the competition because the dance federation controls the culture and image which should be presented. While the composer shows shrilly crying over the lost chance and Les Kendall attacking the steps as “acrobatics” not skilled dance steps. We have the character of Barry fife the personification of the dance federation’s inherent prejudice and aims.

Luhrmann shows Barry from a low angle to embellish his double chin with the combination of a red light making him look unhealthy and ‘evil’. Barry is quick to let ever one know “there are no new steps”, why because if you can’t teach the new steps you can’t turn a profit from them. So latter on in the movies the scene in with Barry confronts Scott in the kitchen, Barry ask “where would we be if every one went around making up their own steps” Scott replies “out of a job”. The composer has let as know the core of the dance federation.

The dance federation with its vested interest creates a false need the pan-pacific competition. In order to attain this goal you need a certain image, the right steps and right presentation. The culture of the dance federation is their commodity, if you need traditional steps to win the end goal you need to learn them. Thus the dance federations dance studios profit from teaching the dance federations steps. If you do not have the dance federations prescribed image you’re relationship within the society are mediated differently to others with the right image.

This manifests itself primarily with Fran. Fran starts the film as the ugly duckling, treated badly by everyone because of the image she presents. Within the dance sport culture those who are good at traditional steps have a higher social standing. The composer shows this with the glorification that everyone gives such character as Ken and Tina because there success in the “old” steps. Fran on the other hand with bad cloths and being a poor dancer is patronised by Shirley and the other dancers.

Fran latter on approaches Scott with a proposition to dance with him, originally Scott takes the attitude “you want to dance with me? ” a reflection of her status in the dance culture and Scott himself being stuck between dancing and presenting the image he wants to or the dance federation wants him to. Fran tells Scott “that a life lived in fear is a life half lived” because he is fearful of turning his back on the dance federation and perusing his own steps. Begrudgingly Scott breaks with pre-determined attitudes and takes Fran up on her offer, teaching her “the basics”.

The transformation of Fran’s character starts here. At first when Scott starts to dance with Fran she’s awkward in her steps and unattractive. Scott tells her that “the rumba is only pretend; you only pretend to be in love”. But a transformation happen from when Scott sees her through the dance federation’s rose coloured glasses, till his broken that mind set and no longer cares about the federation’s image and spectacle. The composer shows the gradual change in the appearance of Fran and Scott’s rejection of wining the Pan Pacific as a legitimate goal.

At the Pan Pacific competition, Fran and Scott almost don’t dance together. But after Scott spends a brief time looking for Fran and convinces her to dance. During this time another couple discovers that it was all a farce, rigged nothing more then a spectacle the winners of the competition were pre-selected. Then Scott and Fran take the dance floor Barry fife tries to stop them dancing. First Barry grasps the microphone to disqualify them and then Barry’s wife turns the music off.

Fran and Scott stop dancing for a second until people starts to clap and gradually ever one else is clapping. This gives both Scott and Fran rhythm to dance, they dance and everyone from the seats comes into the floor. The composer shows Barry fife defeated and humiliated and then Scott, Fran and hundreds of people dancing freely this shot gives a sense of liberation. This film like Baz Luhrmann said himself is a “microcosm of society” showing the culture industry, the spectacle in all its ugliness.


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