Monday, April 15, 2013

Flashdance - The Audition

Ah, Flashdance! Dance movies made a comeback in the 1980s, and it started right here 30 years ago today. Well, dance movies never really went away, I guess, but Jennifer Beals certainly got more people interested in seeing dance on the big screen. Pity she didn't do most of the actual dancing. Flashdance also pretty much set the template for every dance movie that followed: You can see all the story beats and pretty much this exact sequence in Save the Last Dance, Center Stage, all the Step Up films, and others.

Not that I'm complaining, exactly. Formulas wouldn't become formulas if they didn't work, and Flashdance works really well. It even holds up a lot better than you might think. I'm just glad that later films did a better job of capturing the actual dancing.

The one precedent Flashdance set that I'm not at all happy about is the editing style. In just over two minutes there are thirty-three cuts in the dance, and they aren't used in the best ways. The best parts of the dance are when the camera follows Beals's Alex as she dances. In fact, director Adrian Lyne nearly ruins this final sequence, Alex's big audition, with countless cutaways to the panel of judges' reactions, which run from silly facial expressions to cigar-smoking to toe-tapping to nose-blowing. Trust me, no one cares about them. We just want to see Alex tear it up on the dancefloor.

And tear it up she does. Jeffrey Hornaday's choreography might include a few too many of those punch-the-air-and-kick moves for my taste, but Beals (and/or her body doubles) looks so fantastic doing them that I don't really care. This a truly go-for-broke audition piece, throwing everything in the dancer's arsenal on the floor in the hopes that the panel will see not only technique, but the raw passion present in all the greatest dancers. It's also incredibly of its time. You can see this mostly in the technique; the arms closed in tight when pirouetting, the height of the battements (high kicks), the style of the jetées (leaps) - these are all indicative of 80s technique. If a dancer were performing this piece today, you would see much higher battements, rounded arms in the pirouettes, and straighter legs in the jetées. The gymnastic and breakdancing elements are also very 80s, but in a more fun, cultural way.

Lyne also throws pretty much every editing and camera trick in the book at this sequence to maximize how cool it looks. He films the pirouettes from three different angles to make it look like she's doing far more than she actually is. He zooms in on the really cool moves (almost as if to say, "look at how cool that is!"). He shoots her in silhouette against the light from the windows (a callback to the first dance sequence when she dances in silhouette). He films her flying leap in slow-motion and from angles which emphasize how high and how far she jumps. He shoots just her feet to emphasize the footwork (a trick which I particularly hate, as it leaves out the rest of the body entirely).

This last trick works far better in the beginning of the sequence, before the dance actually begins. The set-up of the scene does a great job of building tension - following Alex's feet as she walks through the room, a slow pan across the people behind the table, and my favorite bit, the close-up of Alex's trembling hand as she puts the needle on the record player. (For the record, I would be unbelievably nervous about dancing to a record. What if it starts skipping?) And then, she falters. It almost looks like she's going to continue, but instead she gets up, excuses herself, and starts again. Forget that this would likely never happen in any real audition situation, but it's really effective and setting up both the people auditioning Alex as well as the audience. Even though we know what Alex is capable of, will she be able to hold it together and win over the old fuddy-duddies?

Maybe Lyne lays it on a bit thick here - we're already on Alex's side, and the stakes have been set well enough in the previous hour and a half - but it still works as a shock. Alex is human. She can falter. This might just be too much for her, like it was for her friend Jeanie (who falls in a skating competition earlier in the film). But she rallies. And that makes all those punch-the-air-and-kick moves feel even more triumphant. My favorite critical line on Flashdance comes from The Guardian, which called the film "a preposterous success," which is just about a perfect description. The characters and plot are preposterous, as are many of the directorial choices, and yet Flashdance does nothing but succeed. The whole thing is greater than the sum of its parts, because... well... because what a feeling it leaves us with!

Favorite Moment: The flying leap into the backspin. Isn't that everyone's favorite part? It's certainly the red-headed judge's favorite. I love how ballsy it is.
Length: approx. 2:15
Number of Cuts: 33

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