Friday, March 28, 2014

Australian Audient: Strictly Ballroom

This is the third installment of Australian Audient, in which I watch one previously unseen film originating from my new country of residence per month in 2014, then write about the experience here.

I've heard a lot of people throwing around a new verb lately -- to "baz" something. I'll use it in a sentence:

"The best way to do an update of West Side Story would be to baz it."

That's Baz Luhrmann, the Australian auteur with his own distinct voice, a voice responsible for the likes of Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby. To "baz" something, then, is to envision it with an extra dose of that manic, pop music-infused razzle dazzle that Luhrmann has made his trademark lo these 22 years since he first came on the scene.

I'd seen all of Luhrmann's features except for that first one: 1992's Strictly Ballroom. I made certain assumptions about it, I guess, which explains why a Luhrmann fan like myself (I even liked Australia) had not seen it before now. I suppose I figured that as a first feature, it couldn't have the larger-than-life quality that I have come to associate with Luhrmann and consider an indispensable element in his films. Or maybe the idea of a movie about ballroom dancing just didn't thrill me.

But everything Luhrmann was, is, and will be was set up in Strictly Ballroom, and I thought it was a gas.

It's easy to see why Luhrmann would have been given Romeo + Juliet after making this movie, and why I referenced a version of Shakespeare's tragedy (West Side Story) as a hypothetical movie Luhrmann might make. The families of the young hero and heroine of Strictly Ballroom aren't at war with one another, but the lovebirds are in fact from two different worlds: Scott (Paul Mercurio), the aspiring professional dancer who's the son of a driven ballroom teacher, and Fran (Tara Morice), the poor daughter of the owners of a Spanish restaurant. They're kept apart because Fran can't possibly be a sufficient partner for Scott as he tries to win the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Dance Championship, the destiny he's been training for -- a destiny that's clouded when his previous partner (Gia Carides) ditches him because she doubts Scott's rogue dancing style. The deceptively frumpy Fran doesn't present very well, either, but she's just waiting to blossom into a swan -- and to introduce Scott to her unpolished if impressive authentic Spanish dance moves. With just a short time until the competition, will Scott follow the leanings of his heart, toward Fran, or the more established partners being presented for him, who may be part of a larger scheme to fix the competition?

Some successful directors start in one place and discover something quite different as they hone their skills. Others have a vision from an early age, and just keep on fine-tuning it. Luhrmann fits into the latter category. Even without having a lot of money for his first picture, Luhrmann knew how to make it grandiose. Strictly Ballroom feels painted on a big canvas, one so big and fantastical that its firmly established Australian setting feels almost besides the point. With the exception of Romeo + Juliet, all of Luhrmann's films have a very definite and important setting -- Paris with Moulin Rouge!, Australia with Australia and New York with The Great Gatsby. Yet they all take place inside his mind, a setting wonderfully all its own. Ballroom is no exception.

It's interesting to see how much of the Luhrmann flourishes already exist here. One is what we will call the "frenetic close-up," where Luhrmann swoops his camera in at the unnaturally frenzied face of a character, making them appear almost grotesque. Think Jim Broadbent dancing in Moulin Rouge! Another is his earnest repurposing of pop music, as (cover versions of) both "Love is in the Air" and Cyndi Lauper's "True Colors" are used prominently and to emotionally cathartic effect.

But what really surprised me were some of the little details, moments that Luhrmann loves that he has revisited throughout his career. There's a lovely scene here where the camera pans up from the ground to a building rooftop, where Scott's pushover father (the delightful and ultimately triumphant Barry Otto) is indulging in a private moment of joyous dance. It's that upward movement of the camera that Luhrmann has continued to do with great style, notably as he explores the Parisian rooftops in Moulin Rouge!, and again in last year's Great Gatsby, where one particular urban bacchanal pulls upward to reveal, many floors above, men in hard hats soldering steel girders a hundred stories above a New York City they are building into what it is today.

Luhrmann can also give us a great hissable villain. He's got one in nearly every movie, and here that role is played by Bill Hunter as the conniving president of the Australian Dance Federation. Hunter may be the primary recipient of the "frenetic close-up" described earlier, and he gives a performance to match, without ever going over the top.

Ballroom is simply a joyous celebration, but perhaps my favorite element was its lead actress, Tara Morice. Morice is not a traditional beauty, something that made her very right for this role, but probably prevented her from having a particularly fruitful career (though she did appear in a half-dozen more movies). What she has beyond her non-traditional beauty, though, is a surplus of pluck and likability. A rush of sympathy courses through the viewer whenever she appears on screen. The extent to which you want her character to succeed is also what helps make this movie feel so romantic, even when her romantic on-screen partner is a novice actor who was selected for his renowned dance abilities more than his ability to read lines. Because Luhrmann has an innate talent for this kind of thing -- Moulin Rouge! may be one of the most romantic movies I've ever seen -- he gets everything he's looking for out of the pairing of Mercurio and Morice.

So when do we get Luhrmann's version of West Side Story, on the nose though it may be? Having really liked -- and possibly even loved -- Strictly Ballroom, I'm more ready for it than ever.

Okay, on to April. In April I'm going with a film by another Australian crossover director, Alex Proyas, who directed The Crow and Dark City. The movie I've chosen actually comes after he made those two Hollywood movies, 2002's Garage Days.

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