Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Strictly Ballroom

(Australia, 1992)

Now that I’ve seen this, I’m even more sure that Baz Luhrmann should never have wasted his time doing that overblown old-fashioned epic, Australia. He was all wrong for that. He should have given it to another Aussie director, maybe Peter Weir, or Bruce Beresford. Strictly Ballroom was Luhrmann’s first of only four movies so far, and it really shows his dazzling side, which he would later develop in Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge (what they’re calling his “Red Curtain” trilogy, because all three of them begin with a red curtain opening). He should stick with the dazzle! He’s good at it!

I’ve learned that Baz was deeply involved as a child in ballroom dancing competitions, so he knows what he’s talking about here. The people in the movie have no lives outside of dancing. It is their whole world, they think of nothing else. Naturally, in such a small, inbred world, there is a lot of politics, back-biting, gossiping, and all the rest of the things that get in the way of the art, in the way of people simply getting together and enjoying something that they do fabulously well. The movie is intentionally melodramatic, way over the top in every possible way, and that’s its chief delight. It is flashy and overdone, and I loved it for that. And there is no mistaking Baz’s opinion about the competition part of this world. Near the end a table full of trophies is knocked over by dancing couples, and the brass is never picked up. Good enough for me. I’ve felt that way for a long time, though I know nothing about these competitions. They are very much like Olympic figure skating, which I do enjoy, but I’ve noticed something time and again. After the competition, when the medals have been handed out, the figure skaters are given a day to simply show off, without judges. And they love it! They always do their best work on these “off” days. They are exuberant, showy, they take risks … they are having fun! Nobody has ever had any fun during the competition, when you know that one wrong foot can send fifteen years of work into the crapper, and you frequently know that you don’t have any chance at all because the East German judge (or modern equivalent) is going to mark you down no matter what you do. How great it must feel to get out on the ice and simply do this thing that you are able to do so well. To simply skate!

A word about the dancing. There are two ways to film dancing. One is the way that Fred Astaire insisted on, where you see the dancer’s whole body, and cuts are kept to a minimum. Gene Kelly wasn’t quite so strict about that, but he never resorted to the sort of shot you see so often in dance movies these days, showing only a part of the body. This is fine for Astaire and Kelly, who were geniuses. But a lot of the very few dance movies made these days use people who learned to dance for this movie alone, who were hired more for their acting skills than their magic feet (like this one; only one cast member was a professional dancer). More cutting is necessary to make it look good, as the people are not really capable of long takes showing their whole bodies. Much of the time Lee and I find this annoying, but sometimes it works for me. Much of it has to do with whether or not the director can make the camera itself seem like a participant in the dance, and I think Baz is very good at this. He employs every trick in the book, and I am entranced.

And a word about low budgets. There is a flashback sequence that, in quick summary, tells the story of events leading up to the present. It is almost a montage, and it’s cartoonish, with minimal backgrounds and broad gestures. I learned that it was originally intended to be shot realistically, but the budget was so low they didn’t have any money left to do it that way, so they were forced to improvise. And it’s brilliant! Much better than a straight telling would have been. There are many examples of things like this in film history. The one that sticks in my mind is from Psycho, where Bernard Herrmann had such a low budget for composing and recording the music that all he could afford to hire was a string section … and he came up with that absolutely stunning, screeching violin dissonance during the shower scene that took what was already one of the most frightening scenes ever filmed and boosted it right into nightmare land, to the point that many people still have trouble getting into a shower. Let’s hear it for low budgets!