Forgoing a planned trip to NY last evening, I instead watched the movie Take the Lead with my friends Adam and Carina. Overall, an excellent decision; the dancing was enjoyable, the post-and-concurrent film analysis was stimulating, and Antonio Banderas--perfectly cast as the Spanish dance instructor with a heart of gold and a penchance for la salsa--was magnifico.
In a fem-theory class I took, we read a popular piece from the 80's by the critic Jane Radway about the ideological implications of Midwestern ladeez' penchants for reading romance novels. In a slightly condescending tone (who could blame her--most of her subjects had two first names and Christian Coalition memberships), Radway points out the ways in which readers' responses are structured by their stringent expectations (a strong hero, a feisty protagonist, a fair amount of explicit sex). Failure to adhere to these plot expectations produces an unsatisfactory reading; the often inevitable sense of identification with a character, however compels the readers to finish the books anyways. Basically, once you feels a connection to the bodice-ripping orphan, you have to close the narrative loop--if only to find out that she/you ends up losing her flower to the hunky Scottish warlord.
I feel the same way about Urban Dance movies. For me--and Adam and Carina, if I may presume to say--there are a few expectations that facilitate our satisfaction:
1. At least one strong romantic relationship that is somehow consummated in the film. This doesn't have to mean sex--although who could forget the scene in the amazing Save the Last Dance--but I can't feel good about a film that lacks some sort of fulfillment. For example, when Aaliyah (RIP) and Jet Li don't even make out in Romeo Must Die, I'm sure I wasn't the only audience member who left feeling frustrated (and, as an Asian, spurned by the Hollywood asian-hate machine).
2. New Vocab: See this post's title (from Take the Lead); Antonio Banderas is also told that he is "getting his flirt on." I also learned tonight that "punk-ass" is a versatile verb; it can mean anything from screwing yourself over to screwing others.
3. A dope montage--usually set to a rap song that came out the week of the movie's release--can make or break an Urban Dance movie. This usually means juxtaposing snooty ballroom dancing scenes with hot breakdancing sequences in the ghetto. There are two types of montages: the upbeat ones where the various characters dance together in different settings (the streets, the basketball court, the hallway) and the redemptive ones where the characters dance alone or sit alone thinking on rooftops.
4. A dose of the nitty-gritty: the "real" subplots shouldn't overwhelm the romance, but, since it is an UD movie, the U part needs to represent--this may involve the jarring sacrifice of less attractive comic relief characters (see: Step Up) or the presence of a deadbeat dad. Or street basketball, which always signifies danger.
5. A happy ending that usually sends the heroes to Julliard, college, or to a performing arts school. See plot diagram (will enlarge).
Unlike Radway's romance readers, however, I don't usually feel compelled to finish a film if I'm unsatisfied (fortunately, when it comes to UD movies, I'm almost always sat-is-fied). Perhaps it's due to a lack of identification: when watching Take the Lead, I was terribly perturbed at the end when all of the main characters broke the rules in the big competition. So annoyed, in fact, that I couldn't fully enjoy the erotic hip hop tango sequence at the end, nor the BIG kiss between America's Next Top Model's Yaya and a hero named Rock.
Whether this is due to a lack of heartlessness, an incessant sense of obedience, or displaced identification onto the snooty, square white characters, I can't--and don't really want to--determine.