Verona as Venice Beach: Adaption in William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet

Baz Luhrmann unmistakably converts William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet (1597) into a film of the same name (though with plus sign instead of the word “and”) to a modern setting. With the Montagues and Capulets portrayed as urbanized entities as both are simultaneously business enterprises and street gangs, Luhrmann elaborates on his first film Strictly Ballroom (1992) with William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet  (1996), as both are reinvigorations of the 1961 film (also based on Romeo and JulietWest Side Story.

What’s in a name? The title of Luhrmann’s film is obvious yet significant. He inserts “Shakespeare” into the title because while the story is reimagined significantly through modernization, the characters speak 95% of the original lines, all in Old English. This automatically creates a juxtaposition between the setting and the speak: while the Montagues and the Capulets are gangsters wielding guns, they sound like 14th century Englishmen. This is exemplified right from the beginning, as the Montague’s opening lines are: “A dog of the house of Capulet moves me.” In Luhrmann’s version, however, this Montague is riding in the back of a speeding convertible, screaming at the camera. He even has a tattoo to denote where his loyalty lies.

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Luhrmann’s small change to the title also has a great bout of significance. The swap of “and” for “+” is a part of a motif Luhrmann uses constantly throughout the film. Catholic imagery, visible in scenes featuring characters of both houses, manifests itself mostly in the form a cross. The plus sign in the title is meant to be one as well, and the viewer sees the cross all throughout the film, whether it be hanging from a character’s neck on a chain, mounted on the walls of a home, or in my personal favorite case, neon crosses lining the pews of a cathedral.

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There are many more of Luhrmann’s subtle yet sensible changes to the story to make the modern theme work. For example, “swords” are guns. A news anchor gives the opening monologue as a way to deliver the lines neutrally. Changes made character-wise include The prince being he chief of police, called Captain Prince; Paris becomes Dave Paris, the Governor’s son; Friar Lawrence becomes Father Lawrence; and Gregory and Sampson swap sides with Abraham (shortened to “Abra”) and Petruchio- Gregory and Sampson become Montagues, while Abra and Petruchio are Capulets, as one could make the argument that the latter two names sound more Latin, as Luhrmann has designated the Capulet family in contrast to the Anglo-American Montagues.

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What’s more than the changes the modern setting calls for is all of the nods that Luhrmann gives to other Shakespearean works. The prime example is in that Verona becomes “Verona Beach,” likened to and most likely filmed at Venice Beach, a nod to The Merchant of Venice (1600). Characters Gloria and Fulgencio Capulet dress up at characters from Antony and Cleopatra (1623). Mercutio’s performance song at the costume party, Candi Staton’s “Young Hearts Run Free” has a line that he lipsyncs, “To yourself be true,” Luhrmann’s musical choice a reference to a line from Hamlet (1603), “To thine own self be true.” By the beach where Romeo, his cousins, and Mercutio spend time has what looks to be a theatre structure purposefully set up there, a callback to the Globe Theatre where Shakespeare put on his plays as well as recognition of the culturally popular “Shakespeare in the Park” of theater companies around the world. In his essay, “Behind The Red Curtain of Verona Beach: Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet,” scholar Toby Malone agrees, writing,

Luhrmann’s combined aesthetic is established within a distinctive, created world, uniquely crafted and microscopically detailed, in which every piece of text and dialogue is an intertextual reference from almost the entire breadth of Shakespearian canon (399).

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Malone also discusses the meshing of Shakespearian narrative with urban capitalism, writing,

Verona Beach is a collection of pop-culture images which invoke religion, consumerism and iconography, headed by the presence of Shakespeare, in a society which ‘not only most stridently advertises itself as a product of global capitalism but also knowingly flaunts how that culture consumes ‘Shakespeare” (400)

Consumerism is visible in the modern Verona Beach society in that it is the cause for entire feud in the first place. The Capulets and Montagues are each other’s competition business-wise, and that is why Romeo and Juliet can’t be together. All throughout Verona Beach is consumerism seen, in advertisements and media (who comment on the feud), the advent of technology further complicating the Shakespearean narrative.

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The director’s efforts to “Luhrmannize” Shakespeare are not wasted; he has made it apart of the “Red Curtain Cinema” that he has designed. Malone outlines Luhrmann’s structure of the Red Curtain Trilogy as follows, adhering to the following conventions: “1. Setting in a heightened creative world; 2. use of a recognizable story shape; and 3. audience awareness that what they are watching is not meant to be real” (398). While Malone heads more into auteur territory, I believe that what he says is true. Strictly Ballroom (1992), William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996), and Moulin Rouge! (2001) all bear a similar feel and are conceived by the structure Malone outlines. Luhrmann made Romeo and Juliet his own by making it in his style, but his title suggests that he was not alone, as Shakespeare’s words made it a collaborative effort.

Works Cited

Malone, Toby. “Behind The Red Curtain of Verona Beach: Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet.” Shakespeare Survey 65.“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” Issue. (2012): 398-412. Academic Search Complete. Web. 6 April 2016.

The Good, the Bad, and the Neutral: Race Theory in Romeo + Juliet

Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet diverges more from the play on which it is based than just its modern setting- Luhrmann made conscious decisions to insert racial and sexual differences to emphasize certain aspects of the story’s significance. This blog post will focus on race, and how it simultaneously adds to and takes away from the the plague on both the Capulet and Montague houses.

Scholar Nicholas Radel discusses Luhrmann’s choices in his essay “The Ethiop’s Ear: Race, Sexuality, and Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet,” writing,

Luhrmann’s film not does interpret Shakespeare in a traditional way, representing his play’s historic difference from modern concerns; instead, it focuses on seemingly anachronistic, moder social fantasises about race amd sex, interpreting the famous ‘star-crossed’ lovers within the social and sexual divisions of our own society (17).

Radel claims that Luhrmann uses race to highlight modern society and its racism, and I find that this statement is partially true. Unlike in Shakespeare’s play where all of the characters are assumed to be white Italians (and were most likely portrayed by white Englishmen during his time), Luhrmann starts the film by deepening the difference between the Montague and Capulet families by making them different ethnic backgrounds.

The Montague clan is completely white, as established by characters Benvolio, Sampson, and Gregory, and further supported by Romeo and his father, Ted Montague. It is possible that Luhrmann portrayed the Montagues as Irish American, given the characters’ fair skin and hair and light-colored eyes and Catholic religious iconography (many of the characters wear crosses, Romeo has a close relationship with priest Friar Lawrence). Historically there have also been Irish American gangs in the United States, which the Montagues are undoubtedly, given their pack mentality, guns, raunchy behavior, and feud with the Capulets.

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Comparatively, the Capulets are generally portrayed as Latin, given their physical appearance (dark hair, dark eyes, olive/tan skin), accents (Tybalt is portrayed by Colombian American actor John Leguizamo), and like the Montagues, heavy Catholic influence (the major religion in Latin America and Spain).

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The ethnic background of the Capulets, however, is more ambiguous, as there are several conflicting racial markers. Tybalt’s style (as evidenced by the steel-tow cowboy boots pictured above) seems to suggest a “Texan-Mexican” background. The immediate Capulet family is even harder to pin down. Juliet’s mother Gloria Capulet appears to not be of Latin descent as she is blond-haired and blue-eyed- or at least she is not an immigrant, as she does not have a Spanish accent. Radel agrees that the Montagues “are stereotypically coded white,” and goes on to write,

Juliet’s family, for the most part, seems Latin-although, judging from her understated (and sometimes failed) attempt at the accent, the blonde Lady Capulet (Diane Venora) seems to hail from the American South (19-20).

The backgrounds of both Fulgencio Capulet, Juliet’s father, and her Nurse seem to be ambiguous: both have accents, but it is difficult to tell if they are Spanish or Italian. Fulgencio is portrayed in the style of what could be an Italian or more likely Cuban crime boss, and the Nurse comes off as somewhat of an Italian madonna.

Regardless, Juliet’s fair skin and eyes and red hair does not give away her Latin heritage, and it does appear that she takes after her mother much more. Luhrmann also chooses to have Dave Paris, the man Fulgencio wants his daughter to marry, as fair-skinned and blue-eyed, all of this indicating that the Capulets have no problems intermingling with those of other ethnicities, as long as they are not Montagues.

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In deciding to make the two houses two different ethnicities, Luhrmann makes the dichotomy that much more stark. While the families are similar- two households led by men with subservient wives, gangs led by principle cousins, one child who feels like an outsider- their cultural and aesthetic differences make them that much more distinct.

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Even at the Capulets’ costume party, the Montagues crash it dressed as Vikings, Scandinavian warriors (who were generally white), while the Capulets seem to honor the Mexican day of the dead, with Abra and Petruchio dressed as skeltons and Tybalt as “el Diablo.” As Shakespeare favors the Montague family, Luhrmann seems to do so as well, as further exemplified by the families’ costumes. We never see the Capulets outside of an angry, combative nature (there are brief moments in the party scene, but that is all) as we see the Montague boys performing crazy antics, pillaging like the Vikings they are dressed as. Tybalt is literally demonized, portrayed as the devil, making a slightly problematic statement about Mexicans/Hispanics in general.

Luhrmann has made characters who are coded as “neutral” African American, as they are between the Montagues and Capulets in terms of race. These characters include Captain Prince, the chief of police in Verona Beach and Mercutio, Romeo’s best friend.Captain Prince, the other African American character, is also neutral in that he seeks an end to the feud as well- he just wants to stop it. He has no loyalties to either side, and simply works on the unaffiliated side of justice.

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“Enemies to peace!” Captain Prince says as he looks down on the brawl between Benvolio and Tybalt.

While Mercutio is clearly associated with the Montagues as Romeo’s best friend, he is invited to the Capulet party, making him a neutral figure, simultaneously an important person for Romeo specifically. Radel writes,

Crucially, Mercutio is a border figure in Shakespere’s play. His presence helps mark the liminal space in which Romeo moves from boy to man…Although nothing in Shakespeare’s text suggests that Mercutio is anything but Italian (perhaps a stand-in for an Englishman, but otherwise not racially distinct from Romeo), Luhrmann  discerns his role as mediator between different words of innocence and experience imagined as different worlds of race and sexuality (19).

Mercutio seems to exist outside the feud (“A plague o’ both your houses!”) only until Romeo is in danger of being killed. Tybalt kills him as a result of his intervention, making him a casualty in the Montague/Capulet war. Mercutio’s “blackness” gives him neutrality, yet the exchange of words he has with Tybalt prior to Romeo’s arrival suggest the black/Hispanic racial tensions that exist in American society, giving more reason for Mercutio to go at Tybalt, who asks him if he “consorts” with Romeo.

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Interestingly, tensions between African American and white characters do not exist in Romeo + Juliet. Mercutio’s relationship with the Montagues is a good on; Romeo and his cousins enjoy having Mercutio around, as he is lighthearted and jovial. The close relationship between Romeo and Mercutio seems to indicate that white supremacy does not exist in the Verona Beach imaginary.  In response to viewer and scholar claims that Mercutio could very well just be “the token black friend,” or that he dies for the benefit of the white man (Romeo,” “The Ethiop’s Ear” reads, “In the film, where Mercutio seems to function in some ways as a Hollywood stereotype, his curse seems to reject the image of the black man as sacrificial victim and indict the racist hypocrisy of a society that takes solace in that image” (21).

Finally, Luhrmann’s decision not to portray Juliet as fully Latin may be cause for criticism. The most combative and hence villainized members of the Capulet family, Tybalt and Fulgencio, are also the ones most coded as Hispanic, or at minimum the most ethnically different. Both have distinguished accents and exude the concept of Latin “machismo,” as shown in Tybalt’s overall persona and the way he reacts to Romeo at the party, and how Fulgencio treats his daughter and wife (he threatens to disown Juliet and slaps Gloria) when Juliet refuses to marry Paris.

Romeo and Juliet are epitome of white, heterosexual love, and because the audience of both the play the film are conditioned to identify positively with Romeo and Juliet and reject Tybalt and Lord Capulet, it creates a sort of racist undertone against hispanic culture. In the Verona Beach imaginary, the whites are the heroes, the hispanics are the antagonists, and the African Americans are neutral, giving a slightly different interpretation than the white/black racial tensions, but ultimately still a problematic and racist concept.

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Works Cited

Radel, Nicholas. “The Ethiop’s Ear: Race, Sexuality, and Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet.”

Queer or Carnivalesque: Analyzing Mercutio’s Sexual Identity in Romeo + Juliet

Baz Luhrmann’s decision to make the iconic Shakespearean character Mercutio both African American and queer is an interesting one.

Scholar Anthony Johae discusses the prospect of Mercutio’s transgenderness in his essay “Bahktinian Carnivalesque in Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet.” Johae explains that past scholars such as Phillipa Hawker have claimed that there is evidence of a homoerotic relationship between Romeo and Mercutio in Luhrmann’s film, and “So upbeat is Mercutio’s mercurial cross-dressing and camp behavior at the Capulet party that it appears as a sign of his transgender identity” (304).

However, instead of making the simple blanket statement that because Mercutio wears a dress he wants to be a woman, Johae offers the idea that Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of “carnivalesque” may be at work, meaning “fancy dress, rather than exposing personality and sexual proclivities, might offer atypical disguises in the spirit of carnival where societal values are provisionally suspended and hierarchies reversed.” Furthermore, Johae quotes Baktin, writing, “’The carnivalistic life is life drawn out of its usual rut, it is to a degree ‘life turned inside out,’ ‘life the wrong way round’” (304). Using this theory, Mercutio is simply participating in a sort of game, and Luhrmann is making a sort of statement.

Johae establishes that the “carnivalesque” theory does not going pertain to Mercutio, but to other characters as well. He cites Pearce and Luhrmann’s screenplay playing on the words of William Shakespeare’s original play. He writes,

Romeo’s “O speak again, bright angel, for thou art / . . . / As is a winged messenger of heaven” (2.2.26, 28) has provided the prompt for dressing Juliet at the party as an angel with wings. It is probable also that Romeo’s party role as a knight may have come from Juliet’s later reference to him as “my true knight” when she gives the wedding ring to the nurse for her to pass on to Romeo (3.2.142); or recognizing an unintended pun, Juliet’s “Come, gentle Night” (3.2.20) may have suggested to Pearce and Luhrmann the way into Romeo’s disguise. In carnivalesque fashion, Juliet has temporarily been elevated to an angel, whereas in her daily life she enjoys no such freedom and is shut away with her nurse under the authoritarian rule of her father. Similarly, Romeo, who has shown marked delinquent tendencies in his behavior, particularly his imbibing of a purple heart before gatecrashing the Capulet party, briefly takes on an ideal role as a courtly knight; and this accords with Bakhtin’s paradigm of the crowning of the low at carnival and the uncrowning of the high (305).

 

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Just as Mercutio turns into a woman for the night, Romeo and Juliet become what they are not as well: a knight with the best of intentions, and an angel with freedom. Furthermore, Johae also cites the behavior of Lady Capulet and Tybalt, writing,

At the party she puts aside decorum (as is fitting at carnival) and behaves as though she is having an affair with her nephew, the much-younger Tybalt (she kisses him openly). Tybalt is dressed as “Lucifer, Prince of Darkness” (Pearce and Luhrmann 29) and sports horns—a sexual vigor which quickly turns into hatred once he sights Montague men (305).

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All of these scenes are heightened by the fact that until Romeo encounters Juliet for the first time, he is high out of his mind on “Queen Mab,” an ecstasy tablet, given to him by Mercutio. He hallucinates while at the party, and imagines Mercutio’s big performance, in which he is seen wearing a slightly more intricate outfit and larger wig.

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Johae claims that Mercutio’s “cross-dressing” is part of the carnival atmosphere, “where there is no stage, nor a separation of performers from spectators, because ‘everyone communes in the carnival act’” (306). He writes,

Mercutio, the drag queen is “crowned” with a woman’s white wig and “robed” in a white outfit, while in the real world outside of Bacchanalian excess he is a black man who belongs neither to the Hispanic house of Capulet nor to the Caucasian house of Montague—an outsider were it not for his friendship with Romeo—be it platonic or otherwise. He may have been “crowned” drag queen at the Capulet party, but when the party is over he is dragged down by Capulet and Montague hatred. Hence, his last words: “A plague o’ both your houses!” (306).

Going beyond the “carnival” theory, to automatically assume that because Mercutio wears a dress that he wants to be a woman would be incorrect- there is a whole community of gay men, the “drag” community, who dress up and perform as women but have no desire for gender reassignment surgery. This could very much be Mercutio’s case, or it could have nothing to do with a certain sexuality. It could be that he is gender-fluid, or a person who can identify as both genders.

On the assumption that Mercutio is gay, the insinuation of a homoerotic relationship between he and Romeo seems plausible, as Mercutio appears to be jealous when Romeo does not pay attention to him, always sarcastically bringing up Rosaline, the girl he thinks Romeo is still enamored with. There is also the poignant scene where Tybalt makes the comment, “Mercutio, thou art consortest with Romeo?” indicating that the two have a sexual relationship. His words send Mercutio flying at him, drawing his “sword” (really a gun, but the phallic imagery persists). Since the opposite of love is not hate but indifference, Mercutio’s sensitive and defensive reaction to the accusation of homosexuality may indicate that he is gay.

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Regardless, what’s interesting is not only Mercutio’s friendship with Romeo, who is unaffected by Mercutio’s outrageous display of femininity, but Mercutio’s relationship with Benvolio and other Montague boys. None seem to display any homophobia towards Mercutio, which may indicate that Mercutio is not queer in any way, shape, or form, or that in Luhrmann’s Verona Beach universe, it is “okay” to be queer, or both. Mercutio does not seem to be judged for his sexuality or gender identity (aside from Tybalt’s comment), which may make the argument of his cross-dressing being carnivalesque rather than transgenderedness obsolete.

Works Cited

Johae, Anthony. “Bahktinian Carnivalesque in Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet.” The Explicator 72.4. (2014): 304-307. Academic Search Complete. Web. 6 April 2016.

Strictly Post-Modernism: Examining Genre and Cliché in Strictly Ballroom

In her essay “Imagining the Post-Modern: Subjectivity and Strictly Ballroom,” scholar Rose Chaffey says that Luhrmann’s debut film “contains many of the hallmarks of traditional fairytales and serves some of the same instructive purposes in the context of the formation of an Australian identity and moral code” (183). Strictly in its bare bones is a love story, but Luhrmann takes the post-modern approach in giving the film several layers, love simply being the core. Scott’s personal journey serves to be the main storyline, Fran’s dynamic change second, followed by the growing that many of the characters (Shirley, Doug, Liz, and Les) do along the way, realizing clichés like “Winning isn’t everything,” as well as Fran’s family adage, “Vivir con miedo es cómo vivir a medias,” “A life lived with fear is a life half-lived.”

Fran’s storyline seems to be the one that best lends itself to fairytales – obvious comparisons include “The Ugly Duckling,” as Fran transforms from homely all the way to sexy by the end of the film. Her dancing also undergoes a miraculous transformation as well, as she starts out a novice and ends dancing expertly on the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix dancefloor.

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Chaffey also makes a comparison to Cinderella, as Scott’s mom Shirley and his former dance partner Liz tend to treat Fran as an ugly stepchild/stepsister. She writes, “Fran’s beauty is hidden by her plainness and she is relegated to menial tasks and laughed at ([her nickname is] ‘Frangipanni della Squeegee-mop’) by the ugly sisters until she is ‘discovered’ by the prince who brings about her transformation” (183). Liz is constantly bumping to Fran as if she isn’t there, and Shirley constantly makes comments on Fran’s makeup and skin. Additionally, it is assumed that Fran’s mother has died, as in one scene, her grandmother tells her how much she reminds her of her. Cinderella is also without her biological mother (and father) in her fairytale.

"If your mom was here...she'd be very proud of you."

“If your mom was here…she’d be very proud of you.”

Alternatively, Scott undergoes a “Cinderella story” transformation as well. While he does not lack in skill in the beginning of the film, he does lack in courage. When Fran suggests that the two of them dance together, Scott is dismissive, to which Fran replies, “You’re just like the rest of them. You think you’re different but you’re not, you’re just really scared…You’re a gutless wonder!” From then on, she encourages Scott by telling that he shouldn’t be afraid, and he gains the courage and confidence to dance his own steps at the Pan Pacifics.

Chaffey claims that the key to Luhrmann’s post-modernist approach in Strictly is genre-mixing and intertextual references. She writes, “The film has been described as a musical comedy, a romantic comedy, a ‘musical minus the singing'” (185). She goes on to say that the movie references American classics like Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers’ films, West Side Story (1961) and even Dirty Dancing (1987). The strong comparison to musicals despite their be no singing stems from Luhrmann’s purposeful soundtrack, with songs like “Time After Time” and “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps” having meaning that viewers know to pick up on.

Additionally, her essay reads, “As a result, the plot is a ‘compendium of cliches, signaled well in advance’ and even though as readers we recognize them we happily collude, for example when Fran takes off her glasses and metamorphoses into beauty” (186).

What does it all mean? Like the other films in his “Red Curtain Trilogy,” there is so much to Strictly Ballroom that it almost seems like Baz Luhrmann has to be making some sort of statement about how bad cliches and tropes are in throwing so many into a 90 minute film. However, Luhrmann is a very sentimental person, and this story is close to him, as it is loosely based on his own experiences as a competitive ballroom dancer. “Love” is a theme also close to Luhrmann’s heart, as each one of the Red Curtain Trilogy films centers on it.

An essential part of Luhrmann’s style is excess-throwing as many cliches as possible into Strictly and seeing what sticks with audiences. If Fran’s transformation didn’t tug at your heart strings, perhaps Scott’s did, or perhaps simply the idea of “A life lived in fear is a life half-lived” is enough to resonate. Luhrmann seeks to revisit the past through revitalization, using unique themes like the competitive Australian ballroom dancing circuit to bring them back to the forefront.

Works Cited

Chaffey, Rose. “Imagining the Post-Modern: Subjectivity and Strictly Ballroom.” Australian Screen Education 29.Winter 2002. (2002): 183-188. Academic Search Complete. Web. 3 Apr. 2016.

Spectaular, Spectacular and the Phenomenon of Cultural Hijacking

Upon re-watching Moulin Rouge! (2001) for this project, and this was the first time I had watched it, I was simultaneously shocked and thrilled to see the opening number of Spectacular, Spectacular was Bollywood themed. After my initial “hype” had settled, I became confused, as earlier in the movie, I had also noticed the Indian theme of Satine’s dressing room. I was prompted with many questions: Why had director Baz Luhrmann thought to include such an obvious homage to Bollywood? What does it mean that 99.9% of the actors in Spectacular, Spectacular, a play that takes place in India, are white? Could this be considered cultural appropriation? If so, is it conscious or subconscious on Luhrmann’s part?

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Indian scholars Sangita Gopal and Sujata Moorti explore the implications of Luhrmann’s nod to Bollywood cinema in their essay titled “Bollywood in Drag: Moulin Rouge! and the Aesthetics of Global Cinema.” Gopal and Moorti begin their discussion by giving context to Luhrmann’s use of Indian influence; he was inspired by a Bollywood film he and his wife Catherine Martin had seen while abroad in northern India in 1995. They quote Luhrmann, as he says, “‘We thought we had suddenly learnt Hindi because we understood everything” (29-30). It’s safe to assume that Luhrmann meant that the narrative of the Bollywood was so transparent and universal that he was able to understand despite not knowing the native language or having any subtitles to help.

Gopal and Moorti immediately establish that they believe that Luhrmann may have meant well, but ultimately overstepped his cinematic boundaries. They write,

Though a Bollywood film is not a “musical” in the sense that Hollywood gives to the term, Luhrmann (mis)translates it as such and then proceeds to use this other cinematic form as the basis for “providing a new vernacular for the musical” in the West. Created in this mix of admiration, misunderstanding, and bricolage, Luhrmann’s homage to Bollywood arrived in the West at a moment marked by trendy citations of Hindi cinema in popular culture (30).

The scholars analyze the different aspects that Moulin Rouge! seems to borrow from Bollywood cinema, both on what I will call macro and micro-levels. “Bollywood in Drag” reads, “Few would recognize that the heroine Satine’s transformation from conniving showgirl to tragic heroine recalls the tawaif (courtesan) figure in popular Hindi cinema, while the love-addicted hero, Christian, relies on the sentimental codes of Bollywood masculinity” (30-31).  Character tropes would fall under the macro-level, as would major storylines and the use of song and dance, all important facets of the Bollywood genre and of Moulin Rouge! Gopal and Moorti write,

There are striking resemblances between Moulin Rouge! and classic tawaif films like Pakeezah (The Pure One, dir. Kamal Amrohi, India, 1971) and Umrao Jaan (dir. Muzaffar Ali, India, 1981). In these narratives, romantic love brings the courtesan’s subjectivity to crisis. No longer willing to be a public commodity, the courtesan wants to give herself only to her lover. Like any other modern individual, she desires a private self (50).

Satine, a courtesan, views herself as a caged bird that may never be away to fly away. Her lover Christian can only give her a taste of what it’s like, prompting their intense emotional connection through song. Song and dance performances are essential to Indian cinema, as they serve as callbacks to tradition as well as to strong feelings. Gopal and Moorti cite specific songs in Moulin Rouge!, such as “Heroes,” that give off a similiar Bollywood-esque intensity.

Micro-levels of Bollywood inspiration include specific melodramatic sequences, as well as Luhrmann directly taking a detail from a Bollywood movie and inserting it into his own film. Gopal and Moorti remark on the dual-ending of Spectacular, Spectacular and Moulin Rouge!, in which the ending within the film’s imaginary is a happy one for the audience in the theater, but after the curtain closes, the movie viewers know that Satine has died. In other words, “The film spectator is treated to a climax that follows the narrational protocols of the Bollywood masala movie, assembling multiple generic threads including the chase, the farce, sentimental romance, and tragic melodrama” (52).

The opening scene to Spectacular, Spectacular, which I have previously mentioned, samples a song from a previous Bollywood film.

 

“Bollywood in Drag” reads, “The scene commences with the only overt reference to Bollywood cinema—a sample from the song ‘Chamma Chamma’— which serves as a prelude to Satine’s opening number. Performed by Alka Yagnik, this song from China Gate (dir. Rajkumar Santoshi, India, 1998) was a hit in India and among diasporic audiences” (52). In the clip below, 0:38 to 1:15 is the sample that Luhrmann took.

Within the “Hindi Sad Diamonds,” sequence, white actors and actresses appear to be singing (they are dubbed, as “Chamma Chamma” is a sample) but also dancing in the traditional Bollywood style. While Moulin Rouge! does take place in France and not in India, there are other multicultural characters, such as the actor who is solely referred to as “The Argentinian.” A white woman seen singing a Bollywood song could be termed cultural appropriation, offensive, as it “whitewashes” cultural identity. People are far more aware now of cultural appropriation and whitewashing than they woman were in 2001, but it still occurs- there was a recent uproar about Scarlett Johansson portraying an Asian woman in an upcoming film.

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Ultimately, Gopal and Moorti agree that Luhrmann is perpetuating cultural appropriation to a degree. They cite the example of the only distinctive character of color in the film, Chocolat, who is seldom seen or heard except for when he is saving Satine from near-death experiences; he saves her when she falls off the swing, and when the Duke attacks her. The scholars write,

Given this savior role, it is apt therefore that in Spectacular, Spectacular he appears as a blue- skinned god — the playful and amorous Hindu deity Krishna who presides over the story—but his is only a visual presence, not one that facilitates the narrative movement. As a body of color, Chocolat encapsulates the problematic position offered to third- world subjects and spectators of color in the commodification of exotica: they do not control the positions allocated to them in the cultural marketplace, and often they can be used as substitute representatives for any “exotic” culture whatsoever, just as an African is used to depict a Hindu deity. Chocolat’s only agency in the film is in the service of the white woman (55).

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In conclusion, when it comes cultural appropriation, I think that the narrative aspects of Bollywood that Moulin Rouge! takes are okay, but the excessive set design (Satine’s Elephant Room, the replica Taj Mahal in the Moulin Rouge), the direct sampling of Bollywood music, and unfitting character potrayals (Satine and Zidler portray Indian royalty, Chocolat the Hindu god in Spectacular, Spectacular) makes for a convincing argument. While it’s good that Hollywood films are inspired by Bollywood, as it makes more people aware of India’s booming filmic industry, too much copying and pasting can lead to cultural hijacking.

Works Cited

Gopal, Sangita, and Sujata Moorti. “Bollywood in Drag: Moulin Rouge! and the Aesthetics of Global Cinema.” Camera Obscura 25.75 (2010): 28-67. Academic Search Complete. Web. 2 Apr. 2016.

Daring to Pasodoble: Unpacking Australian Multiculturalism in Strictly Ballroom

Strictly Ballroom (1992) tells the story of Scott Hastings, a skilled, young, Australian ballroom dancer who yearns to dance his own, original steps. A contestant in the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix dance competition, Scott faces pressure from his mother and his dancing coach to dance only within the approved regulations, as his talent gives him a strong chance at winning as long as does so. After preliminaries go awry due to Scott’s creative improvisation, his partner, Liz, leaves him for another dancer. Scott’s mother, Shirley, and his coach, Les, team up to try and find a replacement, but Scott is uninterested in another partner who is too afraid to do something different on the floor. Shirley, from the beginning of the movie, is portrayed as a shrill stage mom, one who is projecting her own dreams of winning the Grand Prix (which she herself never succeeded in doing) onto her son.

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In a “mockumentary” style direct address to the camera, Shirley Hastings says, “Scott won most of the trophies in the room. You see, that’s the tragedy- my son was a champion.”

Enter Fran, a ballroom beginner at Les’ dance studio, who admires Scott for his bravery and creativity in making up his own moves. Fran is overlooked by Scott’s mom not only because is she a clumsy novice, but because of her appearance, which includes poofy hair, bad skin, and glasses. Fran propositions Scott and tells him that she is willing to dance his own steps with him. Reluctant at first, Scott agrees, and the two begin secret rehearsals, planning to debut as partners at the Grand Pacific Grand Prix.

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Beyond Fran’s appearance and ability (both seem to improve dramatically as she spends more time with Scott), Fran is othered by the other characters for heritage. Fran (short for Francisca) and her family (comprised of her father, Rico, and her grandmother, Ya Ya) are Spanish-Australian immigrants. In his essay “Head On: Multicultural Representations of Australian Identity in 1990s National Cinema,” scholar James Bennett examines the film’s use of multiculturalism in the section titled “Strictly Ballroom: Representing the Other as ‘Us.” Bennett examines how Luhrmann’s portrays multiculturalism, and how the white Anglo-Australian characters interact with those of Spanish descent. Despite the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix being centered on Latin Dance, the white dancers seem to reject Fran as a symbol of difference, someone who will “corrupt” Scott with unregulated steps.

The multicultural contrast between the native white Australians and the Spanish immigrants is at its most visible in the scenes at Fran’s home. For starters, where Fran and her family lives in a much different area than where Scott is from. Bennett writes, “These [Spanish] characters are depicted as occupying a diegetic space that is separated from the film’s main(stream) world: a space only reachable by passing down a back alley, blocked off from the street by rubbish bins and bottles” (68). Rico owns a milk-bar in an area that could be compared to what is commonly referred to as a “ghetto” in North American urban communities, or “el barrio” in Latin American communities. Luhrmann’s choice serves to highlight the separation between the two worlds; while Scott comes from a world of dance studios and sequins, Fran comes from makeshift dance floors and modesty.

However, these two worlds collide in the scene where Scott follows Fran home and Rico sees them, accusing of them of having a relationship. The two assure him that it is “strictly ballroom” (a quasi-lie), and Rico tells them to prove it. Scott leads Fran into a regulation rendition of the “pasodoble,” a Latin dance with origins in Spain. Rico, Ya Ya, and their neighborhood friends erupt into laughter. “Pasodoble?!” Rico remarks, scoffing. “Pasodoble.” He then shows Scott what he means, launching into an authentic performance of the dance with Ya Ya as his partner.

Scott, angry at first for being laughed at, is immediately enchanted by the “real” pasodoble. He is told by Yaya not to feel the rhythm in his feet but rather in his heart, “implicitly something that comes naturally to Rico through his Spanish roots.” After she shows him this technique, Scott makes a successful attempt at the dance, indicating his connection to the Spanish culture. Bennett writes, “Scott then dances with Rico, now resplendent in toreador jacket, at last ‘truly’ learning how to dance and beginning to mix his newly learnt steps with his own ‘flashier’ steps” (69). Here, Scott’s world of flashiness and sequins merges with Rico’s passionate pasodoble.

Scott’s pasodoble prompts a great response from Fran’s family, and they immediately accept him into their culture as he has accepted theirs by dancing their steps. Scott asks Rico to teach him more, where Rico tells him that the pasodoble is based on Spanish bullfighting, the man representing the matador and the woman the bull in need of being tamed. Scott and Fran spend time training with Rico, crafting a “crowd-pleasing,” authentically Spanish dance routine for the Grand Prix.

This performance almost does not come to fruition, as Shirley and Les continually intervene, under the coercion of friend and federation president Barry Fife. Under the guise of having Scott’s best interest at heart, Fife has been rigging the competition so that he doesn’t win regardless of what steps he dances, as he strives to protect “the future of dance sport.” His influence over Shirley and her response to his manipulation of her emotions manifests itself in lashing out at the “other,” both Scott’s steps and the partner who enables him to do so, Fran. At one point in the story, Shirley and Barry “attempt to oppress the cross-ethnic partnership by forcing Scott to dance with Tina Sparkle” at the State Championships (68). Tina Sparkle is another white Australian girl who dances federation steps, to which Fife describes her as a “good example.” Bennett describes Fife as the personification of “white hegemony,” as it is revealed later that he has filled Shirley and Les’ heads with supremacist rhetoric.

After physically separating Scott and Fran from each other at States, Shirley, Liz, other dancers corner Fran. Bennett writes, “Fran is surrounded by Anglo-Celtic Australian women who force her into a chair and tower over her, informing her that she’s a ‘beginner,’ ‘really clumsy,’ and suggesting it would be ‘best for everyone if she just went home.'” The way the white women speak to Fran is as if she is an unwelcome immigrant, an “alien” of sorts, as their xenophobia is especially visible in the last statement. He goes on to add, “The camera angles here establish a position of the dominant that Fran cannot hope to occupy, and she tearfully accepts her participation would ‘ruin Scott’s chances,’ her position as an outsider liable to infect Scott” (68). They are worried that she will take Scott away from them (both through the dancing and in romance), and in efforts to stop her, they literally talk down to her.

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Despite all obstacles, Fran and Scott dance their rendition of the pasodoble, prompting retaliation from Fife.

Doug, Scott’s father, reveals Fife’s lies and that he understands his son’s creative desires, as he too had wanted to dance his own steps when competing as a young adult. In the end, Shirley, Les, Liz, and several others help to stop Fife from interrupting Fran and Scott’s dance, and the film closes on everyone dancing their own steps on the dancefloor, Fran and Scott in the middle, sharing a kiss.

Bennett asserts that Luhrmann’s inclusion of multiculturalism in Strictly Ballroom favors the white native Australian perspective. His essay reads, “Although the film does not present an entirely exclusionary process of narrative development, Scott remains the central focus; it is his decision to dance with (and in the style of) the Other that remains important” (69). In response to this claim, I would say that while it is Scott’s decision, Fran, Rico, and Ya Ya are the only characters in the film who outright encourage Scott’s creativity and passion for dance, and are generally portrayed as strong, definitive decision-makers in the wake of Scott’s reluctance and his own family’s susceptibility to manipulation.

Stereotypes, such as where Fran lives, aside, Luhrmann portrays Fran, Rico, and Ya Ya as strong people- Fran demands that Scott give her a chance even though she is a beginner, going as far to call him a coward, and Rico and Ya Ya shamelessly display pride for their culture and teach Scott, a dancer since birth, things about dance he’s never known. I think that Scott’s exposure to multiculturalism is the whole reason he is able to accomplish his overall goal: to dance his own steps at the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix, and that without these characters, he would have been pressured into remaining stagnant and stifling his true self.

Works Cited

Bennett, James. “Head On: Multicultural Representations of Australian Identity in 1990s National Cinema.” Studies in Australasian Cinema 1.1. (2007): 66-71. Academic Search Complete. Web. 3 Apr. 2016.