I got surprised the other night. Do you remember that gem of a movie from the 80s, Dirty Dancing? I watch it every few years, and strangely, never tire of it. My surprise the other night was Netflix scrolling the remake. I clicked OK, expecting to be entertained.
Oh, my, right from the beginning I questioned myself. Is it my age, not getting today’s idea of attractive? Do muscles replace fluid? Is it the new trend of dance? What is it about this fav scene I don’t like? That scene where the main character, Baby, enters the off-limit hall of dancers that’s so pivotal to the story. The scene that launches it.
In the original she’s overwhelmed with the sight. The hall packed with writhing bodies. The sensuality. The remake lost it completely. This wasn’t about bad. We’ve all seen cheesy or bad movies, and yet, walked away saying ‘it was so bad, and I liked it.’
I started watching the visual story as a writer. The dialogue, how it considered the viewer. What we call trusting the reader. How the characters were drawn. The backstory and context.
We’re not shocked and surprised along with the character as we are in the original, where we zero in close on details we humans notice when first seeing something so new. Realizing this is ‘dirty,’ and yet, not feeling it that way. In fact, it’s what I remember most.
Here the frame of the camera is close, our entire view the dancers. Men and voluptuous women focused on the other, hips moving in syncopated rhythm. We’re overwhelmed with it as she was. The camera pulls back only when Johnny, the lead dancer, enters. He’s isolated in our attention as he becomes isolated in her attention.
Then, when he gives her a lesson, ‘move your hips this way,’ we go with him. There are no thrusts, bumps, or grinds in a way that we feel her violated.
The remake felt exactly opposite for me. We enter a sparsely occupied room. The camera angle wide. No sensual mass. Couples here and there, hips humping and thrusting in isolated joining. The women thin, unlike any person I know. The one image I’m left with from that scene is a near-stick of a woman in the background, viewed from the back, her legs spread wide enough for standing sex. I’m no prude, and the visual story was not sensual here. It looked and felt dirty. A different set-up for what would follow.
I still expected better, tho. I quickly noticed the cultural context was diluted. The story takes place in a Jewish family summer camp in the Catskills. Something very common at the time, and perhaps still. As one blogger wrote after an evening with Eleanor Bergstein, the writer and co-producer of the original movie, “The film is hugely Jewish, capturing a 1960s Jewish family and their open-minded but still guarded sensibilities.” Except for the Kellermans, I didn’t get that impression.
Class and gender issues were diluted, too. Johnny’s given the added weight of serving time in prison as a device why he’s ousted. He’s given the story of leaving home at 16 instead of the female lead dancer, Penny, weakening her character as a strong woman. Even weakening the social context of how dangerous abortion was at that time. Her botched abortion was not her weakness, but all too common.
In a time when exclusion, race, and conflicts between religions are issues, isn’t it important to retain the context? All those things are in the story on purpose.
There was little trust in the viewer getting the points made. Evidenced by Penny declaring ‘it’s all about the hips,’ when that one short lesson by Johnny in the beginning of the original set that up. Evidenced by the mini-speech & threat (“you have no integrity; go apologize or I’ll call all the medical schools so you’ll never get in.”), which stole the impact of the look of disgust and the money gift snatched back from the waiter’s hands.
What I know. . .a picture says a thousand words. A picture also tells a thousand stories. Historical and cultural contexts shouldn’t be lost in today’s world, nor do they need to be unfathomable to today’s viewers.
We’re all storytellers. We can tell stories so the unfathomable is seen, and understood.
At the end of the remake, I waited for that famous line ‘Nobody puts Baby in the corner.’ Such a corny line, and I love it.
Look at the story you’re telling when you write.
- What are you holding back or diluting.
- How does the reader see thru your character’s eyes.
- How might you make the unfathomable seen and understood.
- What do you want your reader, viewer, or listener to remember.
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