Man, “You Should Be Dancing”: Memorable “WTF” Movie Moments

There are shots and scenes in films that are designed to take your breath away. Sometimes it’s the gorgeous cinematography, dazzling special effects, or a character’s sweeping romantic gesture that does the trick. The filmmakers’ choices, when properly executed, generally advance the narrative and enhance the overall movie-going experience. Think: any scene from Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain (2006), with Clint Mansell’s score pushing the spectator through the heavens, or the moment Drs. Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler first glimpse the Brachiosaurus on their way into Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993). These scenes are memorable because they are beautiful, intense, imaginative, and poignant.

But what about those scenes that, seemingly out of the blue, disrupt a film’s serious tone? Whether driven by camp, satire, or irony, these scenes are usually shocking and hilarious. I bet each of us has our own collection of these filmic moments. I know that my dad, for one, enjoys it whenever a character is surprisingly killed in the middle of a scene, such as when a shark jumps out of the water and eats Samuel L. Jackson after he gives a rousing, survivalist speech to the members of his team in Deep Blue Sea (Renny Harlin, 1999). However, my collection of favorite “what the fuck?” movie moments revolves around, well, men dancing.

Before I share with you my top five, I need to clarify the criteria by which these dances make the cut. None is from a musical (that’s why his dancing is so jarring for the viewer), but a song–sung live or reproduced through the character’s sound system or radio–does play a part in each case. In all but two instances, the actor spontaneously dances by himself, and his body–clothed or unclothed–is on display. What I like most about these moments is how they individually and collectively represent a direct address to the female gaze. Some are more sexualized than others, and still a few are downright horrific and disgusting. Since these dance scenes are generally the bright spots in a dark (or even frivolous) film, there is no Tobey Maguire strutting down the street in Spider-Man 3 (Sam Raimi, 2007). And as much as I enjoyed the whitewashing effect of the cast singing and dancing to the O’Jays at the end of The Voices (Marjane Satrapi, 2014), their “Sing A Happy Song” routine is actually too big a choreographed set-piece to make the moment seem spontaneous overall.

Without much further ado, I give you my five favorite scenes of men using the power of dance to lighten a deeply disturbing mood:

Number one, with a bullet, comes from Alex Garland’s much celebrated directorial debut Ex Machina (2015), which opened in wide release last Friday. This scene may receive pride of place on this list because of my crush on the actor Oscar Isaac, whose sinister artificial intelligence mastermind Nathan dances with a female android. However, the real reason it lands here is because Nathan turns something as joyful as disco-dancing into a physical threat directed at houseguest Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), who disapproves of Nathan’s methods. Trust me, the commitment of the actors in this scene elevates it to high comedy, even when the scene is taken out of context from the whole picture.

Another classic. Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman, the Resident Doofus of Mergers & Acquisitions, takes rival Paul Allen (the beautiful Jared Leto) back to his place in Mary Harron’s brilliant 2000 adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s novel, American Psycho. Before chopping his colleague to pieces, Bateman waxes philosophical about the misunderstood meaning behind Huey Lewis and the News’s “Hip to be Square.” Apparently, it’s about the pleasures of conformity, something he knows a lot about. While Bateman doesn’t dance dance, per se, he does emphasize his point with a quick nerd-accented shake of the hips. You stop laughing as soon as he strikes an ax into Allen’s head.

This is not actually my choice! I couldn’t, for the life of me, find the clip from Charlie’s Angels (McG, 2000) wherein client-turned-villain Sam Rockwell dances to “Got to Give It Up” by Marvin Gaye. A relative unknown at this time, Rockwell burned his name into my memory with his sexy shimmying to the song, a way for him to announce to Drew Barrymore’s Dylan, whom he just bedded, that he is in fact the bad guy from whom she’s been assigned to protect him. Yep, long before “Blurred Lines,” the Marvin Gaye classic had been associated with shameful sexual acts.

But it turns out that Sam Rockwell is a regular old Christopher Walken: he dances every chance he gets. Among the video treasures that YouTube has of his moves, is the above scene from Charlie’s Angels. The film never truly adopts a serious tone, and Rockwell’s Eric Knox lampoons earlier James Bond-type villains. He has a secret, coastal hideaway, and technology that goes BOOM! “Revenge is fun,” he says, because he likes to dance it out. Shame the above clip doesn’t run long enough to include his doing the splits.

Reluctant but hungry vampire Louis (Brad Pitt) has just swept young Claudia (Kirsten Dunst) in his arms and fed on her blood. At this turning point in Interview with the Vampire (Neil Jordan, 1994), Louis is disgusted with himself, whereas Lestat (Tom Cruise, electrifying) is elated that his protege has finally taken the plunge. How does he celebrate what Louis would rather forget? Why, by dancing with the corpse of Claudia’s mother, of course! The jubilant dancing and operetta singing sharply contrasts with the dark, spartan interior of Claudia’s home. It’d been a while since there was much evidence of any life there. Which is why Lestat’s bemused exclamation, “There’s still life in the old lady yet!” is so hilarious. An immortal, death is a joke to him, and for once, he has made the audience laugh with him. But poor Louis and Claudia: forever doomed.

Finally, how about some levity? Love Actually (Richard Curtis, 2003) isn’t a serious movie, except for maybe some of its apologists. Hands down, the best scene from this syrupy concoction is when Prime Minister Hugh Grant dances around 10 Downing Street to the tune of “Jump (For My Love)” by the Pointer Sisters, celebrating a personal and professional victory. In Curtis’s rewrite of the concurrent War in Iraq, the PM refuses to toe the line set by the lecherous American President (Billy Bob Thornton, never better). All because the Prez hit on the Prime Minister’s assistant/crush (Martine McCutcheon). A moment the country world can be proud of: Hugh Grant shaking his hips.

That’s it. What are some of your most cherished “what the fuck?” moments? Sound it out in the comments section.

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Reading Role Models by My Role Model, John Waters

I’ve loved reading for as long as I can remember, and I have a huge personal library to prove it. However, the shelves are mostly filled with books I’ve yet to read, for the rate at which I purchase books far outpaces the speed at which I read them. To make matters—well, not worse but different—I’ve also gotten back into the habit of borrowing books from the library. Newly transplanted to Kansas City and without being able to run through the breadth and depth of my own book collection, I have used the splendid public library here to both acquaint me with my new city and to keep my reading eyes and imagination busy.

Role ModelsNow add my ears to the list, too. Recently, I listened to an audiobook for the first time. Ironically, it was a recording of a paperback that sits in my room back home: Role Models by cult filmmaker and artist John Waters. My siblings and I have been fans of the Baltimore-based director since we were kids, having grown up watching Hairspray (1988), Serial Mom (1994), and Pecker (1998) repeatedly. Although my extremely permissive parents probably would have had no problem with our watching his infamous classic Pink Flamingos (1972), I waited until I was ready, in college, to partake in the mondo-trashiness of Divine’s diegetic exploits to secure her place as the world’s “filthiest person alive.” Around the same time, about ten years ago, my sister and I were the first in line to attend a comedic performance by John Waters on campus. I can’t remember everything that he covered that night, but I do remember that that is how I learned of his interest in attending local court trials. And that he is not a fan of blossoms. I still like to quote him, mimicking his cadence and emphasizing the pauses and “S” sounds that he makes: “Limits. We all have our limits.” My beloved button pin, which cheekily states, “Reading is sexy,” inexplicably confounds a lot of people, but I paraphrase something that Waters said that night to explain what I mean by wearing it: “You should never go to bed with someone who doesn’t read.”

John Waters has been an idol of mine for decades now, and I am so glad that I listened to Role Models, his memoir about the multiple individuals, in and out of the spotlight (however big), who have inspired him. I’m certain that I would have heard his distinctive voice in my head while reading it myself, but there is nothing like listening to him actually tell these hilarious and often heart-warming stories about perversion and subversion. The experience, which I shared with my sister in the car, largely as we drove the three hours to Omaha and back, was the closest I will probably ever come to feeling as if John and I really are best friends.

Role Models is divided into ten chapters, each tackling a different subject or topic. He touches on everyone from Johnny Mathis and Little Richard to Leslie Van Houten and Tennessee Williams. In researching the book, he even met the first three aforementioned people, among others. The seventh chapter, “Little Richard, Happy at Last,” recounts John’s early fascination with the influential R&B singer and the disappointing experience he had while interviewing his idol for Playboy magazine in 1987. The “screaming, flamboyant black man” whose voice had so shocked John’s parents in 1957 when he stole, blasted, and danced along to Little Richard’s latest record in the living room unfortunately turned out to be a royal pain in the ass (183). Since Little Richard was the inspiration behind John’s signature pencil moustache, I was surprised that he waited to introduce this idol so late in the book. But his experience having a candid conversation with Little Richard, who wanted approval over whatever John was going to write about him, posed a hard lesson.

John wonders, “But are there some role models you should never meet?” (184). Expressing that sentiment, so early in a book called Role Models, would have been such a bummer in the first chapter—even if Little Richard was instrumental in helping John define his identity. As a child growing up, John had always wanted to be Little Richard, to “somehow climb into [his] body, hook up his heart and vocal cords to [John’s] own, and switch identities with him” (183-4). John’s cautionary tale is exactly why I don’t follow my favorite celebrities on Twitter or other social media networks. I would rather remain blissfully unaware of the stupid or offensive things that they tweet or post to Instagram. However—and this is what I love about John, he’s so forgiving of people’s faults—he still idolizes Little Richard, “the undisputed king in my book” (197).

John Waters, my hero.
John Waters, my hero.

Role Models is also about the fashion, art, books, and pornography that have inspired John and brought joy into his life. In my favorite chapter, “Outsider Porn,” John meets one of his favorite pornographers, a man who literally lives in a pigpen, with rats, dogs, and chickens, to boot. Bobby has fallen on hard times; after selling the rights to his videotapes a long time ago, he doesn’t know how his porn videos, featuring heterosexual Marines masturbating and/or receiving fellatio from Bobby himself, are distributed today. Listening to John describe his discomfort in Bobby’s indoor/outdoor house is a riot, but he is also sympathetic to Bobby’s plight, desiring to take him out to dinner to a nice restaurant. John says that Bobby “is a great artist but doesn’t know it,” and that his video work and hundreds of artfully composed Polaroids of his Marine conquests belong in contemporary art galleries (201). That’s probably the only way I would ever see them. “Outsider Porn” isn’t just hilarious and somewhat upsetting (I wish Bobby’s situation wasn’t so dire); it’s also pretty hot. Listening to John describe several characteristic scenes from Bobby’s porn, without being able to actually see it, certainly invites you to use your imagination in the most fantastic sense. It’s no different than reading really graphic erotic literature.

John Waters hasn’t made a movie in over ten years. Since writing and directing A Dirty Shame in 2004, he’s been busy with a number of other projects: touring with his one-man comedy show (which was later turned into a documentary, This Filthy World, in 2006); putting on a comprehensive multimedia art show (I caught Change of Life at the Orange County Museum of Art in December 2005); watching Hairspray, his most commercial film, transform into a Broadway musical and later a film starring John Travolta as Edna Turnblad; hosting a tongue-in-cheek legal drama ’Til Death Do Us Part on Court TV from 2006 to 2007; and writing two memoirs, 2010’s Role Models and last year’s Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America.

Given John’s background, it should come as no surprise that Role Models isn’t a conventional memoir. While he does mention some of his collaborators throughout (chiefly Divine and Pat Moran, his longtime casting director and associate producer), he holds off on telling any salacious stories about Johnny Depp, who starred in 1990’s Cry-Baby. Role Models isn’t so much about John’s working life—or his personal one, for that matter. Although you do learn that he has “roommates”: pieces of his extraordinary contemporary art collection that are strewn across his Baltimore home and his New York apartment. I don’t care that John didn’t elucidate his filmmaking practices. I would rather hear him recount a particularly perverted airline passenger’s horrifying antics on an international flight that John wasn’t aboard himself. Just to hear him say “turd” over and over is a dream.

Cinecurator Alexandra Frank as John Waters. Photo of Waters's mouth by Greg Gorman.
Cinecurator Alexandra Frank as John Waters. Photo of Waters’s mouth by Greg Gorman.

Opening the final chapter, “Cult Leader,” John laments, “I’m so tired of writing ‘Cult Filmmaker’ on my income tax forms. If only I could write ‘Cult Leader,’ I’d finally be happy” (273). It’s true: “cult filmmaker” isn’t enough to identify him, and this is what makes John so special to me. Unlike other auteurs like Quentin Tarantino or Steven Spielberg, John isn’t just known for his films. He expresses his personality and sensibility in other art forms, and as a diehard fan, Role Models delivers, because it perfectly encapsulates the Pope of Trash’s worldview. Also in “Cult Leader,” John preaches about “a filth movement for the next century,” imagining that readers can choose to join his crusade against those who decry bad taste as the end of civilization (274). What an empowering message, because, once you get past his faux-insistence that you change your name or go topless in public, all he is really saying is that you should let your freak flag fly. Don’t let anyone else define who you are or dictate what you can and cannot do. Growing up with a fixed diet of John Waters movies and still wanting nothing more than to be best friends with the man, I have really taken this advice to heart.

Listening to Role Models, though, inspired me to reflect on other people whom I idolize. It’s been a long time since I was so obsessed with a celebrity that I purchased every magazine he or she appeared in. At ten, I was obsessed with the rock band Bush, and I recall lifting hundreds of issues of Tower Records’ free in-store magazine in order to mail copies to other fans dispersed around the world (this was before the Internet was readily available). I can still sing along to songs on Sixteen Stone, but I no longer think of Gavin Rossdale as my future husband. I was also a card-carrying member of the Christian Bale fan-club as a child, but now I waver in my enthusiasm for his acting. (I can’t wait to rent Exodus: Gods and Kings on DVD and laugh at it.) However, in almost twenty years, my passion for all things Trainspotting has never dissipated. Sure, I donated my copy of Ewan McGregor’s unauthorized biography a long time ago (it wasn’t well written), but I’m never getting rid of my rare Trainspotting movie poster, the one where Begbie has his hand in his pants. John would approve.

I’m not so sure that listening to audiobooks will ever replace my reading of tangible hard copies. I don’t spend much time commuting in the car or on the bus, where reading is nauseatingly impossible. My sister and I started listening to a piece of historical fiction, which spans thirteen compact discs and over sixteen hours of audio. It wouldn’t take me that long to read it, and my mind too easily wanders while listening to the actress read the story. But I know that listening to John Waters’s Carsick while on the road with my sister would be ideal.

Once Were Little Women

It seems most appropriate to inaugurate this new blog about cinephilia–however misspelled–with a post about the first incidence of it in my life that I can recall. Now that I have cable, with premium movie channels that repeatedly air the film, I am constantly reminded of how big a role Little Women (Gillian Armstrong, 1994) played in my childhood and continues to inform me of who I am.

Before this adaptation of the classic Louisa May Alcott tale, which had been brought to screens of various sizes before, I was more or less a typical eight-year-old movie-watcher. Until the film came to home video after its December 1994 theatrical release, I didn’t pay attention to the conventions of opening and closing credit sequences or what the individual crew members’ contributions entailed. Perhaps it is because we rented the VHS almost on a weekly basis that I became familiar with the strange words “editor” and “director of photography,” and I began to seek out definitions. On a very basic level, I can recall how my relationship with Little Women educated me about the different practices that go into making a film.

We didn’t see Little Women in the theater. The reason is lost to history now. But how we responded to it in my house has taken on a sort of legendary status. Up until the night my sister and I watched the rented video separately and alone, we weren’t exactly the best of friends. We had shared a bedroom, but when we reached a certain age (she’s three and half years older), we decided to go our separate ways. Or maybe it was because she was entering middle school and more interested in playing with girlfriends than with her geeky, needy sister that we split up.

For whatever reason, we were on the outs the day we rented Little Women for the first time. Somehow, she was the first to see the new Winona Ryder movie. And I will never forget how she came into my room to watch my reaction–just as the romantic music swelled as Jo more or less proposed to the penniless German Professor Bhaer (Gabriel Byrne). I had been moved to tears; apparently something similar had happened during my sister’s viewing. We bonded over our shared love of this movie about the relationships between sisters, each with their own distinct personality. We each identified with Jo, the free-spirited, “wild,” proto-feminist and aspiring writer. Rather than turn possessive or territorial over claiming Jo as both our kindred spirit and role model, I think we each let the other embrace the character. For there’s no denying that she, as embodied by Ryder, is the best sister: she is the most intellectually curious, politically minded, and, as she herself says, “hopelessly flawed.” It was only more than ten years later, on viewing it alone for the first time in a long while (even after having seen it more than one hundred times), that I came to realize I am probably a lot more like Beth, portrayed in the film by a heart-breaking Claire Danes, than I originally thought. While I would never be content to stay at home or to go without taking a lover, I think her selfless devotion to her family is something to which I have tried–and often failed–to aspire.

Little Women is also special for my sister and me because we shared a teenybopper adoration for the young actor Christian Bale, who played the March family’s next-door neighbor Theodore “Laurie”/”Teddy” Lawrence. He is, on record, our first and only teen idol, and we weren’t even teens when we started fawning over him. We joined his fanclub (I’m sure I have the membership card and autographed portrait in a box somewhere), swooned over his commitment to the environment (he was a vegetarian in those days and an advocate for wildlife, particularly gorilla, conservation), and sought out every new film of his, even going so far as to leave the suburbs and head downtown to the nearest theater playing Todd Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine (1998). Our enthusiasm for Mr. Bale has faded tremendously; we both go through phases of finding him interesting (American Psycho [Mary Harron, 2000]) and ridiculous (Christopher Nolan’s rebooted Batman trilogy). The point is, we have moved on.

When I catch Little Women on cable these days, I can recite lines–nay, whole monologues–of dialogue along with the actors. Suddenly, my memory transports me to the time when my sister and I made a habit of studying scenes to act out for our own amusement. Our favorite cinematic moments to reconstruct were Jo’s refusal of Laurie’s marriage proposal and Laurie’s conversation with a grown-up Amy (Samantha Mathis) in Europe. In it, they discuss whether or not he can love her for her (and not her name and relations) and whether or not she can love anyone who isn’t rich (but he is, anyway). We must have switched roles from time to time, but I remember playing Laurie most of the time.

These scenes stood out for us not only because they’re dialogue-heavy but because they were the crux of what we thought was wrong with the story: that Jo and Laurie didn’t end up together. We regretted Jo’s decision to not marry Laurie, the sensitive and romantic boy who so clearly has been in love with his best friend for over four years. When she says to a man later on in New York that “I should have been a great many things,” we barked at the screen during every viewing the following bitter reminder: “Like Laurie’s wife!” As for the second scene, we just hated the idea that Laurie could be so desperate to be a member of the March family that he would pursue the vain and heartless Amy.

A couple years ago, I made a startling observation upon rewatching Little Women, one that completely changed my understanding of the film and my own outlook on life and love. Strangely, I accepted the story’s resolution: the couplings of Jo and Professor Bhaer and Laurie and Amy. I recognized that Bhaer was a better match for Jo. He has more common interests (as a philosophy professor), sees her as an equal, and, more importantly, he supports her writing career. Not only does he hand over her manuscripts to his editor and/or publisher friends, he challenges her to write from a more personal place. His lack of enthusiasm for her horror and fantasy stories may be one thing, but his prodding does unlock her stubbornness to write about what she knows (which eventually manifests in a set-to-be published novel based on her own life).

I also realized that it was necessary for Jo to turn Laurie down in the first place. The once romantic proposal scene reappeared to me years later as devoid of passion. And I know what explains this change in my perception: between these readings, I became an ardent feminist. Jo has never wanted to be married because she rightly sees it as undoing her independence as well as her desire to see and experience more of the world. (As a child in a Transcendentalist home, she has grown up with the worldview that one should strive to better herself.) Moreover, when Laurie argues that they should marry because he can financially take care of her and her family, that she won’t have to write unless she wants to, I can respond just as Jo does: appalled and defensive of her creative impulse for expression. How could she, after all, marry someone who doesn’t understand her and her desires, who wants her for selfish reasons? Of course, in the novel, Jo had already met and befriended Professor Bhaer by the time Laurie proposes, but since we’re talking about the filmic adaptation and my differing reactions to the central love stories, we must push that aside for now.

I think I even successfully convinced my sister that Jo’s ending up with Professor Bhaer is the better outcome because he would more likely be an equal partner, what with his taking on the position of teacher at the school Jo wishes to establish at the mansion that she inherits from her great aunt. Besides, as I said before, she essentially proposes to him in the rain, leaving him to come up with a response borne of incredulity: “But I have nothing to give you, my hands are empty.” To which she says, placing her hands in his, “Not empty now.” Laurie can have Amy, and Amy can have Laurie. He’s changed a lot since the reality check Jo provided him. Laurie and Amy, in their more superficial and materialistic posturing, deserve each other.

There’s a lot more to Little Women and me, but it’s not the only (long-running) episode of cinephilia I’ve ever had. Merely the first.