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Friday, July 31, 2009

Continuing on with themes in writing: Strictly Ballroom

I can't resist talking about my favorite movie--well, my entire family's favorite movie. We have to get our fix, watching Strictly Ballroom, nearly every time we're all home for a weekend. Although we can mouth and act out every line (can't quite master all the dance steps yet!), we never tire of this movie. We sit, absolutely transfixed, as we watch Francesca and Scott dance the Paso Doble. There are a few movies that hold the same fascination for me--and they all have one thing in common. A few are City Slickers, The Three Amigos, Signs, Nell, and one I've already discussed--K-Pax.

Despite the variety of genre, style, writing, and tone, these movies have one very clear thing in common--a recurring universal theme that drives and weaves through the movie. Authors can learn a lot from movies, but it's important to look beyond the spoken word--the dialogue presented--to see what's really going on. And that's what happens in a great book. The universal themes waver just below the surface, occasionally rearing their heads when a character voices a question or makes a choice. Admittedly, The Three Amigos falls short when it comes to building and weaving a theme, as the "El Guapo" speech given by Steve Martin at the end of the movie really serves as a rallying cry to embrace a theme in a last moment's spark of inspiration. But it deserves mention. How can you easily forget his brilliant words:

"In a way, all of us have an El Guapo to face someday. For some, shyness might be their El Guapo. For others, a lack of education might be their El Guapo. For us . . . El Guapo is a big dangerous guy who wants to kill us. But as sure as my name is Lucky Day, the people of Santa Poco can conquer their own personal El Guapo . . . who also happens to be the actual El Guapo."

You could get expansive and talk about how, throughout the movie, The Three Amigos really did have to face their "various" El Guapos--literal and emotional, since they lost their nice gig at the Hollywood studio. Hey, they did get to make off with their dazzling costumes. But enough of our friendly Amigos.

I often ponder why Strictly Ballroom holds so much sway over our hearts and attention. Why can't we get enough of this movie, even after having seen it dozens of times? Back to the Future is like that too. When you walk by the TV and it's on, it drags you over and forces you to sit down, mesmerized by every word. It's not just fun entertainment and snappy dialogue. Strictly Ballroom is rife with theme. Sure, it's a fairy tale--the ugly duckling makes off with the handsome prince, despite all odds. But it's so much more than that.

Francesca, in a fit of frustration, mouths off a string of Spanish words, leaving Scott Hastings befuddled. She wants to dance with him in the Pan-Pacific competition, breaking the rules and dancing their own original steps, which is blatantly sacrilegious inthe world of professional ballroom dancing. She translates the phrase: "A life lived in fear is a life half-lived." This theme becomes Scott's awakening, his challenge, and ultimately his victory. It is the nectar the two drink, and the hope they embrace. It is the magical phrase that frees Scott's father from his "prison" and mends his parents' long-damaged relationship. It is the glue that binds, and the icing on the cake. Nearly every character in this movie experiences both what it's like to live a life in fear, and how empowered they are when they take a stand and face down that fear. This movie's brilliance is perhaps lost under all the makeup, costumes, and the histrionics of Shirley Hastings, but it's more than just the riveting music played during the Latin dance final that makes you want to jump to your feet and stomp your way around the living room. Your heart is soaring because the movie's theme successfully reached its target.

We'll delve more into universal themes in my next blog entry. But think about the movies you love and why they touch you. See if you can find a universal theme that has been silently guiding the movie along. Then see how you can uncover the themes of what you are writing, and find ways to thread them through your story. You just might make someone jump out of their chair and dance around the room!

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