Cut to the Chase: Cuts and Cross-Cuts in STRICTLY BALLROOM
3 July 2011
In 1992, Baz Luhrmann made his directorial début with the comedy Strictly Ballroom. In a heavily exaggerated and colorful way, Strictly Ballroom ventures into the competitive world of ballroom dancing; the characters, sets, costumes, and (of course) make-up are all over the top. The protagonist, Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio), is a professional dancer about to complete in the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix, a noteworthy event in the ballroom world. The only trouble is the style of dance he likes to perform is not in accordance with professional regulations, set down by Barry Fife (Bill Hunter), the film’s antagonist. Although Scott’s mother, Shirley (Pat Thomson), a former professional dancer herself, encourages Scott to conform to Fife’s rules, Scott’s repeated defiance causes his partner, Liz (Gia Carides), to leave him. While Scott’s family tries to find him a new partner for the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix, Scott secretly begins training with a novice dancer, Fran (Tara Morice). By the time the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix arrives, Scott is torn between Liz, who wants to reteam with him, and Fran. Initially picking Liz, Scott leaves her on the floor to get Fran and finish the competition with his unruly style of dance.
Overall, the plot of Strictly Ballroom is simple and the characters have few nuances, but, somehow, the film still works; Strictly Ballroom is and Australian classic, beloved by countless. So, if the story itself is not what makes the film engaging one must look to the storytelling to find out what is so remarkable about it…
Cuts are foundational to cinematic construction and are so commonplace that they are infrequently used to their potential by most directors and/or editors; Baz Luhrmann, however, understands the art of cutting a film and through precise, well-timed cuts engages his Strictly Ballroom audience. Typically, cuts are seen as breaks in shots; an act that separates one image/point of view from another. Luhrmann seems to see cuts differently. Instead of a break or separation between two shots, Luhrmann seems to suture two shots together with a cut. Luhrmann’s cuts juxtapose shots together in order to add interest and create relevance, as well as injecting the film with much needed complexity, which ultimately heightens the audience’s investment in the film.
For example, in the closing scene at the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Luhrmann builds to the film’s climax through substantial cutting. As Scott (literally) slides across the dance floor to take his starting position with Fran, Luhrmann emphasizes his cuts. First, Scott begins to glide across the floor in slow motion, a technique that adds significant to the character’s arrival on the floor. The film then makes the following series of rapid cuts:
- Cut to Barry Fife as the camera zooms in at a low-angle for a close-up of his enraged face,
- Cut to Scott, angelically, gliding across the floor,
- Cut to a close-up on the announcer (Paul Bertram) commenting on Scott’s entrance,
- Cut to Barry Fife as the camera continues to zoom in for and even tighter close-up,
- Cut to the announcer looking befuddled,
- Cut to Scott still gliding (still angelic),
- Cut to Ken (John Hannan), Scott’s biggest dance competition who notices him enter,
- Cut to Scott taking his position on the floor.
All of these cuts occur in a 10 second period, meaning the audience is ambushed with these images with minimal time to prepare for or examine them. In forcing these images at the audience so quickly, Luhrmann creates a great deal of tension for his audience; with rapidity generally comes anxiety. In evoking this emotional reaction from his audience, Luhrmann bonds the viewers, and their investment, with the film.
Luhrmann also uses the cross-cutting technique in Strictly Ballroom frequently. By cross-cutting, Luhrmann jumps back and forth between two scenes appening simultaneously or relevant to each other in some other way. With this slightly different style of cutting, Luhrmann continues to build tension and captivate the audience’s attention.
For example, jumping back to the start of the film (a bit wild, but, in this context, fitting), the opening sequence captures the Waratah Championship, in which Scott, for the first time, dances his own steps and ruins his chances of victory. The camera cross-cuts between Scott and Liz competing in the Championship and Shirley being interviewed about the Championship, mocumentary style, after the event is over. Luhrmann cross-cuts these scenes because each gains greater relevance when juxtaposed with the other. In juxtaposing Shirley expressing her devastation about Scott’s unruly dancing with Scott actually doing the dance, the audience is able to understand how unacceptable Scott’s dancing was. Without Shirley’s interview the audience could not have gotten the full effect of how damaging his behavior was. In addition, without Scott’s dancing, the audience would not see for themselves the difference between “proper” dancing and Scott’s “outrageous” steps. Also, the cross-cutting in this example help Luhrmann with the film’s comedy; Shirley’s hysterics juxtaposed with Scott’s flashy dancing pulls laughs from the audience.
Luhrmann, clearly, knows the story itself is secondary to the way it’s told. Through his cuts and cross-cuts in Strictly Ballroom, Luhrmann commands the film and pulls the audience in to his spectacle.