Selling Out

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Sometimes it’s the values filmmakers take for granted that reveal the most about cultural trends. Take “Step Up 3D,” for example, the most recent of choreographer-producer Adam Shankman’s films about street kids who dance. There’s only one genuine reason to watch these films, and that’s for the dancing. And wow, can these kids dance! But it’s the things the kids don’t do that reveal the most about this generation’s attitudes toward work, play, and most importantly, pay.

The films borrow heavily from traditional story formulas to create a loose conflict around which the kids can perform their dances. The plot of this one is similar to those of the old Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland films: “Hey kids, let’s put on a show to save the farm!” Here, the “farm” is a Manhattan warehouse that has been converted to a performance gym-flophouse-dance club. Luke’s parents bought the building and renovated it, but they died in a car accident and now Luke (Rick Malambri) is struggling to pay the mortgage while opening the house to dozens of homeless dancers. Five months behind in the payments, he needs to win the World Jam Dance contest and its $100,000 prize money, or the house will be foreclosed and all the kids will be back on the streets. Julien ( Joe Slaughter ), the captain of a rival dance team, has threatened to buy the house as soon as it goes into foreclosure, using money he has inherited from his wealthy parents.

This story is a simple, useful vehicle for presenting an amazing array of contemporary street dances, including hip-hop, krump, b-boy, pop-n-lock, stepping, and some new moves so creative that they don’t have official names yet. The 3D format works especially well, enhancing the audience’s appreciation of the dance performances rather than focusing on 3D camera tricks that are becoming far too familiar.

Street dancing is one of the most liberating and libertarian of dance styles, as well as the most physically demanding. As with jazz, there are no rules per se, except to push the boundaries as far as they can go. Until recently, when TV shows like “So You Think You Can Dance” began to legitimize this style of dance, there were few formal classes in the style, beyond a watered-down version of hip-hop. Instead, street dancers have learned from one another, creating their own styles and techniques.

The athleticism and physical strength of these performers is often jaw-dropping, as they support their body weight on their fingertips, spin on their heads, rise up sideways using just the muscles in an ankle, and leap from the equivalent of a rooftop. They can isolate their body movements to create a ripple effect or appear to leave their heads hanging in midair while the shoulders gyrate. All this is performed in time to energetic music and in perfect sync with a “crew” of dancers who practice together in parking lots, basements, and gyms. The tone is often aggressive and in-your-face, but it is just as likely to be playful and even joyful. If you love dancing (and I do) these films are a great way to enjoy a couple of hours.

But back to our story, and my concern about how it resolves Luke’s problem about how to save the group house and its dance studio. The film presents only two options for raising the money: win the dance jam prize, or inherit wealth from a rich relative. No one in this film works or appears to have a job. In fact, when Luke decides to get a job at a diner, he is criticized for “selling out” and ends up walking out in the middle of his shift, never to return. The one crew member who attends college is constantly encouraged to cut classes in order to attend dance practices. Supporting the community is vastly more important than supporting the individual.

Meanwhile, the filmmakers completely overlook two obvious (to me) free-market solutions. First, on the ground floor of the warehouse Luke operates a thriving, crowded, dance club where hip young people come to dance together and show off their moves. He appears to keep it open as a community center, however, with no tickets or remuneration of any kind. Imagine how much money he could raise if he simply charged admission!

A second possible solution involves a second storyline. It concerns a young NYU student, Moose (Adam G. Sevani) who majors in electrical engineering by day and dances with Luke’s crew by night. Using his engineering skills, he creates a small light attached to a magnet that both provides its electromagnetic power and makes it instantly attachable to any steel surface. The other dancers love tossing the neon colored “fireflies” at wire cables and even give them a name, “neo-lights.” I leaned over to a companion and said, “Aha! They’ll market the neo-lights and save the day.” But that thought never enters their minds. Yes, they use the neo-lights in the routine that leads to their winning the competition (forgive me if that gives away the plot, but you didn’t seriously think it might end any other way, did you?). Yet they never think of packaging the lights and selling them to make a profit, even though everyone in my group walked away saying, “Wouldn’t it be cool to have some of those?”

Nor do they think of other obvious possibilities, such as busking or coaching. Gambling goes on at the competitions, but the dancers don’t seem to be involved. (And I was a bit put off by the fact that all the gamblers were middle-aged Asians. What a stereotype!)

Over the past several years we have seen film after film with overt commerce-bashing themes. “The Other Guys,” a current buddy cop spoof starring Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg, presents a slimy, villainous CEO (Steve Coogan) who runs The Center for American Capitalism with the theme, “live for excess.” I bristled at the stereotype, but laughed at it as well. At least the film’s point of view was upfront and in the open. But many of this year’s films, especially those geared toward children, have been much more troubling, because their community-first, anticapitalism themes have not been an intentional message. The filmmakers simply take for granted that redistribution of wealth based on need rather than merit is the appropriate, acceptable way to raise money. Developing and marketing a product, or even getting a job, isn’t presented as a bad choice; it just isn’t presented as an option at all.

Perhaps this point of view comes from the fact that so many filmmakers have to rely on the good will (and deep pockets) of wealthy benefactors in order to fund their films. But it concerns me, as I’m sure it concerns most of Liberty’s readers.

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