w w w . b r e n t o n p r i e s t l e y . c o m



Narrative Structure and Social Meaning:
Strictly Ballroom and Dead Heart (2003)
Brenton Priestley


 

 

... the world ‘comes to us’ in the shape of stories... story provides us with an easy, unconscious, and involving way of constructing our world; narrative can be described as a means of ‘making sense’ of our social world, and sharing that ‘sense’ with others. (Turner 78-9)

Film, the most democratic and popular art form of the twentieth century, has always tended to favour narrative simplicity. The novel has traditionally been seen as the means of exploring social issues in depth, film is supposedly the domain of the emotional and the dramatic. How can Hollywood film narrative, with its hero and villain and three act structure do justice to messy, complicated social issues?

However, that hasn’t stopped countless filmmakers from trying, and sometimes succeeding, in making films that not only cleave to basic story-telling techniques and genres, but also manage to simultaneously grapple with important social issues without resorting to dogmatism or polemic.

In discussing narrative, genre and social meaning, Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom and Nick Parsons’ Dead Heart make for a surprisingly interesting comparison. Not only do both films tell specifically Australian stories within the parameters of the traditional Hollywood genres of the Musical and the Western, but both also centre around the issue of racial and cultural integration.

This discussion will therefore consider structuralist narrative approaches and the significance of genre and point-of-view as forms of discourse and how examining these can uncover social meaning within the narrative structures of Strictly Ballroom and Dead Heart.

Stories are built around protagonists who are archetypal, with character traits that are easily recognised – heroes, heroines, villains and victims. Something happens, an event producing a state of disequilibrium, of imbalance, which has to be corrected or resolved. In the resolution we may read a message, a moral – about valour or self-sacrifice. (Watson 132)

In this summary of the structuralist approach to storytelling, Watson highlights the key elements of basic narrative: stock character types, binary oppositions, a story arc which takes the chaos of life, structures it, and ultimately gives it meaning.

The distillation of something as complex as a human personality to its basic elements, and ultimately reducing it to a function within a story is vital for such narrative. Propp’s identification of the main character types universal in folk and fairy stories is easily applied to a film like Strictly Ballroom, which specifically strips detail from the central characters that isn’t functional within the fable-like structure of the narrative. Scott is clearly the hero of the film, Barry is the villain, the princess and her father are Fran and Rico. While Propp argued that such a functional approach to character is, since it is so common, largely unconscious, Strictly Ballroom deploys its stereotypes, aware of the effects they will have on the narrative and the audience, and doesn’t try to disguise it. Gianetti writes of such formalistic narratives: ‘[they] revel in their artificiality. Time is often scrambled and rearranged to hammer home a thematic point more forcefully. The design of the plot is not concealed but heightened. It’s part of the show’ (313). The fact Strictly Ballroom is set amongst a clique of ballroom dancing fanatics not only earns the film comic mileage but serves to heighten the allegorical nature of the film; Rebellion against authority, the conflict between innovation and conservatism are ubiquitous and timeless.

Dead Heart doesn’t fit in so easily with Propp’s classifications. It belongs to a tradition of more realistic narratives in which the patterns of narrative are ‘submerged... beneath the surface "clutter" and apparent randomness of the dramatic events’ (Gianetti 310). The characters aren’t painted in the broad strokes of those of Strictly Ballroom; they are more complex, ambiguous – some are as heroic as they are villainous. Ray has a line which points to this mingling character traits: ‘I’m not the villain... Poppy’s the villain.’

L�vi-Strauss found that narrative was dependent on binary oppositions, ‘... a pair of opposing forces which are mutually exclusive’ (Turner 85), in order to create the necessary conflict to drive a story. Again, it’s fairly easy to identify the binary oppositions established in Strictly Ballroom, as mentioned, rebellion and authority, innovation and conservatism and insiders and outsiders are the most significant. Naturally, the positive elements of each of these binaries are associated with Scott, the hero, and the audience is thus encouraged to therefore see each the various binaries as subcategories of good and bad.

Dead Heart differs from Strictly Ballroom not in the fact that its narrative isn’t structured on binary oppositions, but in that the two sides of the binaries aren’t seen as being ‘good’ or ‘bad’. The film in fact thwarts implicit liberal expectations that the binary will be structured that the blacks are the good oppressed and the whites are the bad oppressors. Martin notes the significance of the binaries in Dead Heart’s narrative: ‘Stories like this depend on stark oppositions – black v white law, violence v reason, spirituality v materialism – but also characters who try their best to inhabit a place between these extremes’ (64). These characters – specifically Ray, David and Billy, who intersect the binaries, ultimately lose, which suggests that the two sides are mutually exclusive, incompatible. In contrast, Strictly Ballroom sees the either the ‘good’ side of the binary succeeding, or the two sides (Anglo and Ethnic) uniting.

A Todorovian reading of narrative posits that progression is an oscillation between opposing equilibriums,

narrative begin[s] in a stable point of equilibrium... when things are satisfactory, peaceful, calm, or recognisably normal. This equilibrium or plenitude is then disrupted by some power or force which results in a state of disequilibrium. This state can only be resolved through the action of a force directed against the disrupting force. The result is the restoration of equilibrium or plenitude (Turner 87).

Strictly Ballroom diverges slightly from this traditional model in that it begins in media res – Scott has already unbalanced the state of equilibrium by using his ‘Flashy, crowd-pleasing steps’, and Shirley, Liz, Les and Barry are furious. The preceding state of plenitude is fairly obvious, though – Scott used to dance to the Federation’s tune and all was well with the world.

Conversely, the community of Wala Wala in Dead Heart begins in a state of relative plenitude and ends in utter disequilibrium. However, a case could be made that Poppy, whose discourse is perhaps the dominant one since his narration frames the film, ends up in a state of plenitude, having fulfilled his goals to destroy Ray and gain a new Landrover.

Ultimately, though, according to Turner,

the social dimension of film narrative is not found at the deep structural levels explored by Todorov, Propp or L�vi-Strauss. Rather, it occurs at the level of discourse – the ways in which the story is told, inflected, represented. (90)

Therefore, does considering Strictly Ballroom and Dead Heart at the discursive level of genre reveal more about how their narrative structure contributes to their social meanings? A genre, amongst other things, is chiefly a set of narrative expectations – an audience derives pleasure or satisfaction from seeing these expectations fulfilled or subverted. As mentioned, both Strictly Ballroom and Dead Heart fit fairly clearly into traditional Hollywood film genres, the Musical and the Western. Their writer/directors were fairly explicit about their decisions to work within their respective genres. O’Regan notes that ‘... Luhrmann was keen to accentuate [the] connection with the classical Hollywood musical, emphasising the continuity between Gene Kelly... and Paul Mercurio’ (148). Nick Parsons put it fairly bluntly, ‘... this is not a film about race relations. It’s a western’ (quoted in Hessey 9).

The decision to structure the narrative of Strictly Ballroom as a Musical (rather than a straight farce, for instance) was particularly fortuitous. Modern audiences are more likely to accept the narrative simplicity and one-dimensional characters, since they are the Musical’s stock-in-trade. Furthermore, ‘formalistic narratives are often interrupted by lyrical interludes, exercises in pure style... genre films like musicals... offer the richest potential for displays of stylistic rapture and bravura effects’ (Gianetti 314). The film succeeded in using the generic signifiers and conventions of the Musical. Genre, rather than detracting from the social meaning of the film, actually amplified it – the happy ending, essential in a musical, made the suggestion that multiculturalism was not only possible, but vital.

Dead Heart similarly takes the hallmarks of the Western narrative; conflict amidst a frontier community, presided over by the town sheriff. Like its American counterparts, the film is even set in the west. Perhaps one specific example is enough to establish the film’s generic credentials. As Turner writes, ‘The western’s final confrontation between opposing forces is almost ritually represented as a shoot-out’ (98). Dead Heart is no exception, although it has a nice twist on the traditional shoot-out. On several occasions, Ray’s gun is juxtaposed with the Aborigines’ spears (a binary opposition of the means of enforcing white and black law?). In the final show-down, the shoot out is between Tjulpu with his spear, and Ray brandishing his rifle.

However, while Strictly Ballroom was praised for working within its genre, doing so proves to be more problematic for Dead Heart. Genres such as the Western, Crilly argues,

tend to skew the representation of experience by favouring simplistic resolutions that produce a limited range of meanings... Given the problematic nature of Indigenous and non-Indigenous relations in this country, it is hard to see how the obvious and conscious deployment of genre in Dead Heart can give rise to any meaningful insight into these relations. (41)

Dead Heart’s stylistic and structural tilting of the hat to the Western seem more like failed bids at making the film more accessible or marketable and seems to pull the narrative away from where its heart truly lies. Ultimately, reducing it to generic confines, despite the careful shading given to the characters compromises and muddies some of the film’s possible social meanings. Which is not to say that traditional film-making cannot explore social issues in significant ways within the confines of a genre. Neale discusses the idea of a ‘core problematic,’ an ‘issue of social importance that the genre explores’ (21). O’Shaughnessy elaborates:

For example, the core problematic of the Western is the conflict between, on the one hand, law and order, and on the other, freedom beyond the law, a conflict that is a major issue for American society. The Western was a space for working out all kinds of scenarios around this issue, and studying the Western provides a chance to see how this social issue has been, and still is being dealt with. (94)

Such a binary conflict, as discussed, manifests itself in Dead Heart not as a conflict between law and order and freedom beyond the law but rather between two different types of law.

The most revealing indication of meaning within a narrative is the structural positioning of the characters. Film narratives tend to be driven by the motivation and actions of individuals rather than social, economic or natural forces. Despite the social pressures behind the characters of Strictly Ballroom and Dead Heart, both films are nonetheless propelled by their individual personalities.

Films often tend to privilege male roles, while objectifying the female characters and denying them a voice – as O’Shaughnessy puts it, ‘... male characters are often set at the centre of a film while women serve secondary support functions... as appendages of men’ (113). The implicit meaning that audiences can take from this is that women are in some way inferior or secondary to men. Strictly Ballroom aggressively avoids this: it is Fran who ultimately fires up the mechanics of the plot by insisting that Scott dance with her. Some fun is also had by reversing the traditional gender roles of Scott’s parents, and making his father, Doug the submissive partner (although even he has an active part to play in the narrative by the end). Dead Heart’s portrayal of women tends to revert to the traditional model: while Kate’s is a significant role, her affair with Tony acts more as a catalyst for conflict amongst the men, after which she is more or less forgotten (apart from a jarring scene in which she delivers a racist diatribe). Even more disturbing is the complete absence of any female Aboriginal voice whatsoever – a significant omission. Why are Aboriginal women pushed to the periphery when the film seems so intent on presenting everyone else’s side of the story?

Point-of-view, or a film’s dominant discourse, is another way in reading meaning from narrative. O’Shaughnessy writes:

Looking at [a] film’s hierarchy of discourses and seeking out its dominant discourse becomes a way of understanding what the overall film is presenting, what the film thinks about what it is showing, and how this is inscribed into its narrative structure. (116)

Strictly Ballroom inevitably encourages the viewer to identify with the hero, Scott, but also to a certain extent with Fran. However, Scott more or less remains a cipher throughout the film. Fran, on the other hand, develops the most, and is certainly the most sympathetic character. It is really, then, her story as much as it is Scott’s. Curiously, the first fifteen minutes of the film is interspersed with documentary-like clips with several characters commenting on the action, suggesting that the film is told from an outsider’s viewpoint. This technique seems to be merely a stylistic quirk, as it is soon abandoned.

Dead Heart is more ambivalent in presenting a coherent point-of-view. As mentioned earlier, it is Poppy who opens and closes the story, but the main body of the narrative is fairly objective and omniscient. Ray, rather than Poppy and despite his flaws, is probably the character the audience identifies with the most. Since he is ultimately rejected by both white and black society, the film seems to suggest that attempts, like Ray’s, to cross the cultural divide, are futile.

Turner writes,

the most ideologically charged section of a narrative is often the effort to bring it to closure, to resolve the problems (and sometimes the possibilities) raised in the middle period of disequilibrium or disruption. (88)

Hence, it is perhaps apt to close off by discussing the ways in which the endings of Strictly Ballroom and Dead Heart contribute to their social meanings, specifically on the issue of cultural integration.

Of Strictly Ballroom’s ending, O’Regan writes ‘... in the best musical tradition the prototypically utopian finale makes dance a universal condition’ (148). After the Scott and Fran finish their triumphantly defiant dance, the audience floods onto the stage and everyone dances with one another – suggesting that cultural integration is positive and possible. An ending like this, O’Shaughnessy suggests,

... allow[s] for progress and change. Things are not as they were at the beginning... This suggests that humans can change their life situations. This relates to the process of moral change and growth that the main characters go through. This pattern is usually positive – characters learn and become better people during the narrative – and suggests that we can move on from the status quo. (120)

Dead Heart, conversely, ends where it began, with Poppy recounting the tale of Wala Wala to his two companions. Again, O’Shaughnessy writes:

[such a] circular characteristic is found particularly in flashback films, which start at one point in time, go into the past, and then return to the original point for the ending... The ideological point about such narratives is that, in a sense, they don’t go anywhere, they don’t progress, they just bring you back to where you started. This suggests that progress is impossible, that it is impossible to change things... whatever humans do, they are doomed to their pre-ordained endings. (120)

Crilly reinforces this: ‘[Dead Heart’s] narrative closure clearly suggests that the differences between Aborigines and whites are irreconcilable. Once again we see the presence of deterministic assumptions’ (42).

So, in conclusion, it is interesting to see how two dissimilar films can ultimately be linked both in their thematic concerns as well as their relative positions along the narrative continuum. Dead Heart tries to eschew the narrative simplicity and stereotype that Strictly Ballroom aggressively fosters. However, in spite of this – or because of it – Strictly Ballroom succeeds the most in creating social meaning through narrative structure.



ENDNOTES

Or, rather, avoids building.

Although such details do occasionally crop up, usually for comic or ironic effect.

  Almost every scene in Dead Heart is in some way an elaboration on the basic binary of white culture versus black culture and white law versus black law.

So much so that Strictly Ballroom, and to an even greater extent, Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, reinjected the long dormant genre with new life, restoring its critical and commercial status, as exemplified by the recent Chicago. On the other hand, for the last several decades, musicals have formed the staple of the largest global film industry – India’s Bollywood.

WORKS CITED

Crilly, Shane. ‘Reading Aboriginalities in Australian Cinema: From Jedda to Dead Heart [and a few in between]’. Australian Screen Education 26/27 (2001): 36-44.

Giannetti , Louis. Understanding Movies. New Jersey: Prentice, 1990.

Hessey, Ruth. ‘The Lore Breakers: Review of Dead Heart’. Metro Magazine, The Sydney Morning Herald 22 November 1996: 9.

Strictly Ballroom. Dir. Baz Luhrmann. AFFC, 1992.

Martin, Adrian. ‘Not fussed on taste or PC: Review of Dead Heart’. The Age 14 November 1996: 64.

Neale, Steven. Genre. London: BFI, 1980.

O’Regan, Tom. Australian National Cinema. London: Routledge, 1996.

O’Shaughnessy, Michael. Media and Society: An Introduction. Melbourne: Oxford, 1999.

Dead Heart. Dir. Nick Parsons. AFFC, 1996.

Turner, Graeme. Film as Social Practice. London: Routledge, 1999.

Watson, James. Media Communication: An Introduction to Theory and Process. London: MacMillan, 1998


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