Dancing At The Blue Iguana
R2 - United Kingdom - Network
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (27th June 2011).
The Film

Dancing at the Blue Iguana (Michael Radford, 2000)

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As Linda Ruth Williams notes in The Erotic Thriller in Contemporary Cinema (2005), ‘[s]triptease films are as old as cinema’ itself, including classical Hollywood pictures such as Gilda (Charles Vidor, 1946) and, in the 1980s, films as diverse as Flashdance (Adrian Lyne, 1983) and Fear City (Abel Ferrara, 1984) (359). However, ‘the 1990s saw an unprecedented revival of the striptease film […] in the wake of a wider popular cultural interest in different ways for women to take off their clothes’ (ibid.). The decade also saw an increasing use of strip clubs as ‘the business entertainment venue of choice’ (ibid.), a cultural development parodied in HBO’s series The Sopranos (1999-2007), in which business was frequently conducted in the back rooms of the Bada Bing! club. However, for much of The Sopranos, the Bada Bing! was little more than a backdrop for Tony’s meetings with his capos, there to signify the characters’ casual chauvinism: it wasn’t until season three of The Sopranos that the show brought focus on the lives of the employees of the Bada Bing!, with a storyline involving the exploitation of Tracee (Ariel Kiley), one of the Bing’s dancers, at the hands of Ralphie Cifaretto (Joe Pantoliano). Released in 2000, Michael Radford’s Dancing at the Blue Iguana offered a view of the inner dynamics of a strip club that, in its focus on the women who work at the Blue Iguana, challenged the ironic machismo of The Sopranos' representation of the Bada Bing!

In its focus on the women who work at the club (rather than the men who control or frequent it), Dancing at the Blue Iguana seemed part of a wave of somewhat similar strip club-themed movies that focused on the employees of the clubs rather than the punters or owners; this group of films, which appeared in the mid- to late-1990s, included Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls (1995), The Players Club (Ice Cube, 1998), Andrew Bergman’s Striptease (1996, adapted from Carl Hiaasen’s novel) and Atom Egoyan’s Exotica (1994) – with which Dancing at the Blue Iguana shares both the use of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Dance Me to the End of the Love’ and the casting of Elias Koteas. (Meanwhile, Peter Catteneo’s The Full Monty, 1997, offered a subversive appropriation of the ‘rise’ of the strip club in its comical focus on the troupe of male strippers led by Robert Carlyle’s Gaz.)

Dancing at the Blue Iguana opens in a grimy, rundown hotel room where Jessica (Charlotte Ayanna) announces on the telephone that she has arrived in Hollywood: from this moment on, Radford juxtaposes the glitz and glamour conjured up by the film’s setting with the harsher reality of the lives of the people who live there. As Jessica talks on the telephone, she seems to become aware of the reality of her situation and becomes tearful; her breakdown, filmed in close-up, is intercut with the film’s titles (presented in simple white lettering on a black background), suggesting we are meant to empathise with Jessica, the new arrival who seeks employment at the Blue Iguana club.

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The film follows the interweaving narratives of five of the dancers at the Blue Iguana, including Jessica: Angel (Daryl Hannah), who is desperate to adopt a child; Jasmine (Sandra Oh), an aspiring poet who falls in love with Dennis (Chris Hogan), a bookstore owner; Stormy (Sheila Kelley), who has a secret involving Sully (Elias Koteas); and the hard-living Jo (Jennifer Tilly), who sidelines as a dominatrix and, as the film progresses, experiences an unwanted pregnancy.

Whilst the film focuses on these women, a number of male characters orbit the Blue Iguana: Dennis and Sully; Sacha (Vladimir Mashkov), a Russian hit man who arrives in town to carry out a contract killing; the club’s manager, Bobby (W. Earl Brown); and Eddie (Robert Wisdom), the club’s owner. A taskmaster, Eddie is part of a long line of macho, controlling strip club owners in cinema and television, which include Tony Soprano and arguably began with Ben Gazzarra’s performance as Cosmo Vitelli, the owner of the Crazy Horse West, in John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976). Like Cosmo reminds his employees of his ultimate control over the Crazy Horse West (‘I choose the numbers, I arrange them, I direct them’, he asserts at one point), in Dancing at the Blue Iguana Eddie reminds his employees of the level of control he holds over their lives: in the dressing room he hands out gifts to the women and, in one sequence, he reminds a tearful Jasmine (who has been conflicted about her job since falling in love with Dennis), ‘You’ve got no fucking life. This is your life. You got that? You ain’t got no friends, because two minutes after walking out of here, your double-crossing “friends” are going to come in here and snitch on your ass’.

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Radford’s approach to the production of the film was also along similar lines to Cassavetes’ method of filmmaking: the majority of Dancing at the Blue Iguana was improvised. The actors reputedly went to great lengths to research their roles: Daryl Hannah famously went ‘undercover’ in strip clubs, stripping on stage with only a wig to disguise her identity (see Williams, op cit.: 361). Hannah documented her research for the role by recording it on videotape; this footage was later released in the form of an hour long documentary, Strip Notes (Daryl Hannah, 2002). Hannah’s documentary, which has been shown in the UK on Channel 4, is an insightful look into the development of Dancing at the Blue Iguana and, in fact, it could be argued that in many ways, it is more focused and coherent than Radford’s film. It’s a shame that it hasn’t been included in this specific DVD release, as previous DVD releases of Dancing at the Blue Iguana have contained Strip Notes as part of their contextual material.

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The emphasis on improvisation means that Dancing at the Blue Iguana is intimate and naturalistic, but at the same time it lacks focus and could benefit from some tighter editing. The film starts well but eventually leads itself into too many blind alleys, unsure of how to resolve its various narrative strands except with a coda which reveals Eddie and the club’s manager emerging from the darkness of the Blue Iguana into daylight (one of the film’s handful of exterior scenes set in daylight) and reflecting on their apprehension at appearing onstage at a karaoke event – a scene which appears to be a dry comment on those men who make a living by encouraging women to expose themselves in public.

The naturalism of the film’s narrative and performances is carried over into its aesthetic: backstage at the Blue Iguana, the scenes are filled with Altman-esque overlapping dialogue and shot in long takes with a handheld camera. Again they recall the scenes set backstage at the Crazy Horse West in Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, which may very well have been a point of reference for Radford. The scenes set in the Blue Iguana are more effective, especially the film’s haunting highlight, a dance by Sandra Oh’s character, Jasmine, after her aforementioned confrontation with Eddie. At this stage, Jasmine is doubting her career choice due to her relationship with Dennis; when she appears on-stage with a thousand yard stare, dancing to Moby’s ‘Porcelain’, Radford films her in close-up as, during the number, she notices the disapproving Dennis in the audience and begins to weep, a tear slowly falling down her face, which she has set into an emotionless mask.

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The film is presented without any cuts, running for 118:42 mins (PAL).

Video

The film is presented in its original aspect ratio (1.85:1), with anamorphic enhancement. It’s a nice transfer, clear and with good colour fidelity. Much of the film takes place in the dingy confines of the Blue Iguana club, and this DVD handles those dark scenes well.

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Audio

Audio is presented via a two-channel surround track. One of the strengths of the film is its use of music, which fills the soundscape nicely. However, in some scenes the dialogue is mixed quite low and difficult to hear. Sadly, there are no subtitles.

Extras

Trailer (1:41)
The film’s effective trailer describes the picture as ‘From the director of Il Postino’ and suggests it offers ‘a new controversial experience’. It describes the women as ‘keeping [their] dreams alive, one night at a time’.

Overall

In presenting a film about a strip club that is told sympathetically from a largely female perspective, Radford’s intentions are undoubtedly noble. However, despite the apparent research that went into the performances, it could be argued that Dancing at the Blue Iguana rarely rises above presenting caricatures of strippers as dysfunctional or ‘fallen’ women. The women in the film are conflicted about their jobs, sometimes wanting to be ‘dancing at the Blue Iguana’ and at other times seemingly using it as a stepping stone to somewhere else or as a form of catharsis. It’s a bleak film: all of the characters, including the males, live frustrated lives characterised by unrealised hopes and dreams. In the opening sequences there’s a suggestion that the film might explore the ways in which the glamour of Hollywood exploits those (such as Jessica) who are attracted to it, and how the path of exploitation is mutually assured (something along the lines of Bret Easton Ellis’ 2010 novel Imperial Bedrooms): after Jessica is auditioned at the Blue Iguana, she is told ‘No drugs, no blowjobs, no handjobs, no fucking’, and eager to please she insincerely tells the club’s manager ‘You’re so handsome? Did anyone ever tell you that?’ ‘Yeah, I get it all the time’, he retorts dryly, adding ‘Brad Pitt’s got nothing on me’ - as if this tactic is familiar to him from hundreds of auditionees. However, this theme (and many others) is underdeveloped: perhaps due to Radford’s emphasis on improvisation, threads are introduced and then left hanging. Nevertheless, there are many striking sequences, not least of which is Sandra Oh’s show-stopping on-stage breakdown. It’s an interesting but frustrating film, undeniably effective inasmuch as it leaves the viewer with an overwhelming sense of sadness for the characters.

This DVD release contains a good presentation of the movie, but it lacks the contextual material of previous home video releases – including Daryl Hannah’s excellent documentary Strip Notes, which is arguably more focused in its examination of the culture of the strip club than Radford’s film.


References
Williams, Linda Ruth, 2005: The Erotic Thriller in Contemporary Cinema. Indiana University Press


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