(written in 2009 for my year 12 English class)
By looking at the pseudo-documentary scene, the ‘new steps’ scene and the solo dancing scene, show how director Baz Luhrmann has added to the element of the ridiculous in his film ‘Strictly Ballroom’ with the character Doug Hastings. Is he really as ridiculous as he first might seem?
Baz Luhrmann’s character of Doug Hastings is more of a caricature than a character: he is the archetypal hen-pecked husband and is rendered even more ridiculous by his clinging to a failed dream. Doug does not seem to live in the present with nearly the same intensity as the other characters; he is uninvolved and seems to lack motivation.
The fact that there is little material in the film with which to work in understanding the character of Doug is revealing in itself- it is due to his lack of presence and initially seeming lack of substance that he does not feature to a large degree.
The viewer’s first encounter with Doug occurs in the pseudo-documentary portion of the film. His overbearing wife, Shirley Hastings, is being interviewed about the supposed ‘downfall’ of her son, Scott, who has broken the unspoken rule of competitive ballroom dancing: not to allow your personal creativity to interfere with rigid preconceived ideas about what dance should be. Doug, a thin man with non-descript colour hair, sits stiffly next to her in a pink suit, itself a remnant of a bygone era, blending literally into the background which consists almost entirely of the colour. He has been overpowered by pinkness and what it represents: pretentiousness, excessiveness and a lack of real maturity: in short, his wife and the world she is involved in. Although Doug shares the medium shot frame equally with her, he sits deep in his seat, moving only his eyelids to blink as if intimidated by the unaccustomed attention he is receiving merely by sitting next to someone being interviewed. In the background the viewer sees a cabinet of trophies, symbolic of what the Hastings want for their son.
At this stage there is no background music: Shirley’s insistent voice dominates. Significantly, the first sound that emanates from Doug in the film is that of his mouth freshener being squirted into his mouth. Such an incongruous action captures well his removal from the melodramatic concerns of Shirley Hastings-type characters as well as his as yet unexplained awkwardness resulting from a lack of purpose. As shots jump cut to ‘The Southern Districts Waratah Championship’ and back, Doug is denied even his half portion of the screen and the viewer is left listening to Shirley as she questions where she went wrong as a mother.
Whilst most members of ‘Kendall’s School of Dance’ are working themselves into a hype surrounding Scott’s ‘new steps’, Doug sits in a corner on a chair, again appropriately clothed for fading into the background. He wears a reddish brown shirt, further darkened by shadow and is only seen here (in the bottom right hand corner) in the extreme background as Liz walks past him to deliver news of Scott’s antics to Shirley. Doug makes no comment for the duration of the discussion but a cross cut shows a close up of his face looking concerned as Liz slips and falls when leaving. This selective reacting should hint to the viewer that Doug has more depth to him than would have been thought: he has less shallow concerns that the majority of the other characters in the room have shown themselves to have.
Scott comes in and a medium long shot shows Doug walk tentatively forward to the middle ground of the set. His first (softly spoken) words of the film are: ‘Son, can I bend your ear for a tick?’ Doug’s dialogue, with its incorrect idiom, coupled with his body language, suggest a lack of security. This is reinforced by the response of another character (Scott) when he is rejected with a ‘Not now, Dad’. Doug responds typically: he blinks. The camera then tracks back to reveal Scott exiting and a long shot of Doug trailing uselessly after him, a movement which coincides with the ending of the music on its tonic*, suggesting depressing finality.
Indeed, Doug’s character does not develop at all in the film until the very end. The viewer does come to understand before then, however, his preoccupation with old ballroom dancing videos, and his resultant need to express suppressed feelings through dance.
Doug’s solo dancing scene is filmed differently from those of the world of competitive ballroom dancing- Shirley Hastings’s world- thereby evoking a different emotional reaction in the viewer: the colours used are dark and naturalistic compared to being bright and gaudy; the shots are of longer length so allowing the viewer to focus for the first time full attention on Doug and lighting comes from once source in each frame, also encouraging a non-distracted focus on Doug’s character. The result of these changes is that a new feeling of sympathy, rather than amusement is encouraged towards Doug.
In the silence, save for the diegetic sound of him blowing the dust off a record, the viewer sees a medium shot of Doug from a high angle (evoking sympathy for his vulnerability). The side lighting is strong enough that the viewer can see the look of intensity on his face. As Doug moves to the bottom left hand side of the frame to exit the room, only a very slight panning movement of the camera accommodates him, showing his lack of importance. The camera jump cuts twice to the bar area of the studio with the omnipresent trophy cabinet in the background. A medium shot of Doug shows him in profile on the left hand side of the frame. Again, the poor man is expected to walk into the frame. Now a sound has begun to be heard: that of Doug humming. From this, the conclusion can be made that he is becoming more confident as he is occupied with something important to him.
Several shots later show Doug dancing alone to old fashioned, quirky music- a perhaps summing analogy of his character. He is illuminated by only a harsh overhead spotlight over which edge he hovers around; even when alone, Doug is afraid to be bold in his movements. As the camera zooms in to his face, the viewer glimpses someone totally absorbed by a dream long gone.
It is at this point in the film, a climax in its own right, that the viewer first becomes aware of the reasons for why Doug is how he is. The viewer has changed in her perspectives towards this particular character even if the actual character has had no revelatory realisations and so has not developed The viewer has come through a journey of understanding and is now able to sympathize with Doug. She realises that Doug’s reclusiveness is merely a different and perhaps more sincere and therefore noble way of dealing with the highly superficial and cruel world of competitive ballroom dancing. Hence, Doug has been used by Baz Luhrmann as a tool to develop the satirical element of his film ‘Strictly Ballroom’.
*the beginning note of the scale that forms the key of a piece of music