The James Clayton Column: Dancing for freedom: the Sucker Punch against oppression

James went to see Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch. And he's got a few thoughts...

We are beings in bondage, brothers and sisters, and it’s high time we cast off our shackles and made a break for freedom! “Amen, brother!” I hear you holler in return, fist of solidarity high in the air. “But how do we get the freedom we want and deserve?”

At this point, Gene Kelly bounces into view, swings around a lamppost in front of our impromptu street rally and enthusiastically cries out, “Gotta dance!” Brothers and sisters, the Singin’ In The Rain star is right! Dancing is freedom and he’s showing us the steps we need to take to further our revolution of freewill.

It’s the expression of the soul’s inner truth as articulated through the physical medium of the body. Dance can be a cathartic release and can represent feelings and emotions. It can illustrate particular meanings and mood.

Put simply, dancing is about letting it all out. Disco hustle, mosh pit headbanging, ballet dancing or ballroom tango, whatever. It all comes down to the same thing. Dancers are expressing some truth and doing it by touching on a sense of physical freedom.

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Where the body goes, the mind will follow, and from physical freedom comes intellectual and psychological liberation, as shown by Black Swan recently. By embracing her repressed dark side in the title role, Nina (Natalie Portman) finds herself and discovers her inner sexuality and true performance potential. Forget about all the hallucinations and the hellish descent into mental breakdown. The main point is that dancing is a potent, soul-fulfilling release.

It’s the same in films like Flashdance, Dirty Dancing and Billy Elliot, to name a few, where frustrated individuals get to escape from mundane circumstances and reach their aspirations or true personality. By dancing, you can kick away your blue collar worker woes or the claustrophobic expectations of your control freak family. You can impress Patrick Swayze. You can beat Margaret Thatcher and grim northern poverty in an era of miners’ strikes with your ballet training.

That’s the inspirational power of rhythmic movement, and the surfeit of dance shows on TV offer further evidence of its magic. Aspiring young people hit the stage in these programmes, body pop and strut some stuff, before earnestly informing the audience and judging panel, “If it weren’t for dancing, I’d be in prison, or dead or just really bored at home having to watch at least three episodes of Glee in order to summon up the motivation to get out of bed and not feel like my life is utterly meaningless.”

So, dancing can be salvation from life’s horrors and prevent downward spirals into further depression, vice and despair. But what if you’re firmly incarcerated in an actual, and not a figurative, prison? How can mambo moves and breakdancing skills bring freedom when you’ve been locked behind bars?

Surprisingly, Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch might have the answer, though I’m not exactly sure how a message of imaginative empowerment managed to eke its way out of this messy, contradictory, completely bewildering flick.

For the purpose of this article, I’ll try and give Snyder the benefit of the doubt. Otherwise, Sucker Punch struck me as unreasonably unpleasant, unconvincing and regressive. It feels a bit like a pervert’s sexploitation fantasy, with unnerving elements of mental and physical abuse broken up by a series of awesome videogame levels to bring a bit of bombastic light relief. Still, it says something, and that something is that you can find freedom by dancing. (Really, it’s somewhere in there. Possibly hidden behind the giant samurai robot.)

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Emily Browning’s Babydoll gets shut away in the Lennox House for the Mentally Insane at the start of Sucker Punch. She’s set to be lobotomised in five days and under the thumb of Oscar Isaac’s slimy warden. In such unpleasant circumstances, Babydoll seeks to escape before the bastards bash holes in her prefrontal cortex and, thus, embraces the power of imagination.

First, she transforms the bleak asylum into a bordello theatre where the young female inmates become dancing courtesans. For Sucker Punch, or for Babydoll, at least, bondage as an objectified sex slave is preferable to being a confined mental patient. This idea is odd and troubling but, hey, it’s Babydoll’s story (I think), and she figures that through dancing she can find freedom. Therefore, she conjures up this stage show fantasy and makes a break for emancipation.

While Babydoll dances and distracts drooling male spectators, her co-conspirators go about getting the items needed to facilitate the jailbreak. We don’t actually know what Babydoll’s dancing looks like, but we’re told by another character that it contains a lot of “gyrating and moaning”. She takes control of her own sexuality and plays on her audience’s weakness, employing dance as a weapon to overcome the oppressors.

(Or, paradoxically, she’s debasing herself, damaging the feminist cause and sacrificing her dignity to gratify her tormentors’ twisted desires. Anyway, let’s just play along with Snyder and get back to the dancing.)

While the creeps in the asylum bordello get an implied erotic dancestravaganza, cinema viewers get the action eyegasms of Babydoll’s fantasy worlds. When she starts to sway, the camera zooms into her eyeball and throws us into the dream landscapes and adventure scenarios of her mind. These breaks are imaginative mirrors of the ‘real life’ missions to get the escape items and also, in a way, symbolic examples of how dancing enables mental escapes from imminent problems to somewhere more uplifting and inspiring.

Even though I’m completely confused and am struggling with my bearings after being hit by Sucker Punch, I know I’m not convinced it’s an empowering movie. Still, however slight it is, the ‘dance is the ticket to freedom!’ idea is worth considering when you’re doomed to rot in prison.

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Thinking on film history, how much better would The Great Escape have been with polka numbers? Maybe Paul Newman wouldn’t have had to eat all those eggs in Cool Hand Luke if he’d put on private can-can performances for the prison guards. The incarcerated protagonists of movies like The Shawshank Redemption, Escape From Alcatraz and Papillon could potentially have been just a few pelvic thrusts away from freedom.

It’s worth a shot, and if it fails, at least you’ll have busted some fresh moves and got some enjoyable exercise. Really, the movement against oppression needs movement. As V of V For Vendetta said, “A revolution without dancing is a revolution not worth having.” Brothers and sisters in bondage! Feel the beat and break free!

James’ previous column can be found here.

You can reach James on his Twitter feed here, see his film cartoons here and more sketches here.

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