Dancing at the Blue Iguana Review
Director Michael Radford’s career has been full of surprises. Since his feature debut, Another Time, Another Place, a World War II-set drama of doomed romance, he has adapted George Orwell’s 1984, worked on acclaimed American TV series Homicide: Life on the Streets and made Italian language Il Postino. As such, it’s hardly a shock to discover that Dancing at the Blue Iguana bears little resemblence to any of these efforts, and is a low-key drama about strippers in a small American town.
What distinguishes Dancing at the Blue Iguana is the fact that it is entirely the result of various improvised workshops, which later resulted in a script by Radford and David Linter. Yet whilst a certain congratulations is in order for producing such a work with relatively mainstream Hollywood stars (Darryl Hannah, Jennifer Tilly), sadly the film falls into all the pitfalls that such a concept would suggest.
The most notable problem is the level of grandstanding involved. Of course, as the actors are, essentially, writing their own scripts, the intended ensemble piece becomes little more than a collection of monologues. Certainly, this wouldn’t be a problem given that the majority of the cast have produced fine work elsewhere, yet there is a definite one-dimensional edge to each and every one of them. Rather than produce believable individuals, the improvisation has instead brought about a collection of cliches. We are offered the dumb blonde, the younger stripper in need of a mother, the junkie, a pregnancy, and even a Russian hitman.
Radford tries to counteract this at various points by adding elements of his own. The attempt at creating a realistic setting works fine with its use of overlapping dialogue and flat photography which never aims for any kind of stylisation. He also teases the audience by almost introducing plot developments and a thriller subplot, yet often leaves these floating in the air, always bringing the film back to his intended realism. Indeed, Radford seems to be taking the right approach to the material, yet all his attempts are hampered by the poorly written script. Moreover, the director often over-indulges his actors by allowing scenes to continue just that little bit too long (again, one presumes, to fulfil his main aim), which is highly unnecessary as they are more often than not over-indulging themselves.
The best examples of this are demonstrated by the two actors mentioned earlier: Daryl Hannah and Jennifer Tilly. Whilst Hannah researched the role thoroughly (as detailed in the accompanying documentary, ‘Strip Notes’), her primary aim appears to be to play against type. And yet, whilst she achieves this with her role as Angel, the token dumb blonde, the character is simply the construct of a few sketchy details. Of course, she gets her two big scenes (one as she attempts to become a foster mother, the other a confrontation with a police officer), but without any kind of unifying structure (the film is, as said, simply a collection of characters and cliches centred around a strip club) these moments, and the same goes for those of all the other major characters, amount to very little.
Tilly, on the other hand, takes the opposite approach and solely relies on the roles she is best known for. Her portrayal of Jo is simply a cousin of the characters she played in the likes of Bride of Chucky and Bound, all loud-mouthed brashness and little substance. Indeed, in an attempt to give her character anything approaching an extra dimension, we see her indulge in a little S&M, Dancing at the Blue Iguana’s shorthand for someone who is a little “on the edge”.
This shorthand is fairly rife elsewhere. As the film encompasses a fairly high number of scenes of the actresses stripping, there is of course a similar amount of musical backing, most of is adopted as a lazy way of reflecting the characters’ states of mind: depression accompanied by Moby’s ‘Porcelain’; Leonard Cohen to signify alcoholism; etc. It’s also worth noting that the various scenes on the podium are for the most part extraneous, the entire stripper set-up merely being a way of being the group of women together. Certainly, if the film had excised this footage, a significant amount of padding would be removed, and little of relevance would be lost.
What this presence does serve to provoke, however, is a comparison with those two other mainstream films about strippers of recent years, Showgirls and Striptease. Undoubtedly, Dancing at the Blue Iguana proves to be a better example of filmmaking than either of those pictures (which admittedly is hardly difficult) despite its flaws, but the presence of Elias Koteas in a tiny supporting role immediately reminds the viewer of Atom Egoyan’s Exotica. Similarly based around a strip club, and similarly character driven, this Canadian masterpiece demonstrates exactly how to make the kind of film that Blue Iguana strives to be, yet fails at so distinctly.
Picture and Sound
Surprisingly, given that Dancing at the Blue Iguana is fairly recent film, CDA have released it on disc with a non-anamorphic transfer. That said, it does retain the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and serves the stark photography well. The print is crisp throughout, and copes as well with the darkly lit interior scenes as it does with the day time exteriors.
The sound fairs slightly better, offering a DD5.1 mix. Whilst the film is largely driven by the often overlapping dialogue, this never poses a problem for the disc, and remains audible throughout. Likewise, the soundtrack, which ranges from Echo and the Bunnymen to the aforementioned Leonard Cohen, sounds equally fine.
CDA have provided a fine smattering of extras to accompany this disc. The first is a commentary by Michael Radford. An eloquent speaker, the director finds the time to discuss each of the actors at length as well as going into the preparations for each scene. Given that the origins of the film are themselves fascinating, the commentary proves to be an interesting listen, even if it is hard to agree with Radford as to whether he has achieved his aims.
The second commentary offers a different perspective, encompassing the thoughts of actors Sandra Oh, Robert Wisdom and Sheila Kelly. As Kelly was also one of the producers, you would expect this to be an interested listen, though sadly the participants only speak on occasional. And when they do discuss the film, it's mainly to complement what is occuring, rather than to analyse. Thankfully, Radford discusses enough of the improvisation process for this to be too frustrating, though the commentary is still a disappointment.
The disc’s centrepiece is the ‘Strip Notes’ documentary. Lasting 58 minutes, this piece follows Daryl Hannah (who also serves as director) as she researches her role. Rather than work as a simple exploration of strippers and their livelihoods, the documentary cross-cuts between her experiences in the strip club, the improvisation workshops and the finished film. There’s a definite fascination to see exactly where elements of Dancing at the Blue Iguana took their inspiration, and the real-life characters prove to be far more interesting than their fictional counterparts.
The other extra is the addition of nine deleted/extended scenes. Whilst there is nothing of immense importance here, they are nonetheless welcome, even if the sound quality is often poor.
As with the main feature none of these special features offer optional subtitles.
A curious failure of a film supplemented with some excellent extras. Dancing at the Blue Iguana may provoke interest from certain members of the public, and this additional material may very well sway their choice. It is worth mentioning again, however, that the disc is non-anamorphic, an odd event considering the film was made so recently.