Saturday, February 16, 2008

No Homo Film Society #1: Step Up 2 The Streets

When I was four and five years old, I took classes at The Academy of Movement and Music, a Martha Graham-style art school for children. I had been enrolled there to take part in the complete curriculum of music, art and dance, but ballet immediately elbowed every other subject out my imagination. While I enjoyed making papier-mache hot air balloons in Art (we covered an inflated balloon with the wet papier-mache goo, let it harden, then popped the balloon and tied it to one of those green strawberry baskets with pipe cleaners) and playing the recorder in Music, Ballet was the only class for which I had to wear a special costume and act like I was all sorts of things that I was not: elegant, graceful, physically competent. I loved the ritual of putting on pink tights and a black leotard, of standing at the barre in a perfect line, admiring the symmetry in the mirror.

Unfortunately, I was terrible at ballet. I could not make my arms and legs do what the teacher wanted them to. I understood the idea behind the movements, but I could never keep my arm curve just so, and any attempt to memorize the different plies was an exercise in futility. So while my drawings were interesting and colorful and my recorder rendition of “Hot Cross Buns,” eventually led to a seven-year stint playing the flute, I was done with ballet by second grade. This didn’t mean that I gave up on dance, however; for years afterward I tried to muscle my way back into that privileged world of beautiful, solemn girls, tall and thin as Aspen trees, that flew across the stage. I took so many Beginning Modern for Adults classes that I could probably teach it myself at some unlucky community center. I studied African Dance at the Old Town School of Folk Music under a terrifying, tiny man who had stolen the hearts of all of the other students, who were thirty-something yuppies when I was seventeen. I Jazzercised.

Although by the time I was fourteen I had accepted that I wouldn’t be experiencing any stunning return to the world of dance, I found myself unable to watch dance without feeling sad, like something had been taken from me. If I had only had more stamina as a five-year-old, I told myself, I could have made it. I was young enough that the training might have worked. I was mad at myself, and my parents, for letting me quit so soon. Now I realize that the decision to put me on swim team was much more productive than letting me suffer through several years of crushingly sad mediocre dancing. But the bitterness I felt led to crying jags after movies like Center Stage, or even after Orchesis shows.

On Valentine’s Day, I saw a movie destined to break the mistiness that descends on me whenever a young woman is thrust into an environment in which she must prove her moves or go back to her terrible job/abusive family/boring high school. My discussion of this film will also be the inaugural entry in a new feature, No Homo Film Society.

“No Homo” is a phrase my male friends used in high school after indulging in some homoerotic activity. Example: A and B wake to realize they’ve spent the entire night semi-cuddling in a Barcalounger in A’s living room.
A, detangling himself from B’s sleep hug: Hey. Hey, B, wake up.
B: Wha?
A: No homo, man.
B: Oh, dude, totally.

Out of the mouths of babes, right? Anyway, in the grand tradition of our greatest unwitting Bush Administration allegory, 300,, here we go for Step Up 2 The Streets. When I first saw the trailer for this gem, my initial impression was “Wow, the first one did well enough to warrant a sequel?” While I didn’t see its parent film, I have a special place in my heart for films about those high schools where all of the students are nearing thirty. What could be more glaringly inessential, and therefore incredibly important, than the sequel to a B-movie about a supposedly “edgy” subculture, as portrayed and imagined by people almost two decades older than their inspiration? Like Juno, Step Up 2 The Streets - one of the most aggravating cases of “wordplay” in recent memory – may have its heart in the right place, but its brain is a coldly self-motivated machine hellbent on sucking up mouthbreathing teenagers’ hard earned MySpace money. Mildly troubled Baltimore dance phenom Andie (Briana Evigan) is given a dreaded ultimatum: attend an arts high school or move to Texas! When she chooses the lesser evil and takes an interest in the remarkably boring Chase Collins (Robert Hoffman, who apparently “enjoys meeting people who can dance well”), her street crew, the 410, a sort of flashmob-obsessed group of renegade newsies, drops her.

Step Up 2 makes remarkably straight-faced use of every stereotype it can get its hands on. Sexually threatening black male crew leader? Check, in the form of Tuck, the 410 pater familias who spends most of the film frozen in a 50 Cent glare. Somewhat shrimpy Shia LeBoeuf stand-in whose bouncy hair disguises amazing freestyle dance ability? Check, with the ambitiously named Adam G. Sevani, but you can call him Moose. How about an Asian immigrant with a hilarious accent and misunderstanding of incredibly simple colloquialisms? No need to come out of retirement, Gedde Watanabe, Mari Koda does a serviceable job mispronouncing “prank” as “plank.” There’s also a sassy Latina girl and stressed-out single mom. Indeed, only characters who aren’t tired types are the bland-a-thon leads, whose vanilla romance is only mildly more interesting because Hoffman appears about twenty years older than Evigan.

What’s he doing in high school? We wonder, but then the answer emerges in the most wonderful fashion with my favorite character, Blake Collins, as played by Will Kemp. Blake is supposedly Chase’s older brother, a retired ballet legend deadset on making the school a Fame-style performer machine. But any viewer worth his salt knows that Blake Collins is really just Evil Gay Sufjan Stevens. I couldn't find a picture of Kemp as Blake Collins, so here's a naked picture of him for kicks.

Here’s where the No Homo part comes in, I guess. Blake Collins is such an archetypical Evil Gay that he may as well have emerged fully formed from the Baron Harkonnen’s fantasy world. The Evil Gay, like the Magical Black Man, is a familiar character in Movieland. Unlike his brother the Noble Gay (Dumbledore!), the Evil Gay is probably not celibate, and often possesses the power to limit the hero’s success or at least fun-having. Some famous Evil Gays include Peter Lorre in The Maltese Falcon and, more recently, Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow in Batman Begins (and maybe Cillian Murphy in Red Eye, for that matter). Kemp's conspicuous love that cannot speak its name is about as subtle as Mickey Rooney’s turn as Mr. Yunioshi. I wish I had brought a camcorder into the theater just so that I could post a clip or two of the simmering sexual tension between Chase and Blake Collins. Their under-the-radar onscreen bromance is about the only time when Step Up 2 rises above the level of, well, risible fluff. Kemp pronounces every line like he’s shaking a sick kitten off his arm into a pot of boiling water. I just wish he would burst into a chorus of “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”

I wish that one of these immortal dumb teen dance movies would present a troubled teenager whose love for street dance was actually encouraged and honed by involvement with classical dance. Step Up 2 The Streets indulges in a near avant-garde level of idiocy, best exemplified in the scene when boring heroine Andie, newly squeezed into a white sundress, walks into a room. Her friend Missy (Danielle Polanco) squeals, “Damn, girl! You got titties!" Andie looks down at her chest, but there’s nothing there, despite the post on Evigan's IMDB message board by "oscarmau" entitled "HUGE RACK."