March 29, 2015

Flashdance: Darkest lit mainstream movie ever?

I caught most of Flashdance on TV the other night, and was struck by how dark the lighting is. Not just a scene here or there, but the whole movie. See the gallery at the end of this post, and many more pictures in a post about Pittsburgh in film from What Price Glory.

The plot, dialog, and character development are nothing to write home about, but it is worth checking out for its look and sound.

Some scenes are evenly dim to convey the cloudy and dingy atmosphere that the characters are struggling to emerge from. On the other hand, many scenes have high-contrast lighting to make their lives look more stylized. This chiaroscuro can heighten the tone of romance or intimacy, as well as suggest the almost other-worldly nature of the nightlife environment.

Filmed in 1983, it represents a bridge between the gritty naturalism of the '70s and the stylized music-video look of the '80s. Just six years earlier, the similar movie Saturday Night Fever doesn't feature many scenes with high-contrast lighting, strongly back-lit shots that make people look like shadows, smoke giving the light a hazy quality, and so on.

I don't recall any shots from Flashdance that are destined for the cinematography hall of fame, but I appreciated the effort to sustain a dark look from one scene to the next for the entire duration. It does give the movie a distinct sense of place and time, aside from being shot on location in Steel City during the recession of the early '80s.

The iconic shot of an exotic dancer in a prop chair being doused with water shows how much the movie's look and feel depends on dark and high-contrast lighting. You can find many re-creations of this shot on Google Images, but they all tend to have brighter and more even lighting, so that the girl doesn't look like a shadow in profile. It just looks like a cheesecake photo from any random lad mag. The shadowy look of the original shot obscures the details of her body, so it doesn't come across quite as pornographic as it would have with standard lighting.

It's rare to find such an unusual visual approach in such a popular movie (it ranked 3rd at the box office for 1983). Can anyone think of another hit movie that is so distinctly dark, for both interior and exterior shots, and for daytime as well as nighttime shots?

Here are 20 images that show how broadly the dim and chiaroscuro look is throughout Flashdance.


  1. If you're talking about Pittsburgh, you can't forget the movie "Striking Distance", which highlights the big role that Pittsburgh's two rivers play. Based on that movie, it seems that Pittsburgh has a surprising water tourism culture, as well as problems with drug smuggling(by boat).

  2. "Jacob's Ladder" as I recall it had a similar look

  3. As it turns out, Jacob's Ladder was made by the same director as Flashdance (Adrian Lyne). Only managed to achieve cult status, though, not a blockbuster.

  4. off-topic, but the New York Times argues that there's a new "Generation Z", different than the Millenialls:

    "It took 10 years before most organizations identified the millennials as a talent issue on fire. By now, the oldest millennials are 35. They aren’t children anymore — in fact, a majority of them are leaders with decision-making power and direct reports. While executives have been fretting over the millennials, though, a new generation is growing up behind the scenes — Generation Z (born starting in the mid-90s to the early ’00s depending on whom you ask). Within the next three years, Gen Zers will be the college grads in my audiences, and they are poised to be somewhat different from the millennials.

    I’ve now had the opportunity to meet lots of Gen Zers, and here’s what I’ve noticed. To start, they tend to be independent. While a 2015 Census Bureau report found that nearly a third of millennials are still living with their parents, Gen Zers are growing up in a healthier economy and appear eager to be cut loose. They don’t wait for their parents to teach them things or tell them how to make decisions. As demonstrated by the teenagers attending the recent Generation Z Conference at American University in Washington, Gen Z is already out in the world, curious and driven, investigating how to obtain relevant professional experience before college. Despite their obvious technology proficiency, Gen Zers seem to prefer in-person to online interaction and are being schooled in emotional intelligence from a young age. Thanks to social media, they are accustomed to engaging with friends all over the world, so they are well prepared for a global business environment."

  5. More clueless cheerleading for the "next generation" (the late Millennials). I don't see one claim that was in the right direction. LOL if she based most of her claims on "teenagers attending the recent Generation Z Conference at American University".

    Further sign of autism: continuing the "Generation [letter]" label. There is only Generation X, because "X" was meant to suggest some quality they had. It wasn't meant to be the first of a continuing alphabetical series, where the letters don't describe or convey anything about the generation.

    Greatest, Silent, Boomer, Gen X, Millennials -- those labels all get at something distinctive. Not A, B, C, D, E....

  6. "Gen Zers seem to prefer in-person to online interaction and are being schooled in emotional intelligence from a young age. Thanks to social media, they are accustomed to engaging with friends all over the world,"

    A person's main formative years are from about 14-24. That's when accent/dialect tends to take hold. The Silent Gen. was destined to be more boring and aloof than the Boomers since even the very latest Silents had a large chunk of their adolescence occur in the tepid 50's.

    Given that the climate is not really going to be all that outgoing until about, say, 2020, I find it hard to believe that late 90's births are ever going to be that personable or street smart.

    As we've seen with the Boomers, these generational traits are quite venerable and the verdict on Millennial narcissism/aloofness/insolence/vulgarity so far seems on target. We're just gonna have to deal with it, much like how we've learned to deal with self centered Boomer mercuriality (Boomers can be a joy to be around when things are going well and you manage to avoid getting under their skin, but it doesn't take much for them to lose it and point fingers)

    I definitely don't buy the article's claim that mid to somewhat later period Millennials are a kind of Neo Boomer Gen. urgently seeking action and excitement.

    Gotta jab the the globalist nonsense about connecting with foreigners. Why give a damn about your backyard when you can sell out to impress would be elites across the world? Hell, the fact that Millennials (especially the later ones) grew up neck deep in one world crap is all the more reason to be alarmed about their character.

    Gen X-ers may not be sufficiently skeptical of EVERYTHING (contrary to popular belief, they did largely accept some things like strident pro-homo junk as well as environmental alarmism), but they certainly are much more irreverent towards a lot of the nonsense that the gullible Millennials buy. Like one-worldism.

  7. Between rampant careerism/striving (which is relatively weak in Gen X-ers but stronger in the other Gens) ,the gullibility of people who grow up in cocooning periods, and the still cocooning climate, it looks like we're gonna have to deal with the kind of BS you see in that NY Times article for a while.

    When you look at how early Boomers continue to obnoxiously lecture people (after crapping where everyone eats many times), I think it's also safe to say that growing up in the very beginning of a more wild period doesn't necessarily mean you'll have that good of a BS detector either.

    When the culture was more oriented towards late Boomers and X-ers in the 80's and 90's, there definitely was some pollution of the intellectual/cultural commons. But I've noticed a serious uptick in brashly wrongheaded ideas over the last 5-10 years which I think can be explained partially by naive Millennial producers giving an increasingly Millennial audience what they want.

  8. Getting back to the ultra-important topic of the cinematography in Flashdance, you can get a better feel for the movie by watching the music video of the lead single on the soundtrack:

    "Flashdance... What a Feeling" by Irene Cara

    Like I said, this movie is only enjoyable for the look and sound, and that video condenses it pretty well, although it's too quick to let you absorb the atmosphere.

    The plot of the full movie is more of a frame-tale for all the separate music video-esque scenes, but it's still worth catching on modern TV or DVD to see it in higher quality than a videotape transfer made for TV broadcast over 30 years ago.

  9. Also, FYI to the dipstick NY Times writer. The reason 35 year olds don't seem similar to 18 year olds is because 35 year olds are Gen X-ers. Get a clue, man.

    Back to the movie topic. The latest 70's influence for 80's pop culture I've ever heard claimed was in regard to Night of the Creeps from 1986. He said it was because of the sex and gruesomeness. I don't know what that guy was smoking. The defining traits of 70's movies weren't sex and gruesomeness. Rather, the distinctly 70's mood that comes to mind is an uncertainty and cynicism.

    By 1986 (arguably by 1984), The Reagen era of color/high spirits/Us Good Guys (amiable and well motivated) Vs. Those Bad Guys (criminals, parasites, fanatics, dangerous weirdos etc.) was well established. The sanitizing of things (esp. movies) didn't really began until about 1989 when people started becoming so dorky and neurotic that they no longer wanted to see high impact/concise stories with content that reminded them of the natural cycle of life and maturity. So out went nudity, gore, and passion (in the sense of both making love and war).

    The slur that the 80's were the beginning of a dumbing down/kiddificaton period doesn't really add up when you look at how infantile mid century and Millennial culture is. We do remember the ugly/nihilistic excesses of 90's Gen X culture, but the less remembered flipside of the 90's was how blatantly movies, music, and even sitcoms began to pander to kids. Remember 12 yr. old John Connor bossing around the Terminator in 1991 fer Chrissakes? As Agnostic would say, where's McFly and the Delorean when you need them?

    Come to think of it, Arnold's movies had a slew of kid characters with large roles in the 90's. In the good ole 80's, there was, uh, Alyssa Milano. And even she wasn't in 85% of Commando.

  10. Your feelings on Flashdance's style overcoming substance remind me of a few things I read about Alien and Ridley Scott's style. The author sorta said that the style WAS the substance. Really, lot of 80's (or near 80's) movies had such great style (the photography, the music, etc.) that at times you didn't need much else.

    Nowadays we hardly have either. I wonder when some people will finally stop ragging on the 80's. If the "style over substance" cliche may not have been used much before the 80's it certainly was after. Of course, people are so dorky and morose nowadays that some just can't appreciate the stylish aesthetics of that period.

  11. Jacob's Ladder is sometimes cited as being highly influential on the psychotic/dingy/sullen visual aesthetic that became more and more common in the 90's and beyond. Basically, jittery, rapid fire cutting of "disturbing" (e.g. disgusting) and chaotic images and voices intended to convey a feeling of wrongness and insanity.

    Seems like a trying-too-hard-ism and an emo-ism. Still, Jacob's Ladder arguably used those techniques in the service of story worth telling that was well told. And those techniques were original.

    I don't think Lyne could imagine that this style would eventually be strip mined in junk like Korn Nu Metal videos.

    It's kinda like the visual equivalent of death metal.

  12. The '80s had its share of style-over-substance movies, but it was also the heyday of comedy movies, and those are always light on visual style (although they may have a nice soundtrack, like Vacation or Beverly Hills Cop).

    If film snobs think that comedic substance is easier to churn out than dramatic substance, they're welcome to throw a comedy movie together and fill the void that we've had for over 20 years now.

  13. unrelated, but here's another map I found that might detail how America breaks up into city-states:

  14. I sort of liked iGeneration for the 2000ish to present crowd. Not that I particular like Apple products but it seems to embody the time period pretty well. The first generation to have their entire life on social media before they could even make the mistake of doing it themselves.

    I have to imagine the fact that all your parents friends have your scrapbook has to change the dynamic of things.

  15. website is called "the urbanophile"

    "The Common Census Project draws various maps of the United States based on votes received from participants. The idea is to create a grass roots, non-scientific view about how the people themselves identify their communities apart from arbitrary political boundaries.

    The main map is based on an answer the following question: “On the level of North America as a whole, what major city do you feel has the most cultural and economic influence on your area overall?” From this, they created a map of various “spheres of influence” of cities. Here’s the latest. You can get a bigger version by clicking:"

  16. "it was also the heyday of comedy movies, and those are always light on visual style"

    One reason the 80's get a bad rap is that so many of the movies (even ones that weren't pure comedy) had at least a few moments (or 1 or 2 characters) that were exuberant, whimsical, and let's be honest kinda silly. But it was relatively good natured and tasteful.

    In an withdrawn cocooing period, or in a low empathy/crassly posturing high inequality period, this kind of stuff can cause eye rolling. We don't get why 80's people could be so cheerful and convivial anymore. And 80's characters were often a heightened portrayal of these traits since art reflects what the public wants at the moment. In the 80's people wanted to see characters who were willing to take on challenges without being morose brooders or smug nerds. Realistic? Not necessarily, but hey, it made the well adjusted audience feel better. What's wrong with a little sun?

    I think the much more favored 70's period of movies holds up better for the modern audience (especially the egghead critics) since 70's characters were often misguided, uncertain, or simpy mundane. Thanks to better taste and an audience that didn't need 'epic' crap, the acting styles were effective enough that the era's style could be thoughtful and entertaining.

    Nowadays attempts at a more melancholy or gritty atmopshere come off as hokey and boring because people have lost any sense of heart, soul, and taste. And attempts at an 80's style fall flat too since people are too neurotic to really let loose and have fun.

  17. I think I read a thread or two on Steve Sailer's blog about the datedness of comedies. The wide variety of opinions on what was "funny" really shows how subjective comedy is. Fashion is just as important as subjectivity, though. Sailer pointed out that a given comedian tends to have a prime period in which the public eats them up. After about 5-7 years, people get bored with them. I think this can be extended to not just comedians but also to the mood/tone/style of comedy at any given time.

    What's funny is often based on one's experience, knowledge, current emotions, and the general mood of the era. On the other hand, what make's something poignant, exciting, or scary doesn't change all that much from one era to another. Or from one demographic to another. I'm sure the The Warriors and Alien (from 1979) hold up better than any pure comedy from that year.

    I think even some of the best comedians (and comedies) will eventually be hopelessly dated. Avoiding politics/social issues is mandatory if you don't want to be dated, but of course, that kind of stuff is what most audiences want to hear.

    I don't think some of George Carlin's best material on language and basic or annoying human flaws, like his hatred for small talk, will ever be too dated. But he really did a lot of political/social stuff that ain't gonna hold up. Some of is done well enough that it's still pretty funny though.

  18. "a given comedian tends to have a prime period in which the public eats them up. After about 5-7 years, people get bored with them"

    While we can make accurate summaries of an extended period of outgoingness/cocooning or high/low inequality, there still is going to be plenty of "mini" shifts within those periods.

    These shifts occur about every 5-6 years. So the 1979-1984 period is distinct from the 1985-1989 period. In turn the 1990-1995 period is more distinct still. So a comedian's schtick is only going to play well for about a half decade. If they don't have a good work ethic, talent, and range they get stale as hell quickly.

    I've heard the idea that cultural shifts have slowed down since the mid 90's. I don't know if I buy that. It's possible that declining creativity, an aging population, and dull young people have simply made cultural shifts less noticeable and interesting.

  19. Have you seen the ScyFy series "The 12 Monkeys"? It's an adaptaion of a 1995 movie with Bruce WIllis and Brad Pitt. This TV series is the most darkly lit series I've ever seen. At times, I have difficulty seeing what's going on.

  20. Is anybody watching it, though? That's why I emphasize mainstream success. Otherwise it's hard to argue how emblematic it is of the zeitgeist.

  21. "The 12 Monkeys" just had its season finale and there will be a second season, so people are watching it. It's interesting, but becoming hard to follow.

  22. That's probably my favorite thing about Flashdance. The style of the movie is great (it kind of shouts "I'm from the 80's biatch"), the cinematography is stunning and the soundtrack/score is great as well


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