Step Up’s franchised revolution

We knew it was coming: Cameras and production trucks were spotted in and around Zuccotti Park last fall, scenes from which later appeared in MTV’s The Real World-style “True Life: I’m Occupying Wall Street” and, on this summer’s movie screens, The Dark Knight Rises. But few could have predicted that Occupy’s protest politics would reach the bubbly Step Up dance movies. With Step Up Revolution, the fourth in the franchise, the dancers take up the defense of a Miami neighborhood about to be razed to make way for a high-rise development project. Naturally, they do so through the power of dance, planning a series of flash mobs to draw attention to, and sometimes to disrupt outright, the redevelopment proceedings. Like that other, more notorious summer blockbuster, they even call their rehearsal space the “bat cave.”

“Revolution” might be overstating the case (though certainly the word is an improvement over one of the film’s working titles, “Step Up 4Eva”). At the beginning of the film, “the Mob,” as the protagonists call themselves, is only interested in racking up YouTube views; the motley assortment of hotel employees and other working-class kids, led by the beefy Sean (Ryan Guzman), hopes to win a contest by creating the first video to top 10 million views, the award money for which would presumably allow them to “step up” in life, so to speak. Once it’s announced that their neighborhood is imperiled, however, the dancers find themselves politicized.

“Enough with performance art, it’s time for protest art,” chirps Emily, one of the few female dancers (played by So You Think You Can Dance? finalist Kathryn McCormick). Sean, her romantic interest, concurs: “Instead of getting hits, we can make a statement.” Ostensibly that statement, dramatically graffitied on the inside of a giant robot-salaryman’s briefcase at the conclusion of the group’s next flashmob, is “We are not 4 sale” — though, as the film’s dance-antics progress, the clarity of that message becomes increasingly diluted.

Things take a dark turn when Eddy (Misha Gabriel), Sean’s possessive friend, learns that Emily is the daughter of the wealthy developer in charge of the project, Mr. Anderson (Peter Gallagher). Eddy organizes his own renegade flash mob, this time crashing a gala benefit with gas masks, smoke canisters and ample table-smashing. The Mob is disqualified from their contest for having broken the law. “We turned something positive into something ugly,” Eddy laments.

The scene and its fallout recall the divisive and often violent black bloc tactics that emerged in the U.S. during the Seattle World Trade Organization demonstrations in 1999, and more recently in protests associated with the Occupy movement. Step Up Revolution is unequivocal in its condemnation of Eddy’s terroristic performance, though, strangely, of all the performances, its messages are especially coherent and effective, appearing on hijacked television monitors to smear and shame Mr. Anderson. In anger, it seems, the Mob is at its most articulate.

After a few hugs, the embattled and divided Mob decides to come together again to crash the ribbon-cutting ceremony in order to show Emily’s dad and the mayor the cultural richness of the people soon to be displaced — which consists of robot dance moves, bungee cord theatrics and a parkour brigade. After Sean and Emily slow dance, her father wipes away tears and calls the whole project off to an ecstatically cheering crowd. As a final flourish — and here I kid you not — a marketing executive steps forward and offers the Mob a contract to produce “edgy” ads with Nike. More cheers. Apparently, they are 4 sale.

It’s easy to scoff at their corporate sell-out. We should remember, however, that these are not committed radicals, but underemployed young people — their salvation, after all, is in a $100,000 viral video contest — whose homes fall victim to eminent domain. Underscoring their precarity, we see Eddy get fired for showing up late to his waitstaff job. They, like many others, become political through circumstances that affect their immediate lives. It’s no wonder, then, that given the chance, they’ll accept a regular paycheck, especially if it means pursuing their dancing passions.

The Step Up movies each, in addition to showcasing killer dance moves, reaffirm such aspirational narratives of class ascension. It’s a formula you probably know well, one that has remained surprisingly consistent in popular, lowbrow fare, from Singin’ in the Rain and West Side Story to Dirty Dancing and competitive reality television shows like American Idol and SYTYCD: A tough but talented outsider turns higher-society heads with a song, a dance or a sport, and, after a few etiquette blunders, arrives in the nick of time to deliver a stellar performance. In every film, even the most conservative holdouts break into applause, signaling their acceptance of the newcomer whose funky, fusion-y style both revitalizes and reaffirms the cultural authority they represent. For Step Up’s typically teenage protagonists, this means institutional acceptance, whether at the fictional Maryland School for the Arts seen in Step Up and Step Up 2: The Streets, or a double major in dance and engineering at NYU in Step Up 3D. Given these ironclad expectations, it’s no wonder Step Up Revolution’s dancers seize the first opportunity to cash in on their admittedly breathtaking virtuosity.

What is novel for Step Up Revolution, though, and what doesn’t quite work, is the attempt to make the lowly genre’s inborn sense of class struggle more overtly political. The film’s missteps are what make the film such a compelling index of Hollywood’s — and by extension its corporate investors’ — perception of public protest in the wake of Occupy. It is not surprising, then, that the protest tactic the Mob most frequently employs is the flash mob, a sensational, camera-ready spectacle that, since its earliest incarnations, has been habitually exploited for commercial purposes.

Flash mobs appeared in 2003, when the then-editor at Harper’s Bill Wasik (now at Wired) sent out his first anonymous, emailed instructions to New York’s hipster class. “Flash mob” was hastily added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2004 and defined as “a public gathering of complete strangers, organized via the Internet or mobile phone, who perform a pointless act and then disperse again.” Soon, flash mobs were being enacted all over the world, whether for impromptu folk dances, wedding proposals or promotional stunts. Step Up 2: The Streets demonstrates flash mob organizational techniques without naming them as such, though there’s a familiar sense of anticipation as everyone’s phones light up with the location of the evening’s do-or-die dance battle.

Wasik, in his 2006 tell-all confession in Harper’s, cites Howard Rheingold’s concept of “smart mobs” as an inspiration, and certainly organizational tactics that make use of the Internet and mobile phones have effectively convened groups of people together for a variety of political purposes. The very question of the political use of flash mobs seems to have been the preoccupation of Wasik’s moment; his chief concern was commercial co-option that he saw, and dismally documented, in a Ford “Flash Fusion Concert.” Almost a decade later, though, flash mobs are now commonly deployed as political actions, whether by Chilean student activists or Iranian-Americans calling attention to an act of discrimination in an Apple Store; a catalog of flash mob protests has been part of Waging Nonviolence’s archives since its founding in 2009. And there have been darker implications for these forms of gatherings as well, such as the use of BlackBerry Messenger to spread and sustain the London riots in August 2011.

While this legacy renders obsolete the OED’s characterization of flash mobs as “pointless activity,” the question of their real political potency remains. What kind of statement is being made when a Thriller zombie march erupts in the middle of an open-air mall?  These impromptu demonstrations at least disrupt the routine of daily life, however momentarily, and that has an implicitly political effect. By staging purposefully non-productive events in public space — space that, as Judith Butler reminds us, is hardly given but must be claimed — flash mobs have a liberating quality, standing in contradiction to the appearance of business as usual. But they also demonstrate how supposedly open, democratic life can be steered toward restrictive, neoliberal ends.

Given its flashy veneer, Step Up Revolution’s take on politics is surprisingly jaundiced, often conveying the feeling of powerlessness borne by the disenfranchised. “It’s easy to feel small — Miami’s a big city,” Sean admits as the camera surveys the city from above. When we first meet him, he’s just a regular guy, earning barely enough to get by. Through the Mob, and through the community he helps to protect, he finds the power of organized activity. By the final sequence, when the dancers rally their neighbors and friends, the result is something larger than the ambitions of any individual, the joy of coming together in a place they precariously claim as home. Flash mob becomes parade — a source of pride, a show of strength and a spectacle that, in the fantasy world of the film, wins the hearts of those who would seek to destroy and redevelop.

It’s a sensational finish, but that’s precisely the problem: Whatever political intent first prompted the performance dissipates into a morass of feel-good inclusiveness. Even the mayor, flanked by saucy señoritas, dances a little salsa. But the momentary victory, the saving of the neighborhood, is swept up in a larger defeat, one that’s all the more devastating for the fact that everyone is still smiling. The fact that Step Up Revolution ends with anything but a revolution doesn’t stem from the tactic of the flash mob per se, but the subsequent corporate buy-out on the gilded wings of Nike. As the philosopher Bernard Stiegler argues, silliness, or the appearance of unseriousness, isn’t the issue — marketing is. Festivities, or what he calls fêtes, are essential to human life. “And yet, the psychotechnologies of the twentieth century have destroyed festivities, because all festivities have become an opportunity for marketing. And so there are no more festivities.”

The revelry inherent in flash mobs, whether the joy of coming together or the act of celebration itself, are ultimately depicted as sales gimmicks designed to produce not political power but corporate integration. Moreover, if you forked over $16 to see the movie in “RealD” like I did, you’re probably all too aware that the film itself is a commodity, and a fairly expensive one at that. Despite Step Up Revolution’s aspirations to radicalism and its heroic politics of assembly, the capitalist engine that structures the entire enterprise barely hiccups before it reclaims the dancers at film’s end. Soon enough, it smoothes itself out, selling ever more tickets in the trademarked name of revolution.

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