A review of Flashdance, 1983, Adrian Lyne (dir), starring Jumbo Red the Pit Bull, Jennifer Beals, and Michael Nouri.
Flashdance is a movie about a dog who lives in a converted warehouse in Pittsburgh with his human.
The film stars Jumbo Red the Pit Bull in the role of Grunt. Grunt’s days are spent waiting for his human to come home, occasionally standing in the rain, but usually lying on the sofa, and often watching television (while he waits home alone at night as well, because his human dances in a club). Despite his long hours alone, Grunt remains unshakeable in his regard for his human and is indefatigable in his support for her to achieve dream to become a professional dancer.
The opening sequence establishes that Grunt’s human is an animal lover. As she cycles to work she stops and turns around to say hello to a kitten and wait for it to cross safely to the edge of the road. She then goes onto her job as a welder, a striking contrast between the mechanics of the worker as a stimulus-response machine, and the empathy of animals.
The humans in Flashdance are an analogy of the developments in animal cognition studies, which were starting to take off in the 1980s in a move away from the idea of animals as passive, stimulus-response machines, and towards thinking about the intelligence and imagination of animals. The title song says it all – it’s all about feelings. Flashdance is all about Grunt.
At the beginning, Grunt has quite a lonely existence, because his human has to work so much. But whenever they are together their bond is clear. Grunt’s human talks with him, converses with him, and is there for all of the major turning-points in Grunt’s story throughout the film.
Grunt watches his human rehearse at home, showing great empathy as he supports her in her pursuit of her dreams. He even wears a warm-down towel at the end of her workout. And he yawns, releasing the stress of the challenges of pursuing those dreams and being the stoic support that his human needs.
This theme of empathy is central to Flashdance, and the nature of empathy in animals and in learning is explored in several story-lines.
First, a friend of Grunt’s human wants to be a competitive ice skater, but her father uses a lot of aversive methods in trying to get his daughter to train. He even tells her she eats too much, echoing some of the strange approaches to learning in dogs, such as keeping them hungry so that they will be motivated and curious to learn. This hunger-reduction model has been widely discredited, as early as the 1950s, and by the 1980s people were starting to catch on, as represented in Flashdance. The result for the friend of Grunt’s human is that, with all these problematic training methods, ultimately she fails in achieving her goal.
Grunt’s human has another friend who wants to be a comedian. He gets up one night to try and warm up the crowd at the club and at first he fails dismally. But then he appeals to the empathy of the crowd and, as they encourage him, he gets better and better and more confident. And finishes his set on a high note.
And finally, Grunt’s human herself. Grunt’s human strikes up a relationship with her boss, and Grunt’s world expands. Before they start dating, the boss follows Grunt’s human home (she is cycling, he is driving) to make sure she gets there safely. Grunt greets them by barking at the boss. The boss asks his name and says, “What was he before he became a dog?” This is a striking moment in the film because it is clear that the boss is someone who empathises with Grunt as Grunt (he asks for an introduction) and doesn’t dismiss him as a mere “animal” but as an animal amongst animals (humans included). Grunt’s human explains, “He gets upset when people he doesn’t know follow me home,” making it clear that Grunt is part of the family and is someone the boss has to “meet”, that the boss has to speak to and respect. The boss immediately suggests food, in an effort to encourage Grunt to feel confident and curious, rather than menacing and apprehensive. He says, “Tell him I’ll bring him a doggy bag if you’ll have dinner with me.” And Grunt’s human says, “Come on, Grunt, this is the man that feeds you,” reaffirming the start of a beautiful friendship between Grunt and the boss.
Grunt has some major events to cope with as the story progresses: the radiator leaks and at first it is thought that Grunt had an “accident”; their comedian friend leaves for Los Angeles; and Grunt’s human decides to apply for the Pittsburgh Repertory and Dance Company, despite having had no formal training.
A touching scene is when they are on the floor together, eye to eye, nose to nose, as she talks through her dreams, her anxieties, and her plans. The two actors are framed beautifully in a moment of complete empathy and understanding.
This is contrasted strongly with the argument between Grunt’s human and the boss. When Grunt’s human discovers that the boss has helped her get her dance audition, they have a huge argument and she gets out of the car on the way home. The boss gets home and waits patiently outside in the rain with Grunt (who apparently couldn’t find the keys to let him in), and again we see what a significant human the boss has become. He is a true dog lover and shows real empathy. But when Grunt’s human gets there she is still very angry. Grunt walks in on their argument, whimpers, and leaves. Yelling and slapping is no way to achieve understanding. And Grunt knows this. Because Grunt is a dog.
Finally, Grunt’s human decides to go ahead with the audition. As the boss says, “When you give up your dream, you die.” And as Irene Cara says, fear will hide your dream deep inside. She will never become a dancer through fear. So she goes to the audition and Grunt waits outside with the boss (no dogs allowed) and wears a huge red bow for the occasion. His human dances, gets into the Company, and the boss hugs Grunt. Grunt shows us all how, with quiet support and encouragement, a welder can become a dancer.
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