Mild spoilers ahead for Euphoria S1, Giri/Haji, and I’m Thinking of Ending Things.
There’s a trend that I’ve noticed emerge in cinema and television over the last couple of years which can only be understood to be a novel cinematic trope: the dance sequence that explains everything and nothing. For the purpose of a snappier title, I shall refer to it as the ‘summary performance’, as it generally occurs at the climax, and aims to summarise the conflicts and struggles of the primary characters and convey their relationship with other characters in the film or show.
In the past few months I’ve consumed two TV shows, Euphoria season one and Giri/Haji, and one movie, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, that deployed the use of this trope. The summary performance tends to replace a conventional action- or plot-driven climax. The performance can serve as an ending scene in itself, as in the case of Euphoria, or can serve as a precursor to an ending resolution, as in the case of Giri/Haji and I’m Thinking of Ending Things. The trope presents itself as a unique take on the film dance sequence as well as an innovative postmodern storytelling tool, but ultimately lacks narrative finesse.
The summary performance distinguishes itself from other dance performances, specifically a performance in a musical or a Bollywood film, through formal characteristics. Dance sequences in musicals generally serve the function of advancing the plot or relationships between characters. Bollywood dance sequences often simply serve the purpose of providing entertainment, but may additionally function similarly to dance sequences in musicals. The summary performance functions differently as it drives forward neither the plot nor character relationships but rather encapsulates both. The summary performance is also distinct from the sudden musical ending, à la Slumdog Millionaire, as the former has its basis in the relationship between characters while the latter is devoid of the baggage of character relations.
Since the summary performance is a novel cinematic development, we must look elsewhere to understand its aesthetic function. The roots of the summary performance lie in the ballet d’action — a form of ballet developed in the 18th century meant to liberate traditional ballet from the cumbersome restraints of dialogue and exposition and instead rely on movement to convey actions, motives, emotions and conflict. Extravagant props, costumes and settings too were avoided in order to allow expression to emerge primarily from dance.
The narrative logic of the summary performance is based upon postmodern aesthetic notions against the existence of a grand narrative or universal truth. Functionally, the summary performance exists to provide no answers instead of easy ones — conveying to the audience, who might have expected a plot point to occur and tie narrative loose ends together, that there are no easy answers when it comes to the themes that the show or movie is examining.
This works well in a show like Euphoria, which deals with grave issues such as sexual identity, drug abuse, psychological illnesses, trauma and rape, amongst many others. The summary performance makes sense here as there really are no easy answers to issues such as these. It also helps Euphoria’s case that its summary performance was beautifully choreographed, shot, performed and scored. Perhaps the only criticism that can be levied is that the song lyrics were too on-the-nose in reference to the actions in the sequence, but even that can be excused as it was so tastefully coherent.
But the summary performance comes off as flimsy in action shows such as Giri/Haji. While there is a fair amount of depth to explore between the characters of the show, replacing a climactic action point with a black-and-white summary performance seems lazy rather than innovative. Not only was the performance uninteresting, there is a big narrative loss in not giving the audience a traditional action sequence-like a shootout. They may have been done before, but they’re still great to watch when done well. I’m Thinking of Ending Things’s summary performance is even worse as it helps director Charlie Kaufman push the bounds of how pretentious his movie can possibly be. The symbolism is superficial and the choreography sub-par. If not entirely ridiculous, the sequence is superfluous at the least.
Part of the reason the summary performance works so well in Euphoria is that it serves as an ending which embraces cynical sincerity, while Giri/Haji and I’m Thinking of Ending Things offer some kind of resolution after the performance. Not complete resolutions or easy answers, but half-resolutions and half-answers. It’s bizarre to continue the narrative after a summary performance since the characters’ logic during the dance seems to scream, “This is it! This is who we are and nothing can be done about it.” But then the writer does something about it, which can make a summary performance easily seem unnecessary if not executed well since it adds nothing to the narrative. I am convinced that the summary performance can work well only if it serves as an ending in itself, but I would be happy to be proven wrong.
It will be interesting to see what happens with the summary performance trope in the years to come. I think it will expand and become a popular narrative device, ultimately becoming ubiquitous, trite and boring. I believe that what might happen is what is happening with postmodernism itself. The summary performance is, in fact, a symptom of the imminent end of postmodernism. Irony, self-awareness, irreverence, moral relativism and cynicism have essentially run their course. Which is not to say that they will not exist anymore, but that they are aesthetically and narratively commonplace. We have come to the point of postmodernism where even serious television and film writers are choosing to provide non-answers as answers or question marks for endings rather than periods. What will come next, I cannot pretend to predict. One can only be cynically optimistic.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.