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Film Storytelling Techniques Analysis Term Paper Footloose

Updated on April 22, 2011

Whether they come from oral tradition, books, comics, animation, or film, we love stories. Hollywood has trained us to look for certain patterns and expect certain elements in their stories, and we experience a disconnect when they vary from this pattern. In this paper, I analyze the storytelling techniques used in the Hollywood film, Footloose, specifically from the perspective of the character I most identify with. The number references are time markings on the film, and refer to a specific scene that I am referencing in the film.

What can we learn about ourselves and human nature from analyzing something as seemingly insignificant as movies? For the context of this discussion, we might replace the word movies with myths, legends, or stories. We are the stories, myths, and legends that we tell. “The mass media form the mainstream of the common symbolic environment that cultivates the most widely shared conceptions of reality. We live in terms of the stories we tell, stories about what things exist, stories about how things work, and stories about what to do… Increasingly, media-cultivated facts and values become standards by which we judge.” (Graber, 2010)

Film and television fictions provide “…places of escape, where we find consolation from everyday problems.” (O'Shaughnessy & Stadler, 2008) We may find that the types of stories we are drawn to are far apart from our own reality. For example, I love crime solving dramas, and my life is fairly boring in that area. I spoke to a lawyer and a police officer recently who both hate to watch them because they cover topics too close to reality. “Every fiction deals with real concerns as diverse as relationships, history, social conditions, or emotional states. They are ways of exploring real-life issues at the same time as they allow us to exercise our imaginations and they enrich our experiences.” (O'Shaughnessy & Stadler, 2008) “Personal experiences are severely limited compared with the range of experiences the media offer to us explicitly or implicitly about the social order…” (Graber, 2010)

“People learn about political norms, rules, values, events, and behaviors largely from fictional and factual mass media stories.” (Graber, 2010) And we like this learning to come by way of interesting and pleasurable stories. According to the uses and gratifications theory “…[we] ignore personally irrelevant or unattractively presented messages.” (Graber, 2010) Film is especially powerful in this area since 80% of information comes through our eyes, according to Berger “images are needed to make philosophical abstractions or important figures from the past more real or concrete and to channel or focus our emotions more directly.” We use our imaginations to derive meaning from that which we see, and that which remains unseen, but implied, as we tap into the “…remarkable power our minds have to form a mental image of something unreal or not present and to use this power creatively – to invent new images or ideas.” (Berger, 2008)

Journalist Walter Lippman said, “For the most part we do not first see, and then define, we define first and then see. In the great blooming, buzzing confusion of the outer world, we pick out what our culture has already defined for us, and we tend to perceive that which we have picked out in the form stereotyped for us by our culture.” So, where do we learn these stereotypes? “Extensive television exposure has been shown to lead to ‘mainstreaming’, making people’s outlook on political life ‘congruent with television’s portrayal of life and society’” (Graber, 2010) The Cultural Indicators project at University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communications has been investigating “trends in the dramatic content of network television and the conceptions of social reality produced in viewers,” since the 1960’s. “Their findings confirm that people who watch television for more than four hours daily see the world as television paints it and react to that world rather than to reality.” (Graber, 2010) Since we saw in our own media consumption charts that we are exposed to large amounts of media each day, it’s important that we understand how those presentations shape the world we see.

People tend to believe and trust the characters they allow into their living rooms. For example, “People find television news more believable than comparable print news because viewers tend to trust news anchors; seeing them on their living room television screens makes them familiar and trustworthy.” (Graber, 2010) Media influence is one of many factors in a complex learning environment. “Until researchers can trace an individuals mental processes and appraise the significance of each of the components that interact and combine to form mental images, media’s influence on knowledge and attitudes cannot be fully assessed. Nor can researchers understand completely just what is learned from media.” (Graber, 2010) We must continue to study films and their narratives, along with the affects that they have on their viewers in the hope that one day we will make sense of it.

Now, I will attempt to make sense of how my story is told through the characters in the 1984 film, Footloose.

O’Shaughnessy wrote, “…narratives are always related to the historical and social moment of their production.” In 1984, I was ten years old, and my Bomont had one ‘classic lite’ radio station. My mother loved it. My only exposure to dance or popular music of the time was through cassette tapes that older friends and relatives brought back from their trips to the ‘city’, a two hour drive away. We didn’t have MTV. Footloose is a realistic (using “ordinary people, particularly the working classes, as subject matter; serious treatment of their lives; contemporary social contexts” (Williams, 2008) representation of the repressed need that we had to “kick off our Sunday shoes” and make sure that “life aint passing you by.” (Loggins & Pitchford, 1984)

“Our pleasure in watching, reading, or listening to fictions derives partly from the fact that we learn something from so doing; we gain insight and understanding into how people, society, and ourselves as individuals work.” (O'Shaughnessy & Stadler, 2008) Footloose gave my generation an insight into our parent’s generation -their rules came about by fear – something we ourselves did not yet know; the fear of losing someone we loved and were responsible for protecting. Rules are a parent’s way of protecting their children. It also gave us hope that if we behaved respectfully towards our elders, we might grow into young adults who could convince our parents to trust us and see our point of view.

The theories of Karl Marx, include “…that the struggle between different groups in society (classes) brings about historical change…[and] what people think and believe is controlled, often unconsciously, by the dominant social groups.” (O'Shaughnessy & Stadler, 2008) The dominant social groups in Bomont are first the adults, led by Reverend Moore. The kids don’t have a say in policy making. Secondly, Bomont is dominated by the group that “were born here” as opposed to the “outsiders”. A story must have conflict and resolution, and since stories are representations of reality, “according to Marxism then, stories are signs that things are not perfect.”

“The first aim of a story is to set up a conflict between opposing characters and sets of values and then to see if these can be reconciled and resolved by the end of the story.” “Audiences experience the feelings and dilemmas of the characters through identification with them. They can understand extreme situations that they might never experience and therefore begin to understand the world inhabited by the characters, they empathise (sic) with them, and this empathy makes them develop as people.” (O'Shaughnessy & Stadler, 2008) It might even make them act upon what they perceive as a social injustice.

Bertolt Brecht developed a method of storytelling called epic theatre. He used techniques to “… make audiences think critically about what is happening by putting them in a distant or alienated position.” “Whereas catharsis produces a pleasurable emotional release that occurs while the audience is watching the play, the release that is provoked by a Brecht play comes afterwards, from doing something about problems raised in the text.” (O'Shaughnessy & Stadler, 2008) It might be argued that Footloose uses a technique similar to this. The conflict in the film is never really resolved. Viewers are shown the beginnings of healing for a town, but the social issue still exists. There is still a conflict between the country boys and the new in town city kid; just because they beat them one night, doesn’t mean they won’t be back to cause more trouble. The laws against music and dancing are still in place in Bomont. The void of music and dancing in small towns across the country are still ever present. This film wound up a generation that would go on to push the limits of technology, welcoming MTV into their homes and embracing the internet, Ipods and Napster. The directors may have used this technique intentionally “…to make spectators think critically, come to new understandings of society, and be provoked into social action.” (O'Shaughnessy & Stadler, 2008)

Joseph Campbell and Vladimir Propp have some similar ideas about the “…recurrent pattern involving set characters and plot actions [forming] the basis of all fairy tales.” (O'Shaughnessy & Stadler, 2008) Campbell goes on to build upon Jungs theories based on the fact that there are “similarities across different cultures and their myths and religion: Aboriginal, Christian, and Islamic cultures, for example, are thus said to share the same basic stories.” These similarities are easily explained when we understand that all cultures developed from the eight people who survived the Great Flood, one story that is common among all cultures. “I am going to bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens, every creature that has the breath of life in it. Everything on earth will perish. But I will establish my covenant with you, and you will enter the ark—you and your sons and your wife and your sons' wives with you.” (Moses, circa 6000-9000 BC) This is because it was an important enough event to pass on from one generation to the next. “He suggests that we can see universal human patterns and truths in myths, legends and religious beliefs.” (O'Shaughnessy & Stadler, 2008) We have one Creator, and we are closely related, able to trace our lineage to a common ancestry in Noah. These similarities show up in the stories we tell of the past, and the ones we make up.

Campbell’s common structure follows a pattern of “the hero’s journey.” In Footloose, and all others that develop from reality, the villain is sin and death. It is what we try to hide from others, and what we try to protect our loved ones from. It comes into our lives wearing many masks; but in this story it is called out from the pulpit from the very first scene. It rears its ugly head throughout the film by way of premarital sex, disobedient children, and most of all pride. The false hero in this story is the Law, as brought about through Reverend Moore. The Law is often seen as the way to defeat sin: if I could just focus more on God, spend more time in prayer, remove all temptations (questionable music lyrics) from my life, then I would be able to stop sinning. But, the Law is a false hero. The Gospel is always the true hero, and life is returned to balance when that is realized. We see the Gospel brought into this story through Mrs. Moore.

The hero or victim of the tale is Ren, who is called to adventure (or to the fight) when Chuck antagonizes him in the parking lot. He refuses the call. Then, Ariel shows up and challenges him to a chicken race on tractors. He tries to refuse and jump off the tractor, but his shoelace is caught on the pedal by way of supernatural aid. This leads to the group of friends accepting him, but also leads to troubles ahead. He struggles in the belly of the whale as he attempts to quietly fit in, but Chuck continues to antagonize him, the elders of the town call him a troublemaker, and his one outlet of music, dancing and gymnastics is against the law.

Ren has an epiphany after getting kicked off of the gymnastics team, and decides to organize a dance; a senior prom. The road of trials begins, Ariel (the princess, the one being sought after) becomes his friend, and she is most definitely the temptress, but she also helps Ren to reach her father with the words that he knows best; the Word of God. He loses the battle with the town council, but he respectfully goes to Mr. Moore and requests permission to take Ariel to the dance.

Here is a moment of catharsis “The expression and release, or purging, of emotions by audiences at the climax of a tragedy or drama” (O'Shaughnessy & Stadler, 2008) for me: Ariel has never been treated like a lady, until this moment. Mr. Moore knows that Ren, the boy he thought was so much trouble, is the only one to give his daughter and himself the respect that is truly deserved. I have taught my daughters that any young man who wants to spend time with them will be required to seek the permission of their father first. If he is unwilling to do that, then he has no business with my daughter. In our culture (even in 1984), it is an odd thing that I am teaching, and it warms my heart to see it happening here.

Ren’s apotheosis and ultimate boon come about when Reverend Moore gives his blessing upon the children and their prom. Ren must still face Chuck and his cronies; and they must be defeated. After their fight, Ren can enjoy the freedom to live in Bomont, while also enjoying the freedom of the dance; a master of both worlds.

According to Jung’s theory of individuation, “Each human being has a specific nature and calling which is uniquely his or her own, and unless these are fulfilled through a union of conscious and unconscious, the person can become sick.” (Carl Jung Summary)Ren expresses his need to “follow his bliss” one evening when his mother asks him why he is pushing so hard for this dance; why it means so much to him. Viewers learn that his father left, and Ren felt powerless. He needed to have something in his life that he could control, conquer and overcome, for himself, for his inner soul. I do lots of things that aren’t ‘normal’; I home school six children that I gave birth to; I gave birth at home on purpose; I nursed for more than a year; I used cloth diapers because I like them; I’ve only ever been married to one man, and he is the father of all of my children. Things that make me strange; but make me who I am.

As I said earlier, I am not Ren. I was the little girl born in Bomont, who never gets to be part of all that the older kids are doing, but takes it all in with voyeuristic pleasure, because I too thought “Ren is a total fox.” I grew up to be Mrs. Moore, the preacher’s wife. From where I stand, she is as much a hero as Ren in this tale.

The character of Vi Moore, is shown through semiotics; messages about who she is are expressed through her hair, body décor, clothing, shoes, body language and props. (Berger, 2008) We first meet Mrs. Moore in church. She is dressed conservatively, wearing a shirt with a complete neckline, and her hair pulled tightly back. I remember the first time I was picked out of a crowd because of my clothing. A woman approached me in a crowded airport and asked where I attended church. I answered, and then proceeded to talk with her, and she told me that she knew I was a Christian by the way I was dressed. This was several years ago, but I have found that I too can spot a like-minded woman from across a crowded room. Mrs. Moore’s clothing gives her away immediately.

Outside the church, she busies herself with her duties, friendly greetings and such. She stands quietly behind her husband as he speaks with guests. She doesn’t speak until he introduces her. 5:28 She is practically invisible, like a wallflower. 12:37 Viewers learn of Mrs. Moore, the conscientious mother, who is concerned that her daughter wouldn’t have enough money to enjoy her time out with her friends. Again, viewers are made to know of her presence while she remains invisible. Mrs. Moore’s life is in balance, at least it seems to be. As her daughter gets into trouble, Mr. Moore handles it, he is the authority in the house. Viewers can infer that Mrs. Moore is an integral part of the family, but what is shown is still the image of a wife who stands behind her husband… invisible.

51:04-51:43 Viewers learn that Mrs. Moore’s appearance of balance is a false front; she has recently lost her son in an automobile accident. This is a catharsis moment for me, for how could I not feel empathy when I learn that a woman has lost her son? Reality or fiction is irrelevant. When I hear this, I immediately go to my own imagination and see my life without one of my children, and then, I’m crying. At 52:20, Mr. & Mrs. Moore join their daughter at breakfast. Mrs. Moore quietly supports her husband as he reprimands their daughter. She sits beside her husband, and respects his decisions in their parenting. She helps him to portray a united parenting front. This is her place in life. It is as it should be. But, viewers see her at 52:24, and her facial expression is one of frustration as she looks back and forth at her husband and daughter who are refusing to speak to each other. This is her call to act. But, she refuses, and remains in her place. 52:55 When she sees her daughter throw a temper tantrum, and her husband losing his temper too, she begins to speak to him. 53:07 Viewers see the shock on her face when her husband strikes their daughter.

53:20 She goes straight to the source of all supernatural aid. Here in the safety of the Lord’s house, in private conversation with her husband, she expresses the frustration that she has been feeling. This is the beginning of a journey of healing for her family, but the trials are just beginning. 66:10 Again, viewers see her waiting until she is alone with her husband to speak her mind. She tells him the truth that he needs to hear, but she is never disrespectful of his authority. Instead, she expresses her deepest love and devotion towards him.

74:10 Viewers see Mrs. Moore’s frustration again, as she sits quietly in the audience at the town council meeting. 74:37 is the moment when Mrs. Moore speaks up for herself and her daughter. She knows, and the audience can infer that she has discussed all of her concerns with her husband and he knows how she feels on the issue.

”Eleanor, sit down.” Is a great line from this movie. Then, Mrs. Moore calmly and humbly says to the council, “I think Mr. McCormick has a right to be heard.” (Pitchford, 1984) A ministers wife has some power in certain circles, even today, and Mrs. Moore uses it with such caution and precision that I am sure it’s a power she seldom abuses. At 76:10, Rev. Moore glances at his wife and he may be wondering if she gave Ren the Bible verses, but viewers have the objective third person viewpoint and know that it was actually Ariel. Mrs. Moor never attempts to undermine her husbands authority.

81:50 Mrs Moore is invisible, but viewers can see the results of her talks with her husband and her influence upon him. When Rev. Moore stops the townspeople from burning books, he realizes that he has given them only the Law (a false defeater of sin) without any Gospel.

86:15 Rev. Moore gives his blessing on the senior dance, the ultimate boon. Cathasis moment! Mrs. Moore has led her broken family to a place where they can begin to heal. The crossing of the return threshold happens when Mr. & Mrs. Moore stand in the field outside the dance, and realize that while they’ve lost one child to death, and another is all grown up, they still have each other. “It’s just the two of us again. Shaw, we’re almost dancing.” (Pitchford, 1984)

In conclusion, I tried to explain some of the ways that this film related to my reality, and the ways that it affected me emotionally. I shared moments that were cathartic for me, although I don’t know that it says much about me except that I cry a lot. I don’t know what it means to ‘follow my bliss’, it sounds very selfish to me. I am the Freudian superego, I follow the to-do list until it is done, and I am driven by what needs to get done. But, this film introduced me to a style of music that I had otherwise not been exposed to; it’s still my favorite album, and the music makes me happy, so… yes and no? I shared the Hero’s Journey that was obvious, Ren, and I took a risk in sharing the heroism of Mrs. Moore. I discussed individuation and probably shared more about myself than anyone cares to know.

There is a lot of psychoanalytical theory that I don’t necessarily agree with, especially when it begins with the false presumption that Christianity is based on myth, and I tried to address that as well. My final thought is that every story, from Adam and Eve to the Matrix is one of Law and Gospel; the villain is always sin, and the hero is always Grace. Try analyzing your film from that perspective and see what you find.


Berger, A. A. (2008). Seeing is Believing. New York: McGraw Hill.

Carl Jung Summary. (n.d.). Retrieved June 21, 2010, from

Graber, D. A. (2010). Mass Media and American Politics. Washington DC: CQ Press.

Loggins, K., & Pitchford, D. (Composers). (1984). Footloose. [K. Loggins, Performer]

Moses. (circa 6000-9000 BC). Genesis. In Jehovah, The Holy Bible (pp. 6:17-19). NIV.

O'Shaughnessy, M., & Stadler, J. (2008). Media and Society. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Pitchford, D. (1984). Footloose. (D. Wiest, Performer) Bomont.

Williams, R. (2008). A Lecture on Realism. In M. O'Shaughnessy, & J. Stadler, Media and Society (p. 296). Melbourne: Oxford University Press.


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