Why are club scenes in film always so cringeworthy?

From Basic Instinct to Human Traffic, cinema can never get nightclubs right.

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Never has a film nightclub scene shown someone waiting 20 minutes for a beer. Or the woman who knocks the plastic cup out of your hands and refuses to reimburse your £5.50. In fact, film’s imagined clubs miss much of the minutia of partying: the girl on her knees shining her iPhone torch on muddy Reeboks looking for her lost hoop earrings, bag checks as stringent as those on the way into Heathrow Terminal 5, and people with massive pupils boring you to death with self-deprecating tales of their privilege.

Why have these integral moments of clubbing been so often ignored within cinematic history? What history have we been provided with instead? And with cinema returning its attention toward clubland whilst trying to avoid the gauche tropes so often associated with club scenes (like Mia-Hansen Love’s 2014 Eden, Robin Campillo’s 2017 BPM, and Brian Welsh’s 2019 Beats to name a few), can 3am collective euphoria ever be transferred onto screens?

In order to coherently portray a nightclub, directors have often dispensed with its defining characteristics: darkness and deafening noise. For dialogue to be heard, industrial speakers must be muted; for characters to be seen, schizophrenic lights must shine bright. Disoriented, drunken bodies moving in communal ecstasy must be sobered up and angled toward the camera, free of the sweaty detritus accrued on a night spent with bad company in good faith.  

Basic Instinct contains the Citizen Kane of nightclub scenes, perhaps because it shows how difficult they are to film. The crowd wiggle to Nineties floor fillers on a sparsely populated dancefloor, Michael Douglas appears in a low V-neck jumper that must be giving him the cashmere sweats, while the woman he lusts after (Sharon Stone) taunts him with a faux lesbian display. The crowd’s over-choreographed dance moves and dead stares show how self-conscious attempts at hedonism can be. Instead of joyous abandon, we get the predatory coldness of the loner seeking sex and the desperation of watching the person you like touching someone else. But even with its neurotic eroticism, Basic Instinct fails to capture the essence of a night out. The music is so quiet you can hear characters’ husky breathing, the dancefloor is flooded with daylight, and the fishnet-clad table dancers look as though they actually enjoy their jobs, rather than just thinking about how they can’t wait to take their platforms off.

The nightclub in Michael Mann’s Collateral is the setting for one of the best action scenes of all time. In it, we see hitman Vincent (Tom Cruise) in a shootout with the LAPD and a drug cartel. Even when Vincent is snapping elbows and exploding kneecaps, the crowd continues unabated, their heads lolling back as if too “lost in the music” to care. The sequence might have been convincing if everyone looked as though tequila comprised 25 per cent of their bloodstream, but they appear as beamingly sober as the faces on a school brochure. It’s only when a bullet is fired into someone’s stomach that the crowd screams. Was the techno that good? How much ecstasy do you need to swallow before you can ignore the blood pooling around your ankles?

One film genre that positions itself as the antidote to these glamourised club scenes is the British rave film, typified by Human Traffic. Even with tribal-tattooed East Enders clasping water bottles, gnawing their gums to bits and shouting “I’m mullered mate” over Orbital, Human Traffic can’t bypass the constrictions of the club. Less gritty realism than overblown costume drama, droopy-eyed protagonists drift through clouds prophesying about themselves as “nympholectics desiring for the unobtainable”, as people with glowsticks jump up and down with so much chutzpa they look less like they’re on pills, and more like 12-year-olds at a primary school disco who’ve drunk too much Fanta. In trying so hard, it becomes an unintentional parody.

Perhaps the films that have successfully navigated the quagmire of club cinema work because they reject the “authenticity” that Basic Instinct, Collateral, and Human Traffic all strive for. Rejecting any approximation to the real world, the best club scenes develop their own internal logic. Saturday Night Fever’s floor-clearing hips; Terminator’s transmutating cyborg riding a motorbike through a window before punching punks and saving his heroine; the blood-squirting fire extinguishers in Blade; the cannibalistic last-calls of From Dusk till Dawn. Clubbing in these films is like nowhere else because, for these films, there is nowhere else.

But when all else fails, just film a rave. Rather than paying extras to pretend to enjoy raising gun fingers into the air, Brian Welsh’s new film Beats, a coming-of-age drama set in Glasgow during the Blair-era crackdown on dance music, features a 1,500-person party in an unused warehouse. With free beer and a DJ set featuring anthems such as The Prodigy’s “Everybody In the Place” and Joey Beltram’s “Energy Flash”, Welsh sets his actors loose among the sweaty and side-stepping crowd while a crane took sweeping shots of the dark outlines collapsing into each other.

If you can’t afford the insurance for an actual rave, directors should focus on turning the lights down and the bass up. If that makes the scene wholly incoherent then dialogue should only take place in the toilet queue or the smoking area. That’s where people spend most of the night anyway.

Annie Lord is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Vice, Dazed, i-D and Little White Lies.