For proponents of the theory that everything in the world exists for some good reason, disco music must present a conundrum. What higher purpose could possibly be served by this vapid, thrumping, affectless sound, dragging in its wake a subculture of narcissism, pill-popping, promiscuity both straight and gay, cheesy light shows, and the worst male clothing styles since slashed doublets and neck ruffs went out? Disco was so mockable it had barely got started before it was mocking itself — remember "Disco Duck"?
The answer to the first of those questions will readily be given by any of us seventies survivors. Disco came into the world so that producer Robert Stigwood and director John Badham could create Saturday Night Fever, one of the dozen or so best movies of all time.
The Richness of the Movie
This year is the thirtieth anniversary of SNF. Filming was wrapping up just about exactly thirty years ago as I write, and the movie premiered on December 7, 1977. By way of celebration I bought a DVD of the movie — a thing I rarely do. I have been sitting here in my study watching it on my computer. (It is not a family movie, certainly not in the nothing-spared DVD version). I can report that thirty years on, it is as good as ever — a beautiful, beautiful movie, a great movie.
Most movies are garbage. We try to have a family movie night once a week, on a Friday or a Saturday, playing some rented DVD from Netflix on the family TV. Dad likes a couple of glasses of wine with his dinner, and a couple of glasses of port afterwards. The family joke is to open a book on how far the movie will get before Dad falls asleep. It's a rare movie that keeps me awake all the way through. (The Devil Wears Prada was the last one.) SNF, however, will never send me to sleep. I watched it all the way through three times before writing this, and I'll watch it again this weekend if I get time.
My high opinion was not shared by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The 1977 Oscars were dominated by: Julia, a leftie swooner about anti-fascists in the 1930s; Annie Hall, the first of Woody Allen's 295 movies about Woody Allen's neuroses; and the original Star Wars. John Travolta got a Best Actor nomination for SNF, but no Oscar. So much for recognition of merit.
The first thing that struck me, watching SNF again after a lapse of years, was the richness of it. There is so much going on. How did they get it all into 118 minutes?
At its heart, the story is just boy-meets-girl. The boy, Tony Manero (John Travolta), is 19 and works in a paint store. In his leisure hours he hangs out with a little group of coevals: Double J, Joey, Bobby C, Gus. These are all working-class youngsters in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, a scruffy white-ethnic district at that time, though considerably yuppified since. On Saturday nights they go to the local disco, where Tony is the star dancer. The girl, Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney), is also an accomplished dancer. She shows up at the disco one night, catches Tony's eye, and the main plot line is under way.
The richness of the movie is in the other stories being told. Tony's brother, Frank Jr., leaves the Catholic priesthood, breaking his mother's heart. The father, Frank Sr., has been out of work for months and the family is having trouble making ends meet — a problem not helped by Frank Sr.'s incomplete acceptance of the situation. He is, for instance, angry at the idea that his wife might get a job herself. (These are second-generation Italian immigrants. The grandmother, who lives with them, speaks only Italian.)
Stephanie herself is struggling out of her working-class chrysalis, trying to give herself an intellectual, vocational, and elocutionary make-over, with mixed results. Tony's dancing partner, Annette, is afflicted with unrequited love for Tony, and is shattered when he takes up with Stephanie. Bobby C, a hopeless loser, has a crisis of his own, which ends horribly. There is a turf war going on between Tony's friends and local Puerto Ricans. All this in 118 minutes! Hamlet doesn't get so much more into four hours.
A Left-Side-of-the-Bell-Curve Movie
The second thing that struck me was that this is a movie about the left-hand half of the bell curve. Of the main characters, I would surmise that only Frank, Jr. has an IQ over 100. A couple of the others — Bobby C, Doreen — come across as borderline retarded. All the rest are drawn from that big slab to the left of the mean: people with IQs of 80-something or 90-something. These are normal, unreflective working people who did not get much from their formal education, don't read books, and don't think in abstractions, or wish to.
In an age when most movies with any dramatic content at all are made for yuppies, by yuppies, about yuppies — an age in which nobody is supposed to go to work until age 25, after that long soaking in a warm bath of Political Correctness that we call "college" — this is wonderfully refreshing. The only yuppie in SNF is Stephanie's slimy ex-boyfriend, a walk-on part. Political correctness? Fuhgeddaboutit. You can check off the violations: Homophobia? Check. N-word? Check. Hispanophobia? Check. Male chauvinism? Check, check, check, check, check. Everybody smokes, drinks, and cusses. (Tony's drink preference is the "7&7," i.e. Seagram's 7 whisky mixed with 7-Up. He smokes Marlboros. His favorite cuss word is … well, use your imagination.)
It is true that Stephanie aspires to be a yuppie, but the script provides good and sufficient hope that she will never sell all her soul. You can take the girl out of Bay Ridge, Stephanie, but you can't take Bay Ridge out of the girl.
Thirty years on, with the white working class fast becoming an endangered species, their services no longer required, this second-quartile aspect of SNF is quite striking. White people with IQs around 90 are deeply uninteresting to our cultural content-providers, having no colorful ethnicity nor any anguished heritage of oppression to commend them. Our political and business elites find them bothersome, and are striving to replace them with cheaper, colorfully-ethnic and anguished-heritage-loaded, immigrants. White American proles are not favorites with movie-makers.
The SNF characters even look like ordinary people — as opposed, I mean, to looking like movie stars pretending to be ordinary people. Their teeth are not very white or very straight, they have bad haircuts and get bad shaves, they smoke cigarettes and eat crummy food, they wear cheap clothes and hang crucifixes on their walls, they are not very articulate or — away from the dance floor — graceful. They mumble, stumble, misunderstand each other, and tell little white lies.
SNF brings to mind Nathaniel Hawthorne's comment on Trollope's novel Barchester Towers: "It is just as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with all its inhabitants going about their daily business, and not suspecting that they were being made a show of."
Furthermore, the characters look exactly as they should look, each in his role. There is no Academy Award given for Best Casting Director, or SNF's Shirley Rich would surely deserve one. The faces are just right, just right — and memorable:
- Stephanie breaking into giggles on realizing that what she has just said is pretentious psychobabble.
- Tony's warning look when Annette, whose affections he does not desire, puts her hand on his shoulder.
- Annette plunging into anguish when Tony tells her he has a new dance partner.
- Frank, Jr. in the disco, grasping the hopelessness of Bobby C's situation, and his own utter inability to help, either as priest or ex-priest.
Any one of those could be framed and hung on the wall in an acting school. It's not the least bit surprising that, Travolta aside, none of these actors advanced into Major Celebrity status. They are too good, too human. Listen to their voices. Listen to Stephanie saying "delusions of grandeur" — pitch-perfect!
SNF was John Travolta's finest moment, too. His only moment, perhaps — if he has since made another movie that was half as good as SNF, I missed it. His speech, his movements, his mannerisms are all precisely right. The DVD has some "special features" showing Travolta rehearsing the dance sequences. It's clear that he didn't find them easy, and a credit to his professionalism that the end result was so polished.
(Travolta, by the way, was struck by a personal tragedy while filming the movie. He took a few days off, then came back and finished the job. If you can tell which scenes were shot before the calamity, and which after, you have sharper eyes than mine. The man is a true pro.)
The Music So Fine
And then, the music. All right, it's disco music. Whaddya want? — it's a disco movie.
There is, after all, something to like about the disco craze. Dancing is a fundamental human activity. It is there in anthropologist Donald E. Brown's "list of human universals," in between "daily routines" and "death rituals." (Brown's entire list is given in an appendix to Steven Pinker's book The Blank Slate.)
Dancing got lost somehow around 1965, though, like a great deal else. When I was at high school in the early 1960s, we all took ballroom dancing lessons as a matter of course. What were you going to do at a dance if you didn't know, at a minimum, the foxtrot, waltz, quickstep, and cha-cha? What kind of social life could you expect to have?
Then quite suddenly it was all gone, and solipsistic twitching took over as the preferred form of dance-floor display. All structure was lost: formlessness and chaos took over. Ballroom dance steps? That's so old.
When disco came in, it was once again, for a brief while, cool to be able actually to dance, to dance steps. Far from being a kitschy joke, disco was a brief return to civilized social values before the darkness fell for good in the 1980s.
The disco crowd in SNF consists of people you would not likely bump into at Carnegie Hall or the Guggenheim. They have esthetic impulses, though, just as much as any gallery or concert-hall patron, and those instincts are wakened by the sight of a skilful dancer doing his stuff. See how they applaud Tony! What he is doing is beautiful, and they know it. Having a 90 IQ does not mean that you are an esthetically-challenged clod. Personally, I'll take Bay Ridge esthetic sensibilities any time over those displayed by admirers of Robert Mapplethorpe, Eve Ensler, or Karlheinz Stockhausen.
And the music is — dare I say it? — not bad.
What you doin' on your back? (Aah.)
What you doin' on your back? (Aah.)
You should be dancin', yeah.
Or how about:
Here I am,
Prayin' for this moment to last,
Livin' on the music so fine,
Borne on the wind,
Makin' it mine...
And of course:
Feel the city breakin' and ev'rybody shakin'
And we're stayin' alive, stayin' alive.
Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin' alive.
All right, it's not Cole Porter, but then, hardly anything is. As late 20th-century pop music goes, this is pretty superior stuff. Furthermore, if you pay attention you will notice that the lyrics are loosely keyed to the movie's plot line. Someone here really knows what he's doing.
Confucius Takes the "R" Train
Tony Manero is what used to be called a diamond in the rough. Crude and classless (as Stephanie tells him bluntly), he is none the less a natural gentleman, with all the right instincts (as Stephanie grasps, at some less conscious level).
- After losing it with his mother, Tony at once feels terrible and tries to comfort her, his voice cracking for the only time in the movie.
- Having decided to break with Annette, he tells her directly, with a proper apology.
- After telling Stephanie one of those little white lies, he is immediately
ashamed, as a gentleman should be, and covers with the truth.
[Stephanie gives him a skeptical look.]
"Well, I'm nineteen at the moment, but I'll be twenty very shortly."
This fundamental decency comes out plainly in the scene where Mr. Fusco, Tony's boss at the paint store, gives him a raise.
Fusco: I gave you a raise.
Tony: A what?
Fusco: A raise.
Tony: You kiddin' me?
Fusco: Come on, look, see how much it is.
Tony: You gave me a raise? Thank you! [Extends hand to shake.] I can't believe this!
Fusco: [Embarrassed at the not-yet-revealed smallness of the raise.] Hold on, you better look first.
Tony: I don't gotta look, it makes no difference. You gave me a raise, that's the important thing.
Fusco: [Somewhat shamed by Tony's reaction.] It's only two fifty.
Tony: So what?
Tony understands instinctively that to what Confucius called the junzi, the "superior man," honor, recognition, and right conduct mean everything, money nothing.
Most memorably, Tony's strong sense of natural justice and fair play lifts him above his gang's ethnic squabbling with the Puerto Ricans, prompting him to fierce anger when he and Stephanie are awarded a dance prize unfairly, out of flagrant ethnic favoritism. He walks over to the Puerto Rican couple and thrusts the prize trophy and cash envelope into their hands — "Congratulations! I'd like to give you this, and I'd like to give you that, because I think you deserve it, all right?" — then walks right out of the dance hall, fuming.
Tony's character includes a proper component of manly tenderness, too. Driving Stephanie back from Manhattan, they have a shouting match. Stephanie, wounded by his words, breaks down and cries. Tony repents at once, and does his best to soothe and heal: "It's all right … Don't worry about nothin'." His reward at last is Stephanie's first tentative kiss, on his cheek.
Everybody is drawn to this instinctive decency. To be a natural gentleman like this is to be a natural leader. Tony controls his little clique effortlessly, directing their activities ("We ain't droppin' nothin' till I say so"), trying to prompt them to his own innate standards of manliness, scolding them for their pill popping ("Can't you guys get off on dancin'?"), instructing Annette in the rudiments of female honor: "That's the thing a girl's gotta decide early on. You gotta decide whether you're gonna be a nice girl or a c***."
With that solid moral framework to support him, Tony is acquiring wisdom rapidly. He has a long way to go, to be sure, but you don't doubt he'll get there. Did Bobby C kill himself? the investigating cop asks. Tony: "There's ways of killin' yourself without killin' yourself." Indeed there are, Tony — many, many ways.
Among all the other things it is about, SNF is about being twenty. It is hard to watch it at any much greater age without a painful twinge of nostalgia.
Here it all is — all the vanity, foolishness, and excitement of twenty-dom. Here is the vigor: "I feel so wild! I got all this energy!" The narcissism: "He hits my hair!" The tribal bonding: "We got 'em … Italian style!" Here is the intense awareness of in-group status rankings, and the keen importance of maintaining one's own at the top: "Now shape up, you assholes, we're the faces."
Here is the urgency of being twenty, the immediacy.
Fusco: You can save a little, build a future.
Tony: Fuck the future.
Fusco: No, Tony, you can't fuck the future. The future fucks you. It catches up with you and it fucks you if you ain't planned for it.
Tony: Look, tonight is the future, and I am planning for it. There's this shirt I gotta buy, a beautiful shirt …
And of course there is the wonderful, terrible affliction of romantic love. Cupid's arrow can strike at any time of life, to be sure; but it never pierces so deep, nor with such pain, as at twenty.
SNF is a romantic movie, a celebration of love. Just watch Tony's second sighting of Stephanie, when she is in the dance studio, doing exercises at the barre. (And not to disco music, either: Her choice is Chopin's Nocturne, Op. 9, No. 2 — a piece that is not merely romantic, but Romantic, in the precise and technical sense.)
Judith Rich Harris, in one of her books, tells of dealing with her aged mother, who suffers from severe Alzheimer's. On one particular day, Judith tries to get her mother to focus on the fact that this day is actually her eightieth birthday. "Do you know today is your birthday, Mom?" "Is it?" "Yes. How old do you think you are?" Dimly aware that something really important is being asked of her, the mother summons up all the powers of concentration she has left. At last she says: "Twenty?"
This is exactly right. We are all twenty, even when we're eighty. At twenty we are cooked right through, we are done. Later changes are nothing but "walking north on the deck of a southbound ship." Your essential character is formed at twenty, and will not change.
SNF is very good on this sad fact of our essential immutability. There is no uplifting flapdoodle here about self-transformation. Bobby C praises Tony's dancing.
Tony: You could do as good as me if you practiced.
Bobby C: Yeah? Think I'd be a good dancer?
Tony: Sure, why not? No.
Tony is right, of course. Bobby C will never be a good dancer, or a good anything. Poor Bobby!
Bobby C: If you had to make a choice between getting an abortion and having to get married to somebody, what would you do?
Stephanie: Well, who'd I have to marry?
Bobby C: You'd have to marry me.
Stephanie: I think I'd get an abortion.
At twenty, these young men are all pretty much done, and you can practically hear the doors of opportunity clanging shut around them. Not that it is impossible for them to get somewhere in life from this point on, but now it will need more courage, determination, and luck with every passing year. This is the thing that Tony grasps at the very end of the movie: "I'm an able person. I can do these things." (Unspoken: But I better get moving.)
"I Know Everything About That Bridge"
For seekers of symbols, SNF is dominated by bridges. You could get a Ph.D. thesis out of the bridge symbols in this movie. Someone probably has.
The very first shot in SNF is of the Brooklyn Bridge. That is also the bridge Tony and Stephanie drive over when moving her furniture to Manhattan. Then there is the Verrazzano Narrows Bridge, whose construction would have dominated Tony's childhood. (He was six when it opened in 1964.)
And beyond the bridges — the city! From Bay Ridge you can see lower Manhattan — including, in SNF, the dear old Twin Towers. Manhattan shimmers there in the background of the movie — a fairytale place, near yet somehow hard of access. In Manhattan you can be free, no longer cumbered by ties of tradition, family, neighborhood.
This freedom is of course a mixed blessing. Manhattan is no place for children or old folk. What do Tony and Stephanie care? They are twenty! (See above.) Manhattan is the land of Cockaigne, where everything is possible and you don't have to be home in time for dinner. Freedom and opportunity — Manhattan is America.
A cynical middle-aged conservative might frown at that, and point out that Manhattan, with its bossy mayor and feather-bedding unions, its 500-word parking signs and "rent control" rackets, is the least free stretch of real estate in the country.
Again, Stephanie and Tony don't see that, and wouldn't care about it if they could see it. Manhattan is for them the great finishing school, the place of new experiences, the place where you shuck off that chrysalis and dump it in the East River.
Any number of movies have romanticized Manhattan, of course, but none so deftly, so lightly, as SNF. Even the subway comes out well: I have never felt the same about it since watching Tony's long solitary ride near the movie's end.
Stephanie: "You've got no idea how it changes, just right over there, right across the river. Everything is different, really different. It's just beautiful. The people are beautiful, the offices are beautiful …"
Yes, they are, Stephanie. Don't let any cynical old farts tell you otherwise.
Borne on the Wind
SNF isn't flawless. There is a list of continuity bloopers at the IMDB site. The lighting strikes me as somewhat erratic. Soft-focus shots look corny nowadays, outside TV commercials for geriatric medications. And what is it that Double J says at 1:49:16 on the DVD, just after Bobby C has removed himself from the gene pool?
These things aren't important, though. SNF is not the production of some tortured genius striving for immortality through perfection. It was created by a bunch of capable professional people pooling their talents in the hope of pulling down some overtime and making a bit of money.
In this respect, SNF reminds me of the bel canto operas I love — those early 19th-century Italian operas thrown together in a hurry by journeyman composers trying to catch the public taste, with implausible librettos, recycled overtures (Rossini used the same overture for three different operas) and arias written for tenor A in city X, then hastily rewritten for tenor B in city Y, the opera house manager drumming his fingers impatiently as the composer reaches for another sheet of music paper.
Most work produced on the fly like this is ephemeral, but now and then everything comes right. The hasty scribbler, the harassed director, the struggling actor, are kissed with genius. Then all is lifted out of the common plane, into the light of beauty and glory, up into the realm of true art — borne on the wind!