Saturday, October 22, 2016
SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER
(December 1977, U.S.)
There are, in my humble opinion, three kinds of motion pictures that exist in our society. The first kind being the average, run-of-the-mill, Friday night multiplex movie whose sole purpose is to rake in as much opening weekend box office dollars as possible by those stupid enough to waste their time, intelligence and hard-earned money on it. The second kind being reserved for the great movies of history; you know, immortal titles like GONE WITH THE WIND, CASABLANCA, THE GODFATHER, JAWS and STAR WARS. The third kind are the movies that manage to secure a place in our popular culture and establish themselves as a public phenomenon. These are not necessarily great movies, however. RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD-PART II (1985) is not a great movie, and never will be. However, it's impossible to deny the impact it had on our American pop culture and even our American politics under Ronald Reagan during the latter half of the 1980s. When strongly considering this third category, one can't help but wonder if it's at all possible to select a single film that has managed to resonate so effectively with our popular culture and our very psyche in terms of how we viewed cinema, how we viewed music and even how we embraced our favorite movie stars. I believe that I can. The star is John Travolta. The music is the Bee Gees. The movie is SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, and it's going to be one of the most in-depth and personal blogs I shall write, thus far. So stay with me for a while and remember the time.
John Badham’s SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, based upon the 1976 New York magazine article "Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night" by British writer Nik Cohn, was released during an era when America was exhausted from the fallout of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, and when the popular disco craze was already beginning to phase itself out of the public’s pop culture scene. Nonetheless, it was a global hit with both critics and audiences. It reinvigorated the disco craze for the next three years and made international stars of both John Travolta and the musical group the Bee Gees. On its surface, it's a simple about disco and the freedom that dancing brings to a young Italian-American kid from Brooklyn named Tony Manero (Travolta). At closer examination, however, the film offers a much deeper and more valid social implication. First, let’s take a moment to examine the neighborhood of Bay Ridge that Tony resides in. It is, by all physical accounts, a mixed melting pot of residents that include Italian-Americans, African –Americans and Puerto Ricans. The existence of these mixed races isn't always a pleasant environment of peace and social harmony; far from it. From the moment we're first introduced to the 2001 Odyssey Disco where Tony and his friends frequent every Saturday night, they're already entertaining themselves by freely using racist and disparaging terms against their Puerto Rican and African-American neighbors. Once inside the disco, amid the pulsating effects of the colorful lights and the loud music, we can see the same mixed melting pot of people who are on the dance floor enjoying their Saturday night of freedom and liberation. Compared to world of the disco, the outside world practically ceases to exist for many of these dance goers. The disco floor is a place for letting go of not only one’s daily existence of routine and structure, but to also, perhaps, redefine one’s identity, and this especially is true for Tony. By day, he's just a mere paint store clerk whose existence in life is no greater than to simply blend in with the rest of the Brooklyn working class while providing extra money to support his family while his father is temporarily out of work. On the dance floor, however, Tony is the superstar of the neighborhood with not only his extraordinary dancing abilities, but also his movie star-like charms and personality, even resembling Al Pacino to one of the women there. This is the power of the transformation of Saturday night from the mundane to the glamorous for Tony and for all who come seeking the magic of the disco.
Like many social scenes of interaction, though, there still exists the cliques of those who will only interact with each other more regularly and more intensely than others in the same setting. This situation is broken, however, during a pivotal moment in the film’s disco sequence when the Bee Gees are singing “Night Fever” and slowly, the dance floor begins to fill with people who have all chosen to do a dance together known as “The Electric Slide”. Look carefully at this moment and one can easily see that the bonds of racial separation have been (at least temporarily) broken for the artistic and joyous purpose of the dance. Only a short time ago, Tony and his immature crew were racially slandering other patrons of the disco and now there appear to be no racial separations because all the people of the disco have come together as one with all their social differences put aside for at least the duration of one song. Even the dance of “The Electric Slide” itself is a very finely choreographed set of steps in which all participants must work together as a collective in order for the dance to work. On film, it’s a beautifully effective scene filled with bright color, music and the physical appearance of social harmony and understanding. This may easily be attributed to the practical sense of the dance itself requiring the need for all of the people coming together to make it work, but its social significance, in my opinion, is very clear and very effective.
It’s interesting to note also that such strains in human relations don't just occur within the mixed neighborhood races, but also within the primary relationships of the film, specifically between Tony and his female interests, Stephanie Mongano and Annette. While Tony agrees to enter the big dance contest with Annette, it’s for no other reason than the fact they had previously won another dance contest together. It’s clear from the beginning of the film that he doesn’t respect her as a person and doesn’t display any tact by making it clear to her that he wants little to do with her. She claims to love him, but for Tony, she’s nothing more or better than a moment of sex in the back seat of a car when he ultimately feels threatened that she'll end up sleeping with one of his friends instead if he doesn’t give himself to her first. Despite both of them gladly using each other sexually when they please, he still disrespects and looks down on her because she’s a free-spirited woman who wants to have sex uninhibitedly during a decade when sexual politics were practiced so freely and so openly. As he bluntly puts it to her, "Are you nice girl or a cunt?", offering no room for anything in between those two choices. By the time he’s callously dumped Annette as his dance partner and taken on Stephanie instead, his perspective of a relationship with a woman has improved only slightly because unlike the common women of the neighborhood, Stephanie has a little more to offer. This is what we’re supposed to believe, anyway. Stephanie, in her own fashion, looks down on Tony because he’s not educated, still lives with his family, routinely blows all of his earnings every Saturday night at the disco and is, as she bluntly puts it, “a jerkoff guy that ain’t got his shit together!” Stephanie acts as if she’s older, more mature and places herself on a higher social level than Tony based on nothing more than the most superficial elements of her life that include her working in Manhattan, drinking tea with lemon instead of coffee to blend in with the female executives in the office, shopping at Bonwit Teller, and occasionally being introduced to celebrity clients as part of her job. During the coffee shop scene with Tony, she appears dumbfounded at the fact that he doesn’t know who Laurence Olivier is and makes no secret of her superiority over the fact that she does. Still, even when it comes to truly and properly identifying the legendary English actor, she can't seem to come up with a better account of the man’s current status other than the fact that he’s the one on television who does all those Polaroid commercials. The fact is that despite Stephanie’s ongoing efforts to place herself on a high pedestal above Tony and every other person her age in the neighborhood, she is, like it or not, just like the rest them with an almost desperate to need to hide and compensate for it. She has the right idea of who she wants to be but is not yet as accomplished as she realistically wants to be. When finally pushed against the wall during an argument with Tony over an older man she was once involved with, she breaks down and confesses her own human social weakness in not knowing how to effectively do anything at work and requiring the guidance of her older friend in order to make up for it.
Social acceptance and peace and harmony in SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER appear to only be valid at the 2001 Odyssey Disco on Saturday nights. Once the work week has arrived again, many of the film’s characters revert to their old attitudes of racism and intolerance. At times, these attitudes are displayed with extreme violence. This first occurs when Tony’s friend Gus is brutally attacked by a gang of Puerto Rican youths when walking home carrying his groceries for no better reason than being one of the neighborhood Italian kids in the wrong place at the wrong time and ends up in the hospital. As a retaliation later in the film, Tony and his friends strike back by invading the hideout of the Puerto Rican gang they believe to be responsible for Gus’ attack and inflict their own personal revenge on them “Italian style” as Tony’s friend Joey puts it. Even as this streak of racism and violence appears to be an unstoppable plague in the neighborhood of Bay Ridge, Tony Manero, who is, at heart, a good and moral kid, cannot deny by the film’s end that his own beliefs and perspective of life must inevitably change for the better. During the film’s final dance competition, he and Stephanie are declared the winners. Everybody in attendance at the disco is joyous at this result except forTony himself, because in his heart, he knows and believes that the Puerto Rican couple that followed him and Stephanie were far superior in their dance performance. At this moment, in what may easily be defined as one of mature clarity, Tony concludes that all of the lying, the phoniness and unfair social “dumping” of one’s angers and frustrations on others has to finally stop in order for him to regain his humanity, even if it means giving up his dance contest victory to those who truly deserved it and never stepping foot inside the 2001 Odyssey disco again. By the end of the film, Tony Manero makes it clear that he will never see his old friends again and perhaps will finally leave his family and the neighborhood he grew up in. This shall likely be the price of his finally growing up...even if growing up means that, unfortunately, your life story continues in the horrible 1983 sequel STAYING ALIVE!
Okay, so now that I've made my philosophical views on SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER very clear to you, let me move onto a much lighter movie topic and that is the subject of the screen kiss. You've heard of it and you've heard others declare what their favorite screen kiss is; from Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in GONE WITH THE WIND, to Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in CASABLANCA to even Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in TITANIC, the list of choices is likely endless. But does a great screen kiss necessarily have to be a romantic one? That being a possibility, let me tell you why I consider the kiss between John Travolta and Karen Lynn Gorney on the disco dance floor during the Bee Gees' "More Than a Woman" my favorite screen kiss. By the time these two characters are dancing their routine for the big disco contest, we're already very familiar with the friction in their relationship in that they cannot completely account for how they both feel about each other. During a point in the dance, Tony lifts Stephanie in his arms and the two of them decide to kiss for the first (and only) time in the film. The couple spins on the dance floor and the camera follow them as their lips are embraced with each other's. Study Stephanie's face with her eyes closed and you can easily read a look of tenderness that can only be identified as a woman's tender love for the man she holds in her arms and kisses. However, when the kiss ends, the two of them share a brief look of confusion and wonderment as they try to determine what it is exactly that they just did and why they chose to do it. But even then, that particular moment is immediately replaced with another when their puzzled looks gradually turn to mutual smiles. These smiles seem to say it all, for me. They say that the kiss shall not be identified, nor shall it be judged. The kiss was a simple and genuine gesture between two people who respect each other and who are ultimately identified as people better off as just friends, but who also, nonetheless, got caught up in the magic and the heat of the disco floor and the music of the Bee Gees that briefly carried them off into a world between them that they'd never visited before, and will never visit again. Perhaps it doesn't lend itself to the standard definitions behind the traditional screen kiss, but it does worlds for me and I may chose to interpret the meanings behind a kiss.
Now it's time to get personal about SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER and what it meant to me and my life back in the day. Despite the fact that I was only ten years-old when the film was first released in theaters, its impact, both on screen and in music deeply affected my place in the popular culture of the time. This was the first R-rated movie I ever saw on the big screen, and as anyone can attest to, this is a true rite of passage for any child who is finally permitted (even for just two hours) into the sordid world of adults and their less-than-wholesome existences. For a small child, the film was a raw look into a movie that was displaying violence, nudity and endless amounts of profanity before my eyes and ears. The profanity was so bad, my mother almost made us all leave the theater...almost. For a child obviously too young to get into real discos, this was as close to being permitted into the adult world of the 1970s popular culture as I was ever going to get. Even within the film itself, inside Tony's bedroom, there were visuals that clearly defined the 1970s for me, including posters of the movie ROCKY, Farrah Fawcett-Majors and Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman. On the radio, the Bee Gees were everywhere! On the family turntable, the film's soundtrack never stopped playing because it was four sides of pure disco dynamite! For a three year period, from the end of 1977 to the end of 1980, it seemed that SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER was constantly a part of my life, including the 1979 re-release in a PG-rated format, in which I first learned about the potential butchering behind Hollywood cuts and edits for the purpose of widening the audience gap...
...to it's 1980 double feature re-release of the PG version with GREASE (a movie poster I happen to own!)...
...to it's airings on HBO (both R and PG versions) and finally its television broadcast debut on the ABC Sunday Night Movie in November 1980, which by that time, may as well have been futile because disco was considered as dead as a door nail!
Finally, I want to share with you, something very deeply personal to me and its relationship to SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER. I had a first cousin named Lena. I say had because she passed away in August 2000 at a young age. She was nearly ten years older than me and I was always very fond of her as a kid. Although I don't have a photo of her that I can share with you now, believe me when I tell you that she bared quite a resemblance to Karen Lynn Gorney in the film. As it turns out, Lena lived in Brooklyn during the late '70s (and never left, actually). At the time when the film was popular, she told me that she herself frequented discos. When I was a kid and I told her that I thought she looked like "the girl from Saturday Night Fever", she smiled and thanked me for what she considered to be a true compliment. Those memories being very strong still, I cannot help but think of Lena whenever I continue to watch the film. So that being said, I dedicate this post to cousin Lena and all those who were touched by her place in this world. We love you, we miss you and we'll never forget you. And to her daughter Jennifer, a dedicated mother of twin girls and a true symbol of strength and spirit, I say to you now that I love you, admire you, and that if you still have never seen SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, then it's high time you did, and perhaps you'll see in it what I do, and you'll think of your beloved mother, as I often do.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Tony Manero: "Would you like to know what I do?"
Stephanie Mongano: "That's not necessary."
Tony: "I'll tell you what I do. I work in a paint store and I got a raise this week..."
Stephanie: "Right. You work in a paint store, right? You probably live with your family, you hang out with your buddies and on Saturday night, you go and you blow it all off on Two Thousand and One, right?"
Tony: "That's right."
Stephanie: "You're a cliché, and you're nowhere, on your way to no place."
Tony: "What do you got, a fuckin' stairway to the stars, or what?
Stephanie: "Yeah, maybe."
Stephanie: "I'm takin' a course nights at the New School. Next semester, I'm gonna take two. Now you, you probably didn't get no college, did you?"
Tony: "No, I did not."
Stephanie: "Well, did you ever think about goin' to college?"
Stephanie: "Not ever?"
Tony: "No, did you?"
Stephanie: "Well, not back then, no."
Tony: "Well, then why the fuck you buggin' me about it for?"
Stephanie: "Well, why not? Why didn't you ever wanna go to college?"
Tony: "Oh, Jesus, fuck off! I did not, alright!"
Stephanie: "No, really, tell me, why not?"
Tony: "Oh, Jesus Christ! I didn't !"