To help combat the recent heat wave, Z and I chose to stay in our shady, brick apartment building, wearing as few clothes as possible and watching the movies of our youth while eating popsicles. Like you do. The idea came about last week when we randomly started singing songs from Grease and then we discovered it was streaming on Netflix. From that, we quickly moved to the other music/dance movies that shaped our respective youths: Grease II, Footloose, Dirty Dancing, and, finally, last night, Flashdance.
All I have to do is hear those opening bars of “Grease,” and I’m transported back to a adolescent summer when I got my first issue of ‘Teen magazine and thought I’d die if I didn’t get a pair of denim Dr. Scholl’s sandals and one of those aluminum foil mats upon which a person was meant to rotisserate herself until she was deeply tan and thus desirable. I was certain that ownership of those two things would magically transform me into an adult. By the end of the summer, I had the sandals, but my mother, thankfully, could see (as could anyone else who knew me) that my pasty Irish-American skin should spend peak tanning hours under an umbrella. Re-watching the movie this past week brought back many memories, including a mental list I kept of all the sexual innuendos that I didn’t yet know the meaning of, sensed were significant, and of which I hoped to have a legitimate definition before I went to junior high. (This was before urbandictionary.com, back when if you weren’t brave enough to ask some older family member or friend, you had to wait to find out why everyone was making that “oh my goodness!” face when “Greased Lightnin’” played.) The experience of watching all four of these movies was like opening up some scrapbook I forgot I’d kept, chock full of reminders of the way life used to be and all the ways I hoped life would turn out.
It was fun to share with Z something that had been significant to both of us back in the day, living on our separate continents, when we were imagining very different futures for ourselves. (I can’t speak for Z’s, but the future I imagined involved me actually being the pastel-sweater-wearing good-girl version of Olivia Newton-John). I sometimes lament that Z and I didn’t know each other in our youth, and I admit there is part of me that wonders if we’d met when we were 10 or 16 or even 20 if I still would have thought, “That’s the one for me!” or if I would have been unable to see his utter rightness simply because he was not a John Cusack, holding a boom box over his head and wearing me down with his love.
Dirty Dancing held up as well—better, really—than Grease. There are only two cringe-worthy lines in that film: the oft-used Nobody puts Baby in a corner, and the equally bad (and even more poorly delivered), Go back to your playpen, Baby. This is, however, perhaps the first time I’ve ever wondered why the writers thought it was a good idea to name the heroine Baby in the first place. Metaphorically, it’s just too obvious to be good, and literally, it’s just too…well, seriously, do you know anybody named Baby? On all other fronts, the movie still works, and no matter how many times I watch it, damned if I don’t cry when Baby is in the gazebo with her father telling him she’s sorry she disappointed him, but he’s disappointed her too.
For marital happiness, the least said about Grease II the better.
Footloose surprised me. A million years ago when I saw it for the first time, all of my girlfriends were going nuts for Kevin Bacon and his spikey hair and skinny tie, but I was too busy obsessing about the ridiculous premise to notice how nice he looked in his Sedgefield jeans. A college campus might outlaw dancing (I went to one of those), but a whole town? And why did it seem so Southern and some of the actors went in and out of southern accents, when those were clearly the Rocky Mountains in the distance? And were they seriously expecting us to believe that Kevin Bacon’s use of quotes from the Bible was anything but self-serving? It didn’t take a theology scholar to recognize a fallacy of false equivalence. I’d been to prom; that dancing had nothing to do with worship.
On this viewing, however, even with the extreme no-dancing-no-rock-music town ordinance still in place, the setting and the people felt real and familiar. That little church there in ArkanIowalarado felt a lot like the ones I grew up in, trying to figure out who I was while it seemed plenty of people who didn’t really know me were happy to tell me who I should be. In the scenes where the fire-and-brimstone John Lithgow is preaching, you can feel the misery of a humid Sunday service, when you wish the minister would maybe get to his point more quickly so you could escape to a place with a breeze. On this viewing, Kevin Bacon’s biblical argument didn’t seem quite as weak. John Lithgow seems more sympathetic regarding his reasons for wanting to ban music and dance (and he gains big points for compassionately stopping a book burning). Also, nobody was perfect looking like they would be in a movie now. Their teeth weren’t impossibly white and impossibly straight. They spoke like real people. They looked a little uncomfortable, and not at all like a bunch of teens who would be posting photos of themselves all over the interwebs. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) It surprised me how much Footloose felt like a real portrayal of what it was like to be a teenager in the 1980s, give or take a little gymnastical dance routine in the local feed mill.
And finally, there is Flashdance.
Oh, Flashdance, you break my heart. Weren’t you once good? Didn’t you have better dialogue? Didn’t you make more sense? Weren’t you plausible?
I saw Flashdance with my high school boyfriend, his little brother, and a friend of mine. I was enraptured the 95 minutes it was on the screen and felt like I was the only person in the movie theater. Alex, the heroine, a Pittsburgh “flashdancer” with the dream of being a ballerina is no Sandy from Grease. She is 18 and supports herself welding by day and dancing by night (though she isn’t a stripper—let’s be clear about that!). She lives in a warehouse with her pitbull and she seems not to care what anyone thinks of her. She is feisty. The night she sees her older boyfriend with another woman, she doesn’t go home and eat ice cream and weep passively and sing Hopelessly Devoted to You. No. She gets on her bike, peddles to his house in a tony neighborhood, and throws a rock through his window. But the real story is that with a little prodding by an ancient European fairy godmother figure and her string-pulling older boyfriend, she screws up her courage and tries out for the Pittsburgh ballet, which is her secret dream.
Watching Flashdance then, I knew the message of the movie—to be brave and go after your dreams—was one of the truest things I’d ever seen. When it was over, I was breathless (and anxious to get home to start ripping up sweatshirts and incorporating legwarmers more fully into my wardrobe, so I too could look like Alex while I painted and wrote). I said something to the boyfriend with awe in my voice about how good the movie was, and he said, “Eh. It was okay.” His movie tastes ran more along the lines of Conan the Barbarian and Caddyshack. I felt deflated. How could he not know this was possibly one of the best movies of all time? Were his broody silences not artistically driven after all? Were we ill matched?
It was very disappointing.
Yet here I was, thirty years later, sitting with the far more compatible and fabulous Z on our sofa and feeling very briefly annoyed with him for insinuating that Flashdance wasn’t a good movie. I think of him as a more enlightened creature, and so his lack of reverence for the film kind of hurt my heart. I felt wounded that he wasn’t even giving the movie a chance.
But then I started listening to the dialogue and making a list of all the implausibilities, starting with the existence of a club where women danced–with their clothes on–for men who were clearly not patrons of the arts. And yeah, maybe an 18-year-old woman could become a welder, but would anyone have hired her in the Rust Belt when jobs were scarce? I don’t think so. And also, remind me why none of us knew in 1983 that a body double was used to do all the dancing? The only thing I was in awe of this time during the dance scenes was that the body double’s curly wig did not come flying off.
Maybe Flashdance wasn’t a good a movie after all.
More disturbing to me than the possibility that the movie was not great (nor even good) was the realization that the message of the movie—one that I believed in fervently— was mixed. It purported to be about believing in yourself and your dreams, yet two of the three people who do just that (Richie leaves his fry cook job to move to LA to be a comedian and Jeanie enters an ice skating competition) fail miserably (Richie comes back to Pittsburgh after being booed out of LA and Jeanie falls during the competition and subsequently ends up working in a real strip bar until Alex drags her out). Plus, Alex already is a dancer—trying out for the ballet isn’t that far outside of her wheelhouse. So what exactly was the message of Flashdance? Go after your dreams only if you are the protagonist? Go after your dreams if you have a rich older boyfriend who has connections? There are magical powers in a ripped up sweatshirt, which will subsequently make your ludicrous dreams attainable? By the time it was over, I hadn’t a clue.
The moral of my story? There isn’t one. I’m just glad some of those teen fantasies of mine didn’t come true, otherwise I might have missed this perfect weekend of heat wave survival with Z. If the mercury rises again, I suspect there is a John Hughes marathon in our future.