9th 10 - 2014 | 4 comments »

Boogie Nights (1997)

Director/Screenwriter: Paul Thomas Anderson

BoogieNights176

By Roderick Heath

Like a miniature, speeded-up version of the ’70s new wave that reinvigorated American cinema, the mid-1990s saw a flurry of excitement about the burgeoning independent film scene. Hollywood suddenly saw a mine of talent in the fringes as Sundance became the hottest spot in the film world following the triumphs there of Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino. Low-budget filmmaking no longer had to be a seamy zone for rejects and mercenaries, but could promise invention and a tidy profit as long as an audience remained hungry for this kind of storytelling. A lode of young and interesting filmmakers who had pieced works together on hopes and prayers suddenly gained access to major distribution and studio funds, and were quickly drawn into the big, mean world of commercial cinema. The scene didn’t really last very long, and quite a few of the new talents fell by the wayside, but others have proven to be the backbone of what’s left of serious American cinema. Paul Thomas Anderson made his name with a benighted debut film he called Sydney, but that a nervous studio renamed Hard Eight (1995). A fine, intimate work situated at the crossroads of crime drama and character study, Hard Eight didn’t prove to be a Reservoir Dogs (1992). Anderson recovered from that trial and decided to adapt a student film he’d made in 1988, The Dirk Diggler Story, a mockumentary about a fictional porn star. The resulting feature, Boogie Nights, proved to be ambitious and provocative. Most importantly, it was cunning in appropriating everybody’s pop culture memory in just the right way to get attention.

BoogieNights71

Anderson has since evolved into one of the most distinctive directors on the current film scene, but at the time he didn’t mind letting his roots show, annexing the same zone of retro fetishism and cineaste allusiveness Tarantino had explored, but skewing it to his own, more rarefied purpose. He unabashedly quoted masters, including Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese as well as more obscure classic cinema deities like Mikhail Kolotozov. But he also found the glory in the seamiest and most degraded types of cinematic achievement. Boogie Nights followed Scorsese’s Casino (1995) in making nostalgia for the barbed, seedy, lawless side of the ’70s cool again. Anderson took a chance with his subject matter that doesn’t seem like such a chance now largely because he took it: after ’80s conservatism and ’90 political correctness, delving back into the world of ’70s hedonism and the “golden age” of the pornographic film industry seemed doubly perverse. Anderson created a miniature genre of modern storytelling that gets off on the lost style of a past recreated in bright colours, whilst analysing the cultural shifts that buried both the best and the worst of that lost time.

BoogieNights65

The chief inspiration for Boogie Nights was the life of John Holmes, a superlatively endowed porn star who got himself blackballed by the industry for a time for his drug-addled unreliability and became entangled with criminal associates who probably drew him into a drug heist. They targeted a major dealer who repaid Holmes’ confederates in what became known as the Wonderland murders, whilst Holmes himself died of AIDS in 1988. Anderson’s take mimics Holmes’ grindhouse tragedy whilst changing its emphases and investing it with tinctures of parable and satire (another source might have been the career of Dennis ‘Wade Nichols’ Parker, a porn star who tried to reinvent himself as a pop singer). Anderson’s seemingly outrageous intent proved only skin deep, as he avoided not just punitive censorship, but also presented the second variation on his obsessive theme of finding family in a hostile world, ironically locating that family within a realm usually painted as cruel and obscene. Shocking things do happen in the film, and the flaws and hypocrisies of the characters are often laid brutally bare. Yet the peculiar warmth Anderson feels for them, the quietly lucid humour he invests in their behaviour, and the acknowledgement of an adolescent joie de vivre unleashed in their private world made for Anderson’s most accessible work to date.

BoogieNights20

Anderson’s view of the era through pop-coloured glasses is cleverly justified by the media-created fetishes of its young hero, Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg), whose bedroom walls are a shrine to adolescent desire, from idolisation of Bruce Lee and kung-fu prowess to muscle cars and music heroes, with only a smattering of girly pictures. Eddie’s only special feature, his enormous penis, gets him laid often enough, so he craves fulfilment in other places, places his limited smarts can’t access. Eddie has hopes of finding entry into that bright and shiny world of celebrity and success and works at a flashy disco, Hot Traxx, run by Maurice Rodriguez (Luis Guzmán), where he’s surrounded by the fashionable and beautiful. Luck, or something like it, is on Eddie’s side when porn director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) enters Hot Traxx one night with his stable’s two finest fillies, Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) and Rollergirl (Heather Graham). Jack spots Eddie across the crowded dance floor, sensing something about the lad, whose slightly naïve look doesn’t prevent him thinking Jack is another old perv who wants to take a gander at his wang. Eddie’s life in his parents’ home is quickly revealed to be excruciating, and a critical explosion of contemptuous rage by his mother (Joanna Gleason) drives Eddie to leave and run straight into Jack’s arms, where he joins Amber and Rollergirl as part of a pick-up nuclear family. Eddie soon proves as close to a natural in the business as it’s ever seen, and takes a stage name that comes to him as a vision emblazoned in neon: Dirk Diggler.

BoogieNights24

Anderson presents much of Boogie Nights as an extended fantasia where the kinky energy and specific needs of these aberrant people are channelled into powerhouse success that makes their dreams, however tawdry, come true. Anderson’s simplest yet most radical idea was to invert the usual moral lessons of stories set in such a milieu: as long as the characters stick to the basic understandings of their “family,” they survive and prosper. The familial relationship of Jack, Amber, Dirk, and Rollergirl is rendered especially perverse when one notes that all of them have sex with one another, save for Jack and Dirk. But most of the bad that happens to them is imposed by the big, wicked world beyond their hermetic life, where they’re mere delusional misfits, and when they try to reach beyond its limits, they are swiftly and mercilessly punished. Boogie Nights therefore explores a similar idea to Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994), which likewise viewed the rock bottom of the Hollywood totem pole as a place where society’s rejects can find fellowship, though with an in-built irony that these aren’t exceptional artists, but rather people who have gotten lucky mining a seam of gold nobody else will touch.

BoogieNights25

Jack entices Eddie with a monologue that explains not merely the immediate satisfactions of his business, but a yearning for loftier achievements—Jack’s desire to make a movie that can hold his audience from the raincoat brigade with actual dramatic values, and thus achieve respectability, not such a ludicrous ambition in the days of Emmanuelle (1974). Anderson thus used the golden-age porn scene as a way to comment on Hollywood and the filmmaking world in general, glimpsing the pretences of purveyors of the more elevated form through the ambitions of the least. Dirk proves to be the catalyst for Jack’s dream, as he becomes not just an instant star that Jack can build more ambitious productions around, but comes up with a great idea to make just such a movie as Jack dreams of. With stable mate Reed Richards (John C. Reilly), Dirk thinks up a hero named Brock Landers, a cross between James Bond and John Shaft and an actualisation of all Dirk’s fantasies about achieving multifarious grandeur as savvy jetsetter, streetwise tough guy, and legendary super-stud.

BoogieNights35

The warm embrace of Jack’s world has a duplicitous quality, as it offers freedom, but only in stasis. Those who try to move away from its orbit quickly discover how inimical the outside world is. This Garden of Eden clearly has its own serpents lurking from the start, too. Jack’s production manager Little Bill (William H. Macy) is quietly tormented by his wife’s (Nina Hartley) wholehearted engagement with the hedonistic lifestyle around her, a subplot that seems wryly comedic in portraying marital misinterpretation of modern licence, but soon reveals a cruel streak driving emasculated pathos to extremes. Horner’s backer, “the Colonel” James (Robert Ridgley, who had played Jack Horner in The Dirk Diggler Story) is the very image of the kind of sleaze who annexes ’70s permissiveness for his own unsavoury ends, whilst maintaining a façade of prosperous bonhomie. He first appears at one of Jack’s epic pool parties with a painfully thin, barely pubescent model in tow (Amber Hunter), and within a few minutes, the girl has OD’d on a bad batch of cocaine brought by another of Jack’s guests, who freaks out over the limp form with blood streaming out of her nose. The Colonel has his driver dump her outside a hospital. Later, the Colonel is arrested and imprisoned, unsurprisingly, for keeping a collection of child pornography, a sin which even the forgiving Jack can’t abide. The Colonel explains all to Jack through prison glass after he’s been arrested, Jack’s face screwing up in rueful fury and shutting himself off from the Colonel’s curiously naïve pleas. Cocaine proves to be Dirk’s dark muse, making him grandiose, paranoid, and intermittently impotent, eventually destroying his partnership with Jack after he feels threatened by a potential rival in Johnny Doe (Jonathan Quint). Dirk and Reed are drawn by a friend, stripper Todd Parker (Thomas Jane), into a drug-fuelled crime after their attempts to break into music are disastrous; the allure of easy cash breaks down what little good sense they have.

BoogieNights8

Boogie Nights is such a crowded, dazzling, busy film that it demands multiple viewings to comprehend every trick it pulls off. Anderson’s script resembles a short story collection bundled into an ingenious whole, a stunt that feels intent on mimicking Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993) but with all-original material. The storylines are gleaned from real histories from the porn scene, but transmuted by imagination into something very different from the kind of roman-a-clef melodrama the process implies. Boogie Nights’ structure resembles Altman’s communal, multicharacter zones, but the style—a relentless, experiential push—owes far more to Scorsese, and particularly Goodfellas (1990), including the famous Copacabana tracking shot and cocaine-fuelled paranoia sequence. Anderson’s appropriation of Scorsese’s keynotes takes them a step further, charging them with encompassing force. The film’s first half is replete with dancelike tracking shots and rhythmically edited sequences that bind the criss-crossing and interaction of his characters into synergistic panoramas. Anderson uses steadicam shots that pace through Jack’s and Eddie’s houses to communicate a sense of open communality and functioning life. His camera pirouettes often pay off in punchlines like the whole Horner cast dancing Saturday Night Fever style upon the Hot Traxx dance floor, unified in the flashy, vivacious glory of their moment. Or Eddie’s early return home, when Anderson’s camera swivels 360, noting his festooned idols with a rock-and-roll version of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” blaring on sound, turning his gauche fantasies into contemporary worship.

BoogieNights127

As well as offering a multifaceted insight here into Eddie’s mindscape and the culture that defines him, Anderson finds a fun, hip way to communicate an idea that’s obsessed him more gravely in There Will Be Blood (2007) and The Master (2012) that in America, business and the wares it propagates are religion—except that Eddie is a worshipper, whereas the protagonists of the later works are ministers. Boogie Nights’ vein of comedy moves smoothly from observational wryness to outright satire and then to pitch-black absurdity. All of Anderson’s films have a comedic edge, but usually it’s buried more deeply and rendered with a queasier tone, whilst Boogie Nights retains a larkish quality even as it takes turns toward seething darkness. Indeed, it gains power because these two impulses are entwined, mostly sourced in characters who have varying degrees of sweet dumbness or cluelessness about how to act in the world. Dirk’s oblivious side, his and Reed’s initial competitiveness and their later, mutual, blinkered boosting, offer character comedy laced with warnings about how badly they’ll fare when they try to go it alone, paying off in hilarious vignettes of the pair trying to start a recording career, wielding cringe-inducing cock-rock and wheezing off-key renditions of power rock anthems (Stan Bush’s “The Touch,” actually written for The Transformers: The Movie, 1986, never knew what hit it). Anderson’s deep lexicon of such half-forgotten pizzazz informs this pastiche of retro media artefacts. Boogie Nights may well have created a proliferating contemporary aesthetic dedicated to such recreations, chasing the elusive texture of those artefacts.

BoogieNights86

The film’s funniest vignettes are built around that mimicry, in Amber’s short film about Dirk, the early scene depicting Dirk’s first experience shooting a film, and the glimpses of the Brock Landers movies. These vignettes are precise in their reconstruction of weak edits, bygone methods of hype, wooden acting, and try-hard charm, reflecting back through a distorted mirror the way time can turn even the most outré material into amusing, deracinated relic at best or camp at worst (the stilted way Moore recites the line, “This is a giant cock!” deserved some kind of award on its own). And yet Boogie Nights was and is much more than a retro parody. Andersons’s career-long fascination with Americana and the peculiarities of subcultures are articulated with obsessive detail to a degree that borders on anthropology. The recreation here of the late ’70s vibe, from the tummy-hugger shirts to the fake-wood-panelled rooms, provides the surface credulity whilst articulating Anderson’s fascination with lifestyle as a mode through which his characters as citizens in a consumerist society express themselves, their desires, worldviews, even philosophical and religious impulses, ideas that would culminate in The Master, where religion, business, and lifestyle are all fused by the great American guru. At first, having cool things is Dirk’s religion, but Dirk, a seed in the same soil that produces the haute-capitalist brutality of Daniel Plainview and the transcendental hucksterism of Lancaster Dodd, giddily celebrates his victory at an adult film award ceremony by rejoicing in how his films have helped people, liberating them from sexual repression, his success now a way for everyone to achieve happiness.

BoogieNights63

Anderson is nimble in avoiding depicting the very business that concerns him, turning necessary self-censorship into a knowing game of concealment played with the audience until the very final scene, when Dirk’s dick is suddenly seen in all its glory. By then, the all-important penis is regarded not in action, as the weapon of culture-changing, orgasm-inducing potency that could link it to pagan phallic art, but presented like the kind of consumer object Dirk himself adores: he finally learns and accepts a not-so-pleasant truth, that his body is his only commodity. The one sequence depicting porn photography in depth makes a show of its own evasiveness, by emphasising instead the transmutation of low-rent reality into mythology, via the wonderment, ranging from envy to lust, of the onlooking crew, and the filmmaking process itself. Moreover, the plot of the movie being shot sarcastically reflects the plot of Boogie Nights, as Dirk plays a young man auditioning for a porn producer played by Amber and finding immediate favour. Anderson’s obsession with the theme of master/pupil, father/son relations is here given its gentlest variation by turning Jack into the gruff, almost biblical patriarch and protector of his flock and Dirk into the prodigal son who falls from grace when he gets too big for his breeches, wanders the desolate wilderness for a while, then contritely returns to beg forgiveness.

BoogieNights131

Whilst Dirk’s story anchors the film, the galaxy of characters around him vie for attention, cast by life as well as by Jack as supporting players. They vary from comic relief, like Reed and TT, to characters of tragic dimensions, including Little Bill, Amber, whose ex-husband uses her profession as a barrier to her seeing their son, and Scotty J. (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a chubby, schlubby aide on the film crew who falls head over heels for Dirk. Anderson mostly avoids the doll’s house aesthetic this brand of Altman-inspired filmmaking often devolves to when it comes to his gallery of types, though he does get a little cute and unavoidably scant with some of his characterisations. Becky Barnett (Nicole Ari Parker) was supposed to allow exploration of the domestic abuse many former porn starlets suffered once they tried to settle down with men outside the business, but with that subplot cut, she simply seems to be written out of the film when she proves to be superfluous. Don Cheadle’s Buck Swope, a hi-fi expert with a day job as well as one of Jack’s stars, is a black guy with a mysterious predilection for country music, a touch that might have been far too precious. But Anderson is even able to invest his tale with intricate meaning, as this joke about his character both highlight’s Anderson’s interest in lifestyle and self-definition and deepens when Buck finds himself cold-shouldered by banks for loans to start an electronics store, a business he knows inside out, as the Moral Majority backlash begins and his past stymies his future. Anderson somehow imbues most of the character vignettes with lodes of power that come out of nowhere, startling moments like Scotty tearfully repeating “I’m a fucking idiot!” after coming on to unresponsive Dirk, and Amber bawling after a custody hearing where her ex, John Doe, brands her as a scarlet woman — such moments are glimpsed and then shied away from, as if with a sense of guilt at having accidentally seen such scenes of exposed pain and humanity. Rollergirl drops out of high school, bewildered by an exam and sexually insulted by a classmate (Kai Lennox), and completely reinvents herself as a media creation who quite literally never takes off her roller skates.

BoogieNights109

After the relatively straightforward realism evinced in Hard Eight, Anderson’s rare gift for constructing intensely rhythmic, intricately detailed cinema emerges here. The tableaux-like set-pieces in the film’s first half, the summery pool party driven by a wandering camera that acts like a seemingly casually observant visitor who’s eye is attracted by various vignettes and then a bikini-clad bottom right into a pool (quoting Kolotozov’s legerdemain in I Am Cuba, 1964, and like that film depicting the end of an exploitative Eden). The fateful New Year’s Eve tragedy later in the film is an even more intricate nexus of staging and exposition. Moreover, such scenes depict how the characters connect, or fail to, and make choices about how to deal with life, from Scotty’s masochistic self-abuse to Little Bill’s homicidal explosion, and Buck connecting with sweet-natured costar Jessie St. Vincent (Melora Walters); all are not just linked but tied together with a cosmological sense of human becoming and failing. Amidst the microcosmic events that affect the lives of their employees, Jack and the Colonel and rival porn producer Floyd Gondolli (Philip Baker Hall, crucial actor of Anderson’s first three films) talk about what’s about to make the macrocosm shift. Gondolli warns Jack that video is about to change the porn industry, a notion Jack rejects vehemently as the death of what little pretence to artistry their business has. From today’s perspective, with the internet having slaughtered porn as an industry, there’s some irony in this now, although perhaps Anderson was also responding to the earliest rumblings of the digital filming movement in the late ’90s and its looming impact on the art form he loves, couched in the terms of a character defending what craftsman’s self-respect he has. The New Year’s motif might have seemed excessive, and yet Anderson finally makes time itself and the inevitable shifts it causes part of the texture here, concluding with Little Bill’s murder-suicide as the bang that quite literally ends the ’70s and shifts the tenor of the film.

BoogieNights152

Perhaps Anderson’s signature directorial touch, an extended filmic movement intercutting depictions of the characters spiralling in islets of behaviour that see them push to hysterical extremes before hitting epiphanies, was first offered here in the film’s last third. Anderson watches exiled Dirk, Jack, Amber, and Rollergirl hitting rock bottom in varying ways, from Dirk foray into male prostitution ending in a gay bashing, to Jack and Amber trying their hand at a kind of prototypical reality television as they ride about L.A. and pick up a random male to have sex with Rollergirl. Their lucky man proves to be the classmate whose teasing drove Rollergirl out of school, and when he performs badly, he insults her and Jack. Jack loses control and beast him to a bloody pulp, and Rollergirl gets a few of her own kicks in. The two acts of violence here are rhymed—Jack and Rollergirl lashing out at an emissary of the world that absorbs their product but disdains them, and Dirk being singled out as a pervert to be punished. Michael Penn’s scoring of this movement, a low, throbbing, urging drone with chimes, as if time is ticking down toward some doomsday, is particularly great. Anderson charts two diverse reactions in his characters, as Dirk tries to prove himself in the outside world whilst Amber and Rollergirl retreat into a haze of drugged-up, mother-daughter mind-melding and decide they don’t want to leave a room within the safe confines of Jack’s house.

BoogieNights161

Degradation segues into confrontations with death and crime. Buck, caring for a very pregnant Jessie, enters a bakery only for a gunfight to break out around him when an armed robber enters: Buck is left splattered with strangers’ blood—he wears an angelic white suit, in a sardonic Kubrickian joke—and frozen amidst corpses, but sees a chance to exit his personal perdition by snatching up the bag full of cash the robber dropped. Such an utterly random/contrived twist anticipates Anderson’s fascination with both narrative capriciousness and classical theatrical devices like the deus-ex-machina, as would again be used in the climax of his follow-up, Magnolia (1999). Boogie Nights’ late swerve into more familiar crime territory stymies to a certain extent the film’s masterful examination of its characters and their unusual world. But nobody could really expect Anderson to resist the ready-made climax the Wonderland case provided, albeit still subjected to his wayward sense of humour and gift for creating cringe-inducing situations. Todd talks Dirk and Reed into joining his hare-brained scheme to sell fake cocaine to dealer Rahad Jackson (Alfred Molina), and then springs his actual intent to rob Rahad’s fortune.

BoogieNights168

The careful construction here as the deal becomes increasingly uneasy is beautiful, punctuated by precisely employed yet random-feeling details that work on the nerves like nails on a blackboard, in Rahad’s hopped-up friendliness and the firecrackers let off at random by his young Chinese houseguest (Joe G.M. Chan). Rahad swans about in a kimono, life scored by the blaring mix-tapes he makes in objection to the song-order artists impose on their work in yet another form of lifestyle self-management. The episode combusts with Todd and Rahad’s bodyguard (B. Philly Johnson) ending up very dead, and Rahad chasing Dirk and Reed off into the night with a shotgun, deadly crime and high farce commingling. Dirk returns to Jack and is accepted after admitting his faults, making for a suitably mythic catharsis. Dirk is a “big shining star” for all his foolishness. The final scene, an obvious tribute to the simultaneously pathetic and learned vignette of Jake LaMotta at the end of Raging Bull (1980), sees Dirk restored and reciting dialogue in character that once again nudges the theme of the film around him. Dirk may never become as slick and knowing as Brock Landers, but he has found some peculiar wisdom.


4th 05 - 2008 | no comment »

The Dance That’s Stayin’ Alive!

Invitation to the Dance Movie Blogathon 2008

SaturdayNightFever%20edit.JPGdisplayimage.jpgPulp%20Fiction.JPG

By Roderick Heath

I realised, after devoting not too much time thinking about it, that three of my favorite dance scenes are all variations on the same moment, springing from Saturday Night Fever. It’s a film remembered as the flashpoint of Disco culture, a polyester-swathed celebration of those days of gritty glamour, chest hair, nose powder, and mirror balls. The soundtrack sold by the billion, and John Travolta was catapulted to the kind of stardom that consumes itself. But SNF is far more than just the ’70s equivalent of one of those lame ’50s rock films like Rock, Rock, Rock or Let’s Twist Again, where the latest big thing is trotted out in a dimly plotted vehicle. Saturday Night Fever was a ballsy, intelligent movie with telling things to say about (then) modern urban youth culture, a bridging point between the American New Wave cinema and the oncoming world of blockbusters.

Saturday Night Fever (1977)
Director: John Badham
Choreographer: Lester Wilson

Cunning producer Robert Stigwood found an even more cunning director in John Badham. What Badham did with the ailing dance movie formula was to take it back to its roots—a close ancestor is Lloyd Bacon’s 42nd Street (1933)—and contrast the high of cutting loose on the dance floor with the downer of surviving everyday life. Our hero is Tony Manero (John Travolta), a 19-year-old working-class Italian kid living at home with his nagging, neurotic parents in Brooklyn, working in a paint store and going nowhere fast. Like so many people of his age and class, he only becomes what he thinks he truly is at night, when he transforms into an Achilles of the dance floor, desired, admired, and revered by all. He embodies a contemporary male fantasy, delighted in his own body and prowess as a dancer. He’s a love totem for females. So much pussy comes his way he’s become contemptuous of it.

His first journey to the 2001: Odyssey club begins momentously as he enters with his friends to the grandiose strains of “A Fifth of Beethoven.” He cuts through this crowd like a messiah of cool. But Badham delays our true appreciation of Tony’s prowess. Tony dances here with two women who worship him, but he hardly burns up the floor. The DJ compounds his irritation by putting on a salsa-flavoured piece, the music of the despised Puerto Ricans; “You can’t dance to this shit!” But this is where he first glimpses Stephanie Mangano (Karen Lynn Gorney), the girl who temporarily dominates the floor in the same way he’s used to. Right from the start, Stephanie challenges Tony’s prejudices and self-love. And he digs it. But still he does not cut loose. Instead he is absorbed into the crowd line-dancing to “Night Fever.” The link between the song, the film’s title, and Tony becoming absorbed, reinforces his place in a community, a lifestyle. His tale as just another in this semi-naked city.

Badham, having cultivated a Scorsese-esque verisimilitude in the rest of the film, presents the inside of the club as a candy-coloured dreamland filled with hot ladies, slick movers, strippers and hip tunes. The camera drinks up the flashy, sexy show on the floor; one shot of a woman’s swiveling dress and legs lasts about 20 seconds. Tony’s great dance number arrives halfway through the film. Tony is on a high, expecting Stephanie to come and in the company of his brother Frank (Martin Shakar), whose own decision to leave the priesthood mirrors Tony’s increasing discomfort. His frustrations, his inability to get in the groove, have then been mirrored by the audience’s own desire to see him let rip. With irritation and hope in his soul, and weighed down by a sluggish partner Connie (Fran Drescher, who would later gain horrible revenge for her slight in this scene), Tony hears the opening chords of “You Should Be Dancing” and declares, ‘Forget this!’ He sets about brushing away all the other dancers, and cuts loose.

Badham shoots the sequence with élan, but also visual economy. As Tony begins, he struts up the centre of the stage, pretending to roll up his sleeves and tighten his belt like a pugilist or gunfighter awaiting action. Badham cuts in for a low shot of Travolta’s beaming, aquiline face as he swings his arm about in a lordly survey that both embraces the audience in his coolness and makes them bow down to it. Travolta sleekly stakes out each of the four corners of the stage, his flared pants and platform shoes acting like knifes that slice the floor into rippling, patterned pieces. Each move gains in a technical and athletic virtuosity, building to herky-jerky robotic flourishes.

The centrepiece of the act sees him stake out the front of the stage, rapidly stabbing the air with alternating index fingers, slapping the soles of his shoes, before cocking his left leg out, leaning away to the right, thrusting his pelvis as his arm jabs the air like a musketeer’s sword before tossing in another play-act vignette of wiping off his own seat. Badham cuts in to a low-angle, front-on shot that emphasises the architecture of the move. It’s the most iconic image of the film, a perfect fusion of muscle, music and fashion. Tony retreats down stage, spins, throws himself into a splay-legged crouch, slides across the four quarters of the stage, and regains his feet in a kung-fu forward flip. He has established his indifference to gravity. He folds his arms, and begins dropping to his knees and leaping up in the Cossack style, crowned in the moment when he throws himself into the sky, legs wide out to his hands.

This is the dancer as action hero, as urban cultural warrior. The sequence is a celebration of his masculinity, a new brand of masculinity that likes to display itself in a fashion previously reserved for women. Tony caresses his ass and humps both air and stage. There is a recognisable progress from the prancing precision of Fred Astaire to the rough-and-tumble of Gene Kelly to this martial dance-artist, but the celebration of male sexual prowess is new. It’s fitting for the pansexual philosophy of the era, Disco having been friendly both to multiculturalism and to gay life—one of the many reasons it was as loathed as loved. The film has bent over backwards to reassure us of Tony’s heterosexuality, however, and his postures have placed him in context with a long tradition of screen heroes. He’s a riposte to Taxi Driver’s thesis that Travis Bickle was the NYC heir to Western heroes; no, Tony is, at least for these minutes on the dance floor.

Airplane! (1980)
Directors: David Zucker, Jerry Zucker, and Jim Abrahams
Choreographer: Tom Mahoney

Burlesques on Saturday Night Fever were endless. None matched that found in Airplane! (David and Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams [“ZAZ”], 1980), a send-up of cheesy disaster movies that is actually a scurrilous satire on the cultural mores of the ’70s. The scene in the Mogumbo Bar presents the film’s approach in miniature, beginning as a caricature of the seedy movie dens that screen heroes like Humphrey Bogart would hang about in. A fist fight breaks out between a pair in uniform—not sailors or soldiers, as per usual, but rather two girl scouts—who beat the crap out of each other. One is sent sliding down the bar and collides with the jukebox, which immediately starts emitting a speeded-up version of “Stayin’ Alive.” The grizzled bar whores head for the floor. When one is stabbed in the back, his partner Elaine (Julie Hagerty) can’t tell the difference between his dying contortions and the epileptic chic of Disco moves. Ted (Robert Hays), entranced by the sight of Elaine, heads onto the floor and confronts her. Both are dazzled. Ted strips off his Navy tunic to reveal a white vest and black shirt, and tosses his jacket with élan into the crowd before striking the finger-in-the-air pose—only to have the jacket thrown back in his face.

Unfazed, Ted and Elaine begin to dance, Ted throwing Elaine into the air and waiting many seconds for her to land again in his arms. He allows her to swing him by the ankles, until she accidentally sends him flying. Horror! Ted cartwheels through the air and falls to ground behind a crowd with a huge crash. But our hero is unharmed; he bursts out from the crowd and again strikes the air-stabbing pose, this time with such undeniable cool that his finger stabs in the air sound like bullets. Abrahams and the Zuckers prove how hip they are to the stylisation of SNF, as Ted’s heroic strut plays on Tony’s posing is an extension of the classic American movie hero. As well as being one of the funniest scenes ever committed to celluloid, it’s a true bookend to its model. In their later concerts, The Bee Gees took to showing both scenes on a big screen whenever they played “Stayin’ Alive.”

Pulp Fiction (1994)
Director: Quentin Tarantino

For Travolta, Saturday Night Fever eventually proved to be a millstone. A decade and a half later, he was a living joke (and it wouldn’t be the last time), having made enough money from the Look Who’s Talking series to retire, but having flushed the last of his cred down the toilet. Then, Quentin Tarantino cast him in his hipster-noir epic Pulp Fiction and had him dance.

The sequence alludes to Travolta’s early role, but it also, in its deliberately stilted sinuosity, refers to the dance of Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à Part (1964). The moves of Travolta and partner Uma Thurman are drawn from oddball models—Thurman’s from the Duchess of The Aristocats (1970) and Travolta tossing in Adam West’s Batusi, all set to Chuck Berry’s unique Cajun-rockabilly tune “You Never Can Tell.” All this on top of the pair that we are supposed to be watching—a beatnik hitman and a coke-snorting ex-actress gangster’s moll falling in lust—builds into a scene that’s giddily hilarious, pointedly sexy, and subtly weird. It, in itself, became a vastly more ironic but equally pertinent pop culture icon to match the SNF scene, and remade Travolta’s career by both subverting and paying tribute to his time as the king of the dance floor.

Tags: ,

What others say about us

"You put a lot of love into your blog." – Roger Ebert, Roger Ebert's Journal
"Marilyn and Roderick … always raising the tone." – Farran Smith Nehme, The Self-Styled Siren
"Honestly, you both have made me aware of films I've never seen, from every era. Mega enriching." – Donna Hill, Strictly Vintage Hollywood




Subscribe to Ferdy on Films

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Recent Comments

Recent Posts

Blogs

Chicago Resources

Collected Writings

General Film Resources

Categories

Archives