Friday, November 6, 2009

Backfilling: "Saturday Night Fever"

Welcome to “Back-Filling,” a (semi) regular feature in which I see movies that, by any reasonable measure, I totally should have seen by now.

The opening moments of Saturday Night Fever are about as iconic as they come: the Brooklyn Bridge, Travolta’s feet strutting down the sidewalk, the strains of “Stayin’ Alive.” This is one of those movies that you feel like you’ve seen, even if you haven’t; from clip reels to parodies to 70s retrospectives, John Badham’s rough-edged coming of age story has become so embedded in our collective pop culture subconscious that it is rather a surprise to discover how much more there is to it.

Travolta stars as Tony Manero, a Brooklyn paint-store employee who spends all week looking forward to Saturday night, when he and his buddies use the funds for their Friday paychecks to buy new shirts and hit the dance floor at their local disco. Tony itches to make his way across the bridge, into Manhattan, and decides that winning a big dance competition could fund that move, but he tosses away Annette (Donna Pescow), a good dancer who longs for him, in order to chase Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney), a trained dancer who puts on airs that draw Tony right in.

The film’s primary problem, from a storytelling standpoint, is that we don’t understand why he spurns Annette for Stephanie. It could just be that Pescow’s performance is so much more sympathetic than Gorney’s (“Why do you hate me so much?” Annette asks, “All I ever did was like you”), but it’s kind of an inexplicable choice—Annette is more likable, more interesting, and as cute. But then, that’s me trying to apply logic to the film’s troublesome, but presumably accurate, portrayal of the sexual politics of that time and place (“You gotta decide what you’re gonna be, nice girl or c***,” Tony tells Annette). I’m hoping that this also accounts for the picture’s stunningly casual tolerance of rape.

So, in many ways, Saturday Night Fever doesn’t really work on a narrative level—the central conflict is befuddling, you can see the climax (which is like something out of a silent melodrama) coming a mile away, and the last scene is nonsense, pure and simple, which Badham frames and shoots entirely at odds with the content of the dialogue (he seems to be capturing the ending he wants, rather than the ending he’s got).

But what it does work as is as an artifact, as cultural anthropology. The skill with which Badham marries the slick, shiny subject matter with the expectedly rough-hewn semi-documentary 70s aesthetic is kind of amazing. Travolta’s role became such a type that it’s easy to overlook what a skillful piece of acting it is—but he’s very, very good, and it’s easy to see how he became such a phenomenon, and stayed that way in spite of the quality of many of the performances that followed this one. And as much of a joke as disco became, the dancing here (and not just by Travolta, but by Gorney, by Pescow, and by that tremendous Puerto Rican couple at the end) is so good that it is somehow timeless. The sheer abandon with which Travolta commits his long, angular body to the choreography is something of a wonder to behold. When they dance, the movie is so alive that you begin to understand why you’ve already seen so much of it in other places.

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