Sunday, January 16, 2011

Revisiting the late 70's with "Breaking Away," "A Star is Born," and "A Chorus Line"

Once upon a time, I'd have told you that the movie Breaking Away was one of my all-time favorite movies. And then, I developed passionate attachments to other movies and the decades marched by, and I didn't think about this movie much. But this week, when the director died, I thought about it again, and I read a blogpost which extolled the virtues of this movie and mentioned that we can stream it via Netflix. Since I so rarely find movies I want to watch that I can stream on Netflix, I tucked away that nugget of information.

Yesterday, after a wonderful afternoon of collaging (photos tomorrow!), we settled in to watch a movie. I suggested Breaking Away. I expected my spouse to resist, since he usually refuses to watch movies he's seen before (which leads us to settle for all sorts of second and third--and lower!!!--rate movies, since at least we haven't seen them before--insert heavy sigh here). To my surprise, he agreed.

I often go back to watch movies that once were my all-time favorites only to be left shaking my head and wondering what on earth once moved me so profoundly. Happily, our experience with Breaking Away was just the opposite. I was happily surprised to see how well the film holds up. It's well-written, well-acted, and well-filmed. A great viewing experience.

It's also an interesting window back in time. I loved seeing the old haircuts, the old clothes, the old cars. Interesting to watch Dennis Quaid back when he was a teenager. Interesting to view all the variety in teen-age bodies in this film. You don't see that much in current films, where women look like concentration camp victims with grossly out of proportion breasts and men all look hard and ripped and muscled out of proportion.

Breaking Away has a lot to say about class, and what it has to say is still relevant to us. We see high school graduates with very few options in terms of jobs. We see the conflicts between the town kids and the college kids, who are richer and more entitled. There are scenes of a quarry, scenes that we should view when we lament how manufacturing has left our shores. While I, too, regret the loss of those jobs that gave many a man a middle-class paycheck and benefits, I think it's important not to forget that it was often hard, dirty work that left many a man dead early.

I also loved that the middle-aged parents of the teenagers have a sex life. Wow! Married people who still desire each other after at least 20 years together. That, too, is a message you don't see often in today's films. And when you do see it, it's often played for laughs, like the movie It's Complicated. And in that movie, the couple was reuniting--they weren't still together.

I had similar reactions to A Star is Born, which we also watched last night. I was delighted with the wide variety of women's bodies, bodies that had curves. I thought that the movie still had relevance to modern audiences, in terms of exploring creativity and success and all the ways that success can decimate the creative purpose. Like Breaking Away, one of the subthemes was how we deal with the fact that our idols have very human frailties.

I remember watching A Star is Born when it came on network television in late 1979 (so, yes, it was somewhat sanitized). I dug out my mom's soundtrack, and we spent a gloomy Sunday afternoon listening to it. I loved the more rocking songs, while she loved the Streisand numbers. I had no idea of Kristofferson's extensive songwriting experience, and it would be years before I explored the country music and roots music that led me back to Johnny Cash and Kristofferson. In my own adolescence, I was simply a sucker for a good love story. So was my mom. I have many happy memories of adolescence that revolve around my mom and me and popular culture. At the same time that we spent a week-end watching A Star is Born and listening to the soundtrack, we watched the PBS series The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I loved that series so much that it would be years before I realized that Miss Brodie was really a destructive force; I'm embarrassed to admit that it took some analysis from a grad school professor before I could really see that character anew.

Today, I plan to collage some more and end the day watching Every Little Step, a documentary about the revival of A Chorus Line (review here and here). I've loved this musical since my mom first got the soundtrack for Christmas in 1977. My sister and I memorized the whole album, and in 1979, my parents took us to Atlanta to see the show at the Fox Theatre, where we also saw Godspell in 1973 (we lived in Montgomery Alabama at the time, and if you wanted to see Broadway shows, you went to Atlanta--I have no doubt that travelling Broadway shows now make their way into Alabama). In 2009, went to see the touring revival of this show, and I wrote about that experience in this post.

I still find myself haunted by some of the lines of this musical: "Different is nice, but it sure isn't pretty; pretty is what it's about. I never met anyone who was different, who couldn't figure that out" (ouch--yet true, at least in adolescence); "I'm feeling nothing."; "I really need this job; please God I need this job; I've got to get this job."

I don't want to tell you how many times I find myself singing silently: "Who am I anyway? Am I my resume? That is a picture of a person I don't know."

I count myself lucky to have a spouse who will endulge me (and accompany me!) in my ramblings back through the landscapes of my youth. But in some ways, they're his landscapes too. After all, we met in college; I was 18, he was about to turn 19. We spent intense times talking about all the pop culture stuff that had shaped us. Even though he had never seen the stage version of A Chorus Line until we saw it together in 2009, he probably felt like he had, since he had heard me talk about it so much--and of course, there was the movie version, but let us not talk about that particular disappointment.

As a grown up person at a non-performing arts school, I find it intriguing that I continue to have so many conversations with students who are torn between an education that might net a career and a rare chance at life in the performing arts. Is it my former drama geek self that they sense? Or do they have these conversations with anyone who will sit still and indulge them? I remember one student recently who talked about how intensely he missed ballet, but he was trying to be sensible. And on his way out of my office he did this perfect plie and then, with an amazing jete, he disappeared around the corner.

I'm lucky that I can pursue my artistic passions and still keep my day job. I am haunted by the possibility that I chose these particular passions precisely because I can pursue them without making difficult choices. People do make a living as actors. It's almost impossible to make a living writing poetry alone.

Let me end by reminding myself of that consoling conclusion to the essay I wrote two years ago: "But I'll take a page out of the songbook: "Won't regret, can't forget, what I did for love." I'm lucky that I've been able to do what I love: college work in drama, journalism, radio; graduate work in British literature; a wide variety of teaching work; time to craft poems, stories, and a variety of types of writing. If I had a chance to do it all over again, I'd sign right up!"


Kathleen said...

Love learning that you were a "drama geek"! Me, too. I've seen that Every Little Step documentary--fabulous fun! and heartbreaking moments--and, like you, I knew the Chorus Line soundtrack long before I ever saw a production. In fact, it was only in the last few years that I saw it--performed by state "all star" high school students brought together for an all-state performance.

Also had the piano/vocal, so I would sing "What I Did For Love," etc. Imagine "Dance: Ten; Looks: Three" (aka "Tits and Ass")at the top of my lungs as a teenager, my parents listening. Hey, they brought the soundtrack album into our house! (Where did I just read an account of changing the title on that song so it could be printed in the program and not put people off...?)

Looks like you've made perfect life choices!

Kristin said...

The documentary talks about the change of the song's title--it didn't get any laughs as originally titled, and then, when they changed the song title, it got laughs.

Great documentary--I may watch it again.

I, too, saw a group of high school folks doing "A Chorus Line." A fresh faced 14 year old playing Cassie just does not work.

As always, thanks for reading and commenting!