As the holiday season comes to its inevitable climax, many of us are on their couches placing the upcoming year under the auspices of one or the other feel-good movie. We ritualistically summon joy, music, romance and happy endings upon ourselves. We celebrate a commercial and politically correct version of acceptance, tolerance, reconciliation. And hopefully this is not escapism, but an attempt to actually fine-tune ourselves collectively for a better year. As I see it, there are two options, paradigmatically embodied in the canon by two movies: GREASE (1978) and DIRTY DANCING (1987).
These are two hit films celebrating love as a force of discovery of the self and the other and the power of music, and apart from a taste for the appropriation of other musical traditions by White America (Black and Latino music, respectively), they share an important dramaturgical feature, that makes them supremely holiday-season-compatible: both are set some twenty years in the past. That makes them a tale told by the generation that made these movies to the generation of their children, about when they were their age. And what they decide to tell in that context will be the core of the experience.
GREASE, written by Jim Jacobs on the basis of his own youth memories, is a rockabilly fantasy about the end of the 50s, tellingly symbolized by heavily lubricated hair, and depicted as a time of innocence and joy, where Elvis is always in the background and everyone moves like in a Stanley Donen choreography. Young girls have James Dean posters, and in truth the whole thing is basically REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955) on acid, with toxic men-on-women and men-on-men power-plays just solving themselves, and parents that apparently do not even exist. Of course the musical also questions the values of the time, but that is mostly the creators of the musical and of the film reminiscing about their own youthful clumsiness –what wins is the nostalgia we direct towards a simple, colorful and cheerful world (especially from the male perspective), seen from the gray complexity of the 70s, when all symbols of American hegemony have been desecrated and the future looks gloomy (and oil-less).
This is the main difference with DIRTY DANCING, a film of articulation. The movie –written with autobiographical undertones by Eleanor Bergstein– is set in 1963, months before the assassination of President Kennedy, in days that are neither summer nor fall, a gray area of tipping points and growth. That time of overall conservative values, abusive working conditions, Ayn Rand-reading college students and dangerous illegal abortions is not idolized, but set as a mirror in front of us. Tribute is again payed to the music of the time, but in tension with the present. Patrick Swayze’s character has a dream (the action is contemporaneous with King’s Lincoln Memorial speech, but that fact is concealed in the movie, like everything that has to do with race): he had enough of the social dancing he teaches the rich, the merengue, the pachanga and the mambo, and he wants to experiment, create ‘a cross between a Cuban rhythm and soul dancing’. Needless to say, this will be the famous finale dance, that is basically a leap back/forward to the 80s, their disco pop and eclecticism. This is not a time of musicals and jukeboxes, but the time of the DJ, of the Walkman and of homemade mixtapes and montages. A working-class man creates his own mix, and post-modernism is born.
An age of sampling, and of friction, is dawning: DIRTY DANCING owes much of its success to the fact that it is NOT a musical. Dancing bodies are dissociated from the singing voices heard on the records to which they dance, song lyrics are dissociated from the storyline. Much like in real life. A constant gap is kept alive, that allows tension, critical thinking, irony and commentary. There is no revolution, but the gained awareness of its possibility through the experience –however fleeting– of the short-circuit of given hierarchies that is romance.
Side by side, the very titles of these two films aptly represent the tension between conservation and remix-as-invention, and offer an opportunity to make an existential choice. GREASEembalms the past and separates it from the present. DIRTY DANCING tells us about the relationship between past and present. GREASE is commodity fetishism. DIRTY DANCING is empowerment through the art of composition, which is conflict resolution. To put it in the terms of a famous parable about empowerment and agency, GREASE makes you sing along and gives you a fish. DIRTY DANCING makes you dance and teaches you how to fish. We need to question our recent past, our genealogy, our intergenerational relationships, our social constructs, our class divides, our standards of masculinity and femininity. The fact that films created within such a cash-machine of a production system are mostly unable to fulfill that task is no surprise –Francis Ford Coppola experienced it the hard way when making simultaneously his two own ‘greaser’ films, one commercial (THE OUTSIDERS) and one experimental (RUMBLE FISH)–, but the sense of a responsibility towards stereotypes is welcome in an industry that thrives on fabricating and distributing them. Not by replacing them with other stereotypes but by providing the means of its own deconstruction. The emphasis here is not on the ‘dancing’ as a medium, but on the ‘dirty’ as a method. DIRTY DANCING is the film of the sampler era, the time when Grace Jones could reclaim her status as a SLAVE TO THE RHYTHM, and with the uniformization of sound banks and pop aesthetics the cue has unfortunately not been taken much outside of the new music scene, until now.