Sunday, November 23, 2008

Staying alive?

Random thoughts on Saturday Night Fever, which I had somehow never seen till last Friday night:

* Why did I deny myself this pleasure?

* The Brooklyn disco is much shabbier than I expected. I think that based on the promotional imagery, I expected the nightclub to be sleek and chic, almost like something out of science fiction. But it really just looks like the crummy neighborhood bar, except with a flashing plastic floor.

* That said, the film reminded me that in the disco era, when I was a lad of 7 or 8, I thought disco lights were wonderfully sophisticated and evocative, and I wanted nothing more than to decorate my bedroom with them. At the mall I would stand in the darkened, disco-light section of Spencer's and covet every whirling bulb.

* The line-dancing sequence to "Night Fever" made me weep a little. Like the other dance segments -- which are electrifying -- it is a moment of beauty, conviviality, focus in an otherwise depressing milieu of violence, racism, homophobia, desperation, chaos.

* The Bee Gees' "More Than a Woman" is perfect.

* It is chill-inducing to see iconic cinematic imagery in context. Yes, I nearly melted at the sight, finally, of Travolta in the white three-piece suit -- and was surprised to learn that when Travolta dances in the white suit, his face is grotesquely bruised and bandaged as a result of brutish street violence. The bandage doesn't appear in the promotional stills. Seeing Travolta in the suit reminded me of when, ten or so years ago, I went to see The Seven-Year Itch in a morning matinee at Chicago's Music Box Theatre. There I was, enjoying the film, and then suddenly the universe stopped turning as the moment arrived when Marilyn Monroe steps onto the subway grate and her skirt is blown up by the draft. My mouth went dry. I had never known that was in Seven-Year Itch! I think on some level it had never even occurred to me that this image was actually in a film, that it occurs as a moment in an unfolding narrative -- granted, as a searing, heartstopping non sequitur of a moment in an unfolding narrative. My mouth also went dry when I saw the white suit.

* The credit sequence, with Travolta strutting and swinging a paint can to "Stayin' Alive," is sheer joy.

* The disco is called the 2001 Odyssey, and the cinematic reference is striking. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Saturday Night Fever is a film about transformation, evolution, human development, about people striving to move beyond messy, violent origins. The flashing lights of the disco remind me of the psychedelic freakout segment of 2001, and the gracefulness of the dancing reminds me of 2001's elegant "Blue Danube Waltz" sequence, where the spaceships spin lazily around. Of course, one of the messages of 2001 is that even in the Space Age, man remains the animal that murders. I'm not sure the Disco Age is any less grim.

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