Sunday, July 22, 2007

Anything but dated

Watching "Saturday Night Fever" all these years later, it's at first difficult to remember why I like this film.

It's terribly dated. Some of its themes and scenes could charitably be described as misogyny. Plot holes abound.

And yet --- for some of these same reasons, "Fever" is a triumph.

The film conjures a time and place, becomes ingrained in it, offers a stopped-time look at America, specifically Brooklyn, circa 1977. No movie save something like "American Graffiti" or "The Last Picture Show" does a better job at capturing, nay defining, an era.

John Travolta's Tony is a working-class stiff with big dreams. He wants more out of life than getting into trouble with his friends and living it up at the 2001 Odyssey disco on Saturday nights. The problem is he can't exactly figure out how.

And he suffers from the classic American male dilemma --- figuring out that women are more, much more, than sexual objects. It took me a whole lot of growing up and several later episodes of "M*A*S*H," awash in Alan Alda's feminist philosophy, to learn that lesson. Tony figures it out, sort of, through his friendship with Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney), the Brooklyn born woman who makes it to Manhattan.

What "Fever" does best, painfully so at times, is offer a bleak, honest realism to the venerable coming of age story. We may not like some of the film's gritty scenes, but I suspect they are as true to the period as anything put to celluloid.

Gorney is pretty but she isn't a Hollywood bombshell. And that's good. Tony, and we the audience, is taught to appreciate her for what she is, not for what she looks like.

And then there's that disco music. Love it, loathe it, it's catchy stuff. And it works well here as Travolta shows off the dance moves that made him a star. Hear "Night Fever" on the radio to this day, and suddenly you're strutting down the sidewalk with Tony as he makes his way to work.

The late film critic Gene Siskel loved this movie. His partner Roger Ebert once guessed Siskel saw it 17 times. He even bought Travolta's famous white suit at a charity auction.

Ebert guesses Siskel bonded with the film because it reflected who he was at that time in his life. And that's really what we want the arts to do to us, isn't it? How we react to it is all important; therein lies the rub.

Maybe it's not worth it to spend 20 minutes dissecting something like "Saturday Night Fever." Maybe it should be relegated to what it is -- a popular movie about Brooklyn teenagers enjoying the culture and music of the moment.

But, no. This film is more than that. Somewhere amid Tony's dreams of a better life lies a theme -- and a yearning desire -- that is anything but dated.

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