Saturday, September 20, 2014

Dirty Dancing / * (1987)

“That was the summer of 1963,” a voice chimes in during the opening moments of “Dirty Dancing.” It belongs to one Frances Houseman (Jennifer Grey), the youngest of a posh east coast family, who is nicknamed “Baby” by everyone around her from the moment she wanders into an upscale resort for summer vacation. What brings her (and her relatives) to this getaway spot involves little more than privileged indulgence, but for her, the occurrence eventually seems to take on a deeper meaning. In the days before the world knew who the Beatles were, Baby’s thoughts are all about two things: joining the Peace Corps to study economics in third world countries, and wondering if she’ll ever “find a guy as great as my dad.” The first sign that we are dealing with a girl of questionable insight lies in that particular observation; because her father, played by Jerry Orbach, doesn’t have a very engaging demeanor outside of always looking morosely detached, one wonders what any kind of daughter could find so attractive about such a personality. But hey, cut a girl some slack: her frame of reference may be handicapped far too early for any screenplay to do much with it.

The problem, alas, is that the audience has to contend with this particular story, and there is just no escaping it. No, not even when the material abandons character sensibilities for the sake of putting them into a clothed orgy of risqué dance moves. No, not even when the muttered discord of the Baby persona is silenced by the sex appeal of her would-be suitor, played by a very young – and very alluring – Patrick Swayze. No, not when the movie attempts to emphasize social issues through secondary subplots. And no, not during the obligatory dance finale either, in which two beings from opposite sides of the track inevitably come together for one final moment that will romantically unite them. These are all obligatory checkpoints in any movie about music inspiring heated passions, but for this particular endeavor – a film that has, surprisingly enough, maintained a faithful audience over three decades – the moments are less about catering to conventions and more about creating elaborate masks to hide bigger issues, which begin (but do not end) with dimwitted dialogue, uninteresting characters, shoddy pacing and a cheap sense of style. As it turns out, a raunchy dance routine is quite the distraction from the acknowledgment of mediocrity.

Fortunately, I saw through such illusions early on in my experiences. A big hit in both the theaters and the early days of home video (and often inspiring its own dance craze in late 80s pop culture), “Dirty Dancing” was once towards the top of must-see viewing lists for any household containing teenage girls – a factor that also meant I was privy to frequent viewings on behalf of sisters who were inspired by the material. What appealed to them – or any other girl for that matter – about this film, anyway? Were they really that enamored with these shallow characters? What gives it such a lasting prowess in their minds now? “It captures the spirit of youthful romance,” a peer once observed. Maybe it does, in some roundabout way. But romance is not inherently effective unless it involves interesting people at the helm of it, either. To their credits, Grey and Swayze are actually very capable actors, and in a slew of scenes here exhibit a skill for movement that would marvel anyone with serious training. But ultimately they seem to be driven here by trigger mechanisms in a shoddy screenplay that has them think with pedestrian intentions, and then is content to release them aimlessly onto the dance floor without any sense of genuine involvement. These are not characters, but objects of choreography used to push a thoughtless agenda of sound and movement.

The plot is an equal exercise of clichéd principles. At the opening of the picture, Baby (Grey) and her family arrive at the resort of a well-to-do socialite named Max Kellerman (Jack Weston), who has invited the four of them (mother, father and two daughters) because Jake (Orbach) is his attending physician. Good for them, not so much for Baby; socially awkward and rather quiet in a group setting, she stares back at gatherings of upper class tea drinkers and golf players with minimal interest, and exemplifies awkwardness when, at an evening gathering, she winds up dancing with an old woman because of a lack of male partners. Unfortunately, her perpetual ambivalence is not well suited in a movie where all those around her – including her family – play like simplified cartoons, and there is another scene early on where she attempts to have a conversation with her distracted father that is curiously lacking in perspective. If not for the presence of either Orbach or Grey, one suspects these parts might have been written for actors who have never had close family relationships, much less an acknowledgment of them.

The catalyst: Baby is eventually overwhelmed with boredom in this carefree summer of privileged adventure and wanders, almost accidentally, into a staff party where she meets a dance instructor named Johnny (Patrick Swayze). She is flabbergasted by his skillful use of pulsating hips and strong forearms, but he is initially put off by her looming social status; perhaps deservingly so, he suspects she is either a spy for the other side or an arrogant little rich girl looking for a distraction, and neither role warrants much in the way of energy. Things change quite rapidly, however, when she is asked to fill in as his dance partner during a gala event for the resort, and in the process of learning the routine (and getting to know one another outside of their misleading associations) they start to develop an attraction. Go figure. Alas, as Johnny’s feelings deepen, it inspires an emotional tug-of-war that has ramifications on the outside. In one subplot, Baby makes some foolish decisions to protect a new group of friends (namely, ask her dad for money for someone’s illegal abortion), and that in turn jeopardizes relationships. Then, when a jilted love interest spies Johnny and Baby together, he makes an underhanded accusation against Johnny that threatens their secretive relationship. And so on, and so on, and so on.

The dance movie was very much a hot commodity prior to the arrival of “Dirty Dancing,” punctuated by mild successes (“Flashdance”) to outright bewilderments (“Footloose”). The greatest of these musicals was perhaps “Purple Rain,” because it was more than just a stage show for the screen; it was about real issues told through the eyes of characters well-drawn enough to warrant empathy. The irony in the development of that formula is that filmmakers often lost sight of the subtexts of people, because the pomp and circumstance associated with the music and dancing often overpowered their desires. In the hands of a like-minded filmmaker, this was one of those films that subscribed to that fallout. The nerve, I suspect, came down to the concept of dirty dancing itself: suggestive and unique, it was one of those endeavor that seemed to inspire an enthusiastic uprising in a culture that was starved for new moves at the local dance clubs. My guess is that such people don’t contemplate many deep thoughts in context with storytelling.

Trying to get through a movie like this in a straight sitting is daunting, almost aggravating; there is a sense permeating from the endeavor that the beginning and ending scenes are filmed with decisive intent, but are then filled by a middle act without rhyme or reason. Minus a razor-thin progression of a central love story, you get the feeling that most of the film’s key moments can be viewed in almost any order, because there is no dramatic unity building any of them to something significant. Meanwhile, the slow moments in between music routines are just that – slow. Maybe that’s speaking with silver linings; actually, they’re quite dead, and often filled with supporting characters that speak of their existence in third-rate clumsiness (“Where is my beige iridescent lipstick?”). And then there is that pesky issue of the climax being arranged around a 1980s pop song, despite the fact that it actually takes place twenty years prior to that. How did a movie so incessantly committed to channeling musical energy get away with such glaring errors? I’d wager an educated guess, but it’s more fun, I think, to just assume innocence; by the time these filmmakers got to the end of an undoubtedly long and exhausting excursion through this premise, maybe they just didn’t care about accuracy anymore.

The movie was directed by Emile Ardolino and written by Eleanor Bergstein, two names that now seem like obscure footnotes in the history of modern cinema. In the case of the latter, we can understand why; the screenplay is an engine without individualism, assembled as if it were pasted together following an unfortunate explosion in an amateur screenwriter’s class. For Ardolino, however, the movie did at least offer promising clues to the brief career that would follow – aside from using music as an overreaching force of unity, the movie does showcase an underlying warmth for everyday people (albeit dimwitted ones). Unfortunately, Ardolino died young from complications associated with AIDS; his last major release, “Sister Act,” was fairly successful, and indicated he was well on his way to marrying his skill to a more cohesive sense of narrative priority. What in the world was he thinking with “Dirty Dancing,” though? Like the most avid of the movie’s endless array of fans, maybe he was simply caught up in the glamour of the performance to acknowledge the emptiness of the story.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Dance/Drama (US); 1987; Rated PG-13 for (); Running Time: 100 Minutes

Jennifer Grey: Baby Houseman
Patrick Swayze: Johnny Castle
Jerry Orbach: Jake Houseman
Cynthia Rhodes: Penny Johnson
Jack Weston: Max Kellerman
Jane Brucker: Lisa Houseman

Produced by Doro Bachrach, Eleanor Bergstein, Mitchell Cannold, Linda Gottlieb and Steven Reuther; Directed by Emile Ardolino; Written by Eleanor Bergstein

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