SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977)
February 12, 2019
I watched SNF about a month ago for the first time and fell in love with it. The music, the energy, the main theme about finding one’s place in the world. The latter is oh-so-pertinent to a college student with their eyes to the future and it is handled with subtle care. That scene when Tony returns to the hardware store after being fired and his boss immediately rehires him, pointing to his oldest employees who’ve been with him since he opened. And the look on Tony’s face, when he realizes what his life may be fated to, is heartbreaking.
“DANCING...IT CAN’T LAST FOREVER, IT’S A SHORT-LIVED KIND O’ THING. BUT I’M GETTIN’ OLDER Y’KNOW ... Y’KNOW, I FEEL LIKE SO WHAT? ‘I’M GETTING OLDER’ — DOES THAT MEAN I CAN’T FEEL THAT WAY ABOUT NOTHING LEFT IN MY LIFE? Y’KNOW? IS THAT IT?”
One of the first movies I ever watched as a kid was Grease, and since then I’ve sort of had a soft spot for Travolta, but he absolutely shines here. Travolta called SNF, ”Taxi Driver with dancing,” which I believe to be a stretch but it has worked to convince my friends to watch the film -- it goes to places you’d not expect seeing the poster. Many I’ve come across assumed it to be musical, when really there’s much less dancing than the marketing lets on. The dancing is the release from a world of stress and teenage oppression. For the release to succeed, and I think it does, the stress must reach a proper height so that when Saturday night hits, the new generation can “explode,” as Nik Cohn puts it. There’s a line in Cohn’s story that serves as the epitome of SNF: “Only one thing bothered him, and that was the passing of time.”
Cohn’s piece is more fiction than fact, more story than article, as confirmed by Cohn himself in years since the success he found. “It reads to me as obvious fiction,” Cohn said of the piece. It was a product of the era, a process of “don’t ask; don’t tell.” I hesitate to be dumbfounded by this revelation, as “based on a true story” is so frequently plastered on films these days. Paul Schrader wrote about this development some years ago, about the kind of stories audiences want. He touched upon the popularity of reality TV due to their “unscripted” nature. I’ve come to the conclusion that these “based on a true story” taglines are nothing more than that, a promise of unscripted truth, one that inevitably goes undelivered. Cohn does write with a certain flare that I quite like, and at one point references a sort of movie-like scenario involving Vincent mowing down his oppressors and smiling in a “close-up,” omitted from SNF.
“Y’KNOW, I WORK ON MY HAIR A LONG TIME, AND YOU HIT IT. HE HITS MY HAIR.”
The characters in this film are so well written. Tony’s family dynamic is incredibly believable, as if the screenwriter sat in an Italian household and scripted conversations verbatim. That’s not to say the best dialogue is “realistic,” because I don’t think that’s true. A lesson from Aaron Sorkin is that characters don’t need to talk like people because that’d be boring. I think he’s mostly right, um-s and uh-s would get tiresome quickly. But in a film like SNF, every character speaks truthfully, believably, offering some sort of insight and propelling the narrative forward. A line like, “You never used to hit me ... at least not in front of the kids” reveals so much about the parents’ relationship. Or the mother praying for her son to call her. Or Tony working on his hair for a long time.
“WHAT'D YOU SAY ‘FAR OUT’ FOR?”
I love how Stephanie is written in this film as well. She is the “destination” for Tony -- she has her life together, a place of her own, is beautiful, and can dance (arguably not very well, as you mentioned in class). That scene in the coffee shop is exactly the kind of dialogue I’m talking about that is revealing and true. I think everyone’s been in that kind of conversation where the other person has interests different from our own or that are simply above our pay grade. Come to think of it, the scene sort of resembles Bickle and Betsy’s diner meal, although Bickle is much better at pretending he knows more than he does. Maybe that Travolta was onto something.
Even seemingly minor characters like Bobby receive a level of care seldom seen. His incessant asking for advice is at first comedic, but after a couple of times becomes worrying -- clearly Bobby’s abortion dilemma is eating him inside. That is until his tragic “suicide without committing suicide,” which works incredibly well having seen the friends on the bridge prior.(and pretend to fall off, until eventually one of them does). It plays into the shock of the gag, the “did that really happen?” seconds before realizing, “yes, unfortunately.”
Possibly my only gripe with the film is Annette’s depiction and purpose. A leech on Tony for the most part who just wants to settle down like her sisters. She meets a much too harsh end, sexually taken advantage of by Tony’s friends. Even so, I still feel for her when Tony drops her as a dance partner, immediately after the gut punch scene of Tony’s mother crying in the heat of their argument at dinner.
I feel as though I could expound — or quite frankly “gush” — on this film for quite some time. I haven’t even touched on the everpresent racial tensions, or the mentor complex with Stephanie, etc. It’s a film that I’m glad I watched when I did, and seeing it again projected made me ecstatic.
I’ll leave off with a fun fact that is sure to have made its rounds but I get a kick out of. In the White Castle scene with Tony, his friends, and Stephanie, those are real WC employees. Tony’s friend, Joey, starts barking like a dog and stepping on the table. Cut to a reaction shot of the employees, their mouths open in shock. In reality, offscreen of that reaction shot, Tony’s friend Double J had pulled his pants down and mooned the entire White Castle staff.