Wednesday, April 25, 2007

i carried a watermelon

In 1987, two very important things happened, for which the year will be earmarked in the pages of history. In July, I was born. But a few short months earlier, another bundle of creative energy, joy, and inspiration was brought into this world. Yes, I am referring to none other than cinematic tour de force, Dirty Dancing. Some people seem to like this movie in a tounge-in-cheek, "get me drunk and I'll sit and laugh at it with my gal pals" sort of way, but to them I turn a wry smile and think with fondness about what they're missing out on.

Next Tuesday and Wednesday, Dirty Dancing will be rereleased into theaters in honor of its 20th anniversary. Though I can't know for sure yet, I'm worried that end of semester business will prevent me from seeing one of my all-time favorite films on the big screen at last. Enough with the pessimism, though... Let's just bask in the cool knowledge that enough people understand the importance of this picture to bring it back for audiences old and new.

I can't remember how old I was when I first watched what must certainly be Vestron Pictures' magnum opus, but I remember finding out that there were "controversial themes" in the storyline which I had been too young to pick up on. I have some vague memories of watching my mother iron while nobody put baby in the corner on TNT, but I just cannot pinpoint the moment at which I could declare that I was truly a fan. Sometime in early high school, I think it was TBS that hosted a 12-hour marathon of Dirty Dancing. That's right - the same movie six times in a row. Now who would actually sit through something like that? Well, me, of course!

I cannot claim that this picture is a guilty pleasure of mine because I have loved it since before I knew what a guilty pleasure was. I can't tell if it falls into the category of cheezy dance movie that I love or cheezy romance that I love, but I figure it must be enough of both that it cycles out of the cheezy category altogether. I understand that the dancing is not that great, the actors are not really super-hot, and the performances are...alright. But somehow this neither diminishes my enjoyment of the movie nor forces me to love it in a so-bad-it's-good sort of way. I think that the mediocrity of some aspects of the film is perfectly balanced by the highlights of the characters involved and the lowlights of the situations they're placed in. Kellerman's is a completely boring place for the rich and complacent, and the location it was filmed in lacks even the natural beauty of a resort like Mohonk which must have inspired it. Finding a little bit of inspiration or romance in an otherwise unremarkable locale is tried and true, and this is where Dirty Dancing hits the spot.

Because to me, it's not about dance or love or even rebellion, really. It's about a teenage girl on the precipice of adulthood - too smart for her family, too naiive for independence, and too insecure in general. She wants to be free to learn about herself and change the world, but the reality is that she's too scared to let go of her support system.

"Me? I'm scared of everything. I'm scared of what I saw, I'm scared of what I did, of who I am, and most of all - I'm scared of walking out of this room and never feeling the rest of my whole life the way I feel when I'm with you." Baby says this to Johnny and I don't really think it's because she knows they're soulmates or anything. I'm sure there was a time in my preteen years when I believed that, but I've come to view her attachment to Johnny as a transference of security from her father to her lover. I'm not judging her motivations or saying they're too Electra-complex to be valid, but it just seems a likely explanation for how alone she feels when he is gone.

Baby represents intelligent, inexperienced, white-collar teenage girls everywhere, and I think her character marks an interesting change in American society. Her character grew up a child of the optimistic, economically-booming 1950s - the era of the teenager. By the time she had come into her own and was ready to attend Mount Holyoke, she must have absorbed enough of early second-wave feminism to believe that there was a cause in the world with her name on it. Poverty, hunger, and war are too big too start out with, so Johnny acts as a good stepping-stone for her. But the movie didn't come out in the '60s; it was released over two decades after it's set. I believe that the implications of a young woman looking to balance her sense and sensibility (notably not a new topic, Austen-ites) would have been quite resonant in a time when women's roles in the workforce were in a period of difficult adjustment.

I identify with Frances "Baby" Houseman, perhaps because I recognize so many of her flaws. She wants so badly to do something meaningful, even if she's fooling herself into thinking her actions are more important than they are. The good-hearted father coming to terms with his daughter's blossoming sexuality, the first love, the search for excitement - these are all old tropes. But Baby gets something that almost none of us get. She gets those "celluloid moments" that I mentioned in an earlier post. She gets lifted up by a strapping young man in a lake with summer rain falling on her face. She gets to wear a flouncy pink dress and dance with a group of street-wise hotel employees who all know the steps. This is something that many of us envy, and I don't think there's anything about that to feel guilty for.


P.S. I refuse to respond to any comments regarding the sequel, as I am barely willing to acknowledge its existence. However, if anyone's seen the musical based on the movie, I'd love to hear what you thought about it!

No comments: