Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category

Shifting Imagery: The Ominous Forecasts of Cool

May 10, 2011

Today’s popular culture is addled with hastily shifting imagery across all media, which has fostered vast quantities of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) in younger people. Though MTV has bore most of the blame, the recent trend towards quick-cutting in modern film and video can be traced back twenty years prior to the downfall of that once-musical network. In Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969), hasty sequencing is employed throughout, though not to pander to an ADD mentality.

Medium Cool casts the fictionalized shenanigans of TV cameraman John Cassellis (Robert Forster) into the very real events surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Viewers have long debated the spontaneity and candidness of the scenes in which Cassellis is plunged into the true-life firestorms of racial tension and rioting; the end results resembling not so much a suspense thriller as a reality TV docudrama. Wexler was striving to capture the blunt effects of real-time social malaise on celluloid, and he succeeded at the expense of cinematic symmetry.

Upon its initial release, columnist Roger Ebert stated that the power of Medium Cool is in the character’s refusal to “[stop] at B on their way from A to C.” He insisted that audiences had become so familiar with the conventions of storytelling that they had overcome their need for slow and linear plotlines. From a few telling snapshots in time, audiences could now piece stories together through situational citations. Ebert further pointed to Steve McQueen’s Bullitt as an example of modern cinema dispensing with finer detail in order to “[move] at our speed.”

His assessment is fair enough, for when taken as isolated works, both movies stand as gripping examples of outré filmmaking. But when viewed as the new tradition of storytelling in an age where audiences have lost their patience for detail, Ebert’s forecasts ring ominous. A parallel could be drawn between the precedents Ebert outlined and a similar development which occurred earlier during the 20th century in the realm of literature. Much like cinema of the 1930s and 40s had been lavish and story driven, novels and short stories of the 19th century had been broad and colorful in their literary scope. One might think of Charlie Chaplin as a cinematic Washington Irving.

But then emerged the icons of the Lost Generation, who spurned literary whimsy to forge a minimalist brand of storytelling. The brash narrative to An Alcoholic Case by F. Scott Fitzgerald forecast the modern TV medical drama in much the same way that Medium Cool presaged COPS. Which is where this viewer draws the line, for while wreckage can make for a useful cautionary tale, it’s not something I want to see made into an art form.

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Indestructible: Riding on the Roller Coaster of Great Escape Scenarios

April 24, 2011

Everyone knows how the female heart is sent aflutter in the presence of a rough guy; that ruggedly handsome dominant man of impeccable coolness. Rarely acknowledged, however, is the attraction which women harbor for dark, edgy and distant men. You see the archetype whenever you open the pages of any women’s lifestyle magazine, which constantly feature layouts in which some lusty, lovelorn female clutches the arm of an expressionless, disinterested suitor. Such phenomenon is faintly portrayed in other realms of popular culture, and for cinematic accuracy in intersexual dynamics, one must look to the 1950s.

In Robert Aldrich’s 1955 film noire crime thriller Kiss Me Deadly, Ralph Meeker stars as Mike Hammer, a stoic and indestructible private investigator who simultaneously forecasts the bravado of James Bond and sexual aloofness of the cosmopolitan man. The night and day exploits of Hammer unfurl like a roller coaster of great escapes, with Hammer emerging unscathed and unfazed from each incident. With nonchalance and ease, Hammer thwarts an endless series of would-be assailants and assassins, most of who try to blindside him whilst missing the core principle of their target: Hammer is a man without fear.

Early along in this saga, a criminal thug pulls a switchblade from behind Hammer in the dead of night. Hammer seems to have traced this episode in advance, and so without looking over his shoulder he sprays the thug with popcorn and, promptly turning, lands an effortless knockdown. A comedic innuendo hovers over this incident that reoccurs in subsequent attempts on Hammer, in which menacing antics backfire and the assailant winds up scared instead of the target. Popcorn would be but one bag of curve balls.

Shortly down the line, Hammer musters an intuition that, if only more common, could be the lifesaver of many lesser heroes. Knowing that the thugs are all out for him, he figures that their next trick will be in the form of a car bomb, and so he rushes outside to halt his trusty, foreign sidekick from fatally setting ignition. True to his sixth sense, Hammer knows exactly what is hidden underneath the front hood, and he can point his sidekick to the explosives without even looking himself. When one thinks of how clichéd the whole car bomb twist has become throughout all the explosion-brimmed action thrillers of today, this knowing foresight on the part of Hammer makes him a god amongst heroes.

Hammer’s most Houdini-esque moment happens a few scenes later, after he momentarily falls captive to a trio of thugs. The thugs think they have him under a vice, but shotguns and bed ropes are no match for Hammer. Thus before they even drill him, our hero has untied himself, yet plays along for fun. Minutes later, the second of the thugs falls in shock amidst discovering that the man he stabbed on the bed was actually his first accomplice, not Hammer. As turning tables dawn on the last of three, fear and panic grip his homely face. Our hero has vanished.

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Twisting the Armband: The Politics of Othering

April 12, 2011

Over the last three decades, academic leftists throughout the Anglosphere have attempted to rewrite their cultural past through a prism of shaming, in which Western history up to the mid-20th century is condemned as a lengthy dark age marked by sexism, racism and imperialism. In Australia, the term black armband theory has been used to identify the guilt-ridden cultural revisionism that’s currently espoused by that nation’s liberal elites; a syndrome largely reflected in modern American liberalism.

Outside academia, the chief engineer behind American black armband syndrome has been Hollywood, which has constantly used the cinematic medium to cast all the wonderful outcomes of capitalism and complementarity in a condescending light. Ill-documented chapters in American history have made for a sitting duck in these ideological exploits, for the voiceless past has no defense against a partisan present. Amongst those crowding this revisionary pulpit is feminist filmmaker Maggie Greenwald, who disemboweled the Western in her 1993 flick, The Ballad of Little Jo.

Greenwald’s flick takes biographical liberties over the life of Josephine Monaghan, a decorated 19th century frontiersman of whom a bizarre tidbit was revealed upon his obituary: the dude was a she. This germ of transgenderism sets the innuendo upon which Greenwald spins her black armband revisionism of life in the Old West. Jo has been expelled from her East Coast gentry for having bore a child out of wedlock, and so she travels westbound into the land where dignity is measured in beard length, thus prompting her to masquerade as a man. Flanking Jo at every turn is the behavior malaise that’s typically alleged of bygone, male-centric townships: belligerence, rakishness and vulgarity.

As with most feminist agitators, Greenwald’s insights into the male psyche are grotesquely misinformed. Her vision of man as savage rings all the more disorienting when coupled with the rosy veneers which she initially heaps upon the evil sex. The peddler Jo encounters at the outset of the story seems like a spirited, avuncular gentleman; that is until he announces her sale to the bandits. Likewise, Percy the stable-keeper comes off as a stoic man of modest intent; unlucky in love and perhaps rendered a eunuch. But then comes the gruesome incident between Percy and the goddess who serves as the unlikely whore in this story, and we’re left with nothing but disgust and hatred for the man. This schizophrenia which Greenwald depicts through men like Percy has confused some liberal viewers into praising her as a multi-dimensional character maker. To me it embodies the unsubtle  misandry behind the conception of this film; a jaundiced worldview in which bipolar disorder is endemic of men.

Redemption to the evil sex is served, consequently, by the token non-white character in this flick, Tinman, a Chinese emigrant whom Jo rescues from yet another round of backwoods banditry. The political innuendo of Tinman’s arrival is twofold. Since he’s the only non-female victim in this story, women and minorities are assigned comparative plights within Greenwald’s worldview. And since he’s the only non-female object of desire in this story, masculine sex appeal is now defined at the exclusion of white men within this worldview. It’s the politics of othering.

Implausible story threads and political innuendos aside, The Ballad of Little Jo is a genre film, and as such might adequately suffice with fans of the Western genre. For enlightened viewers of the 21st century, however, this film will appear dated and inflammatory, filmed as it was within the quagmire of third wave feminism during the 1990s. Liberals, meanwhile, will continue casting icons of otherness into their jaundiced rewrites of history. Personally, I’ll stick to true life heroines of the Old West, such as the one enshrined in singer/songwriter Andy Pratt’s 1971 classic, “Avenging Annie”:

Well, they call me Avenging Annie,
I’m avenger of womanhood,
I spend my whole life telling lies,
I’ll lead you on and mess you over good.

Living Well: Gunning through the Sahara

March 14, 2011

The horrors of combat are made more palatable to civilian audiences when the role of Sergeant is played not by some stereotypical tough guy, but by the affable likes of Humphrey Bogart, the most distinguished leading man of 1940s cinema. In Zoltán Korda’s Sahara (1943), Bogey employs his calm, laidback personae to the character of Sergeant Joe Gunn, who helms a crew of assorted allies stalled mid-desert in pursuit of water.

Sahara conveys the wartime principle of self sacrifice, in which the will of the individual is surrendered to the greater good of the group. Most of these men will die, yet each death is met with the overarching purpose of forestalling and depleting the enemy; a fate that each man has bravely accepted. After the fearless Sudanese Sergeant Tambul crosses enemy lines to snuff the crew’s scheming Nazi-captive, he runs back brazenly through the storm of fire; not because he thinks he’ll survive, but merely to get within viewing range of Gunn to deliver a triumphant thumbs up.

The militaristic notion of numbers – in which human loss is treated as collateral damage in the ultimate goal of victory – is a foreign concept to most civilian viewers. Sahara eases the blow by steering clear of large scale combat scenes, focusing instead on the minute concerns of getting from one desert well to the next. The suspense to Sahara is delivered in a manner so dry that the anti-climax – in which Gunn and his last remaining ally stand like sacrificial lambs before an onslaught of German soldiers; only to see the Germans slump before the well, famished and fightless – rings comedic.

Modern day viewers, nonetheless, have waged varying forms of criticism towards Sahara. Some collegiate feminists have extrapolated that Sahara is a sexist film, simply because it contains no female cast members. But considering how this film deals with a male-centric scenario (combat) which stems from a male-centric concept (warfare) – the consequence of dispute between differing parties in the ultimate construct of male ingenuity (civilization) – one could sensibly conclude that a film like Sahara calls for an all-male cast. Others have criticized Sahara for its inaccurate depiction of a racially integrated military, citing how the US military was actually segregated up until 1948. When one considers the role that war films play in shaping popular sentiment, however, this portrayal of integrated teamwork could be viewed as Hollywood’s ultimate public service statement.

Internal Divide: Torn at the Gulf between Love and Lechery

March 10, 2011

On his Oz Conservative blogspot, Melbourne-based traditionalist educator Mark Richardson has conceptualized that the “culture of relationships is formed from three inputs: marriage, romantic love [romance] and sex” (1) – inputs that have traded authority over the past two centuries. The influence of marriage, with its emphasis on etiquette and courtship, predominated until the late-Victorian era, at which point society yielded to the emotional impulses of romantic love, marked by chivalry and the pedestalization of womankind. Pedestalization stemmed from the 20th century gentleman’s romantic idealization of femininity, which in turn handed the moral guardianship of society over to women, who were thus deemed the ‘fairer sex’. Alas, romantic love succumbed to the torrents of third wave feminism in the 1990s, whereupon a cruder generation of women spurned pedestalization as the construct of an oppressive patriarchy; thus plummeting society into a culture dominated by sex, which has ‘liberated’ women to pursue their baser, hypergamous instincts. Within this new intersexual paradigm, gallant and cultured men have typically been rejected in favor of those who exhibit rawer features of testosterone, such as muscles, thuggish looks and recklessness (1).

Retrospectively, the inversion of women’s standards over the past century can be foretold in one classic tale of dichotomy, written at the dawn of the age of romance: Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In Paramount’s definitive 1931 adaptation, Fredric March enacts the title-sake dual role, in which Dr. Henry Jekyll embodies the cultured, romantic gentleman, and Mr. Hyde caricaturizes the vile, lecherous lowlife. In the body of March, Dr. Jekyll cuts a tall and slim figure of androgynous comeliness; the type of man who would have been much desired by women in the age of romance. Contrastingly, figments of Hyde have surfaced in some modern day celebrities (2), yet this film of old vulgarized his rakishness with such condemnation; it stands as a testament to the moral standards which upheld our culture during the age of romance.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde illustrates the protective nature of society towards women in the pre-hypergamous world. Interventions into female distress scenarios are a common occurrence in this film, most notably when Dr. Jekyll comes to the aid of a young woman named Ivy; lifting her from a sidewalk scurry and up to the safety of her room. Exhibiting loose ends, the inebriated Ivy tries to tempt Dr. Jekyll into staying, but true to his gentlemanly virtues, he declines. Sparing women of their own lesser tendencies is but one measure of chivalry from the doctor; saving women from the claws of his own fate is another. As his transformations spin out of control, Dr. Jekyll swallows the inevitable and breaks his engagement to Muriel, a woman of upstanding pedigree. Dr. Jekyll holds a romanticized view of womankind, and thus strives to protect the women in his life from the forces of evil, including that which overtakes him in the end. (more…)

Beyond Evil: The Dark Art of Disingenuity

March 1, 2011

Have you ever felt cheated, jilted or swindled by a ploy so evasive that it left you virtually blindsided? Where the enemy cajoled you in a manner so cunning that you practically signed away on your very own dignity? In these times of reflection – where people look back with bewilderment upon the 2008 elections – new questions have arisen over the spread of misleading, nuanced vocabulary in our culture. How long has this sort of thing been going on?

As far back as 1952, concerns over stealth coercion were brought to the big screen in Vincente Minnelli’s MGM melodrama The Bad and the Beautiful, in which Kirk Douglas stars as Jonathan Shields, the scheming son of a late filmmaking pariah. Opening onto a present-day summons of Shields’ core associates from the past eighteen years, we learn that he has indeed been a man of inexplicable guile. His dossier reads like a textbook in the dark art of disingenuity: where negatives are flipped into positives via circular logic; where wrongdoing is portrayed as benevolence by means of inappropriate analogy; and where guilt is transferred onto the aggrieved through use of shifty, phony high-grounds.

Calling forth this meeting is middleweight film exec Harry Pebbel, to whom Shields had once deliberately lost $6,351 in a poker game. The intent was to finagle a seat in Pebbel’s unit as a means of payoff, whereby Shields would earn his industry foothold. Shields pried upon the malleability of Pebbel with smiling shrewdness, fearlessly stating:

You don’t run this studio, Harry… you are an executive producer… of B-pictures, it’s true… you have four producers in your unit; why not five?

Pebbel caved according to plan, expressing his desperation for scripts and – conflating job vigor with gambling fear – his urgent need for Shields to produce stories with the same “sweat” that he’d broken over that poker money. Basically, the circular logic ploy had conned Pebbel into thinking that his grounds for a ‘contract’ were actually grounds for a… contract. When brazenness gets you ahead this easily, who cares about ethics?

Next we’re given the history between Shields and his primary stepping-stone, Fred Amiel. An aspiring director, Amiel worked the studio trade with Shields whilst developing a film project, which Shields then pitched to the studios. Shields betrayed Amiel in the process of signing a deal, however, for Hollywood green-lighting required an established director; a detail which Shields ran right past Amiel whilst listing all the features of the deal. As Amiel grew enraged, Shields twisted the state of demotion into an act of inclusion, telling Amiel that his “name will be on the screen, assistant to the producer.” Unmoved, Amiel asserted that his picture, his “idea”, had been stolen; words which Shields spun into a verbal irony: “without me, it would have stayed an idea.” It was becoming apparent that no one could possibly level with Shields; the man was a seething vortex of spin.

To the burned and swindled souls left in Shields’ path, the heartbroken and jilted could be added in the person of Georgia Lorrison, a floundering actress whom Shields mentored. Though sensing her attraction, he kept stoic whilst guiding her with a mixture of nonchalance, tough love and chivalry. But when a studio exec phoned Shields with talk of replacing Lorrison for an upcoming role, Shields passionately kissed her in the hope that it would summon her acting vigor. Later, following her star-making premiere, she paid an impromptu visit to his home, only to find him messing with her understudy. Now in all fairness, Shields had rarely reciprocated any of Lorrison’s romantic interest. But the way in which he spun her heartbreak into another phony high-ground for himself was just beyond evil:

You couldn’t enjoy what I made possible for you… NO, you’d rather have THIS! Well congratulations, you’ve got it… all laid out for you so you can wallow in pity for yourself! Maybe I like to be cheap once in a while, maybe everyone does!

(Kudos to Douglas for his frightening performance in that scene; he conjured Shields’ misanthropy with such psychotic intensity; you’d think both actor and character were possessed.)

The last tale to be told was that of Professor Jim Bartlow, author of a bestselling book which Shields wanted to turn into a movie. Though disinterested, Bartlow caved at the urging of his wife, Rosemary, who was ironically deemed a distraction by Shields once the couple had settled into Tinseltown. Covertly, Shields urged a studio Casanova by the name of Gaucho to keep Rosemary occupied; and the two perished en-route upon an illicit tryst. Unaware of Shields complicities, the widowed Bartlow grew ever fond of his Hollywood benefactor, extending an invite to his writing cabin for inspiration. Carelessly, Shields rambled on about Sebastion – a character in Bartlow’s book – with comparisons to Gaucho; slipping into an ad-lib over how he “begged him not to take that plane.” Upon the sudden, violent end to their partnership, Shields heaped an endless, cold-blooded torrent of indignation upon Bartlow’s late wife:

Whether you like it or not, you’re better off. She was a fool! She got in your way! She interfered with your work! She wasted your time! You’re better off without her!

Malignance aside, this rant was but one more affectation from Shields; a circular ploy to turn love into hatred, much like he had turned debt into deed long beforehand.

For Amiel, Lorrison and Bartlow, the film ends on a somewhat happier note, as their older and wiser selves decline to revisit the world of their bête noire. In parting, however, they overhear Pebbel getting lured into further shenanigans with Shields, as if the blue pill had never worn off on the lowly B-exec. Which is why The Bad and the Beautiful – a film of study if not entertainment – should serve as a cautionary tale to anyone who’s recurrently fallen prey to the gambits of a master manipulator.

Golden Rush: Trampled Under the Impulse of Hypergamy

February 1, 2011

Charlie Chaplin always played his iconic role of the ‘Tramp’ with a degree of self-deprecation. Whereas most Hollywood comedies have rewarded the central underdog both romantically and monetarily, the majority of Chaplin’s films – including The Circus and City Lights – depict the Tramp as a romantic outcast in the end. But in his 1925 rags-to-riches caper The Gold Rush, the Tramp actually gets the girl, Georgia, by appealing to a feminine impulse typically glossed over in cinema: female hypergamy.

Hypergamy is defined as the desire amongst women to pair up with men of superior strength, status, prowess and wealth, the last of which is finally attained by the Tramp at the climax of his Alaskan adventure. The romantic saga unleashed upon Georgia’s arrival embodies hypergamy at its most extreme. First we have the Tramp, a naive and awkward pantomime of man/boy traits, whose openheartedness makes him easy prey to the emotional clutches of womankind. Then there’s Georgia, the bob-haired beauty whose frontal charms mask an undercurrent of sadism. Lastly, there’s Jack, the burly lout who serves as Georgia’s suitor.

Initially, Georgia takes amusement in the Tramp’s infatuation with her, and leads him on by smugly accepting his New Years invitation. Her compunctions surface after a second twist in her schemes, where she calls for a belated drop-by to that snubbed New Years Eve party, only to discover the heartfelt efforts in which the Tramp had partaken in preparation for that evening. She’s further shaken when a love note she wrote for Jack is redistributed as means for a cruel, misleading prank against our lovelorn Tramp. There are some lines that even bad boys aren’t allowed to cross.

In a typical romantic comedy, the proverbial last straw for the heroine would prompt her final turnaround – away from the villainous ‘other guy’, and right into the arms of our leading man – but not in the world of Chaplin. Our Tramp doesn’t get the girl until the closing moment, and only because of his newfound wealth, which ultimately renders him a magnet for female hypergamy.

Scarlet Vision: One Man’s Descent into Psychological Blindness

January 18, 2011

The old adage that nice guys finish last has rarely been acknowledged in popular film or song. Entertainment reflects an idealized worldview, and the things which women profess in their rational daily states reflect ideals which don’t factor into the irrational state of passion. Simply put, safe and practical ‘nice guys’ don’t invoke the nature of passion that dark and edgy ‘bad boys’ do. Only since the close of the 20th century – when men’s esteem coach F.J. Shark observed how “nice guys are always on the shopping lists when going into the social marketplace, but they’re never in the shopping carts when coming out” (1) – have lifestyle experts admitted that women do indeed prefer bad boys. Yet a film released back at the close of the Second World War defied public delusions, albeit ominously.

In Fritz Lang’s 1945 film noir Scarlet Street, the meek, middle-aged Christopher Cross summons his inner-White Knight upon seeing a young woman, Kitty, enscuffled below a streetlight. While becoming acquainted, he swiftly falls for her, only to be swindled, for Kitty is not the angel that Christopher envisioned. Yet he grants her even further leeway, only to reap vehement scorn, which finally drives him over the edge.

In the modern parlance of MGTOW (Men Going Their Own Way), Christopher would be viewed as a ‘mangina’: a typical nice guy who supplicates to women (2). His romanticized view of women is so ingrained that he falls in love at whim and deludes himself amidst the pratfalls. Consequently, women use him up immeasurably. Not only is there Kitty, the nubile harlot who usurps Christopher’s professional credits at her pimp’s behest; there’s also Adele, Christopher’s scolding, unappreciative battleaxe of a wife. Sadly, Christopher’s initial good intentions beget mental and financial fallout, as proof to the old adage.

Both these women direct their passions elsewhere, and their choices expose the feminine psyche with bluntness rare to film. Masculine virtue in the eyes of Kitty is embodied in the man who functions as her pimp, Johnny. Smarmy and scheming up to his timely disposal, we first witness Johnny doubling as Kitty’s street-corner assailant. Adele, meanwhile, is stuck on her presumably deceased first husband, for whom reverence is bestowed with blindness to fact. But upon finding that he and Adele are finished, Christopher lapses in a heartbeat and proposes to Kitty. There’s a name for doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results each time, and indeed it becomes Christopher.

As one who favors objectivism over existentialism, I won’t excuse Christopher for his bad choices. In no way do I see him as some poor, hapless man who got swept into the darkened vortex of fate; just a man whose lack of dignity and restraint had the severest of consequence. Like most men, he was ill-trained in his handlings of the ‘fairer’ (sic) sex. And like most people, he’d been subconsciously hoodwinked by the ill-begotten notion of selflessness, which rendered him defenseless amidst the self-seeking women in his life. Christopher had no concept of rational self-interest, and thereby failed it when he put his identity, finances and liberty at stake – by surrendering credit on his paintings, stealing money from his place of employment, and ultimately plunging an ice-pick into Kitty.

Nice guys are typically ascribed as seeing the world through rose colored lenses. With Christopher Cross, such delusions spawned a lethal case of scarlet vision.

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Far From Over: Manero’s Fight to Keep Staying Alive

February 3, 2010

Rarely has there been as drastic a shift in pop cultural aesthetics as that which transpired between the grainy, enfloralled 1970s and the sleek, vulcanized 1980s. Even more peculiar is the proximity between the key cultural events within that twenty year span. John Travolta has remarked that Saturday Night Fever – his Christmas 1977 star-making vehicle which ruled the box office throughout most of 1978 – was the movie which “gave the decade its cultural identity” (1); an alarming thought, considering how late that movie arrived into the decade. Nonetheless, by the time Travolta commenced with making a sequel in 1982, music and fashion had indeed changed, but the cultural ramifications of those changes were yet to be contextualized. Which begs the question: where did Travolta – the most iconic cultural figure before the great aesthetic shift – stand in the pop cultural paradigm following the shift?

The saga began with Saturday Night Fever, which centered around the artificial musical subculture known as disco; artificial in that disco was never so much the creative concept of musicians as it was the invention of producers, who combined the most arresting elements from various dance musics – latin, funk, boogie – into a populist hybrid, which swiftly overtook the Top 40 during the mid-70s and influenced many established acts like ABBA, Boz Scaggs and the Bee Gees. But contrary to common belief, Saturday Night Fever was not the apex of disco; it was the popular comeuppance of a form already in decline by late 1977. Much unloved by most rock enthusiasts, the ‘disco sucks’ campaign was already underway at the time of the movie’s release. Following the late-1978 career setbacks of those most associated with the movie – Travolta’s maligned Moment by Moment; the Bee Gees ill-advised big screen adaptation of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – the anti-disco movement viciously redoubled, culminating with the infamous Disco Demolition Night at Chicago’s Comiskey Park in July, 1979.

Despite the commercial triumph of Urban Cowboy (1980) and the critical acclaim of later cult-fave Blow Out (1981), Travolta’s status as a cultural pariah was already in effect by the close of the 1970s, with Robin Gibb even referring to him as “Revolta” in a May, 1979 Rolling Stone interview (2). Thus Travolta limped into the early 1980s, flanked by an anti-disco uproar and two box office flops; a predicament reflected in the earnest plea of Frank Stallone’s “Far From Over”, which served as the anthem to Staying Alive, the 1983 sequel to Saturday Night Fever. Granted, as hostile as the 1980-1982 period had been to the preceding disco era, the latter’s cultural enema status wouldn’t ossify until after the Second British Invasion of 1982/1983 – spawned by the emergence of MTV, which facilitated the stateside breakthrough of newfangled synthpop bands like Duran Duran and the Human League – whereupon the 1980s truly became ‘the 80s’ in the aesthetic sense. Therefore, Staying Alive was made during a limbo period where the public partook in ridicule of the disco era, but before people resolved to repress their collective memory of the 1970s entirely. Within this window, Tony Manero was allowed to step out and show the world just how much he had evolved in the five and a half years since he had last wowed us.

Manero made good on his wish at the close of Fever to escape Brooklyn and the thuggish mentality of his posse. He now lives in Manhattan, where he tends bar by night and teaches dance lessons by day. But he’s weary of futility; sliding into his late twenties wondering whether this is all he’ll ever amount to. There’s an unspoken moment which speaks volumes of the shifting times and Manero’s dilemma within them, and it occurs during a pause whilst tending bar. Noting the loud music and congested dance floor which fills the spacious club, Manero drifts off; his eyes floating past the neon-webbed walls (the 80s) and up to the mirror balls still hanging amongst the strobe lights from the ceiling (the 70s). He seems to come to the realization here of just how much times have changed since 1977, when he had danced his way to the top of what was then an intimate, exclusive club scene. Now it had become homogenized and trendy, with all the romance and spectacle of yore replaced by impersonal thumping devoid of grace or style; leaving revelers too engulfed in the swarm to notice anyone’s unique dancing skills. Once, the club scene was a breeding ground for talent, but now it was just a trap. The scene had taken Manero as far as it could; and yet he wanted to go further.

Buoyed in part by the modest dancing success of his tenuous romantic partner Jackie (Cynthia Rhodes), Manero embarks on an endless series of applications; spurned at every corner in his proposal to accept any gig that doesn’t involve nudity. Fortunes turn when he’s offered a chorus role in the same production involving Jackie and the divaesque Laura (Finola Hughes), the star of the show with whom he had briefly struck a fling. From here the film commences it strongest and weakest themes: the Rocky-like parable of career triumph, and the implausible lovelorn schizophrenia which entangles the three leads.

The interpersonal shenanigans are ill-synced with Manero’s career arc in this movie. He briefly scores with haughty Laura, only to lose her interest as soon as he scores his gig. Then Jackie draws the line; she’s more serious about relationships than he is, and so she’s now seriously ending things between them. But he cajoles Jackie into a subsequent ‘platonic’ date, only to woo her back in teary entreaty by night’s end. This makes for a cringe-inducing twist because it undermines Jackie’s constancy and places far flung expectancy on Manero’s resolve. He hasn’t ‘earned’ our trust as a reliable suitor, having repeatedly neglected Jackie in his attempts at further courting Laura. To further two-time on this latest reconciliation would go beyond the call of drama. Thankfully, there’s little subsequent development in the romantic department. He stays with Jackie and remains incommunicado with Laura, despite costarring with the latter in the climactic Satan’s Alley sequence. Nevertheless, he kisses Laura rather passionately during a romantic pause in their act, only to be fiercely rebuffed. This gives Jackie brief pause, but still the couple embraces at wrap-up before a stark-eyed Laura. Despite this reassurance, they hardly achieve the kind of romantic deliverance which audiences look for in idealized, onscreen lovers.

Manero’s professional triumph provides the most compelling theme for Staying Alive. He gets promoted from sideman to star, after the cast’s initial, presumably-gay pick for male lead proves too “mechanical” during rehearsals. Manero almost lets his pride get in the way, however, for things are very tense between him and costar Laura. It’s through the intervention of the show’s director that we learn some fundamentals of the theatrical profession. The director tersely clarifies to Manero that this role is the chance of a lifetime, and that he can maximize the situation by channeling all his conflicting emotions (passion, lust, anger) into the heart of his performance. Manero’s lesson here reflects what Travolta himself had learned in the midst of filming his own star-making vehicle a lustrum beforehand, when he was directed to channel his grief over the recent death of his lover, Diana Hyland, into the scope of his acting, resulting in what many believe to be his finest performance ever in Saturday Night Fever.

Onward, the climactic Satan’s Alley sequence proves spectacular, and the standing ovation which Manero receives whilst hoisting Laura above-head is truly awe inspiring. If they had saved his reconciliation with Jackie until after this performance, then the romantic thread would have seemed more appropriately integrated into the story. It would have also brought this movie even closer to the Rocky formula, which brings us to the director of Staying Alive, Sylvester Stallone.

The Sly’s involvement here precluded any repeat of the urban coarseness and vulgarity found in Saturday Night Fever. The filming of Staying Alive was even marked by conflict between star and director, with Stallone objecting to any raw cursing from the actors. Profanity may have been crucial in authenticating the first film’s portrayal of rough, urban teenagers, but Stallone insisted that Manero’s maturity could predicate the language control necessary to ensure a PG rating (3). The latter’s unorthodox narrative structure of despair/ambition/deliverance is replaced here too by the more populist, Rocky-like arc of action/conflict/triumph.

As for the music featured in Staying Alive, integration has less to do with dance sequences this time, as penman Frank Stallone appears in several scenes as guitarist and co-vocalist in a bar band fronted by Rhodes’ Jackie character. Their duets reflect the smooth, summery sounds of the West Coast soft rock style which ruled the airwaves during the gap between disco and synthpop. Unfortunately, several of these ‘songs’ are mere snippet pieces which don’t exist in full for the soundtrack LP, such as the promising “Waking Up” and “I Hope We Never Change”.

While Frank Stallone’s involvement was obviously down to family ties – and rather lucratively, with the blazing AOR of “Far From Over” climbing to number ten on the Billboard chart – the Bee Gees redux was merely arbitrary, with their five contributions spread sparingly as background filler in the movie. Having already absconded their high-pitched, Fever-era disco in favor of a newfangled, electro-dance pop style on 1981’s unjustly ignored Living Eyes LP, the Bee Gees stepped sideways here, regrouping from solo projects and backup gigs to provide serviceable if unmythic songs for Staying Alive. The best of these, “Someone Belonging to Someone”, is sequenced during the most poignant scene in the film, when Manero takes a long, reflective walk from Manhattan to Brooklyn donning his old white suit – updated with popped lapels, a lavender v-neck and straightened trousers – and passes the now-defunct 2001 Odyssey club in which the action of Fever was set (oh, how times have changed); ultimately arriving home to the only other reoccurring character from the first movie, his mother. The soundtrack to Staying Alive also provided the Bee Gees a minor commercial reprieve with the Top 30 placement of “The Woman In You”, propelled by a four-square, clavinet-like bass-line which almost seemed like an attempt at sounding retro-1977. The promo clip for that song, which features a colorfully outré Rhodes at the helm of a punked-out dance troupe, could even be viewed as a double-reference to the year of Fever.

Speaking of Fever, the epochal strut which opened that film is recapitulated at the close of Staying Alive, complete with the very tune which this time provided namesake. Though befitting in the thematic sense, it still seems trite. A Rocky-like ending, with Manero embracing Jackie in the throng of victory, would have been a far more compelling finale to this movie’s plotline. Whether it was damaging for a 1983 film to grace itself with what had already become a vaunted disco track is still up for conjecture. Nonetheless, Staying Alive did well at the box office, despite being roundly panned by critics. With this jump-start, Travolta further mimicked his banner year of 1978 during 1983 by reteaming with his Grease costar Olivia Newton-John for the amusing misfire Two of a Kind, before his decade-long expulsion to the cultural backwaters following 1985’s belabored Perfect. The 1980s had now settled into their skin, and the 1970s had ceased to be ridiculed, only to be ignored altogether. Despite his best efforts to stay hip, John Travolta would have to wait another decade in order to rise from the fleeting aura which the public had projected onto him.

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