Tuesday, July 10, 2007

1977 New Jersey vs. 2006 New Jersey or I Like Social Mobility, Even if Thugs Take Advantage of It

I watched Saturday Night Fever for the first time recently, and it reminded me why I don’t like the films of Kevin Smith.

(Note: It doesn’t take much for me to dog the films of Kevin Smith. This crazy tear I am prone to can easily be attributed to petty jealousy, because I was managing a video store at a time when former video store managers were storming the gates of Hollywood. This unholy trinity of Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino, and Andrew Kevin Walker (who, technically, was a floor manager of the NYC Tower Records, not a video store manager; however envy ignores the nuances of classification) taunted me because not only did I see right through their shtick, I thought I could do it better given the chance. It also doesn’t help that I have a friend who refers to me in passing as “the guy who lived the movie ‘Clerks’ for three years.”)

I approached Saturday Night Fever for the same reason anyone does nowadays – to ridicule the silly fashions of the time and have a good laugh at the high camp of it all. I was surprised to discover, as anyone who has actually seen the movie is likely to tell you, that it is neither silly nor campy, but is instead a testament to the great American Dream of improving yourself and actually achieving something with your life.

I’m surprised movies like this are not part of an Amway indoctrination ceremony, because the message is pretty clear cut - better yourself by rising above your conditions. Cultivate relationships that will help you achieve your goals and ignore or destroy relationships that will bring you down, because no matter how much you enjoy palling around with your buddies, they will eventually become obstacles to success.

And because this movie is set in New Jersey in the 1970s, the buddies in question are presented as barely human, chest-thumping, knuckle-dragging beasts. I was only four when Saturday Night Fever was in theaters, but it shocks me (more than anything in “cutting edge” Kevin Smith movies ever did) how casually misogynistic and cruel John Travolta and his pals are. Was this the world, the America, I was born into? Apparently, so.

We like patting ourselves on the back for our permissiveness and openness, but I think now we are much more prudish than we were 30 years ago, because there is NO WAY a movie like this would be made now. Seriously, what kind of movie begs for sympathy for a gang rapist who laments, in the middle of sexual congress, “Why does she have to cry when it is my turn?” And yet, there it is, right at the moment when John Travolta has a spiritual awakening – an epiphany, if you will – and decides that there may be something better for him in the world than watching his buddies serially mount an increasingly lamentable girl.

John Travolta’s response to the girl afterwards is, of course, to tell her it was her own damn fault for getting gang raped and that she is, of course, stupid. (Ayn Rand probably did an uncredited rewrite of the screenplay.)

(I am also pretty sure that, at this point in the film, rape counselors everywhere checked their watches and sighed, “Did I say five years of therapy? I meant ten years.”)

Needless to say, New Jersey does not come off as a nice place. But it does seem like an oppressive land of entrapment, a place where the only hope is escape and only the strong can achieve it.

Normally, I do not care for movies like this, and I can honestly say I did not like any of the people portrayed on screen. And yet, despite my better instincts, I found the story and situation compelling. Like Hellen Keller saying “wah-wah” for the first time, John Travolta’s moment when it all clicks and connects and he realizes that the world is indeed bigger than a New Jersey hellhole is truly moving. I loathed this guy for so long, and yet, found myself genuinely happy for him at this point. I chalk this up towards my love for the American Dream and the belief that even the most scummy of cretins deserves the opportunity to pull himself up by his boot straps, even if they have tassels and/or fringe on them.

The film ends with this sincere hope that his upward mobility will eventually lead to professional satisfaction, inner peace, and a vocabulary of more than 15 different grunts. Did this one, great moment of clarify effectively justify the 105 previous minutes of drudgery and sadism? I’m not sure. However, it does maintain a tonal sense of consistency with what went on before. After all that the audience has suffered, a “happy ending” would ring false. But a “hopeful ending,” sure, I can get behind that. I can even applaud it a little and admit that, by the end, it won me over with its rough charm.

Which brings me to Kevin Smith… specifically Clerks II, which I saw about the same time and which offended me in a completely unintentional way. No, I was not bothered by the parade of racial slurs, demonizations of ambitious women, and wanton acts of bestiality.

Instead, I was troubled by the conclusion of the movie when the characters decide that minimum wage, dead-end jobs in the wastelands of suburban Jersey are the only true source of happiness. It offended me as much as a 50s era Soviet film entitled “The Happy Factory Workers” or an antebellum-era film called “Everyone Loves Cotton Pickin’” would. If America’s Corporate Overlords needed a pitchman to create compelling propaganda for an underclass, they need to look no further than Kevin Smith who will calmly chant, “You have no money, no power, and no voice in the government, but you know what? You’re cooler than anyone else. You’ve seen Star Wars 7,234 times and that makes you a better person than someone who makes six figures and actually owns a house. Now flip those burgers and be proud!”

While the characters in Smith’s films are not so out-and-out loathsome as the ones in Saturday Night Fever, ultimately their redemption comes not from moving on to something bigger and better, but in successfully maintaining and embracing the drudgery of the status quo. When Randall breaks down and rhapsodizes about how his only reason for living was standing behind a counter and goofing on the customers, I shuddered.

Wouldn’t it be great to just act like a teenager until well into your 40s? Wouldn’t it be cool to live in your parent’s basement until you’re well past 50? Wouldn’t it be great to eek out a living churning out a series of mediocre films instead of challenging yourself artistically and creatively with each new project?

Apparently so.

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