Thursday, 1 March 2012

FilmQuest 2012 (10/30): 'Dirty Dancing':

1987 sleeper hit 'Dirty Dancing' is actually a pretty sad film when you get down to it. It begins with "Baby" (Jennifer Gray, daughter of 'Cabaret' star Joel) narrating from a (presumably) discontented future, wistfully looking back at her more exciting youth, recalling a time when she didn't mind being called by her childish nickname. And it ends with a climactic dance number during which (most famously) the song "(I've Had) The Time of My Life" plays. HAD the time of her life, but it's all in the past now: a bittersweet memory. At least that's what I took away from this supposedly "feelgood" movie, where youth is king and anyone over 30 is an irrelevant dinosaur.

The latest entry in my "FilmQuest 2012" column, 'Dirty Dancing' is an odd one. Odd because though its blueprint to success has been emulated even recently, with choreographer Kenny Ortega going on to helm the 'High School Musical' trilogy and the posthumous Michael Jackson concert movie 'This Is It', unlike the recent wave of dance film descendants it concerns itself with social issues and a moment in history. The lack of unions for the film's nakedly exploited camp workers is bemoaned by our politicised heroine, whilst it's a rare mainstream American movie that admits the existence of social class, with the plot turning on Baby's upper-crust father's failure to accept Patrick Swayze's slick dance instructor - yesterday's leather-clad vision of cool.

With its 1960s setting, the film even charts the decline of Catskills-style holiday resorts, which offer little for the day's youth with their magic acts and talent competitions. There is even a subplot involving a backstreet abortion, which plays as a pro-choice argument from its makers. Which is not to say that it looks at any of these things with any degree of depth, but it's nonetheless interesting that the film is not anything like as vapid as its imitators. Indeed its core message of acceptance and the importance of "living your dream", whilst cliche, is eminently agreeable. Though, in conjunction with the aforementioned jaded future-narration, perhaps we can assume these dreams never truly panned out beyond teenage idealism.

But whatever. You've also got to admit that these guys can dance. That the late Mr. Swayze went on to star in such non-dance films as 'Ghost' and 'Point Break' speaks to the fact that he was a decent actor as well as a good mover, and Grey is also an appealing lead. Overall though 'Dirty Dancing' isn't really my particular cup of tea. I like dancing, but not really this kind of slow, supposedly erotically charged stuff (I guess I like what you might call "Jewish showbiz dancing"), whilst a lot of the training montage/sex scenes (such as the bit where Swayze is catching Grey in the lake) feel like the stuff of Mills & Boon fantasy. Perhaps, with its quotable lines ("nobody puts baby in the corner", "I carried a watermelon" etc) and the wish-fulfillment aspect for the largely female audience, it's the exact girly equivalent of something like 'Con Air'.

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