I found Saturday Night Fever in the $5 discount bin and thought, “Why not?”
The movie centers around 19-year-old Tony, who’s stagnating in his Brooklyn neighborhood after graduating high school. He’s in a dead-end job and lives at home with parents who are beyond unsupportive. His mother only seems to care about his priest brother, and his father ridicules his successes and goes out of his way to make him feel like nothing. Tony’s surrounded by friends who idolize him, but just like him they’re going nowhere.
His respite comes in the form of dancing on Saturday nights at a disco, 2001 Odyssey, where he’s a local dance hero. That’s where he first sees Stephanie and is captivated by her dancing. He pursues her, but at 21, and seemingly moving up in the world, Stephanie sees herself as ages apart from Tony:
Stephanie: You work in a paint store, right? You pro’bly live wit’ your family, you hang out wit’ your buddies, and on Saturday night you go and you blow it all off at the 2001. Right?
–Tony: That’s right.
Stephanie: You’re a cliché. You’re nowhere. On your way to no place.
Stephanie is almost desperate to move to Manhattan, where everything is “beautiful, just beautiful.” I can’t decide if it’s admirable or just heartbreaking the way she’s constantly correcting her own speech, trying to scrub the Brooklyn out of it every time they have a conversation. Her brutal honesty with Tony can be hard to tolerate, and I found myself wondering why he continues to pursue such a caustic woman. Except what he sees in her, whether he knows it or not, is the next level up – something beyond where he is now. And she’s only telling him what he already thinks himself:
Tony: The thing is, the high I get at 2001 is just dancin’, it’s not, it’s not bein’ the best or nothing like that. The whole thing is that I would like to get that high someplace else in my life, you know.
–Stephanie: Like where?
Tony: I don’t know where, I don’t know. Someplace. You see, dancin’, it can’t last forever, it’s a short-lived kind of thing. But I’m gettin’ older, you know, an’… You know, I feel like, I feel like, you know… So what? I’m gettin’ older; does that mean like I can’t feel that way about nothing left in my life, you know? Is that it?
I popped in this movie to play in the background one night while I did other things. But almost immediately I couldn’t stop watching. It was just…compelling. I’m not saying I loved this movie. There were parts that I didn’t enjoy and parts that made me super uncomfortable. I just couldn’t take my eyes off it.
Saturday Night Fever came out in 1977, and writer Norman Wexler refused to pull any punches in his script. Watching this in 2015, the foul language is nothing too surprising. However, the cultural slurs were quite jarring, and nothing was left out: racial, ethnic, homophobic, misogynistic, you name it. Wexler wanted the script true to the scene, real and, to use his own word, gritty. Though I didn’t like hearing it, I have to say I agree with him. Because this is the story of a moment in time. A moment in time for a handful of characters, for a family, a community, for a culture, an era, and a social consciousness.
But what makes this story, and other snapshot films like it, so iconic, so compelling? Ultimately I think it’s that many of us have had these moments, these almost frozen moments when we’re asking ourselves what’s next. Where should I go from here? Times in our lives when we know things can’t stay the same; even if we stay right where we are, it won’t feel the same. The moment will have passed us by.
And maybe we live these moments over and over again, of change and choice and uncertainty.
I guess really what movies like this are asking is, who am I? And more, who do I want to be?
And I think many of us, however old we get, are still – and will always be – asking ourselves that question.