Friday, September 7, 2012

Oooh, Baby, Baby: Dirty Dancing

I've reached the age at which I'm repeatedly amazed at how old I am — a trend that I'm sure will continue for some time. For example, just being able to apply the phrase "25 years ago" to my life makes my head spin. At least, it usually does. Over at The House Next Door you can find my essay about Dirty Dancing, submitted as part of the House's "Summer of '87" series, and I'm surprised to say that watching and writing about that movie last month made me feel young, mainly because I was tickled to remember that when Dirty Dancing was released it was "too old" for me to see: it was rated PG-13, and I was only 10.

In my essay, I talk about that PG-13 rating, arguing that Dirty Dancing is a better movie because of the MPAA's limits. I also make reference to the number of women my age for whom Dirty Dancing was a landmark — not just the film itself but, quite often, the act of going to see it ... or not seeing it. I know at least two girls — women now — who were old enough to attend according to the MPAA but who were prohibited by their parents from seeing it just the same.

If you haven't read the piece, please do. Like now. (I wasn't the only one to review the film for the "Summer of '87" series. Michal Oleszczyk did, too, and his essay has some observations I wish I could steal.) But when you're finished, come back here. Because, believe it or not, I'm not done with Dirty Dancing.

A few things that didn't make the essay after the jump...

* Seriously: How old is Johnny supposed to be? Old enough that Swayze got away with playing him at 35 (jeezus — he's as old as me!), and that Baby casually asks if he's "had a lot of women" — a telling phrase not only because she says "women," as opposed to girls, but also because she's assuming that he's been around so long that he must have had his share.

But, damn, props to Swayze, because there's this inexperienced puppy-dog quality to Johnny, too, from the empty expression he wears after yet another romp with Kellerman's resident cougar, to the earnest excitement he displays in the brief moment he thinks he's going to be consulted about the choreography of the final dance number.

Maybe it's because I saw the movie back when 18 seemed very adult, but despite all signs that Johnny is probably a little too old for Baby (never mind that Swayze is probably a little too old for Johnny), I never think about his age while I'm in the movie's midst. Nor do I spend a moment wondering what will become of Baby and Johnny after Kellerman's. It's only after the movie that these questions crop up in my mind. That says something about the movie's charms.

* But some things are hard to ignore: Although I didn't pick up on this oddity the first time or two I saw Dirty Dancing, in recent years I continue to get a giggle out of the film's penultimate scene. Johnny and Baby have just danced their hearts out, and now everyone is on their feet, infected by the moment, shaking their thang. Johnny and Baby are smiling at one another and Johnny says, "Let's go." They're heading toward the door, heading outside to who knows where, when Baby's father stops them and delivers his apology.

(It's a terrific apology, by the way, so in character for the principled yet protective father. First to Johnny, in regard to Penny's pregnancy and abortion, "When I'm wrong I say I'm wrong." Then to Baby, "You looked wonderful out there." Short. Straightforward. Sweet. Everybody wins in that scene. Johnny gets the next best thing to an arm wrapped around him. Baby gets to be her father's prized possession once again and a young woman at the same time. And Dad gets to set things straight.)

Anyway, after the apology Johnny and Baby ... head right back to the dance floor. Guess they didn't want to get out of there after all. The final image of them dancing together, having the time of their lives with one another, it's touching. But I wonder if it might have played even better if they were the only two dancing out on the front porch, all alone with one another, while everyone else continued dancing inside, oblivious.

* Finally, a story I can't help but tell:

I had just graduated from college and I was back in Oregon, where I'd spend a few months at home before moving to Arizona. My stepmom was the cross country and track coach at my former high school, and they were hosting the district meet. I got assigned to be the clerk of the course, a job I'd performed at college meets at Washington State University.

It's a fairly easy job. You sit with a clipboard that holds the names of all the meet's racers. At a designated time, the runners report to the clerk's tent to wait for their event to start. You check them in, you give them hip numbers, if appropriate, and you radio back and forth with the public-address staff, and those at the starting line, to report no-show runners and keep everything moving on time.

College athletes were used to the drill. They tended to be quiet, focused. For many of these high school athletes, however, this was a break from the routine. And it made them nervous. Some sat quietly, almost vibrating with tension. Others — particularly the girls — became chatty, as if determined to forget where they were until they walked out on the track.

At some point on the first afternoon, I was sitting in the clerk's tent with all runners checked in for the upcoming race. I was flipping through the other race sheets, seeing what we had left that day. Nearby, three girls in the upcoming race were chatting.

"I was so nervous last night," one girl said, "but then I climbed into bed and put on Dirty Dancing and I felt better."

Still looking at my clipboard, I uttered in an even voice, just loud enough for them to hear, "Nobody puts Baby in a corner."


I turned toward the girls to find all three of them looking back at me, stunned and starry eyed, trying to comprehend that a guy could quote Dirty Dancing. I'd seen that look before. It was the look girls in my class give to guys in their early 20s back when I was in high school. But I'd never seen that look in my direction. It was the look that said that I was fucking dreamy. And I'd never been fucking dreamy before.

Quickly, their silence turned to everything short of screaming. They were giddy. Ecstatic. Almost bouncing up and down, wanting to know how I knew that line, and wanting to tell me how awesome I was for knowing it. Over the rest of the meet, word spread amongst the female athletes: I was the guy who could quote Dirty Dancing.

It's the kind of thing that could get a guy's ass kicked in high school. In this moment, well, I'd never been so cool. Too old for them and cool, yes. I never lost sight of that. But cool just the same.

I've never been that cool since. Not even close. Never will be again. That was my moment.

Thank you, Johnny Castle.


Andrew K. said...

Kudos on the write-up here and there. I've truly never given legitimate though to how old Johnny was before and it's definitely a sign of the film's charm that I don't.

One of my favourite random things about this film is Kelly Bishop's undersung performance as Baby's mother. It's a sliver of a role, but she's continuously charming in it and there's that bit at the end when Baby unveils her dancing ability and her mom says after a particular dace step "She gets that from me" and I always assume that it's an in-joke nod to Bishop's work as a dancer/actor on the stage.

Craig said...

I've tried quoting Haneke, Von Trier, and LaBute with chicks...nothing. I'll give Dirty Dancing a shot.

Jason Bellamy said...

Andrew: Yeah, it's gotta be a nod. One of the strongest scenes in that movie is the one at the breakfast table the night after Baby's father treats Penny. The mother is perfectly oblivious. And the unspoken tension between father and daughter is just right. Lots of wonderful little moments like that. To jump a few scenes back, I also love that when Baby wakes up her dad she doesn't tell him what's wrong, just just picks up his medical bag. Perfect.

Jason Bellamy said...

Craig: If that doesn't work, take it from me, the other one that's a real home run is Herzog from GRIZZLY MAN: "I believe the common character of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder."

Gets 'em every time.

Craig said...

More seriously, I enjoyed your essay. Never understood why Ebert gave DD one star. The movie isn't groundbreaking or anything, but it has a quality that's just as elusive: It's charming.

jake said...

I saw this so many times as a kid on VHS (we're about the same age, Jason), that I'm not sure I could go back and watch it critically.

It's just lumped in there with "movies I watched far, far too many times as a kid" along with Goonies, Back To the Future, Raising Arizona, The Princess Bride, The Money Pit, Mr. Mom, The Great Outdoors, Breakfast Club, get the idea.

I had to crack up at your successful quoting of Dirty Dancing in front of the girls, though. So great.

Can't tell you how many times I've quoted or referenced films that I love (or that I dumbly thought would make me seem cool and intelligent) in front of girls that immediately resulted mostly in cricket noises. Maybe I need to lower the bar just a hair.

Jason Bellamy said...

Craig: Wow, I didn't realize Ebert only gave it 1 star. I need to go read that review, but it's the kind of thing that makes you think: I wonder if he was having a bad day. That's certainly happened to me before.

Jason Bellamy said...

Jake: OK, is there a more quintessential '80s movie than MR MOM? Holy crap. I forgot about that one. And I don't think I ever watched the whole thing. But somehow it always used to be on. What channel, I don't know. But it was on. So '80s!

jake said...

Yeah, my siblings and I recently watched "Mr. Mom" on DVD again to try and stir up some nostalgia...

It isn't very good.