I've Had The Time Of Someone Else's Life
My significant other was gripping a copy of Dirty Dancing on DVD when she arrived for our most recent interlude together (at the risk of over-sharing, we are in one of those long-distance relationship things, currently made even complicated by the viral situation), clearly with intent to use it. 'How wonderful,' I said when this became apparent. This is a movie we have occasionally discussed in the past, the conversation usually running along the lines of 'I can't believe you've never seen this movie!' – 'I find this fact to be entirely credible', and so on.
Given some of the horrors (literal and metaphorical) I have inflicted on Significant Other over the years, I could not refuse to watch this one small movie with her without experiencing considerable negative relationship feedback. So down we sat, and after all the reasonable bodily restraints had been clamped and locked into place, we were off: Emile Ardolino's 1987 legendary (it says here) classic (ditto) Dirty Dancing.
The movie kicks off with credits running over grainy footage of people dancing in a way which I would characterise as intense but not necessarily 'dirty' per se. From here we are off into voice-over land as our main point of identification, a character named Frances 'Baby' Houseman (Jennifer Grey), waxes nostalgic about the summer of 1963 and her family's trip to what looks like a pretty grim resort hotel somewhere in upstate New York. She is youthful and innocent, and the apple of her father's eye. Said father is played by Jerry Orbach, in a role which does not stretch him much – on the other hand, none of the acting here requires a great deal of pliancy, as most of the characters have been issued with one expression or posture (two at the most) which they assume throughout the movie as required. In Grey's case this involves just standing there with either a look of glimmering burgeoning sexual awareness in her eyes or angst and outrage at some injustice or other. For Orbach it is basically paternal pride or disappointment.
Anyway, not long after arriving at the resort, Baby's holiday takes a different turn when she stumbles, almost by accident, into the throbbing demi-monde of the below-stairs staff, who appear to spend all their spare time engaging in suggestive dancing. Masters of this shadowy realm are show-dancer and tutor Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze) and his female opposite number Penny (Cynthia Rhodes). Rhodes' character's signature move is go about attempting to kick people in the eye socket while dancing with them; Swayze's is to perform whole-body pelvic thrusts, which Baby seems to take a particular interest in.
Well, the plot thickens (or at least manifests) when it turns out that Penny has been impregnated by a snobby waiter at the hotel and can't take the time off to go and have an abortion without losing her job (and costing Johnny his). But wait – could somebody learn the routines and dance with Johnny, thus letting Penny slope off somewhere and get herself seen to? Could be!
I knew all the things about Dirty Dancing that a reasonably culturally-literate person who'd never actually seen the movie could be expected to know: setting, rough thrust of the plot, the odd well-worn line of dialogue, some people standing in a lake, the song from the finale, and so on. Given the film's impressive reputation, though, I was expecting something a bit more polished and, well, substantial than the thing I actually ended up watching.
What Dirty Dancing most reminds me of is the kind of movie that was being aimed at teenagers at around the time it was made – or even a few years earlier: an exploitation movie aimed at a teen audience, with a strong moral message, plenty of popular tunes, and nothing too likely to outrage the sensibilities of any parents who might inadvertently find themselves watching it. For a film which is supposedly searingly erotic, this struck me as very tame stuff indeed, with only a handful of moments (and much of the subplot about the abortion) that made it feel like a movie from the 80s rather than the late 50s. On the other hand, the nostalgia element of the movie is one of its most successful – the goings-on at the hotel are amusingly shabby and unimpressive, although the odd classic tune makes it onto the soundtrack.
Of course, at fairly regular intervals, some sort of melodic time warp seems to manifest in the Catskills and music from the actual 1980s starts playing in 1963, usually just in time for Swayze and Grey to start dancing to. Needless to say, I did not find this especially immersive, but on the other hand it was much of a muchness with a film which I honestly found to be unexpectedly primitive in a number of departments, primarily the script and direction. For a romantic melodrama (let's not argue about it, this is a melodrama) there isn't much sizzle going on, and no sense of developing romantic tension between the two leads: Grey abruptly declares her interest in Swayze, with no real foreshadowing. The burgeoning womanhood of Grey's character is likewise not handled with any real subtlety: she goes from frumpy mouse outfits to something rather abbreviated and clingy in the space of a montage sequence. The romance plot is resolved and Grey and Swayze's happy ending assured by a supporting character acting like a complete idiot for no reason other than the pacing of the film demanding it.
However, you may be pleased to hear I am still in a relationship, and this is largely because I did find Dirty Dancing to be fairly entertaining to watch, albeit not in the way its makers were probably hoping, and this was enough to satisfy Significant Other. There is something oddly pleasurable about clunky and obvious storytelling, weird continuity and melodramatic plotting – I found the climactic sequence to be especially entertaining, particularly the moment where a bit of dodgy editing makes it look like a guy with a trumpet is playing a sax solo.
Even so, I think this is a movie which you have to be a thirteen-year-old girl to really appreciate, and (spoiler alert) this is not a constituency to which I have ever belonged. Thirteen-year-old girls have the right to have their own movies just the same as the rest of us, and while I could hope they received something better than Dirty Dancing, I suppose it will do for them in a pinch. It's one of those films which suggests that a movie can be a classic while still not actually being any good. Or perhaps that's too harsh: this is a hard film to dislike despite its various deficiencies. Harmless, silly fun.