Nobody Puts America in the Corner: Dirty Dancing and the End of Innocence

Feb 14th, 2014 | By | Category: Uncategorized

An extract from U.ESS.AY: Politics and Humanity in American Film, by Stephen Lee Naish.

A cunning and creative YouTube user (who goes by the name kaflickastan) has posted a re-edited film trailer for the 1987 smash hit movie Dirty Dancing and painted the film in the nightmarish and film noir-ish colours of a David Lynch directed film. Taking scenes of the film out of their inoffensive context and recasting them into a DirtyDancing460perverse and lurid thriller that seems to dispense completely with the sweet coming of age drama that Dirty Dancing is renowned for being, and replaces it with a sinister tale of obsession, violence and lust. Yet in fact, Dirty Dancing shares more with Lynchian themes than would first appear. Lynch’s films often concern themselves with the loss of teenage innocence, and the corruption and darkness that lies under the veneer of the American Dream. Lynch’s films also deal with the merging of different timeframes, think to Lynch’s 1986 film Blue Velvet, with its bizarre mixture of the fifties and eighties aesthetics. This is also apparent in Dirty Dancing’s early sixties setting that merges fragments of the immaculate fifties with the emerging sixties idealism that would soon appear in one of the most culturally seismic decades in history. Dirty Dancing’s use of popular music on its soundtrack also mixes raunchy sixties dance numbers with staple eighties soft-rock ballads. Dirty Dancing is more than a simple story of sweet romance and sexualized dancing. The film explores the loss of innocence, not just with its main characters, but also the loss of innocence that America in the sixties would experience as well. If David Lynch had been given the opportunity to direct Dirty Dancing, the swearing might have been astronomical, but there would be a possibility that the film would not have turned out all that different.

The character of sixteen-year-old Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman (Jennifer Grey) begins the film with aspirations to study economics and join the Peace Corps. Her only true love in life is the love she feels for her caring and encouraging father. The affluent Houseman family, consisting of Baby’s mother, her doctor father and her sister Lisa, a wannabe singer, are holidaying for the summer at a resort in the tranquil Catskill Mountains owned by the wealthy Max Kellerman (Jack Weston). That her nickname is Baby, says a great deal about her situation in life. She knows nothing yet of boys, sex or any other vice. The character of Baby is the distillation of the purity and optimistic aspirations of America in 1963, the year in which the film is set. American involvement in the Vietnam War had begun, and although, unlike previous conflicts, news anchors and journalists were there on the front line, sending back gruesome and terri- fying reportage, the escalation of the war would not peak until the mid to late-sixties, and there was still optimism that the conflict would be short and with minimum casualties to American troops. Still, the gruesome images would expose Americans to a kind of warfare that they had never witnessed before, and the effects would eventually seep into the American consciousness. The stalemate of the Cold War had seen a heated stand-off the previous year between America and the USSR during the thirteen day Cuban Missile Crisis, yet Mutually Assured Destruction had been avoided by employing diplomacy rather than the taking-up of arms, and thus the long running conflict (1947-1991) would remain relatively tepid. America felt righteous and in control of its own destiny. Yet on the horizon lay the exploration and eventual exploitation of sex, music and drugs that would define the generation of hippies, bikers and drug- induced weirdoes that would soon populate and ultimately define the decade. The rhetoric of the mid to late sixties uttered by counter-culture icon Timothy Leary would be ‘turn on, tune in, drop out’, a motto that insisted it was time to stop engaging with traditional mainstream society. This shift in social thinking would be triggered by the violent and repeatedly televised assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963; America would never seem so innocent again. Baby’s own loss of innocence begins when she is invited to a secret after-hours party that is held by the resorts working class staff of waiters, servants and bartenders. Baby is confronted not only by people with whom she has had no previous experience (i.e. the Working Class), but also the Mambo, a Latin dance originating from Cuba (the act of dancing a Cuban rhythm might possibly be considered treasonous in 1963, a mere one year after the missile crisis). Equally intrigued and intimidated by the resorts lead dancer, the handsome and enigmatic Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze), she begins to secretly spend time with the resorts staff and learn to dance in their subversive style. From this point Baby seems to open herself up to new experiences and possibilities, yet, for the time being, hides her new-found friends from her straight-laced family.

Baby is later faced with a much more alarming event. She learns that Johnny’s dancing partner Penny (Cynthia Rhodes), is pregnant with one of the resorts waiters, the sleazy womanizing Robbie, who also happens to be courting Baby’s sister, Lisa (and should be noted is an avid reader of neo-liberalist Ayn Rand).5_5PguN Though not telling her father the real reason, she persuades him to loan her the money in order for Penny to get an abortion (unheard of in 1963, it would still be ten years before the landmark case of Roe v Wade implemented a change in law which permitted woman the right to abortion within the first trimester of pregnancy). Baby offers to temporarily take Penny’s place as Johnny’s dance partner at a performance at another nearby resort. They learn the basic steps and through the music and movement of dancing, Baby begins to explore her own emerging sexuality and her attraction to Johnny. The performance goes well, but on their return, Penny is in agonizing pain due to her botched backstreet abortion. Baby wakes her father and pleads with him to help Penny. He does so, but now knowing what the loan was for, his feelings of betrayal are made clear to Baby and Johnny, whom he believes, though mistakenly, was the father of Penny’s aborted child. Baby’s father forbids her ever to see Johnny again. Of course, Baby’s new found love of dancing and her profound attraction to Johnny means that she will continue to secretly meet with him, even against her father’s wishes. In a later scene Baby and her father confront their differences; with Baby accusing her father of having double standards in his aspirations for her future, that in fact her father really wishes that Baby would marry a successful Harvard graduate, from the same social class as her, and have a family of her own. It is clear that Baby’s future ambitions, that both she and her father once held, have been replaced with a desire to explore the world on her own terms. From this conversation onward, the nuclear family unit of the Houseman’s begins to break apart and may never be the same again. The film ends with a rowdy dance sequence led by Johnny and Baby that momentarily brings the classes and the generations together. Baby’s father and Johnny bury the hatchet, and the passing of Baby from father to partner is complete. After this moment ends we can safely assume Baby will explore and even indulge her new found freedom, alongside the rest of her newly unshackled generation.

Baby’s end of innocence follows a similar, yet obviously less devastating, trajectory as the teenage characters devised by David Lynch. Blue Velvet’s Jeffery Beaumont descends into an ugly underworld of drug crime, rape and murder that inhabits the peaceful town of Lumberton. His innocence is lost at the vile hands of the psychotic criminal Frank Booth, who exposes him to a combination of sex, violence and menace. In Twin Peaks, the investigation into the death of the beautiful and popular Laura Palmer’s reveals a tragic past of abuse and violence at the hands of her own father, who was at the time of the abuse possessed by a malevolent entity. These characters, as well as Baby, begin with idealistic expectations of adulthood, which are destroyed by an unrelenting reality. For Jeffery it is Frank Booth; for Laura it is her abusive father; for Baby it is her sexual attraction to Johnny, the over-nurturing of her father, Penny’s abortion and her gener- ation’s shift towards a different sort of independence.

It is perhaps a coincidence that Frances’s nickname is Baby, she is of the generation of post-war baby boomers who brought about a change in American culture, politics and society. With her intention to study economics and join with the Peace Corps Baby already has the desire to change the world. When she falls for Johnny, her ambitions most likely change, but the generation of which she and her contemporaries are a part would inflict massive changes in social and cultural thinking. Baby’s desire to embrace her own independence and break away from family comfort zones and expectations mirrors the generational shift that occurred during the early-to-mid sixties, as more and more young people embraced the freedom of independence and broke from the tradition of the family unit. Although Baby herself and those around her seem unable to identify, let alone articulate, the cultural shift and the decade’s loss of innocence that is taking place, the resort owner Max Kellerman, a man of advancing years and in no way hip to the sixties trends, seems to recognize that change happening. In the much celebrated end scene, the resort’s staff of waiters and hostesses stand on stage and sing the Kellerman anthem, whilst the working class staff of dancers, bartenders and servants stand, unwanted and unimpressed at the back of the theatre. Kellerman stands in the wings, and while waiting for his solo within the song he states, somewhat bewil- dered, to Tito, the resort’s bandleader: “It all seems to be ending. You think kids want to come with their parents to take foxtrot lessons? Trips to Europe, that’s what the kids want. Twenty-two countries in three days. It feels like it’s all slipping away”. He then joins his staff in the song. Kellerman understands that his own generation’s time is up, the righteousness of the American Dream and family values, held to triumph throughout the depression years, the war years, and the post war years, have slipped away and a new younger generation that is dissatisfied with their forbearers is about to shake society to its very founda- tions. The kids of the sixties would very soon start to have the time of their lives.

U.ESS.AY coverThis is an extract from U.ESS.AY: Politics and Humanity in American Film, byStephen Lee Naish, published by Zer0 in January. Follow Stephen on twitter -
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