(On TV, May 2017) Surprisingly enough for a forty-something man, I ended up liking Dirty Dancing quite a bit better than I expected … but I don’t expect my idiosyncratic reaction to be widely shared, or even comprehensible. The roots of my appreciation, paradoxically enough, go back to the history of American stand-up comedy: Ever since learning that generations of American comedians developed their craft in the so-called “Borsch Belt” of Jewish-dominated resorts nestled in the Catskill mountains, I’ve been fascinated by that kind of vacationing. Leaving New York, driving upstate to spend a week or two in a big isolated resort? Intriguing. So imagine my astonished reaction when I sat down to watch Dirty Dancing and realized that it was a trip back in time to this kind of vacationing. Never mind that I went thirty years without realizing that Dirty Dancing wasn’t an eighties movie set during the eighties—here, we’re back to summer 1963, with a rich Jewish family going to a Catskill resort for summer holidays. Never mind the romance between our innocent protagonist as the dancer played by Patrick Swayze—I’m here for the depicting of Borsch Belt resorts, fun at the lake, hiking in the mountain and Wayne Knight delivering a bad joke as the movie portrayal of stand-up comedians hitting the Catskill resorts at the beginning of their careers. Of course, there’s a whole other movie going on about a girl losing her innocence (and wow does this film get dark on the margins of its main plot) and Patrick Swayze being offended when someone puts Baby in the corner. My interest in that aspect of the movie was never better than lukewarm, but that’s the idiosyncratic part of my reaction to the film. Jennifer Gray is instantly sympathetic as the heroine, at least, and Swayze does manage to keep his character likable even considering their mismatched levels of maturity. As I’ve said—I don’t expect anyone else in the world to like Dirty Dancing for the same reasons I did, but that’s not the point … unless you want it to be that different people can like the same thing for wildly different reasons.
(Second viewing, On DVD, April 2017) We can probably agree that a character like Ferris Bueller is a malignant sociopath who would be toxic in real life, but that doesn’t make Ferris Bueller’s Day Off any less than a success as a teen comedy. Issued by the John Hughes mid-eighties teen comedy factory, this is nonetheless a film that escapes from the usual formulas of the subgenre, taking an unconventional approach and defying caution in its ultimate objectives. Bueller himself is a memorable piece of work, manipulative and reckless yet almost immediately charming in the way he directly addresses the audience to gain their confidence. A gifted con artist, he is the driver but not the protagonist of the story, as he brings enlightenment to friends and siblings during the course of a single day off school. Matthew Broderick manages the heroic task of keeping Bueller likable, but it’s Alan Ruck who gets the film’s most dramatically significant role as a perpetually depressed friend shaken out of his rut by Ferris’s actions. Mia Sarah (in a dull role) and Jennifer Gray (in a far better one) are fine in the two female lead roles, although I’ve never quite warmed to Jeffrey Jones’s principal character. Then there is Chicago, lavishly showcased through most of the movie from the perspective of suburban teens heading downtown for fun. Surprising bits of philosophy pepper a script that breaks the fourth wall and attempts a few unconventional objectives. (Everyone likes “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it,” but I’m more partial to “The question isn’t ‘what are we going to do’, the question is ‘what aren’t we going to do?’”) The humour often veers from its good-natured realism to outlandish absurdity (as in the escalating “Save Ferris” moments), but it’s rarely mean-spirited even in its harshest moments. It’s fascinating that writer/director John Hugues both created a mold for the teen comedy and then broke it with this film—many people have imitated The Breakfast Club or Sixteen Candles, but Ferris Bueller’s Day Off remains sui generis even today. I saw this film at least once decades ago, but it more than holds up today. Despite the easy and often cheap appeals at defying authority, there’s a countervailing element of living life moment-by-moment that’s hard to ignore.