Wednesday, July 23, 2008

How I learned to stop worrying and love Grease

When asked what films I like least in all the world, my standard answer is: American cinema of the 1970's.
But by that I mean that suffocating wave of self-deludingly self-important American movies like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Lenny, The Deer Hunter, The Godfather, Apocalypse Now and anything directed by Sam Peckinpah or Hal Ashby or Brian De Palma or Robert Altman.

What it is easy to forget is that there were two major movements in American film at the time. The other formed part of one of the oddest and least-analysed moments in that decade's cultural history. This was the so-called 'nostalgia boom', a huge outpouring of affection for and interest in old Hollywood occasioned by the shocked realisation that its stars, attitudes and methodology were not temporarily out of fashion but lost forever. The cinema book industry we take for granted started here, and the TV movie, with its rep company of old stars and charming pastiches of old genres, also played a large part in creating the right conditions for the moment to thrive.

The nostalgia boom is forgotten today, but it is the reason for the seventies cult of Bogart, for the massive early successes of both Mel Brooks and Peter Bogdanovich (and for their unfair rejection when the moment passed) as well as for individual films as diverse as Star Wars, Jaws, That's Entertainment!, Gable and Lombard, Won Ton Ton, WC Fields and Me, The Great Waldo Pepper, Superman, American Graffiti, Silver Streak and dozens of others that are either set in the thirties, forties or fifties or else self-consciously revive the dormant popular styles and genres of those decades.
They were by no means all good - given the reckless abandonment of Hollywood's old professionals, and professionalism, that had prompted the revival in the first place it is difficult to imagine how they could be - but a lot of them were very pleasant indeed, and alongside the likes of A Clockwork Orange and Last Tango In Paris it was obvious that they all at least had their hearts in the right place, and that there was a lot to be said for that. (Some, generally the least successful, strove to combine the two streams of nostalgia and modern posturing; the results included Chinatown, The Wild Party, Inserts, The Last Tycoon and Day of the Locust.)

Of all products of this most valuably corrective countermovement to the po-faced poncing of Cimino, Coppola et al, one of the most unassuming, unexpected and delightful was Grease (1978).
To many, this is no doubt as uncontroversial as a claim can get. But I have friends who consider it pretty much the naffest, ickiest, crappest thing going in this or any imaginable universe, and my affection for it the kind of thing one should keep guarded as closely as a fondness for setting fire to orphanages.
And I do understand their objections, though they are objections made in error. It is incredibly easy to mistake it for something very unpleasant indeed; it easily could have been with different handling, perhaps it even should have been. Perhaps it's a mistake that it wasn't. And it's easy to take affection for it too far. A Channel Four viewers' poll on one of those wretched countdown list programmes they do declared it the greatest musical of all time: clearly this sort of illiteracy must be combated...
And yet, I've just watched it again, for maybe the sixth time in my life, again expecting not to like it as much as last time, again liking it even more, again concluding that it is a great film, and a great screen musical, as well as great fun.
Partly, I'm lucky because I saw it on its original release (and understood not one word of it; I didn't even realise it was set in the past; among a myriad misreadings of the sexual references I thought the line 'Did she put up a fight?' was 'Did she put up and fight?', asked enthusiastically because boys like fighting).
So I still have a sense of it as something new, possessed of that aura of excitement that also still lingers in the air around Jaws and Star Wars. And, luckier still, I somehow managed to completely miss its subsequent transformation into kitsch icon. I went to an all-boys school, and so was spared the grim spectacle of girls launching into spontaneous, gratingly American-accented renditions of the songs in the sixth form common room that so rightly turned the stomachs and earned it the undying hatred of my co-educationally stranded associates. I had no idea it had become a kind of Rocky Horror for the even less discerning until my twenties.
Thus I come to it uncluttered by any such concerns. I see only the professionalism of seventies American popular cinema and a lively recreation of the mores of fifties American popular cinema. (The Deer Hunter got the Oscars that year, but people rarely request the songs at weddings.)
It's really well directed (by Randal Kleiser, a big favourite of John Waters and the director of that other great relic of my youth, The Blue Lagoon) and exceptionally well edited. The cutting between shots during the musical numbers is done with a dexterity and judiciousness that is truly surprising. Some of the songs are charming. (I don't like them all, simply because I'm not a fan of fifties music. Greased Lightning, for instance, is just too clever and successful an Elvis pastiche to be enjoyed, but on its own terms it's perfectly realised.)
And the leads are great. John Travolta, much underrated for his unusual ability to combine the functions of dramatic actor and self-mocking song and dance man, while at all times retaining possession of one of the weirdest faces on any man ever, is, as he often is, really good. Stockard Channing is even better. The supporting cast are all terrific. Room is found for Sid Caesar, Eve Arden and Joan Blondell, not just to walk on and off again but in proper parts with good lines. My favourite character and performance of all, when I saw it in 1978 and still today, is Jan, played by Jamie Donnelly. A stunning, Shelley Duvall-type beauty.
The only thing that did suprise me this time around is how plotless it is. Not a problem; it never drags. I'm sure it's a pretty grim experience on the London stage with tv no-talents going through the motions in it, but you have to be steel-hearted indeed not to warm to this film. Nothing in it is done badly, nothing grates, and the atmosphere of happiness and optimism is palpable and infectious.
Let's hear it for the toilet paper!