ROCK AND ROLL SCREENINGS (Take 7: Grease)

Grease (1978)
Director: Randal Kaiser

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Or, as someone said on some appropriately famous occasion: Oh the humanity!

Well, so some people think. I’ll just have to set them straight.

First off, I like that they didn’t call it Grease! That was a stroke of genius right there. Somebody must have thought, If we’re gonna underplay one thing and one thing only, let’s have it be the title. Leave off the *&^# exclamation point why don’t ya?”

Second off: Here’s the plot of Grease in seven frames.

Sandy…

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Danny…

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Sandy and Danny…

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I was a jerk…will you go with me?

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…No, but, will you go with me?

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And if you do, can we live happily ever after?

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Yes…Yes we can!…In our flying car.

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That’s a classic structure folks. Shakespeare didn’t do better with Romeo and Juliet...or even A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

There are, admittedly, several subplots, all done in equally primary colors–the drag race, the pregnancy that turns out to be a false alarm, the dropout who goes back to school, and so on and so forth. Not a spot of nuance anywhere, or a dropped stitch…or a missed opportunity to mock something or other that probably meant a lot to somebody once upon a time. Add in that the leads were 24-year-old John Travolta and 29-year-old Olivia Newton-John, backed up by 28-year-old Jeff Conaway and 24-year-old Stockard Channing, all playing high school seniors, and the result should have been as slick and empty as the title (! or no !), and as sterile as the show’s Broadway-Does-Rock-N-Roll roots.

But it’s not. It’s way too goofy for any of that and just because everybody’s a little long in the tooth for their parts doesn’t mean they’re not perfect. Complaining that they’re a little too perfect–as in so perfect no mere Broadway casting call could have matched them in a thousand years–misses the point. If these characters had been played as anybody identifiably human the whole thing would would have gone poof, probably accompanied by a socially impolite noise that would have ripped every Dolby speaker in America apart along about the summer of ’78.

Instead it went over like gangbusters.

I confess I missed it. The phenomenon, I mean. I saw the movie in the theater that very summer. In high school, I used to take my mom to afternoon movies because she couldn’t drive and my dad didn’t like going to movies (especially the part where you had to pay to get in). She loved Grease, thought it was a hoot. I was an English major in training, possessed of superior taste, so I admitted I liked it okay (which I did), but I didn’t see what the big deal was.

Twenty years later, when the anniversary edition was released to theaters, I went to see it again, mostly out of affection for the memory of one of her last uncomplicated happy experiences and, even in an empty theater, with nobody to share the laughter, I found myself enjoying it immensely. And the main reason was that I finally got it. When I saw it in ’78, I didn’t know Edd “Kookie” Burns from Adam or Eve Arden from the original Eve. I had heard Sid Caesar’s name and Frankie Avalon’s, too, but I didn’t know either of them by sight. I didn’t get half the in-jokes or verbal puns. With all that I was missing, I’m not even sure I got the truly perfect Dinah Manoff’s Marty being asked her last name by Byrnes’ on-the-make dee-jay, and saying, “Maraschino…You know. Like in cherry?”

It turned out my lack of common culture knowledge–subsequently filled in by my later obsessions–had cost me a few dozen laughs. By 1998, time had made up the difference and a few dozen laughs (most of which still make me laugh again every time I watch it now, whether because anything is actually funny or because I feel a little guilty for not sharing the laughs with mom while she was still here or just because looking back on my ignorance is liable to make me shake my head a little in wonder, I don’t know) are the difference between not knowing what the big deal was and understanding it perfectly.

So while I recognize every possible objection my taste-filter should have to something that can so easily pass for “camp” (a concept I normally find contemptible), I still have to admit that, when it’s time to watch Grease, I always get a slightly giddy, light-headed feeling, not unlike the once-a-year ritual where I sink into happy oblivion and watch Abba videos for half-a-day. It’s a feeling of glad anticipation, and specifically the knowledge that my jaded soul will be skipping by the time the last two numbers play…And the wait’s always worth it…

…Oh, forgot. It’s a triple high when you add the closing theme. It was by Frankie Valli. Him I knew. Even in ’78.

Edd Byrnes or Frankie Avalon, he was not.

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (End of Empire and, As It Happens, Everything Else…Dame Helen Presiding)

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[NOTE: This post contains spoilers for Prime Suspect, Season 7)

A few years back, I saw Christopher Hitchens and Salman Rushdie having some sort of sit-down chat on C-Span and, among various other topics, they fell to discussing British vs. American politics. One thing that struck them in particular was the phony lip-service American politicians are forced to pay to religious belief.

In England, they both agreed, such cow-towing never even crosses any politician’s mind.

I don’t recall either man mentioning why he nonetheless so much preferred living in America, but I do remember thinking they needn’t worry.

Being no fan of phony lip-service (to religion or anything else), I’ll still bet that when America is sufficiently like their England, there won’t be an America.

And there won’t be an England.

If a British television series like Prime Suspect was all anyone knew of England (and bear in mind that, for many of us, it is precisely that), then it would be logical to conclude that England, as either a meaningful historical identity or a sustainable political-economy, has already vanished.

The show ran in seven different, not-always-consecutive, seasons between 1991 and 2006. It was groundbreaking in all kinds of ways with its hyper-emphasis on forensics, emphasis on teamwork as opposed to the brilliance of a single detective, realistically gruesome corpses, the persistent elongation of the good old-fashioned mono-syllabic word “shit” into anywhere from and two to five syllables (though in one instance, I heard a s-s-s-s-s-s-hit, which I take to be seven), and, of course, an admirable but genuinely prickly female detective at the center.

Except for a handful of episodes, I didn’t see the show when it aired. By the time I became aware of it in the mid-nineties, the I’ll-wait-for-it-on-video mode was already prevailing at my house. When I first gathered up the whole series and watched it several years ago I thought it was a genuinely great series (“great” being an honorific I rarely find applicable to any TV series as a whole, though I frequently find individual aspects I like), but I didn’t think much about its possible socio-political import beyond the obvious (but, alas, necessary) feminist point that “women could do the job as good as men.”

Based on the DVD commentary and what I’ve been able to find on-line, I’m not sure the makers thought much beyond that either. And, of course, I have no idea what England was/is really like, circa 1991, 2006, or today. But I do know what the collapse of culture and politics in America feels like and, what with so many of their intellectuals preferring it here (a reverse of the old days when, if we produced a Henry James, he was likely to head straight over there and stay for a lifetime), I assume England really might be in worse shape than we are.

Certainly Helen Mirren’s DCI Jane Tennison begins the series in the familiar position (amidst all the then unfamiliar “realities” I mentioned above) of defending civilization from the monsters. And certainly there are monsters throughout the fifteen-year-run.

But, perhaps because, for entirely whimsical reasons, I watched seasons six through one in reverse order this time around, saving seven for the last, I was struck by England’s absence.

The upper classes with whom we Americans, at least, associate royalty and posh affluence (anything from Buckingham Palace to Downton Abbey), is barely glimpsed. But the middle class (presumably filled with all those Austen and Dickens and LeCarre readers) is even less in evidence. If not for occasional forays into Tennison’s private life it would be completely missing.

Essentially, then, and more so as the series progresses, Jane Tennison is defending an England no longer worth defending. The world of the series looks, sounds and most significantly, feels, like a police state which is kept from complete savagery only by the still barely perceptible presence of a liberal, common law, tradition.

It’s an England overrun by slums at the low end, and deep-set corruption at the high end. Nothing feels permanent, or even multi-generational. And by nothing, I mean nothing–not just buildings or roads or hairstyles or belief systems are decaying or putting up false fronts, but order itself.

What we have is a fifteen-year run through a nation that will produce no more glory. No more Shakespeares or MIltons. No Austens or Brontes. No Gladstones or Churchills. No Beatles or Stones.

Hell, no Clash or Sex Pistols.

Even they had to have something more than a black hole to rail against.

But, perhaps more to the point, this is an England that will produce no more Jane Tennisons.

In case anyone had kept such faith as the show permits (that is, in case anyone might assume my reading is, as the Brits say, daft), the final season gives us a younger version of Tennison herself. We don’t need to guess at this. She says as much herself and more than once.

It’s so much a younger version of herself (presented by the fresh-faced presence of Laura Greenwood), that, for once, and on the verge of her own retirement, she’s blinded to the sort of reality that she’s made a career of shoving in other people’s faces.

They’re bound together by intelligence, slash-n-bob haircuts, black coats worn as protection against the ever falling rain, a love of art, a deep-seated rebellious streak.

Somebody’s record collection.

Whether that last is Tennison’s, her dying father’s or some mixture of both is unclear, but it yields, for a start, Mirren’s lonely Jane dancing to Dusty Springfield’s “Stay Awhile” and, for a finish, a matched, bracketing sequence of Greenwood’s lonely Penny dancing to something else but clearly lost in the same past.

Of course, it’s really just Tennison’s past, a remnant of the middle class/middlebrow world her middle class/middlebrow father provided for her to rebel against, and perhaps flee from, by becoming the top-flight detective she wanted for herself instead of the artist her father, who we know from an earlier season was a liberator of Nazi death camps, wanted for her.

Penny’s a product of the new middle class. Her dad’s a statutory rapist who slept with one of her friends. By the time she’s dancing to the old records in Tennison’s dad’s house, she’s already a murderess and working up to a second try. She’s completely lost and, in the environment the series has built, not just in the final season (when Tennison is ravaged by alcoholism and so separated from any semblance of a normal life that she can’t even be in the same room with her surviving relatives without making an ass of herself, the last vestiges of middle class civility having been erased by her own choices), but in the entire corrosive atmosphere built up over a decade and a half, that primitivism is getting back its own and fresh-faced murder feels at least as natural as anything else.

This is an England where the air is permanently poisoned. And, long before the “reveal,” you can see and feel the inevitability of it all.

You don’t need plot-points or exegesis or the best role the actress of the age–definer of the wild child, the gangster’s moll, Morgana Le Fay, the first Elizabeth, the second Elizabeth–is ever likely to have, to know there’s no more England.

You just need to look, long before the aforementioned reveal, at the body language of the girl who will never have anything to defend.

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Yes, by all means. Let’s be more like England.