There's an odd synchronicity between nostalgia and timeliness that works, not just for the film Dirty Dancing itself, but in the act of viewing it, too. This was probably true in 1987, when the film was released; it's certainly true now, thirty years later.
Full disclosure: I'd never seen Dirty Dancing in its entirety before this Month, when I happened to discover a 30th Anniversary Screening being held at a nearby AMC theater. Sure, I knew about the "I Had the Time of My Life" ending, or the line "nobody puts baby in a corner," because Dirty Dancing is one of those films that I think many people feel like they've seen, even if they haven't actually seen it. That was certainly true for me.
So on that random Sunday, I found myself without plans and, god dammit, times are tough in our country right now, and I was in the mood for a real distraction -- something tried and true, a piece of entertainment that passed the Pop Culture Relevance Gauntlet, yet was new to me. I wanted to feel happy -- Simple Happiness -- all other thoughts removed for two hours. I wanted to be Swept The Fuck Away.
Dirty Dancing accomplished that. And, I found out, a great deal more than that.
First, there are the simple pleasures. The summer vacation resort. Who doesn't love that idea? The bucolic lifestyle, the quiet freedom of a world-class lodge, tucked away in the mountains, Away From It All. Baby and her family were heading to a location I wanted to visit as I was watching them drive up that country road. Within five minutes of the screening, I knew I'd made the right call by coming to the theater; now, I hoped I was in good hands.
The soundtrack confirmed that I was. Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons over the opening credits? Not one, but TWO Otis Redding tracks? The glorious mix of Motown Oldies and 80s Cheese?! Thank you sir may I have another!
In that opening scene, Baby (childhood crush of mine, Jennifer Grey (thank you, Ferris Bueller's Day Off)) explains what's to come, her voice-over that of a character years removed from the version we're seeing in the back of her dad's car. She's reminiscing about her younger self and, as we'll come to find out, the Summer That Changed Her Life. Nostalgia theme: CHECK. OK, that's fine. I'm seeing this film because I want to remember the simpler times, remember?
But then Older Baby mentions something in that voice-over that could be considered a throwaway line, a footing in time and place... but I think it's more than that. I think the line is the thesis of the entire Artistic Statement of the film. In the voice-over, Older Baby, reflecting on the summer we're about to watch, says "that was the summer of 1963... that was before President Kennedy got shot..." She continues, but I paused.
Why bring that up?
Isn't this supposed to be a fun stupid movie about dancing, with a girl named Baby and Patrick Swayze in sweaty tank-tops and "Hungry Eyes" on the soundtrack?
Don't harsh my mellow, Dirty Dancing!
Do not fret -- Dirty Dancing hasn't changed, or lost any of its cheesy glory, over the past thirty years.
But what I didn't know (what's obvious to anyone who'd actually seen the film) was that it takes place twenty-four years (1963) before it was released (1987). So, as I'm watching this with nostalgic remembrance of my own childhood in the late-80s, the character of Baby is also reminiscing about a simpler time, and her transition from the innocence of adolescence to the realities of independent adulthood.
On the surface of Dirty Dancing, there's a loving sweetness to time and place. In fact, the world within the film could be considered Pure Americana -- the vacation spot welcomes the Nuclear Family, with a patriarch, arms outstretched, overseeing everything, spreading joy to all through organized events and general opulence. Everyone knows their role, everyone works together. It's... calming.
Underneath, there's much more complexity. Forbidden dancing, drinking and, in a shocking twist (to me), an abortion! In fact, the "inciting incident" of the entire film, the event that makes Baby learn to dance with Swayze's instructor character, is another dancer needing to disappear for a spell to get an Illegal Abortion!
An abortion was no easy feat to accomplish in 1963 America. We're a full ten years away from Roe v. Wade. So what's going on with this pop-culture-confetti of a film? Why is Baby dealing with another woman's abortion? And why, when Baby confronts the Ivy League Dildo (heretofore known as ILD) who is (at least) 50% responsible for the unplanned pregnancy, she's told that "some people matter; some people don't" before being handed a copy of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead (but not before telling Baby to return it, because the ILD "made notes in the margins")?
I wonder: how many young boys and girls who fell in love with this movie were aware of Ayn Rand at the time? Did they investigate further? Was this representation of her work with the ILD enough for them to consider Rand's work as smug, that her writing imbues well-to-do White People with an air of superiority about themselves?
So, here's where I'm at: we're an hour into Dirty Dancing, and I've consumed approximately 700 calories worth of caramel popcorn already. I'm happy. There's dancing on screen, great music through the speakers, and a romance that's sweeping me off my feet.
I'm not forgetting the reality of my world like I'd expected. Dirty Dancing is making me think. About... stuff.
Like abortion. Is it still so difficult to find a doctor who'll provide that service for you? No; on a general scale in this country, it's not. But Mike Pence is also our new Vice President, and Trump just put the Global Gag Rule into the forefront of American politics with an Executive Order...
Like Rich, White Folk Superiority? Read any David Duke tweets lately? Notice the median wealth of Trump's cabinet? See that photo of Melania fork-spooling fine jewelry like it's spaghetti? HAVE YOU NOT SEEN GET OUT YET?!
No, I wasn't forgetting. I forgot NOTHING. I couldn't forget, because Dirty Dancing wouldn't let me. Because the film, like many works of pop entertainment, spoke to Universal Truths in a digestible way, couching ideas of sexism and classicism under a sexy soundtrack with beautiful bodies sweating and grinding on screen.
I left the theater in total admiration. I wanted to escape for two hours, to forget. to be entertained. I got the entertainment, but I didn't forget, and that ended up being so much better. Because if something like Dirty Dancing can help me understand that forgetting is useless, that forgetting doesn't help anyone, that staying engaged and concerned is the only way to continue... well, shit. How great is Pop Art?