Well, if you guessed that the title reference was to John Travolta, you win the bonus round here at TMT and your prize is a hearty congratulations. It turns out that Doug is a huge Travolta fan – I mean, who isn’t? But Doug apparently harbors a deep and abiding love for John Travolta and announced, as he handed me Pulp Fiction, that he had seen that movie several times in the theater just because he was so excited that Travolta was back. So it became evident that I was in for some quality time with John Travolta. After some humming and hahing, Doug ultimately assigned me one example of Travolta at his peak, Saturday Night Fever, and, of course, his big comeback film, Pulp Fiction. I had already watched and liked Pulp Fiction so it was a safe bet, but I had never seen Saturday Night Fever. There was, of course, a reason for that. A movie about disco and a guy who really likes to dance to disco? The men’s fashions alone are enough to turn my stomach. It’s like somebody actually set out to design a Sarah repellent. But Doug loves it and has often claimed it “defines the decade” so I decided to give it a chance.
I’ll say this for Fever, it wasn’t what I expected. I had somehow managed to go my entire life without finding out that the movie had an actual plot and wasn’t just John Travolta dancing his way through a decade. There’s overarching racial stereotyping, substance abuse, date rape, and unintentional death to enjoy as well. I want to give the movie the benefit of the doubt and so I reference racial stereotyping when, in fact, the movie features flat-out racism, but I’ll chalk that up to the development of the message that Fever made concrete through Tony’s epiphany towards the end of the flick that everyone just wants to find somebody else to “dump on” and a stupid superficial reason is as good as any other to do so. For those of you who, like me, managed to make it your entire life without discovering Saturday Night Fever’s plot, the movie follows Tony, played beautifully by Travolta, as a 19-year-old boy living with his parents, grandmother, and little sister, and working in a hardware store, but he lives for the weekend when he gets to go to the club and dance his heart out. His local club is hosting a dance competition and the prize is $500. Initially, Tony is practicing with a young woman, Annette, who is completely infatuated with him, but soon discovers a better partner, Stephanie, played by Karen Lynn Gorney. He dumps Annette and starts practicing with Stephanie, on whom he has more than a little crush. As I said, there’s a lot of drug use, some territorial feuding, sexual assault, and the movie culminates in the death of one of Tony’s friends, but that basically covers the plot.
The dance practice scenes were priceless. Think Girls Just Want to Have Fun or even Dirty Dancing. But, whereas I liked many of the characters in Dirty Dancing, I didn’t actually like any of the characters in Fever except Tony’s older brother, Frank Jr., a Catholic priest who has quit the priesthood. The best scene in the movie is when Tony brings Frank to the club and shows off some of his moves. The look on Frank’s face is proud and happy; the look of a big brother who sees his little brother doing something he absolutely loves and he makes Tony promise he’s going to do something with his dancing. That scene perfectly illustrates Tony and Frank’s greatest fear; that they’ll never get away, they’ll get stuck in the same life that their parents and neighbors and everyone they know is leading. Fever tries hard to comment on pretty much every social issue that might have faced a young person in the 70s from drug abuse to unintentionally knocking up one’s girlfriend and packs it all into a movie about dancing. It’s ambitious and makes for a pretty grueling movie-watching experience that had me thinking if Saturday Night Fever defines the 70s, I’m glad I wasn’t born until the 80s.
As I said, I had already seen Pulp Fiction, but, and I never thought I’d write this phrase, Pulp Fiction served as a nice reprieve after the grim unfun that was Saturday Night Fever. The title is pretty much self-explanatory and the film is pretty much pure fun, with a few “oh God!” moments. The one moment in the film that had stuck with me during the 15 years since I first watched Pulp Fiction was when John Travolta has to stab the giant needle into Uma Thurman’s heart and I had definitely built that up in my head. Now, at my ripe old age, it was not nearly as disturbing, but I remember watching Pulp Fiction the first time in my friend’s basement and being absolutely traumatized by that scene. You cannot find fault with a single actor in the entire film, they all perform perfectly. The plot, while difficult to explain succinctly so I’m not gonna bother, is not difficult to follow, and the quick non-linear vignettes make for a fast paced and engaging popcorn flick. Since this post is focused on Doug’s man-crush, John Travolta, I will say this, he was outstanding as Vincent Vega, muscle for an L.A. mobster. (SPOILERS!!!) I had totally forgotten how Vincent dies in the movie and I was oddly sad to see the end of the character that accidentally shot a guy in the face, causing all kinds of trouble earlier in the movie. My only consolation was that, due to the non-linear storytelling that Quentin Tarantino employs, Vincent was not gone from the movie. Travolta’s scenes with Uma Thurman’s Mia were outstanding and we get to see Travolta break it down on the dance floor almost twenty years after his turn in Fever to great effect. I’ll have to thank Doug for getting me to watch Pulp Fiction once again. With 15 or so additional years of perspective, I think I enjoyed re-watching it even more than my first viewing and keeping a special eye out for Vincent Vega made the film all the more enjoyable.