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Saturday, January 3, 2009

Vincent Canby About Dance Aspects

When Dirty Dancing opened, The New York Times' movie reviewer Vincent Canby wrote a review , published on August 21, 1987, that was mostly favorable. He dismissed the story as silly, even "awful," but praised the movie as a good step forward in developing the genre of dance movies.

In their time, almost all forms of popular American music and dancing, from the foxtrot and the tango through rock-and-roll and all of its variations, have scandalized the members of an older generation, whose own sexuality had earlier been liberated by tamer means. As music, lyrics and dance steps have become more and more sexually explicit, fathers and mothers from coast to coast have felt alienated, and worried that pop music was leading their children straight to hell. …

This culture generation gap has produced its own Hollywood genre. Most of these films have been quickies on the order of Don't Knock the Rock (1957) and Twist Around the Clock (1962), but there have occasionally been more ambitious if not much better films (Herbert Ross's Footloose, 1984). Though music is the subject of each film, sex is the subtext. In the final reel, generations reconcile; initially stuffy oldsters end up rocking, rolling or twisting the night away, showing the young that, though creaky of joint and infirm of body, they can still do "it." ….

Johnny, a young man from the wrong side of the tracks, exemplifies the freedom expressed through a new and as yet socially unacceptable form of dancing. This "dirty dancing," a phrase used only in the film's title, features a lot of steamy body contact and pelvic thrusts, which unleash emotions supposedly left withered by mambos and cha-cha-chas.

Taking a formula that is itself creaky of joint and infirm of body, Eleanor Bergstein, the writer, and Emile Ardolino, the director, have made an engaging pop-movie romance of somewhat more substance than one usually finds in summer movies designed for the young.

I suspect that one's responses to Dirty Dancing, to its period details, even to its state of mind, will depend on the associations one brings into the theater. What is undeniable, however, is a basic decency of feeling, shaped, in part, by the film's obligations to its optimistic genre.

Baby, as written by Miss Bergstein and played by Miss Grey (Ferris Bueller's Day Off), is no bubble-brained teen-ager, but a bright, inquisitive young woman who's on her way to being her own person. .... Baby's liberation comes through her forbidden association with the womanizing Johnny Castle, after his partner, Penny (Cynthia Rhodes), becomes pregnant and Baby agrees to substitute for her in a mambo demonstration at another hotel.

There's a really quite awful subplot about Penny's abortion, financed by money that Baby has borrowed from her conventionally liberal doctor-father, and about the arrogant young Ivy League fellow who is responsible for Penny's condition.

Given the limitations of his role, that of a poor but handsome sex-object abused by the rich women at Kellerman's Mountain House, Mr. Swayze is also good. He's even convincing when he must admit, in one of the film's lesser moments, that ''the reason people treat me like nothing is because I am nothing.'' He's at his best - as is the movie - when he's dancing.

The movie makes a lot of good use of period music, to which some not very evocative new songs have been added. The dancing itself, especially the dirty dancing, choreographed by Kenny Ortega, looks very contemporary, or, at least, as contemporary as Saturday Night Fever, but it has a drive and a pulse that give the film real excitement.

Though the film takes place in 1963, just a year after the twist was all the rage, the twist itself seems already to have come and gone at Kellerman's Mountain House. …

These anachronisms aren't especially important, except that Miss Bergstein has been so specific about the film's period. She seems to want Dirty Dancing to be seen as a fond goodbye to a comfortable, liberal American way of life before the country was radicalized by the assassination of President Kennedy and by the increasingly bitter anti-Vietnam War movement. That's loading a small movie with rather more than it can carry without a lot of highly detailed program notes.

Dirty Dancing works best when it's most direct and unpretentious. It has the kind of sweet simplicity that somehow always eludes John Hughes (Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller's Day Off). Mr. Ardolino, whose background is in theater and in television dance films, doesn't clutter the film with extraneous, sentimental detail, nor even with too much colorful (and familiar) detail about life in your usual Catskill resort hotel.

I don't know Canby's personal opinion about the legalization of abortion, but certainly most people who do oppose such legalization would agree with him that the abortion subplot was "awful." On the other hand, people who advocated such legalization would praise that same subplot as a brave social commentary.

Young people who watch the movie for the first time now perhaps do not realize that the people who watched the movie when it came out in 1987 were watching a story that took place 24 years previously, in 1963. American culture had changed enough in those 24 years that the movie already was perceived to be a "period piece" about a previous social era. The changes included greater public frankness about the issue of abortion.

On the other hand, the first audiences perceived the movie to be a celebration of the already somewhat forgotten music and dancing of that earlier era.

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