“The essence of life isn't comic, it's tragic. There's nothing intrinsically funny about the terrible facts of human existence.” “l disagree. Philosophers call it absurd because, in the end, all you can do is laugh." ~ Melinda and Melinda (Woody Allen; 2004)
I’ve been watching a lot of John Travolta films lately. It began with Urban Cowboy (1980), which I’d never even heard of until it was reviewed on the excellent '80s All Over podcast. I’m currently writing a neo-western so I’ve been researching the genre, but while Urban Cowboy is a fascinating snapshot of blue collar Southern culture, with some fine performances, I think I prefer the not dissimiliar Hard Country (1981), which I likewise discovered via '80s All Over. It’s less slick but feels more authentic than ‘Saturday Night Cowboy’, as co-host Scott Weinberg put it in the podcast.
This led me inevitably to Saturday Night Fever (1977), which I’d long been meaning to watch since I was too young to see it at the time it was initially popular. It then fell off my radar in the intervening years, despite my penchant for disco music when I was in my twenties. I enjoyed the film, it’s occasionally gripping and poignant and of course the soundtrack is sensational. The gender politics are dubious to say the least but arguably reflective of the era it was made and the milieu in which it was set. Ideally, there would be an alternate version of that story told from the point of view of the women. But then you could say that about a lot of classic films.
I never fully appreciated what a unique and charismatic screen presence John Travolta was in his heyday. I couldn't relate to him the way I could to more conventional symbols of heroic masculinity like Christopher Reeve or Harrison Ford. Although Grease (1978) was sort of a big deal - I liked the songs and it reminded me of Happy Days which I was fond of. But as a late bloomer growing up in an ultra-conservative environment, I was simultaneously piqued and intimidated by its heady atmosphere of adolescent horniness (I'm convinced I wouldn't have lasted two minutes in an American high school). Looking at it now, it’s less compelling than SNF, but the final scene at the fairground remains for me the most joyous celebration of sexual attraction in cinema, rivalled only by the balcony scene in Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet (1968), but way more sassy. It's impossible not to get swept up by its charm.
Grease was directed by Randal Kleiser, who just a couple of years earlier had directed Travolta in a TV movie called The Boy in the Plastic Bubble - based on the true story of a boy born with an extremely weak immune system who's forced to live in a sterilised plastic room in order to survive. It's a tale which later inspired a Paul Simon song and an episode of Seinfeld. Upon learning of this film, I had a flashback to something with a similar plot which I vaguely recalled seeing as a child. The idea of a boy having to spend his life in an plastic tent to prevent exposure to germs was genuinely disturbing. One scene in particular always stayed with me: somebody passes some money into his tent which in turn leads to him contracting an infection and eventually dying. Tragic stuff. Out of curiosity I acquired The Boy in the Plastic Bubble on DVD and, sure enough, it turned out to be the same film I had remembered. I hadn’t registered at the time that it was John Travolta, but then it was made just before he became famous. He's hugely engaging in the film and you can see why he became a star.
Except... his character didn’t die. Yes, some money was passed into the tent, after he wins a bet with another boy, but then nothing comes of it. It’s a narrative loose end. Instead, the film ends with him choosing, against medical advice, to leave his bubble and take his chances in the outside world. He meets up with his childhood sweetheart and they ride off into the sunset.
Now, my mother has on several occasions bemoaned my allegedly selective memory, claiming I only recall the negative aspects of my childhood at the expense of the positive, but this was a step beyond that and it perturbed me somewhat. How could I have remembered something so vividly yet inaccurately? As it happens, I've just re-read John Higgs’ seminal book, The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band Who Burned a Million Pounds, which features a short section dealing with the unreliability of memory. In it Higgs describes how people “slowly absorb events into their own narrative, losing the loose ends and unexplained incidents and making sense of what they can with respect to their own lives and prejudices.” Apparently this drift of memory into error is “so precise and predictable that it can be plotted on a graph, known as the Ebbinghaus curve of forgetting.” According to Higgs, the role of the ego is like a "spin doctor explaining the action afterwards in the best possible light" - or in my case, worst.
Evidently I'm prone to pessimism. For me optimism is an act of will, something I've learned to cultivate out of a sense of pragmatic self-awareness, as opposed to an inherent character trait. I’m neither a psychologist nor a philosopher but I’ve long suspected that we each inhabit our own bubbles - mental not plastic - in which subjective perception distorts objective reality. These bubbles are like private cinemas projecting our lives in real time. We're both the audience and the director, drawing from the same common source material but interpreting it in a way that's unique to us. For some people life is a gritty melodrama, for others a romantic comedy. Some of us, through luck or force of will, may get to choose which.