Coming out of college with an unusual major and no job prospects is a hell of a scary thing. Higher ed. ends so goddamn abruptly, and many of us are in no way prepared for those final days. I spent my entire last semester at school in some kind of sustained haze, grilling burgers, drinking beer out on the back deck with friends and somehow managing to get the highest semester GPA I’d ever achieved in college. I guess I’d figured out all of the ways to succeed at college without really trying. That, in turn, gave me false hope that I’d amount to anything out there in the “real world.”
The night before I graduated, I was relaxing in my favorite dive bar with a bunch of my best friends. We weren’t nostalgic even after ordering our sixth pitcher of the night. Instead, we talked about random crap like it was any other night of any other year of college. The next day, I got up, put on a shirt and tie, and zipped up my gown. And after the keynote speaker and the whole pomp-and-circumstance, I walked back to my old college house, tossed the tassled cap onto the couch, threw the last of my stuff in my Volvo, peeled away from the curb and, only about 30 miles into my trip back home, realized the overwhelming terror.
I remember nights at my hometown Diner, Chris’s Family Restaurant to be specific, where we sat, debated politics, girls, and lifestyle for hours on end. I also remember my time at college, sitting at whatever diner it was with one of my best friends for four hours at a time. The bars in my college town closed at 2 AM, and afterward six (or eight or ten) of us rushed to the diner right after last call to pile on over-easy eggs, homefries, toast, bacon, and coffee on top of all of the Coors Light. That is, of course, if we weren’t getting laid. We’d sit, with an ever dwindling crowd, until it was my best friend and I, and we’d discuss everything under the sun.
If you live in the Mid-Atlantic region, the diner represents something more than just a restaurant where you can order breakfast, lunch or dinner into the wee-small hours. It’s almost a cathedral, where whatever you say to your friends becomes sacred, and it’s understood that the things you say over that eight cup of coffee that’s sure to keep you up until 10:00 the next morning, will remain secret. I can barely remember any of the countless sorority mixers I attended throughout college, but I can remember the conversations I had at any number of diners. Another buddy and I tried to conquer a series of diners in high school all in one night, but once we hit the comfortable linoleum seats at Chris’s Family Restaurant after just one earlier stop, we couldn’t move for three hours. We talked about music (Wilco), politics (Al Gore…yeah, hilarious, I know), and movies (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). When we left, it was 4:00 in the morning, and we were still wide awake.
Barry Levinson’s Diner captures this bizarre nostalgia so eerily I feel as though I’m sitting in the booth with his characters. I’ve had all these conversations before, yet, they never become less interesting. Diner is fundamentally about male bonding done in a familiar setting to anyone who grew up in New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, or Delaware. But, the movie also strikes a deeper chord because the conversations are that realistic to any man under the age of 30.
One of my best friends asked me for my top five favorite films of all time while we chatted on Facebook a week ago. Though we agreed that our favorite movies are constantly shifting, he insisted that one’s favorite three movies generally stay the same. I don’t agree, but I’ll entertain the premise. He regaled me with his sophisticated choices: Aguierre, the Wrath of God (1973), Apocalypse Now! (1979) and Barry Lyndon (1975). I looked at those choices and immediately felt like a chump. Herzog, Copolla, Kubrick. Perhaps three of the finest directors of all time, all represented, all intense films that require extensive thought and English major-esque discussion afterward. The first time I saw Barry Lyndon with this guy, we stayed up until 6:00 in the morning discussing the scenery and costumes.
“I have to go hit the bank quick,” he said. “Think about it. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
He was at work, I was in the basement registering for courses. I thought heavily for a minute. My top ten lists are always lighthearted with a few heavies thrown in for good measure. I adore the movies he mentioned (especially Aguierre), but when it comes to movie-going, my choices are seemingly (but, I’d argue, not) inconsequential: American Splendor, Stranger Than Fiction, Nobody’s Fool, Broadcast News, Dazed and Confused, Catch Me If You Can. Not revolutionary pics, but thoroughly enjoyable and well-scripted ones that make you smile again and again and again. The characters in each of these movies are memorable, interesting, and perfectly developed. And, on an off night, you can always pop them in and enjoy the small nuances of each personality.
Anyway, my Top Three right now, as of late-April, 2010: Annie Hall, Five Easy Pieces, and Almost Famous. Famous has never left my top three list, not since I was 16 years old. My friend’s list is different in many ways, but when he came back, he looked at the list and chuckled. I ardently defended Almost Famous before he spoke a word: “Hey man, this is the most feel-good pic of all time…It’s nothing short of beautiful. I know, it seems a little bit too…you know, not ‘70s, it’s not heavy like your shit…” I felt like I’d fucked up, choosing shit like Almost Famous when I should’ve picked Raging Bull or The Godfather.
But he cut me off mid-justification, laughed and agreed. This movie makes you happy. Cameron Crowe makes the entire ‘70s rock spectacle—the drugs, the sex, the drinking—all surprisingly romantic, and that’s the pic’s greatest asset. On a shitty night, you can throw Famous in and watch William Miller (Patrick Fugit) chase rockstars from Stillwater trying desperately to get his interviews. It’s the life that many of us wished we lived at age 15. Anyone with an ounce of taste wishes they were William Miller when they were 15, even if he is a total nerd.
Joel Goodson (Tom Cruise) really lives up to his last name—he studies hard, hangs out with generally good kids, has a host of extracurricular activities, and is just waiting for that one chance to break out of his shell and fuck it all up. It’ll come as no surprise that Risky Business is one of my favorite movies of the 1980s. I was Joel Goodson during my high-school career, constantly set on succeeding academically and athletically. My teachers liked me, my friends were smart and well-behaved, and my parents constantly pushed me to succeed. But most of my friends, and hell, most suburban 17-year old guys in the country were like Joel in more ways than not. Watching Joel is like watching yourself carefully tread through high school, thinking your GPA and the number of bogus clubs you belong to are actually harbingers of future success.
Most of all, Risky Business clicks because the script captures what it’s like to be in high school, not just in the early-1980s, but at any time—the characters, even the minor ones, are well-developed and given intelligent, clever things to say. And beneath all the witticisms exchanged, uncertainty ties almost every character together. Joel, who we meet right off the bat (to the sounds of a spooky Tangerine Dream soundtrack), lights up a cigarette while doing yard work, and whispers that brilliant phrase, “The dream is always the same.” The first scenes are surreal—he’s fighting his way through steam in a bathroom to find a naked girl in the shower. And then…he’s quickly transported to a dull public-school classroom where he realizes he’s nearly three hours late for his SATs. He’ll never go to college. It’s that age-old forgotten course dream we’ve all had—you know, the one where you realize you haven’t shown up for class all semester, don’t know what room it meets in, and the final’s only two days away.
Risky Business, after this opening montage, cuts quickly back to reality. We meet Joel’s friends and parents. His friends are your standard suburbanites, playing poker in someone’s basement, drinking cheap light beer, and smoking $2 cigars. They’re all about seven months from graduation, wondering where their lives are going, hoping they’ll make good livings, hoping they can finally get the courage to lose their virginities. Joel’s friends, like I said, are smart and witty, though. They discuss sex almost constantly, though none of them have ever gotten any. When Joel was face-to-face with a half-naked babysitter the weekend before, he couldn’t get up the nerve to make a move. His buddies tease him mercilessly, and the funniest guy, Miles (Curtis Armstrong), tells Joel that instead of making a move, “I bet you got on your bike, pedaled home, and whacked off.”
We’ve just seen this man, handsome, rugged, probably 30 or 31 years old, degrade his girlfriend, a woman who truly loves him, because she’s a terrible bowler. She throws a strike on the last frame of a “losing game,” and though there’s anger seething beneath his eyes about this trivial happening, he cuts her down with quick verbal jabs instead of blowing his top. But that’s not enough. He must turn to two younger women behind him and openly flirt in the company of his loyal girlfriend. She gets up and walks away, without getting that angry.
But then, as the flirtation ends, the camera studies his face for about 30 seconds (as it often does in Five Easy Pieces), and we, the audience, see a seriously pensive man who shows nothing but dissatisfaction. The shot stays eerily still, regarding the subject the way a psychiatrist might eye-up his patient before asking him “Where do you think this hostility comes from?” After spending 96 minutes with this character, we can deduce that, while he might be in need of major psychotherapy, five or ten years on the couch would do little to change his disposition.
Five Easy Pieces is one of the best films to come out between 1966 and 1979, what many call the heyday for American cinema. It easily stands in such esteemed company as Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider, The Graduate, The French Connection, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Nashville, Taxi Driver, and the like. It also introduced us to Jack Nicholson as not just a great actor, but a something more like a major force, a guy who descended upon each and every picture he starred in with an intensity that rivaled an erupting volcano. Though he was absolutely brilliant as drunk lawyer George Hanson in his Easy Rider supporting turn, this film proved that Nicholson had the chops to carry an entire movie on his own. He is twisted and unpredictable, going from thoughtful to batshit-crazy in just seconds. (And in those circumstances, I find myself giggling hysterically.) We get a lot of that in Five Easy Pieces, and the world’s a better place because of it.