***½/**** Image B Sound C Extras A
starring Matthew Broderick, Dabney Coleman, John Wood, Ally Sheedy
screenplay by Lawrence Lasker & Walter F. Parkes
directed by John Badham
SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER
DVD - Image B Sound B+ Extras C
BD - Image A Sound A Extras B-
starring John Travolta, Karen Gorney, Barry Miller, Joseph Cali
screenplay by Norman Wexler
directed by John Badham
ZERO STARS/**** Image C+ Sound B+
starring John Travolta, Cynthia Rhodes, Finola Hughes, Steve Inwood
screenplay by Sylvester Stallone and Norman Wexler
directed by Sylvester Stallone
by Walter Chaw I hadn't realized until I watched the 25th Anniversary Edition DVD of it how intimately WarGames is embedded in my psyche. I saw it in the theatre as a ten-year-old in 1983 and, for the rest of that decade (the prime of my excited filmgoing experience), I didn't know that movies were ever different. The first time, in fact, that I recognized that movies were human was the first time they revealed themselves as something that could fail to inspire any kind of response at all--and I wonder if that initial moment of disappointment had more to do with the development of my cynicism than any one picture's deficiency. Film is a progressive addiction, says one theory: the more sophisticated you get as a viewer, the harder it is to find the fix. WarGames presented me with the idea of eroticism through mild scatological exhibitionism. It had a young man in his room, alone with a young woman, excusing himself to urinate in the next room--an act unthinkable to me as a ten-year-old, and holding with it the thrill of taboo. The next time they meet, the world starts to explode and, better yet, the girl traps the boy between her legs when he tries to edge by.
More, it's smart enough to recognize that there's an element of transgression in the act by establishing that moment with discomfort earlier in the girl hesitating when she learns upon her first visit that she's about to hang out with a guy in his room while his parents aren't home, moving on through to that thrilling comfort with one another. It's how children learn about physical intimacy, and just one of the miniscule character moments that defines WarGames as a film aware of the richness of its title's implication. The first game David (Matthew Broderick) engages in involves getting his hot, coltish classmate Jennifer (Ally Sheedy) to compromise her morals (going to his room, allowing him to change her science grade)--the quintessence of courtship and the first nascent experiments in seduction. It's fascinating, loaded, sophisticated. Compare it to another brilliant bit of secret play where personal assistant Pat Healy (Juanin Clay) pops her boss's chewed bubble gum in her mouth. At its bottom is a wonderful screenplay that engages the Frankenstein mythos as a blueprint for games playing: procreation both natural and unnatural, with the stakes literally the fate of the human race.
David is a hacker right at the very crest of interconnectivity in computer systems. When I saw the film in 1983, most of the things in it seemed to be complete science-fiction. (It's worth considering that for as dated as the technology appears--floppy discs the size of 78s, for instance--the film was state-of-the-art as recently as a quarter-century ago.) He's learned how to access his high school's grade system, and when his favourite game company announces a new line of software, he endeavours to hack into their network for a personal sneak preview. Instead, he hacks NORAD's war-scenario computer, a big black box David dubs "Joshua" after the dead son of its Stephen Hawking-inspired creator (Stephen Falken (John Wood)--Falcon/Hawk, get it?), provoking it good-naturedly into a pleasant game of WWIII with what it thinks is its long-absent father. I thought nothing of this misunderstanding at the age of ten; I think a lot of it now. WarGames is very much about the sins of the fathers--original sin, even, as the dramatic climax comes on some island in a Pacific Northwest sound with Jennifer protesting that she's only seventeen and not prepared to die. She could as easily be protesting that she's sexually inexperienced and refuses to die that way, a supposition supported by the pushing of her first kiss with David immediately following. The tech in WarGames might feel musty, but the thrust of it remains so unerringly pure because no matter the implements, the instinct towards conflict as the catalyst/result of the sex urge is eternal. The picture is as timely now as it was then, as it always will be; if Zach Snyder's Watchmen is true to its transcendent source (and lest we forget there's a computerized war-game scenario in Alan Moore's book when Doc Manhattan leaves the planet), WarGames will provide a nice first part to a double-bill.
Chief NORAD computer guy McKittrick (Dabney Coleman) reverses the old sci-fi standard of the scientist protecting the alien intelligence by making him wrong--in that the childlike, omnipotent consciousness he protects against the bellicose military (Barry Corbin, doing his best Curtis Lemay) is in fact attempting to facilitate the end of the world. It's a response, one year later, to Spielberg's E.T.: What if cuddly, leathery E.T. accidentally levelled Southern California as an act of love for surrogate daddy Elliot? When Joshua goes batshit and is asked by David if its computerized escalation is real or a game, the understated, haunted response is that the computer doesn't understand the difference. About two decades ahead of its time in the United States, WarGames is a Luddite picture, deeply afraid of the products of our own hands in the way of the Japanese horror films that proliferate throughout the next decade.
Like those pictures as well, WarGames introduces a parental element to the picture, human guardians responsible for the bogey (as humans are responsible for their technology) who ultimately sacrifice some element of themselves to protect the world from their creations. Though Falken doesn't grapple his monster to a death in a frozen waste, there's a suggestion that order is only restored through the intervention of a natural, biological reproductive cycle; Falken's nihilism, predicting the end of Man as something as inevitable as the end of the dinosaurs, is assuaged only by Jennifer's declaration that, in a sense, she hasn't had a chance to procreate. Pair WarGames with Steve DeJarnatt's Miracle Mile and find in that proximate comparison two near-identical scenarios, save that the one picture sees hope in love and the other (with its couples either geriatric, hermaphroditic, or middle-aged) absolutely doesn't.
WarGames' storyline is completely implausible, of course, unless personal helicopters can make the flight from Oregon to Colorado in a couple of hours and NORAD's security was total shit in 1983. What works best about it works still: It's a paranoid film with an ambiguous ending--a prologue to The Terminator the following year that suggests that Joshua's lesson-learned isn't one of the futility of nuclear conflict, but of the effectiveness of nuclear conflict in wiping the human threat from the face of the planet. In its way, Joshua is the granddaddy of James Cameron's SkyNet (as David is the granddaddy of MacGyver), just as WarGames is one of the earliest examples in Eighties cinema of rebellion against Reagan's blue-sky, Star Wars stance against the Russians in the final days of the Cold War. (There's also a connection here with Back to the Future in the casting of James Tolkan as an authoritarian FBI agent who declares David, like he will Marty McFly in two years, to be smart but lazy ("slacker!"); and it boasts the screen debut of Michael Madsen in a neat little cameo introducing the burden of human error in the affairs of mutual destruction.) The implication that a machine can learn isn't a cozy one, placing WarGames as the logical bridge between Blade Runner the year previous and Cameron's impending film. The picture believes that destruction is destiny, a Freudian manifesto about the irresistible madness of creating things that are by their nature temporary and, inevitably, as ambitious and selfish as their creators. Emptied-out shell Falken tells Jennifer at one point that stopping his Joshua is just a temporary stay of execution and that success means that Jennifer may live long enough to have her own son only to watch him die. It's complicated, but the metaphor that the film applies to the conundrum of existence is a game of tic-tac-toe with no players.
A surprising extension of the Seventies run of paranoid, theme-driven genre pieces, WarGames is in its way a logical extension of director John Badham's own masterpiece of sexually-fuelled frustration, aggression, rage, and at the end of all of that struggle, the complete futility of playing the game: Saturday Night Fever.* Boasting of a sequel, Staying Alive, released the same year as WarGames, Badham's Saturday Night Fever is nihilistic even by the '70s' relentlessly bleak standards. Remembered now with the cozy armour of camp (thanks in large part to the ubiquity of a poster image that never actually occurs in the film), it's a brutal and uncompromising film, dancing just this side of melodrama by maintaining a remarkable level of French Connection realism. Ralf Bode's SteadiCam, in one of the earliest--and canniest--uses of the technology, makes the infamous nightclub sequences bristle with ugly, frustrated, suffocating sex, right on the delicious, trembling cusp of exploding into violence. It's a nasty-feeling picture, the absolute pinnacle of the Sixties hangover that burned off the idealism of that era in the crucible of a years-long disintegration of hope. All that's left is the drugs, the misogyny, the racism: all the ruins of society when the raiments of civilization shred with the raft that our boy Tony (John Travolta) clings to on Saturday nights with his loser buddies, acting the part of king of the dance floor in ecstatic states approaching trance and other religious transportations.
The suggestion is of sanctuary: brief surcease from the absolute, apocalyptic grimness of life in 1977. When culture revolts in just two years' time and hosts collective, community burnings of disco records, it's fair to wonder how it is that we as a nation went from organized protests against real issues to organized protests against a non-issue in ten short, agonizing years. There's still the instinct to reject "at large," but the targets have become bloated and impossibly nebulous, enough so that the last effigy vulnerable to mass-revolt isn't the National Guard, or Altamont, or the Chicago Democratic Convention, or Vietnam-Watergate's foregone conclusions--no, the last thing we can turn into the goat, stoned as the outcast as it's led through the village street, is almost the very definition of an innocuous musical fad.
Saturday Night Fever is the time capsule of the era, summarizing the function and form of disco for the disenfranchised, no question, but more precisely the hopelessly disenfranchised--the feckless, the journey's end. When we collectively exorcised disco, in many ways we rejected cynicism. Culturally it took, but only until the millennium ended and planes crashed into the World Trade Center. There isn't a tomorrow for an entire generation of Tony Maneros, left marooned without any yesterdays upon which to build a foundation for any future. It's pithy to note that the key films of the following decade are time-travel documents: backwards or forwards, often the one facilitated by the other, with technology providing the means to either re-fight the Vietnam War and win (or lose again through Pyrrhic victory (see: Predator)) or, as with Back to the Future, to literally re-engage the Eisenhower era only to find your father a limp dick, your mother on the prowl, and "black" music ready to convert Dick and Jane into Jamesian beasts in the jungle. Everything about Travolta's performance is coiled, angry. When he dances, it's the steam vent before the meltdown, so that when the meltdown comes, it's not a surprise. He attacks his mother, he tries to rape his girlfriend, he ignores a buddy and the buddy spins off the rails from inattention; Tony has power, but he wields it ineffectively--and like Warren Beatty's Clyde Barrow, who inaugurated this New American Cinema exactly a decade before, Tony Manero appears to be impotent and, likewise, redirects that fundamental powerlessness through increasingly flamboyant physical acts. When we meet up with Tony again in five-years' time, his acts of sexual aggression don't make sense anymore in or out of context, representative in 1983 of nothing when, in 1977, it was the growing knowledge of the Nothing that was coming.
Staying Alive is a stunted, staggering monument to extravagant emptiness: the Reagan years winnowed down into so many feet of tired, stretched-thin celluloid. Tony is resurrected here and framed by auteur Sylvester Stallone's odd close-ups of Manero staring blankly at nothing within or without context. It's the perfect tableau in a sense, the Seventies icon rendered glazed, mute, and glossy by the Eighties fandango; his announcement after all the fireworks have misfired that what he wants to do is "strut," right before recreating the prologue of Saturday Night Fever, is a little like a nation of 1983's children knowing that those little furry assholes were called "Ewoks" when the term is never uttered in Return of the Jedi. Post-modernism is in its nascent imbecility here--pop culture is brought to Frankensteinian half-life to shamble about for a while before leaning itself against a wall. Tony is no longer a kid looking for the heart of the Saturday night, he's a struggling Broadway dancer/waiter cliché looking for his big break in The Big Show. Because it's the wrong decade, he gets his chance, the girl, and the opportunity to rape his own legacy. Travolta's career wouldn't recover until Pulp Fiction another decade later. (Now that's post-modernism done right.)
Tony has a new girl, good girl Jackie (Cynthia Rhodes, '80s-hot), and a new obsession, bad-girl Laura (Finola Hughes), to go with the old good girl Annette (Donna Pescow) and old bad girl Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney), though it isn't nearly as easy to peg those two as it is these two. Jackie doesn't mind that Tony's not going anywhere because by the standards of the film, Tony's going somewhere. In fact, Staying Alive is an underdog sports movie that sees Tony hit it out of the park in the Big Game to the admiration of men and the lascivious attention of women, dancing badly in a ridiculous construction called "Satan's Alley" in which, in one of Stallone's dips into bad-allegory country, Tony literally and metaphorically battles his demons to ascend to Heaven. Not surprisingly, "Heaven" for Tony is going for a strut down 1977. The acting is poor; Travolta's devastating breakthrough performance is repurposed here like an old couch while Rhodes and Hughes take turns sucking the life out of an already-lifeless production. Worst offenders are Stallone's screenplay (which, aside from its tin ear and stunning stretches, unerringly goes on for one line too long in every exchange) and Stallone's decision to have his brother Frank not only provide a handful of remarkably bad songs for the picture but also appear in the movie in the most unintentionally hilarious moment, thrusting his guitar like a stringed phallus in an already unintentionally hilarious film.
The difference between Staying Alive and Saturday Night Fever is startling: the one is a product of the worst instincts of the '80s, the other the last vestiges of the forlorn '70s and the prediction of the strain of subversive pictures that would run through even the blockbuster decade. Just as the Sixties don't happen without the Fifties, the Eighties don't happen without the Seventies. Fascinating is that Stallone--the de facto populist icon of the transition--is connected to Saturday Night Fever, making a cameo of sorts in the Rocky poster that hangs in Tony's room (and a literal one in his own Staying Alive) and put up as, along with Al Pacino, the two figures (Serpico, Rocky Balboa) most responsible for the genesis of Tony: congenital losers, moral streaks, terrible with women, great hair, bittersweet endings. That Stallone is subsequently almost solely responsible for Staying Alive speaks eloquently of how our icons are as susceptible to the siren's call of filthy lucre as us mere mortals. Tapping the zeitgeist isn't faddism--it's unearthing the string of archetype that binds every fashion to the next and reveals to us the essential blackness that's the literal building block of any Rorschach blot.
MGM brings WarGames home again in an honourable twenty-fifth anniversary edition long on special features. Indispensable to a child of the period, the picture holds up like a sonuvabitch, not diminished in the slightest by its distinctive age marks (a certain style of lighting, a certain degraded stock of film) but in fact elevated by them into a certain nostalgic sublimity. This is how thirty-five-year-olds remember films looking like--and the older I get, the codgier I get about protecting the lost towns of my visceral memory. This anamorphic DVD marks the first time I've seen WarGames since its theatrical release in its original aspect ratio, and I found myself a little disappointed that there doesn't seem to have been much vital information lost to pan&scan. (The bulk of the action is framed television-centred.) Still, seeing that giant NORAD screen in 1.85:1 brought back a cozy little tingle. The DD 5.1 remix is meanwhile fine despite giving minimal attention to atmospherics. Badham provides a lively, free-wheeling, packed commentary track for the picture that unfortunately has the effect of rendering the man a bit out of touch and, at times, condescending. It's something that's more marked on the Saturday Night Fever commentary where, I think, he might have a bit of a chip on his shoulder about certain editorial decisions that were taken away from him, but there's a moment or two when I got the distinct impression that time has rendered him a little patronizing about his then-young charges. Keeping him grounded a bit are screenwriters Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes. Together, when they get Badham to reveal how he came up with the acronym "WOPR" (War Operation Plan Response) as one half "the hamburger" and one half the image of someone pounding "wop wop wop wop" one fist into another, well, it is to laugh. What else can you do? For me, what I really wanted to hear was commentary about an environment where "asshole," "bullshit," and "goddamn" were the relaxed province of a PG film. While WarGames is subversive in many ways, its attacks against Reagan's new-Conservatism are full-frontal.
"Loading WarGames" (45 mins.) is a wonderful retrospective that goes pretty far in dissecting each element of the project, from its rocky beginnings with the firing of Martin Brest and new direction offered by Badham (sexuality, fun, release) through to owing some of its success to the fact that the lines were so long for Return of the Jedi that people could see WarGames then regain their place in a line that had only really gotten two hours closer to Tatooine. I enjoyed Owen Gleiberman's spiel about responsibility and culpability, as well as Lasker's revelation that he'd shown Reagan the picture only to have the POTUS sort of freak out about it to the Joint Chiefs. Good Christ. "Attack of the Hackers" (14 mins.) provides a fascinating history of the phenomenon from its surprise inception through to the modern iteration. Really great stuff--who would have thought that all this mess started with an autistic kid learning to whistle the telephone company's kill code? Richard Clarke--former National Coordinator for Security and Counter-Terrorism Richard Clarke--contributes in a ball-freezing kind of way and returns in "NORAD: Cold War Fortress" (11 mins.), which traces the creation of the defense apparatus back to the terror of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It washes out as more an examination of Cold War paranoia than a real look at NORAD (and did you know there's a zoo on Cheyenne Mountain where you can feed giraffes?)--which, I guess, only makes sense.
"Tic Tac Toe: A True Story" (5 mins.) is a fake-umentary made by "Stephen Falken" that mixes clips from the film with a faux-educational reel that talks about the importance of the game in the development of western civilization. An "Interactive Superpower Weapons Briefing Gallery" allows one to navigate through descriptions of the arsenals of the principal antagonists of the Cold War circa 1983, followed fast by a trailer for something called WarGames: The Dead Code that's some kind of DTV bullshit looking to capitalize on our nostalgia for the original. Looks and feels cheap and nasty; we won't be covering it. The trailer for the original, also included, gives away the picture's best punchline, demonstrating that the more things change, you know. A downloadable screensaver rounds out the disc.
Paramount releases Saturday Night Fever in a double-pack with Staying Alive in a perverse attempt to clean out their expanding backlog, I'm guessing, of Staying Alive platters. The excellent 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer presents the darks with pleasing contrast and all those volumes of neon with clarity and the intended bleed. What I'm saying is that it's bloodier than a good steak, but just as it'd be a mistake to throw that steak back on the grill, I like the movie the way it looks. It retains its filmic appearance, resisting edge enhancements or over-saturation. It's clean and refreshingly not-perfect. A DD 5.1 remix fills all six channels with the classic soundtrack. Beautiful stuff if you're into that kind of thing. Badham's 2002 commentary here, knowing what's generally known about some of the background of the movie, at times seems disingenuous and, at others, ungracious. When Badham says that the cast was only too principled to refuse to record a television-friendly track until he educated them about residuals, well, it's not so much the story as the way he tells it.
As for Tony's extended solo dance sequence--possibly the most indelible dance sequence in the movies since Astaire and Kelly cut the boards--the widely-known fact of it is that Travolta demanded the master shot that Badham had replaced with close-ups; he makes no mention of it in the yakker. A VHI "Behind the Music" (45 mins.) reminds me how much I used to like that show (filmed circa 2001), sporting as its highlight a moment where Travolta sees Badham's home movies of his dance rehearsals for the first time since 1977. Too cool. Three deleted scenes include a deepening of Tony and Stephanie's relationship that plays redundant. The dance sequences say everything that needs to be said and allowing Tony to articulate his frustration rings false. A cut moment where Tony's pop gets his job back is an ill-advised slackening of the relentless darkness of the piece, while another bit, sort of an alternate ending, completes this idea that the final choices were good ones. Nothing, thank God, adorns the Staying Alive disc, but its 1.78:1, 16x9-enhanced video and DD 5.1 audio, respectively, look and sound perfectly adequate. Originally published: September 15, 2008.
THE BLU-RAY DISC - SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER
by Bill Chambers Paramount exports the content of their 2007 Saturday Night Fever DVD to Blu-ray in a release that retains the 30th Anniversary Special Collector's Edition tag despite this now being the film's 32nd year of existence. Other than the John Badham commentary and deleted scenes, new bonus features here presented in HD have replaced the supplementary material Walter discusses below. I must admit, I missed the VH1 special: Although the five-part "Catching the Fever" (53 mins.) might actually have a bit more depth to it (lots of valid correlatives drawn between Saturday Night Fever and Rebel Without a Cause), too much of it is a verbal tourniquet to stop the hemorrhaging that resulted from John Travolta's decision to sit out this particular retrospective. I did enjoy the interview with the authors of Last Night a Deejay Saved My Life, who point out the paradox of disco and its offspring in that the music is often very sad but gets people dancing and having a good time; and the Bee Gees bring another provocative incongruity to the fore by revealing that their city-soaked songs for the film were recorded in the French countryside. (Even more impressively, they hadn't seen a frame of Saturday Night Fever when they wrote the seminal "Staying Alive.") One suggestion: the Nik Cohn-penned article that inspired the movie, "Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night," is mentioned and even shown so often that it should've been included in full as some kind of slideshow--otherwise it's such a tease.
"Back to Bay Ridge" (9 mins.) meanwhile sends Joseph Cali on a tour of the old neighbourhood, i.e., the picture's original Brooklyn locations. Clearly nobody was called in advance, as the Manero house is closed for renovations and the Phillips Dance Studio turns Cali away. In the last of the featurettes, "Dance Like Travolta with John Cassese" (10 mins.), the eponymous "dance doctor" gives lessons to viewers that are completely subverted by his distractingly asymmetrical facial hair, which makes him look like a half-transformed Wolf Man. Rounding out the extras are the BD-Java game "Fever Challenge" (think a comically low-rent "Dance Dance Revolution") and "'70s Discopedia," a pop-up fact track that balances production anecdotes with Travolta trivia and reminders of such era-specific fads as the shampoo Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific. (It also irksomely disables all menu functions.) Was Travolta really up for Forrest Gump and Tootsie? I could've sworn the latter was always intended for Dustin Hoffman. As for the 1.78:1, 1080p presentation of Saturday Night Fever proper, holy shit! doesn't begin to cover it. A time machine back to 1977, this is a glorious transfer that renews the film's vitality--the 2001 sequences pop with freshly lurid (yet tightly controlled) colours--without resorting to digital video noise-reduction, though periodic edge-enhancement became more apparent to me on a second viewing. Icing on the cake, the 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio conveys each tune with heretofore-unheard nuance and depth, as well as the capacity to be played loud without distorting. Originally published: May 4, 2009.