The politics of nostalgia

by Deborah H. Holdstein

from Jump Cut, no. 28, April 1983, p. 3
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1983, 2005

By now, we've all heard that DINER is the previously unsung (now, we can assume, sung) "sleeper" of this past film season. Heralded as "sensitive" and a "mix of nostalgia and autobiography" by Chicago film critic David Kerr (Chicago Reader, 9 July 1982), DINER seems to fit neatly into a rather ambiguously-titled category: the "slice-of-life nostalgia piece," the recognizable plight of a group of young men growing up in the Baltimore of 1959. Critics nationally echo Kerr's sentiment, as words such as "touching" and references to Levinson's "thoughtful" story and direction appear in writings as diverse as Gene Siskel's (2 July 1982, Chicago Tribune) and Pauline Kael's (5 April 1982, New Yorker).

Yet as Proust discovered when he bit into the madeleine, nostalgia and the things remembered often reveal more than one initially thought. Perhaps our popular critics have forgotten this, as in the case with DINER, a film whose strengths go far beyond those of a pleasant film on which writer/ director Barry Levinson has "imposed a light layer of thought and analysis" (Kerr, Reader).

On the one hand, the film troubles many viewers — women and men alike — who see it as an exclusive, wholly "male" film, celebrating the joys and trials of being a "good-young-boy" in a transitional, important stage. Indeed, women are in peripheral roles in DINER as they have been at the periphery of the patriarchy. Levinson merely duplicates or at best "mirrors life-as-it-was in a characteristic U.S. film and literary genre. But, it is easily argued, these young men have a place in society — unlike the women in the film — which insures most of them a fairly good lot in life.

On the other hand, with the clarity of hindsight, I find certain social truths more readily revealed in older films and occasionally in films that purport to celebrate the painful-but-engaging "good old days." That is, even if Levinson did not intend to make a film offering an expressly political commentary, DINER does reveal that the patriarchy victimizes even those who are the victimizers: men.

So while DINER is an overtly entertaining, pleasant, and, yes, "sensitive" film, my reading may permit it to be an important one. DINER does remind us of those simple, black-and-white days of 1959 (huge, oversized picture tubes, GE COLLEGE BOWL, blissfully raw rock 'n roll). But it also recalls the fact that even the films we call "entertainment" can be essentially political — even without the director/writer's deliberate intention, and often in spite of it.

DINER vividly etches the lives of young men (and very few women) with a cross-section of the U.S., white, Eastern population. It unintentionally but vividly illustrates that the patriarchal status quo also stifles men. Within the first sequence, DINER sets up numerous parallel oppositions which it sustains throughput: people versus society, men versus women, men versus men, the media versus daily reality, and men's fantasy-women versus the women men marry. For each of these pairs, Levinson reveals, if unintentionally, the hypocrisy within us all, within the myths that sustain young men through their young adulthood while threatening their very existence, their sense of themselves.

The film makes striking parallels between popular culture and the media and their integration within one's sense of self. The characters' "machismo," their preoccupations with the media, their bets about "making it" with certain women, aren't as much the villainy of traditional sexism as frantic signs of their knowing no other way to be in the world.

Thus, Boogie uses the automobile and the movies as a forum for his sexual conquests. Although the film presents him as a more tender version of the "macho mystique," part of his image includes his specifically noting his "conquests." Eddie, the football expert, will get married because "it's time, you know, and she's not a ball-breaker. If she was a ball-breaker, then, well, man, no way." Ball-breaking or its equivalent seems fine when it comes from the man's direction, however. Out of his own insecurity, Eddie designs for his fiancée a fabulously difficult "ball-breaking football quiz." If she scores lower than a 65, he'll call the wedding off.

Most viewers perhaps rightly view DINER as a slice of the oppressive life, an ultimately celebratory view of men in their traumatic years. But to see the film only as this, in my view, doesn't acknowledge the injustices we all suffer within the same, oppressive system. DINER may be erroneously conceived as mere apolitical nostalgia by audience and critic alike. The film's structure and deceptively simple technical style belie the suffering and trials that go along with being a man or woman in the capitalist world, as well as realizing an unarticulated but desperately obvious need for a comprehensive male and female release from a constricting status quo.

I propose an expansion of the term "political film," since many film critics propagate a restrictive, assumptive definition, implying that if a film is not expressly "political," i.e., dealing in a "political theme," then its content cannot be political at all. (In my view, this would parallel the view of women we see in most films, implying to the woman in the audience that she cannot be other than a peripheral figure in a man's world.) Occasionally good, politically instructive and uplifting messages can come in small, rather delightful, witty packages — even those like DINER, which seem apolitical or at best a standard-bearer for the patriarchy.

In a Sunday edition of the New York Times (18 July 1982), critic Robert Sklar discusses the fate of the "political film," using terms that restrict the genre to films that handle "hot issues":

“If you have a message, ran the old Hollywood maxim, send it by Western Union. Movies aren't meant to be about the real world. Forget elections and politicians, strikes and working conditions, race and class antagonisms, dictators and foreign wars. People go to movies to escape all that.”

But as many filmgoers realize, people don't escape "all that," especially when we view much of what we see on the screen (eliminating, of course, science fiction, fantasy, costume drama, etc.) to be representational and "real" mirrors of the way we are or should be in the world. The politics are subliminal, built into such things as characterization, social class, and the entire narrative.

Sklar does his movie-going public a disservice by limiting his definition of "political films" to those treating expressly "political subjects" such as war in PATHS OF GLORY, Vietnam in COMING HOME, injustice and poverty in THE GRAPES OF WRATH, and political satire vs. nuclear destruction in DR. STRANGELOVE. The political film cannot merely be a genre which specifically treats "social problems." The political film can encompass all film, particularly those which, innocuously hidden behind Hollywood or popular sanctions, seem least political. What is more "political" than the relation between women and the world? Of human beings trying to find a place in a society that defies them to do it?

My reading of DINER comes out of this contention. The Hollywood genre film implies political and social content through its allegedly simplistic structures, characters, and plots. Behind these lie assumptions about class, patriarchy, and our places within these. If Aristotle was correct in believing that art teaches by holding up a mirror to the realities of our society, then I believe DINER has several lessons for us.

To my mind, DINER's political dimension is evident from the opening sequence. In fact, the lack of a dominant contrast within a crowded, messy, mise-en-scene may confuse viewers: we're not sure where we're supposed to be looking. What seems to be Levinson's lack of technique reinforces one of the movie's significant qualities: the "every person" within each human being, as well as the uniqueness of those on the screen and those in the audience. The sequence emphasizes that whatever the soon-to-be-determined main characters have to go through is something identifiable to each person at the crowded sock-hop and to each person in the audience. In effect, Levinson begins the film against the grain of cinematic status quo. This will not be a film of fantasy or "stars," and our heroes will not be notable in the traditional sense of the word. In this first scene, they blend in with the crowded scenery — they're just people.

Consequently, the opening content, apparently hampered by muffled dialogue and a seeming lack of visual center, may become somewhat lost. Visually, in the background we see some of the men who will later emerge as protagonists, talking excitedly, while couples in 1959-vintage finery jitterbuq in the fore- and middle-ground. Only after a first cut do we realize that Boogie (a representative of the upwardly-mobile working class, who goes to law school to impress women) has learned that Fenwick (who has a rather meager stipend from the family trust fund and represents "old money") has gotten drunk again and is wandering in the dance hall basement, breaking windows with his fist "for a smile." Fenwick has just sold his date for five dollars to another young man (out of insecurity, we later learn). His action is described so that it seems incidental to the scene, but it reflects and foreshadows much of the film. The male characters treat women as buyable and sellable. All this isn't condoned by the director, but it parallels the possession-consciousness of the 1950s: "having" represented status, whether having a record collection or a wife.

The most important narrative information here seems to be that Boogie hopes to break out of the working class through law school, and that Boogie and Fenwick pair in an exemplary illustration of male bonding. We begin to understand that Boogie and the others are Fenwick's superegos, bailing the insecure youth out of his drunken pranks. And it is in this early scene that young men's architectural metaphor for collective bonding is first announced: "See you later at the diner."

The diner itself stands as the major fantasy metaphor of the film. It becomes a sort of "ivory tower" in which the men are protected. The waitresses do the men's bidding (and usually are the only women there), circulating on a first-name basis within the male arena. The diner houses most of Boogie's confrontations with the loan shark. But since he's later bailed out of his debt by a friend of his late father, he never has to "do battle." The diner creates a playworld for verbal machismo. And the playland contrasts with home. Food, nurturing, love, are commodities always available at the diner, always on credit of need be, with few if any questions asked.

Media and the sports are constant topics of conversation. Relations with women become either occasions for male competition and/or male bonding, or they become secondary in importance to male concerns with media and sports. We see this in the way Eddie expresses his fear of change and women. As he says to Billy, his best man at his wedding, "If you talk, you always got the guys at the diner — you don't need a girl to talk." Eddie asks Billy to reaffirm the impossible — that things will always stay the same and never change. He wants men to be able to stay the same, "exclusive," leaving women outside the circle. Indirectly, Eddie seems to be pleading for a way out of the same expectations he's been raised with, for a solution to his poor preparation for interacting with another human being, a woman. Each of the men, in his own way, clings to the familiar male clique he's become so comfortable with. The male characters do not just exhibit a typical fear of change. Rather, they seem to constantly express a wish for a way out — that is, to have the night-long conversations with men at the diner. The men at the diner illustrate the products of a society that hasn't prepared them — or allowed them — to cope.

Shrevie (the married one) works in a television sales shop. There, June Allyson appears in mid-fifties splendor in a televised film crying, "Oh, I'm never getting married, never!" Shrevie's employment fits him well: his identity is especially tied to popular culture, rock 'n roll. He tells Eddie that he and his wife Beth never have more than a five-minute conversation, but that with the guys "he can talk all night."

Shrevie uses his specialized knowledge as a weapon with which to victimize Beth. He arranges his records in a complicated, alphabetical-chronological fashion. Since Beth doesn't have his zeal for music nor his obsessive knowledge of dates, flip sides, and artists, she does not carefully rearrange the discs she's played. The couple's argument about this not only humiliates her but also delineates the non-existent foundations of many traditional marriages. Marriage is just something to do, allowing the man to have and possess a wife. Shrevie and Beth's fight masks the real issues of their relationship. Women are to be closed out of the man's world. Could she share his love of music even if she knew all the trivia? As Shrevie says:

“Before you get married, all there is is talk about the wedding — the — plans, you know, and sex talk. You know, when can we DO it? Are your parents going to be out so we can DO it? Where can we DO it? Then, after you get married, she's there all the time; when you wake up in the morning, she's there. When you come home from work, she's there … There's no more sex talk. Nothing else to talk about … But it's really good, you know, it's ok, it's good.”

While Beth and Shrevie's marriage is apparently reconciled at the film's end, Levinson vividly depicts their marriage as one in role only. DINER presents men in their early twenties who apparently have been so discouraged from truly interacting with other human beings, women, that Shrevie finds his only true marriage with his buddies at the diner.

Beth, on the other hand, doesn't even "feel pretty anymore." She softly says, "I don't even know who I am." Her acceptance by and success with men seem to have rested entirely on her looks — this seems to have been the sole reason for her marriage. When she feels "shut out" from the man's world and loses her entire self-esteem, she uses "femininity" as the way to survive. She's not been allowed to develop any interests, as have the men. As a prisoner of society's "decorative" expectations, she hasn't considered developing the rest of herself, either. And the men's obsessive preoccupation with popular culture, as in Shrevie's case, these pseudo-scholarly defenses against human — male and female — involvement and interaction, have affected the women cruelly.

Boogie decides to use the discouraged, neglected Beth to replace a girlfriend who had gotten the flu. One night, unbeknownst to either woman, Boogie had bet a good deal of money that he'd "ball" the first girl friend, and that several of his cronies would hide in a closet to watch. Beth appears satisfied and no longer angry when Boogie later confesses that he indeed "respects her" and couldn't have gone through with it. However, Beth wraps her entire view of herself on whether or not Boogie means what he said: that prior to her marriage, she had really been a "hot number," "really good." This sequence reveals the sadness of both characters' plight: Boogie's need to be a cool, slick "operator" to reinforce his sense of maleness, and Beth's need to remain the perfect, desirable decoration even though she's married, a "drudge."

Our relief at what appears to be Boogie's moral decision clouds when we realize how sad it is that the characters' means toward self-worth is so narrowly defined. Unfortunately, Beth and Boogie are — like the others — the perfect products of their society. That society provided them an ironic "nurturing incapacity," which made them prisoners within their prescribed roles. DINER depicts the final conversation between Beth and Boogie with a simple, eye-level two-shot, both characters leaning against Boogie’s car. This mise-en-scene technically underscores the sad "equality" of their role-imprisonment.

Another fantasy-reality dichotomy is at play within the Shrevie-Beth-Boogie connection in DINER. Beth must wear a blond wig during the scene with Boogie in which she's his "substitute date" so that the other fellows will think she's the "hot number," Carol. Masquerade becomes even more crucial now that Boogie's really out with his best friend's wife. In fact, Boogie doesn't know that Beth's husband Shrevie had joined Fenwick (hiding in the apartment closet) to witness the sexual conquest.

Shrevie observes Beth and Boogie from an upper window as they arrive, not recognizing the woman he's married to, the woman who for inexplicable reasons is not good enough for him. He comments, "Wow, there's Carol. Oh, God, she's beautiful." Of course, in the dark he doesn't really see her at all. But the fantasy perception of beauty triumphs as always — what we imagine our gods or goddesses to be, they are. Predictably here she's blonde, tall, perfect, wasp — or as the men in DINER call their most desirable type, "death."

Beth seems to be the everywoman who ever felt left out by her man. Her place seems several steps physically and psychologically behind the joking, secret-sharing "guys," begging for clarification like the youngest child who isn't old enough to share in her older siblings' most wonderful games: “Well, who's that?" or "Who's that you're talking about?" Women aren't male enough, "regular" enough to know things right off. And of course, she never goes to the diner.

Levinson reveals, however, that women aren't the only ones who are victimized. Fenwick of the meager trust fund provides a striking, poignant, tragic example. Interestingly, the film shows his plight at its extreme by having him interact with popular culture images — another media parallel.

Fenwick's need for attention is so great that he arranges his own arrest while drunkenly ruining the manger scene decorations in front of a local church on Christmas day. He, in fact, removes his clothes and comfortably ensconces himself in the cradle of the child Jesus. He then fights against his friends who try to get him into the car before the police arrive. Later he breathes an audible sigh of relief as his mission, an arrest, is accomplished — and he sets off for a night in jail.

Fenwick obviously craves attention from his friends in a rather unique, often destructive sort of way, and one might wonder if it was the only way he could get any attention as a child. The film implies that he has suffered his insecurities, at the hands of his older, tight-lipped brother, the forbidding Howard, as well as his father. The obvious symbolism of Fenwick-infant's need for attention and his victimization by his immediate family and society culminates in this manger sequence. Here, the inscrutable, carved faces of the "wise men" look mutely on in a series of quick, medium-close cuts. And we also see Fenwick's growing dependence on alcohol. After this escapade, Fenwick is more than just ignored and scorned by his father and older brother. They insist that he spend the night in jail rather than be bailed out, like his friends, because "it would be good for him, teach him responsibility." His plea for attention is completely misunderstood, as are his abilities.

Fenwick's talents are seen only in his private life. His shining moment comes as he watches and talks back to a broadcast of the old TV series, GE COLLEGE BOWL. With bright, intelligent eyes and quick, sharp responses, Fenwick gets the answers — tough questions, too — before the "nerds" from Cornell or Byrn Mawr can even think to ring their answer-buzzers. His handsome face in medium close up is shot at slightly high angle. The strength of his intellectuality is perhaps technically dwarfed to illustrate his vulnerability, his victimization, the hopelessness of his plight within a society that perceives him as a bum for rejecting the family business.

In fact, Fenwick's loyalty to his friends is so great — another trait unappreciated by his family — that he tells Boogie that he will visit his brother to ask for a loan to help Boogie out of his financial crisis. This is significant, for Fenwick hates his brother — and with good reason. The next sequence, then, heightens our vision of Fenwick's entrapment. He meets his brother Howard on Howard's front lawn because Howard won't let him inside; he's a "bad example." Howard scornfully tells Fenwick: "If you had a job, you would have the money to help your friend out yourself. I'm going to ask father to lower your stipend." And in direct, contrapuntal insult to the scene we've just witnessed — which revealed Fenwick's vast store of knowledge, his sharp, quick abilities and kindness towards his friends — Howard bites, "Have you ever even read a book?" And in technical contrast, Fenwick here is pushed off to the left side of the screen, while the taller, more formidable Howard dominates the right. Even when Fenwick backs his brother up against a tree, trying in vain to convince him of the importance of his mission ("I hate you, Howard, I despise you, but I'm here. Doesn't that say something? I'm here anyway”), here Fenwick appears in the image very much "below" Howard. His powerlessness is emphasized by an over-the-shoulder shot from near Howard's point of view, taken at high angle.

The high angle enforces the viewer's sense of Fenwick's vulnerability, entrapment, and victimization within the system that rightly "should" be his. We witness the paralysis that befalls young men who are not encouraged to develop their own strengths, especially if they diverge from the interests of the "family business" or society at large. They are damned for being themselves, so that Fenwick's private use of television is fine for showing off — it doesn't talk back, judge, condemn, or force Fenwick to display his talents publicly, to risk anything. Unfortunately, he tries to get attention by public displays of "bad behavior." Since apparently he's never been praised for being "good" in any way, much less in his own way, "badness" is all that's ever worked as an attention-getter. One surprising result of looking at DINER as a political film stems from seeing men become the other eventual victims of their own patriarchal system.

In another instance where the media serves as metaphor, Billy, a college student from out of town who will be Eddie's best man, wants to marry Barbara, a television producer. In this instance. the media helps foreshadow an early manifestation of feminism. Barbara, although pregnant in pre-liberation United States, rightly fears that she'll jeopardize her budding career as a television producer, and refuses to marry Billy. As the couple is arguing, their particular, rather poignant situation parallels the TV soap operas that beam from monitors at Barbara's studio: the dialogue of characters on TV could well be theirs. The soap operas reflect real life, and vice-versa, we are to believe.

Television here pinpoints DINER's use of media images: popular culture, television, sports, cars, rock 'n roll, all become a way of identifying, of joining people in a common interest because there are indeed "popular.” At the same time, however, they ironically become a way of only superficially sharing with others, while in fact dividing identities and keeping people from one another. Popular culture divides Shrevie and Beth, and superficial outlets for Fenwick and Eddie (not to mention Eddie’s football-oppressed bride-to-be). And of course, television images undercut the already uncertain discussion between Barbara and Billy about their very fragile relationship. In this instance, the media images within the mise-en-scene deflate the importance of Barbara's legitimate beliefs. While the filmed soap opera may be mockery, the issues the couple discusses are significant enough that Levinson's message is mixed.

Some of DINER's most overriding images come through dialogue — funny dialogue that reveals truths about people coming up against society's expectations of them. As marriage-shy Eddie tells one of his friends, "I keep thinking I'm going to be missing out on things." The response: "Well, that's what marriage is all about" And when Billy tells Eddie that Barbara won't marry him, Eddie's response indicates how "simple" it would all be (especially given the false expectations he's been raised with): you get a part-time job, study for your MBA, the baby comes, and everybody's happy. "What about her job?" Billy asks, in early stirrings of feminism. “I give you an answer," Eddie retorts, "and you confuse it by bringing her into it. You're dealing with an irrational girl, that's the problem." Eddie's response to Billy's complaints about Barbara reveals Eddie's wish for simplicity in life that doesn't even exist (as his own behavior illustrates). Eddie's silly and laughable response (especially to us in 1982) rings an unfortunate truth. Many who profess otherwise would still hope that just worrying about one partner, preferably everybody worrying just about the man, would keep things simple.

The final sequence brings the film full circle: we began with the sixth "buddy," the man we deal with least in the film. It ends with him, as well, because he gets up at Eddie's wedding to tell some funny stories and give the toast. As he talks, the camera pans among the young faces of the five men on whom the film focuses, men we've come to care about for different reasons. We have noted their ingrained sexism and their insecurities. But we've understood their hypocrisies and sensed the "forecasts" for their individual lives. We get a final chance here to wrap up all the things we've learned about each as the camera rests momentarily on their faces, in reaction shots to the speaker. The poignancy of the moment, however, is interrupted by the inevitable "bouquet throwing," where the flowers travel in slow motion and land smack in the middle of our men's table. In my view, they perceive those flowers with the same surprise with which they will probably perceive the 1960's, just beginning. Men ending up with the bride's bouquet might appropriately foreshadow the rather "surprising" attempts at political and social change to come. Just as the bouquet's destiny is a reversal, given these young men's struggles as we've witnessed them throughout DINER, they might take the 60s as good and bad news, for at least the old struggles were familiar ones.

DINER is a funny, warm, often poignant, ultimately human film in its implied plea for human freedom from the "blessings of civilization." Through its numerous parallels and apparent dichotomies, its particularly interesting use of the media as metaphor reveals a film that goes beyond the "personal memoir" genre to which it has been allocated. Within this reading, DINER is political in the sense that it pinpoints the inherent misanthropy of a system — one that victimizes not only women, but also men. In this sense, perhaps men might celebrate a film that addresses ways in which men are also "imprisoned." Yet perhaps male critics' failure to celebrate DINER beyond the personal memoir, or to reveal their understanding of their own liberation issues, indicates their hesitation to bite the hand of a system that continues to feed them — at least most of the time — and rather well, at that.