Entry from July 16, 2014

This summer I once again presented, on behalf of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Hudson Institute in Washington, a series of six movies shown at the Hudson Institute. The general theme this year was Middle America and the Movies. The series concluded on Tuesday, July 15th with a screening of Breaking Away of 1979, written by Steve Tesich and directed by Peter Yates. It starred Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, Jackie Earle Haley, Paul Dooley and Barbara Barrie. Before showing the film, I spoke for a few minutes about it as follows.

Welcome to the sixth and final movie of this year’s series on Middle America. I want to start tonight with what LeBron James said in his public announcement about returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers — that’s a basketball team, by the way — after four seasons with the Miami Heat:

My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio. . . to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get. I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home.

It’s interesting that he hopes to induce others to "come home after college" since he never went to college himself but, famously and with fabulous success, went straight from high school to the pros. Now that, like Winston Churchill, he has not only ratted but re-ratted, he appears to have adopted as his own the meritocratic assumption that "college" is what makes the difference between a depressed area "which has struggled so much," like Northeast Ohio, and some place like Miami where struggle, apparently, is unknown, or at least is much less. Without those college kids starting businesses and families the place must be a hellhole. Yet at the same time he insists that "there’s no better place to grow up." Certainly, it didn't do him any lasting harm.

I mention all this not to make fun of LeBron James but merely to point out that, like so many in the media, when placed under pressure to explain himself, he has taken refuge in a cliché, and a cliché whose origins we may well be seeing in tonight’s film, Breaking Away of 1979. But before I explain further, let’s once again back up for a moment to consider another cliché that has been mentioned more than once in the past six weeks. Those of you who have been with us from the beginning will know that the trope of American "innocence" has popped up again and again, even — perhaps especially — in last week’s film, Badlands, about a serial killer named Kip Carruthers, pictured by Terrence Malick as living with a girl whose father he has just murdered as the Adam and Eve of a new American Garden of Eden in South Dakota. To be sure, that may have seemed to some of us a reductio ad absurdum of the whole idea of American innocence, but it also reminded us of its power — still undiminished a century and more after that innocence was first tragically lost — in American art, literature, drama and cinema, not to mention the media.

It also reminds us of the fine line which has always distinguished, when it has distinguished, innocence from mere ignorance — the more plausible attribute of George Amberson Minafer of The Magnificent Ambersons, whose innocence consisted in his ignorance, both comic and tragic, of his own absurdity as a would-be European-style aristocrat plunked down all by himself in the middle of Middle America and at the beginning of a revolutionary century. I think that the makers of On Moonlight Bay were making a similar if less sardonic point about the innocence of young William Sherman’s brief and inconsequential attachment to what would have been seen in 1951 as the European ideologies of anarchism, communism, free-thinking and free love. In that movie William’s absurdity is fortunately short-circuited in its comic phase and becomes instead the kind of innocence that sent young Americans off to the Great War in Europe with a song on their lips.

In Breaking Away, which won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Steve Tesich and was directed by Peter Yates, the hero suffers from a similar delusion about and a similar besottedness with old Europe, although his absurdity is at least as poignant as it is comical and not at all satirical. Dave Stoller, played by Dennis Christopher, is nineteen years old and has a passion for all things Italian. He and his three best friends pal around in the summer after finishing high school in Bloomington, Indiana, home of Indiana University, but see themselves as outsiders in their own home town, where they are looked down on by their contemporaries at the university as "Cutters." The name comes from the declining industry in southern Indiana of quarrying and cutting the local limestone as building material — for, among other things, the university buildings.

The boys thus feel doubly disenfranchised, as they are unable even to get the stone-cutting jobs that their luckier coevals look down on. As Dennis Quaid’s Mike, the ex-high school quarterback puts it, "College kids are never going to get old or out of shape, because there are new ones every year. They’re going to keep calling us cutters. To them it’s just a dirty word. To me it’s just something else I never got a chance to be." This division between the classes could be seen as a foreshadowing of Charles Murray’s Belmont and Fishtown in his book Coming Apart, but at a time when the two still lived in close proximity to each other and endured the sort of frictions and conflicts that we see in Breaking Away — at least such frictions and conflicts may look plausible to us when set in a university town of the late 1970s.

Dave’s wistful belief in Italy as the land of his dreams is nicely bookended by Mike’s for the old West of frontier days and the America that it still represents to him: "That’s the place to be right there," he says, "Wyoming! Nothing but prairies and mountains and nobody around. All you need is your bed roll and a good horse." If Dave’s ideal is a version of George Minafer’s Europe, Mike’s is more like that of Kip Carruthers’s prairie Eden, where pristine nature has been emptied of people. Of course, both are equally fantastical, not only visions of but the products of the boys’ youthful innocence. As Cyril, played by Daniel Stern, puts it, deflatingly supplementing Mike’s bedroll and horse in innocent, empty Wyoming: "Don’t forget your toothbrush! You’re still in your cavity-prone years."

Cyril is in a way the most interesting as well as the most pathetic of the four friends, since his wit and his lack of illusions suggest that he is the one who has crossed the threshold of maturity and left childish innocence behind. He is also, in some ways at least, the most intelligent of the four and therefore the most eligible for promotion to the élite who go to the university. Yet he fails two scholarship exams — perhaps because, like his father (according to his own account), he always expected that he would fail them. Almost the first words out of his mouth in the movie are addressed as a thank-you to Mike: "You made me lose all interest in life, and I’m grateful." His is certainly the saddest case of the four, yet the movie, like the class he naturally belongs to, turns away from him in the end. Such un-American pessimism, of which there are other indications in the script, could be a reminder of the Serbian origins of Steve Tesich, the screenwriter.

Yet he was at Indiana University in 1962 when a bicycle race like the one we see at the climax of the film actually took place, and he was a friend and admirer of the man, David K. Blase, on whom the character of Dave Stoller was at least partly based. Though the original was not a townie, as the race was limited to students at the university, he was an admirer of Italy and Italian cyclists and modeled himself on them as Dave does in the movie. Mr Blase, who has a cameo in the picture as the race announcer, says he doesn’t remember any friction between town and gown of the sort the movie makes so much of. Nor did he suffer a similar disillusionment or cinematic-style loss of innocence as his counterpart does in the movie. But he did ride 139 of the 200 laps of the Little 500 and won the race — for his fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi.

I think that the authors’ purpose in re-imagining this story as part of a rivalry between the working class of Bloomington and the newly emerging meritocratic élite is to involve Dave’s family, and in particular his father, played by Paul Dooley. Dad is an actual cutter who, having long ago lost his job at the quarry, now makes an anxious living selling poor quality used cars to naive students and thus exploiting the kind of innocence that he despairs of in his son. He makes a perfect foil for Dave, the experience to his innocence. His curmudgeonly refusal to play along with Dave’s Italian conceit — "I’m not ‘papa’. I’m your god-damned father" — is comic, but it also has its serious side, since he stands for the recalcitrant American reality that the boy seeks to escape in his imagination.

The most touching moment of the film comes in Dad’s reply to disillusioned Dave’s tearful confession: "Everybody cheats. I just didn't know." It lies in the moment of hesitation before Dad replies: "Well, now you know." Then, when Dave embraces him with a little boy’s cry of "Daddy!" he says: "I didn't want you to be this miserable. A little bit’s all I asked for." Having insisted, like LeBron James, on the misery of their Middle American lot in life, Dad is taken aback when confronted with real misery. And I think that’s sort of the impression we get from the movie as well. It just wants us to be a little bit miserable about the sad fate of Dave and his pals, which is why it tacks on an upbeat ending to its fundamentally pessimistic look at the moral and cultural crisis of Middle America in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, post-oil price shock 1970s.

If you notice yet another cliché nestled in that last sentence, I hasten to add that it is deliberate. You may not remember it, but this very day, as it happens, is the 35th anniversary of Jimmy Carter’s famous "malaise" speech, delivered on Sunday, July 15th, 1979, two days after Breaking Away opened in New York — it was a week later in the rest of the country — which is what gives the movie the priority in giving birth to the cliché I mentioned at the start. Don’t worry, I’ve put "malaise" in quotation marks to show I know President Carter never actually used the word, speaking instead of a "crisis of confidence. . . that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will." It sounded like the sort of thing that should only have been spoken of in hushed tones from the pulpits of the nation and that must have required nothing less than an utter re-orientation of our national priorities — until, in the perfect bathos of the sequel a couple of sentences later, we found out that what he was talking about was his belief that we were consuming too much gasoline and needed to get serious about car-pooling.

I don’t think I’m the only one who believes that Mr Carter’s reputation as a serious person never really recovered from this blow. If only he had taken the time that weekend to abandon his speech-writers at Camp David and nip up to New York to catch a screening of Breaking Away, he might have realized in time to save himself that the proper response to that kind of lugubrious, self-pitying pessimism is laughter. Even Dave’s miserable dad in the movie knew that, which is why he, unlike Jimmy Carter, didn’t take himself so seriously as not to play up to the laugh lines. Daddy also, like Katarina, the sorority co-ed Dave woos in the guise of Enrico, the Italian exchange student, proves susceptible to the romance that Italy stands for in Dave’s imagination and that may seem to us, too, if only fleetingly, more adaptable to Middle American realities than the rest of his Italian fantasy. Another great moment in the film comes when the sorority girls, who start by laughing at Dave’s and Cyril’s serenade, applaud them at the end of it.

That moment might remind us of the serenade at the beginning of The Magnificent Ambersons — the one that never happens because Eugene gets drunk and breaks his bass fiddle. That’s a typical example, for that film, of romantic pretension’s being brought crashing down to good, no-nonsense Middle American earth, whereas in Breaking Away we are allowed to believe for a moment, along with Dave Stoller, that romance is possible even in Indiana — at least we do until Cyril gets beaten up by the frat boys who, perhaps, recognize the threat that any romantic revival would pose to the more congenial sort of courtship rituals, if you can call them that, which have prevailed on American college campuses ever since. To them, as presumably to the girls as well, romance must seem as fake as Dave’s Italian accent — though to the girls, at least, that is not necessarily an insuperable barrier to believing in it.

There is also a sort of romanticism in the all-for-one, one-for-all ethos of the four boys. It, too, endures its moments of disillusionment, but one of the two or three things that everybody remembers about the movie is the moment when the others think Moocher, played by Jackie Earle Haley, has betrayed them by taking a job at a car wash. Dave’s one and only job in the movie also involves washing cars, a particularly resonant image of servitude for the young of that place and time, for whom cars would have betokened status — if, instead of all riding around in Mike’s borrowed car, they had had them. At least Jimmy Carter would have approved of their car-pooling. But on his first day on the job, the car-wash manager calls out to Moocher, "Don’t forget to punch the clock, Shorty." So he does. His innocent American fantasy, actually acted upon, is another familiar one: telling the boss to take this job and shove it.

Even Cyril, in spite of his sardonic realism, understands the allure of such fantasies, and when Moocher laughingly says to Dave, "You’re really getting to think you’re Italian, aren’t you?" — Cyril speaks up and says: "I wouldn’t mind thinking I was someone myself." The expression is a telling one. Being an Italian, even a pretend one, even a poor-but-honest one, as Dave imagines himself to be, means being someone in a way that being an unemployed stone cutter just out of high school in Indiana apparently doesn’t. Yet — what do you think? — although the boys don’t know it, this idea is yet another cliché. I can well remember the days, a decade earlier than this, when Erik Erikson was not a Red State blogger but a fashionable Freudian psychologist, and every self-respecting 19-year-old felt entitled to one of his equally fashionable "identity crises." The breakdown and fragmentation of culture was supposed at that time to have affected the élite much more than the working class, and they responded with the kind of counter-cultural manifestations which disrupted where it did not destroy higher education in America and created the sexual revolution whose effects have proven to be even more long-lasting.

One way of characterizing what we see in Breaking Away is a dramatization of that moment when the working class caught up, insofar as it did catch up, with the identity crisis that their social superiors had experienced a decade earlier. The film, like the country as a whole in the decades since it was made, seems to see no way out of this academically manufactured crisis except through educational gentrification. Universities are now, to an extent undreamed of even in 1979, finishing schools for ever larger numbers of those willing to incur ruinous loads of debt in order (as they think) to join the élite, for which they hope to become the highly prestigious and well-remunerated gatekeepers. With élite status comes a kind of cultural identity, but not a very satisfactory one, I think, since like the progressivism which has dominated our politics since the 1970s, it is essentially utopian in character.

And here we return once again to the theme of innocence which, insofar as it arose out of a debate so largely in America by Americans (albeit many of them, like Erikson and Herbert Marcuse, foreign born Americans), was also a peculiarly American form of innocence. It was the ideal, utopian sort of innocence that Americans found in Freud and Marx but persuaded themselves, American style, might be recovered if only we could remove the existing social and political structures that were preventing it. There was an early hint of this naturalization of Freud in King’s Row, with its easy optimism about what it still regarded as science and its ability to cure the diseases of the mind as it had already cured so many diseases of the body. Behind Terrence Malick’s paean to the innocence of Kip Carruthers, the murderer, there also lay a firm belief in the utopian possibilities of a world without civilization and its discontents, if only "repression" of the kind represented by the archetypal father figure in that movie could be removed from the rebellious children’s lives, as he was.

In Breaking Away, the character of the father is much more interesting and much more real. He feels the sense of cultural dislocation even more acutely than his son does, telling him that, when he was a stone-cutter, "I was proud of my work. And the buildings went up. When they were finished the damnedest thing happened. It was like the buildings were too good for us. Nobody told us that. It just felt uncomfortable, that's all." To me, that’s an awkward passage and a false note in an otherwise well-written script. Paul Dooley does his best to bring it off, but it sounds more like the author’s attempt to wring out a little more pathos on his character’s behalf than anything such a man would actually say. His attempt to cling to the world, the life, the morality, the cultural identity that has already all but vanished doesn’t need this extra bit of explanation for his sense of exclusion, which he is afraid is all that he has to leave his son. It also locates his crisis of cultural confidence in the class struggle rather than where, I think, it more properly belongs — namely in the utopian expectations that the emerging post-war meritocracy brought along with it as its own justification for being.

Like President Carter, the meritocracy identifies spiritual strength and confidence with submission to its own superior intelligence and the utopian blueprint it has very kindly drawn up for everybody else. Like Mike in his worst moment, it can’t help thinking that "those college guys are better than us." But, like President Obama, the meritocracy also wants us to believe that the utopian blueprint includes a provision whereby everybody can go to college and thus join the élite, even though this is plainly impossible so long as it survives as an élite. That’s why, I believe, through so much of the film Dave’s father’s curmudgeonliness is allowed to stand for the reality principle in the way of youthful utopianism, and the unavoidable alternative to Dave’s doomed innocence. It survives even the fairy-tale ending which might seem to some of you rather as a confirmation of than a rebuke to the meritocratic ethos, since dad and mom and three of the four high school pals remain right where they were at the beginning with no apparent prospects of escape from what the film up until this point has encouraged us to see as the "misery" of life in Middle America for those without a college degree.

Thirty-five years later, that misery is now so familiar to us that even LeBron James can allude to it without fear of contradiction as a reason for his own generosity of spirit in returning to such a presumptively God-forsaken place as Cleveland. Yet if Breaking Away helped to give birth to the cliché, it is also wise enough not to have taken it so seriously as we have since learned to do. As it allows us to think that the cutters can win something without ceasing to be cutters, so we may also realize that, with a minimum amount of nostalgic longing for the past on the film’s part, we have already revised this miserable point of view, perhaps along with the putatively miserable dad and mom’s ultimate declaration of hope for the future in a new addition to the family. Of course, it’s not the utopian future promised by the progressive meritocracy but something much more modest: a future of more of the same for those who remain mired in the less salubrious parts of Bloomington. Only now the same is, somehow, not so bad.

To my mind there is even a kind of comfort in this not-so-scary reality and in its sense of continuity with the past — something that we haven’t really seen in Middle America since Remember the Night, the first film in the series. It may appear that, like dad after his heart episode, we have to learn the difference between being glad to be alive and being glad we’re not dead, but as I read the film it ultimately affirms that there’s not all that much difference after all. Just as experience is better than innocence and reality is better than utopia, the Middle America that has lasted for nearly two hundred years is better than whatever it is that an alien meritocratic élite might be promising at any given moment to put in its place. In other words, I think it’s a deeply conservative film, at least as American conservatism goes, but once again I eagerly wait to hear from those who disagree, as well as those who agree, and who can stay right here for a brief discussion after we’ve seen the movie. Let’s do that now.


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