Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Movie Quote of the Day (‘Breaking Away,’ on the Joy of All Things Italian)

Dad (played by Paul Dooley): “What is this?”

Mom (played by Barbara Barrie): “It's sauteed zucchini.”

Dad: “It's I-tey food. I don't want no I-tey food.”

Mom: “It's not. I got it at the A&P. It's like... squash.”

Dad: “I know I-tey food when I hear it! It's all them ‘eenie’ foods... zucchini... and linguine... and fettuccine. I want some American food, dammit! I want French fries!”

Mom: [to the cat, who has jumped up onto the table] “Oh, get off the table, Fellini!”

Dad: “Hey, that's my cat! His name's not Fellini, it's Jake! I won't have any ‘eenie’ in this house!” [to the cat] “Your name's Jake, you hear?”— Breaking Away (1979), screenplay by Steve Tesich, directed by Peter Yates

“Dad” is not, under normal circumstances, such a sputtering zenophobe. He’s merely reacting to circumstances—or, to be exact, a teenage son who, in his overwhelming admiration for the Italian cycling team, has taken not only to riding sleek bikes, but also to shaving his legs, singing opera, exploring Catholicism, and greeting his father with “Buon giorno, Papa!”

Breaking Away, released in American theaters this month 35 years ago, broke away from the pack of bigger-budget films to become a box-office hit and Best Picture nominee at the Oscars. A true sleeper hit, it lacked stars recognizable at the time (though Dennis Quaid made the most of his opportunity), but it was blessed with a host of lines from Steve Tesich that would win him the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

All these years, I had thought that Tesich, a Yugoslav emigrant, had merely slightly exaggerated America’s embrace of the foreigner. But it turns out that his Italophile character, Dave, bears a strong resemblance to a real-life college friend named Dave who also loved bicycling and all things related to Italy.

Dave's comic embrace of the foreign, in a sense, stands for America's embrace of starry-eyed newcomers such as Tesich.  In the screenwriter's Oscar acceptance speech, he remembered:

“Long before I actually saw America, my first glimpses of it were in a movie house in Yugoslavia. It was a western, Stagecoach, and it seemed like a wonderful, endless frontier of a country where these good and evil characters fought it out for the soul of America. And after all these years of being here I am just so grateful to be given an opportunity to send back a film and to tell 'em that I find it very much like the place I had seen originally: The good and the bad still fight it out; the good still tend to win in the end.”

Yet, for all its joy, the film is not all sweetness and light. There has to be something overcome for a plot to cohere, and not just, as in this instance, an example of a generation gap taken to the absurd.

While Tesich’s college friend Dave competed in bicycle races in the middle of the Kennedy administration, the movie Dave and his pals do so in the summer of discontent in the Jimmy Carter era, as the Middle America of the Stollers must deal with uncertainty and gnawing concern that the American Dream has become an empty shell. 

The four friends meet at an abandoned quarry out in the woods. Years ago, Dave’s dad had labored in the same spot, helping to build a gleaming university. Now, Mr. Stoller wonders what it was all for: upper-class frat boys at this institution of higher learning lord it over his son and his friend with the epithet “cutters” (short for “stonecutters”).

At the time the film was released, I felt myself not far removed from the kind of crossroads where Dave finds himself. I also was the product of a working-class background, but had also just finished my first year of college. I didn't want my education ever to leave me with the same condescending attitude that the students in the movie display toward the lower-class "townies."

Just days before the film was released, Jimmy Carter had delivered a controversial address to the nation in which he noted a crisis of the spirit that prevented America from dealing with its serious energy problems, including long lines at the gas pump. Though entirely coincidental (years can elapse between a film’s initial pitch to Hollywood execs and its release in cinemas), it somehow seems appropriate that the climactic race in the film relies not on the squealing auto tires of director Peter Yates’ Bullitt 11 years before, but on low-tech but more impressive feats of skill and teamwork on a simple bicycle.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The leg shaving scene in "Breaking Away" just flashed up on my mind's screen. What a film. Well, this lady of Italian descent is off to make a "eenie" meal ;) Always good checking in at your blog. Ciao