My American Movie
It should come as no surprise to long-time readers that the question I posed yesterday on Facebook and today on this site, “What's the great All-American movie?” is answered, by me, with “Breaking Away.”
I grew up in Minneapolis, Minn. rather than Bloomington, Ind., with a middle class rather than working class background, but that movie, from Mike's cutoffs to Moocher's hair to the aimless “What do we do now?” ethic, feels like the America I grew up in. My identification has only gotten stronger the further we've gotten from that time and the more cutters our global economy has created.
As I said when I wrote my review a few years ago, the tone of the film is light but serious issues lie beneath it: issues of identity and class, both of which, here, feel specifically American. It's not just a bike-racing movie. Among its themes:
- This country was built by people who are not welcome here.
- The epithet we're called is the job we can't get.
Not to mention:
- Owning your epithet is the best revenge.
But there's also this:
When screenwriter Steve Tesich arrived in this country in the late 1950s, he learned English through television, through sitcoms, and you can argue the film has a sitcom quality to it—particularly its ending. On campus Dave meets a pretty French girl and soon he’s using Frenchisms as he once used Italianisms. When he sees his father, he shouts out, “Bon jour, papa!” and the father looks back, startled, horrified, and the camera freezes. At that point, we begin to hear the Indiana University fight song, and the freeze-frame fades into a shot of the Monroe County Court House, and a graphic informs us: FILMED ENTIRELY IN BLOOMINGTON, INDIANA. No shit. The film is steeped in the place. But nothing says “Indiana” like this ending, which refuses to take itself too seriously. There’s something very Midwestern, very American, about that.
The quarry is where working-class jobs were. The A&P is where working-class jobs have gone. But it’s a shit job and that’s why these guys are aimless.