The Outsiders (Ten Degrees of 80's movies!)
posted by Kristen and Mickey on 6/05/03
1. It is difficult to say what could have possessed Jen to include "The Outsiders" in this series.
2. It is not like it is even set in the 80s..
A few weeks ago when I sent Paul an email saying I intended to write about "The Outsiders," I also made a few observations about how I remembered it being quite a good movie. I don't know if I then went on to say anything really stupid about the movie, but it seems quite likely that I did, because soon after I slotted the video into the video player and hit the play button I realized I had never seen this movie before in my life.
Some of you would remember that last year this site held a competition to recruit some new writers, a process that brought to our attention a dude named Jon whom none of us had ever heard of before. I have just established I don't have a particularly good memory, but in the course of this competition someone named (I think) Walt sent in a really well-written submission about the Robert Frost poem "Nothing Gold Can Stay," which, it so happens, is a piece of poetry I almost know by heart, and in the course of this submission, he mentioned that the theme of this poem is explored in "The Outsiders."
I remember thinking to myself, "Yeah right," because his idea seemed, well, slightly over-ingenious, in application to a movie where the master metaphor, as I remembered it, was that the main character was like a Siamese Fighting Fish who couldn't be kept in the same tank as another Siamese Fighting Fish, because, if so, the first Siamese Fighting Fish would start to beat the crap out of the other one. Sure, I could see that in that situation, only one goldfish can stay. But, beyond that, I remembered nothing of relevance to Frosty the Snowman's couple of quatrains. So, when I wrote back to Walt, I said I thought his theory about "The Outsiders" and "Nothing Gold Can Stay" was interesting and that I would keep it in mind the next time I watched the movie.
In some respects, I believe I can be forgiven for my confusion. I mean just how many movies did Francis Ford Coppola direct in the early-to-mid 1980s adapted from novels by S E Hinton and featuring Matt Dillon, Diane Lane and Tom Waits? Well, as it turns out, at least two. Of course, the movie I was thinking about was "Rumblefish." So, bloody hell, Walt, what can I say? I am sorry! When I did get around to watching "The Outsiders," for the purposes of writing this post, I realized my mistake pretty much as soon as the opening credits started to roll over a lot of shots of landscape suffused with glorious golden hues, while Stevie Wonder launched into a song that would have been a paraphrase of the poem if it hadn't represented a direct logical contradiction of its message. ("Nothing Gold Can Stay"/"Stay Gold").
Then, when at the central point of the movie C. Thomas Howell's character, Ponyboy, started reciting the goddamn poem, while the screen filled up with the sort of sunrises Kind Midas might have seen if he had dropped a lot of E and stayed at a dance party until dawn, my face was suffused not with the golden tint that signals that Apollo is harnessing his chariot in preparation to riding it across the heavens, but with an old-fashioned blush.
I am getting ahead of myself. I should provide a précis of the movie. I never like doing this, since it always seems to me that either people have seen the movie, in which case they will already know the basic plot, or they have not, in which case the précis amounts to a couple of paragraphs worth of **SPOILER**. Everyone is free to skip the next few paragraphs.
Ponyboy Curtis (C Thomas Howell) is a member of a greaser gang in a small Oklahoma town. I know the movie was filmed in Tulsa, but I am not 100% certain whether it is meant to be Tulsa or just a Tulsa-like town. Anyway, following a flirtation at a drive-in movie between some greasers including Dallas (Matt Dillon) and some "society" or "soc" girls including Cherry Valance (Diane Lane), there is a fight between a bunch of soc boys and Ponyboy and his friend Johnny Cade (Ralph Macchio), which ends up with Johnny dispatching one of the socs into eternity with his flick-knife in order to save Ponyboy's life. The two greasers have to hide out from the law away from the city in an abandoned church, and find themselves with time to play cards, smoke a lot of cigarettes, read "Gone With the Wind" and hold conversations about Robert Frost poems, while the sky conveniently turns various lurid shades of yellow to illustrate their remarks.
"Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful" etc.
This idyll ends when there is a fire at the church, and the three greasers I have already mentioned are involved in rescuing a number of children from the blaze. In the course of this rescue, Johnny sustains injuries that eventually lead to his death. Back in (probably) Tulsa, there is a big rumble between all the socs and all the greasers in the greater Tulsa district, with the greasers involved including Ponyboy's brothers, Darry (Patrick Swayze) and Sodapop (Rob Lowe), and their friends Steve (Tom Cruise, before his teeth were fixed up) and Two-Bit (Emilio Estevez). The filming of the rumble scene was apparently inspired by the battle scene in Orson Welles's great "Chimes At Midnight," and at least in my view is an effective piece of cinema, although it suffers from being reduced to the small screen.
A young Tom Cruise, trying to adjust his own teeth
At the end of the movie, Dallas learns of the death of Johnny, and deranged by grief, he attempts a stick-up at a convenience store that ends up with him also getting himself killed. Ponyboy discovers a note that Johnny left for him that now reads with even greater poignancy:
"I am going to miss you guys. I've been thinking about it, and that poem, the guy that wrote it , he meant you're gold when you're a kid, like green. When you're a kid everything's new, dawn. It's just when you get used to everything that it's day. Like the way you dig sunsets, Pony. That's gold. Keep that way, it's a good way to be. I want to tell Dally to look at one."
You know, gold, like green. It makes sense. It made sense to Stevie Wonder
In fact, there is no reference whatsoever to children in Robert Frost's poem, so Johnny's critical reading of it, is, in my opinion, highly tendentious. On the other hand, when I was watching the film I was more inclined at this point to pull out a handkerchief and sob my eyes out than try to pick his argument to pieces, but I am a softy.
"The Outsiders" is based on a novel by S E Hinton, who was depending where you get your information from, either 15, 16 or 17 when she wrote it. Feeling kind of guilty about the whole "Rumblefish" fiasco, I bought a copy from a second hand bookstore (leaving them with only 48 multiple copies of what I suspect was probably a set text at the local school). I paid $3.00 for my second hand copy, and when I turned it over and found that the recommended retail price for the paperback had only been $2.95 when the twenty-seventh impression came out in 1987, I felt fleeced for a while, until I started reading it and reflected that my copy had had value added to it by the scholarly observations in an unknown hand. E.g. page 59: "Note: All young children are 'gold'. But they soon get spoiled."
It actually didn't take me much longer to read "The Outsiders" than it had to watch the movie, and on balance, the minutes involved in reading it were more enjoyable, although my annotator may have given me a head start in readerly enjoyment by his or her diligence in signposting IMPORTANT THEMES and IRONY and CHARACTERISATION that I might otherwise have been too woolly-headed to have picked up on. I also had the inside running on what were the significant passages since these had all been highlighted in pink fluorescent marker pen. Even without this kind of editorial assistance, however, "The Outsiders" is a beautifully written book. Having read it, I have decided I am going to read other S E Hinton novels. While the movie is very faithful to the novel, in the nature of things there are effects that a novelist has available to him or her that a filmmaker just does not. Obviously, the reverse applies and film-makers can do stuff that novelists cannot, but I am always a little amazed when people talk about books and their screen adaptations as if they were really the same thing, and the fact that they are in completely different mediums was a minor insignificant detail.
Here is a quote, almost entirely at random, from the book:
'"Thanks", Cherry said, and the other girl, who was named Marcia, said, "How come we don't see your brother at school? He's not older than sixteen or seventeen, is he?"
'I winced inside. I've told you I can't stand that Soda dropped out. "He's a drop out," I said roughly.'
A filmmaker who is converting those two paragraphs into celluloid can film the character speaking roughly, but cannot film the character wincing inside. When Ponyboy is narrating the book, it is perfectly clear to the reader that he is a sensitive and perceptive young man, who has been forced by his social situation to hide some of his natural inclinations behind a rougher manner than would otherwise be the case. It doesn't come as a surprise that if Ponyboy had come across the Robert Frost poem that is so central to the message of the story he would have pondered upon its meaning.
In the movie, however, where we have only seen the rough exterior, it is much less convincing to see a Fonzie wannabe suddenly spouting metaphysical poetry to one of his hoodlum buddies, especially since not just Ponyboy's character, but the whole style of film-making suddenly changes during the aforementioned, extraordinary, "Nothing Gold Can Stay" sequence. The rest of the movie is noticeably dark in a lot of the compositions, and while it undoubtedly looked a lot better on the big screen, it comes over as kind of murky when watched on video. For the "NGCS" scene, however, it looks as if Francis Ford Coppola either hunted up the person who did the art direction for "Gone With the Wind," in a nursing home, or had him disinterred from his grave and had put 5 million volts of electricity through him (or her) with a view to producing just another 5 minutes or so of dramatically lit celluloid. It is a great scene. The art direction is awesome. It fits in with the rest of the movie kind of like a Van Morrison track would fit in on a Limp Bizkit album, which is to say it kind of throws the whole rest of the film off balance, but it is a great scene.
So dawn goes down to day
Structurally, it seems to me that the book is superior to the movie. What I am mostly talking about here is the presence of a whole group of characters who appear in both the different versions of the story, and who serve a definite purpose in the original words-on-paper version, but remain un-fleshed out as characters in the movie. In the more expansive territory of the novel, the characters Steve, Sodapop, Two Bit or Darry have time to come to life and to illustrate different conceptions of character that have an effect on the actions of the main characters, Ponyboy, Johnny and Dallas. In what ought to be the tighter narrative structure of the movie version, there is no particular reason for any of these characters to exist. An efficient script editor would have strengthened the narrative line simply by drawing a black line through all of the scenes in which they have dialogue. Of course, this would have been at some expense to the 80s male beefcake factor that is probably the movie's chief continuing appeal.
Admittedly, some of those names have probably had their moment in the sun, but, hey, nothing gold can stay, right?
I watched the "The Outsiders" with my sister, la Paz, who put me wise about how C Thomas Howell, who in that little sachet of time was a bigger star than Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, etc etc, had "big dreamy brown bedroom eyes." While I conscientiously took notes, it gradually became clear to me, from the way she was enjoying the film more than I was, that there were aspects of this movie that could only be fully appreciated by a gay man or a heterosexual woman. Since all the gay men at this site are repressed and hostile towards their true sexuality, it seemed to me that the best thing to do would be to seek the perspective of a young woman who had sent a number of outstanding submissions to W-D. She has been an outsider too long, and it is past time she became an insider. Hailing from the alligator infested swamps of Florida, it is my great pleasure to introduce you all to W-D's newest writer, Kristen.
Because I spent a lot of the 80's burping up, renaming my Cabbage Patch doll and trying to figure out who was cuter, Jem's boyfriend Rio, or He-Man (Rio wins hands down, baby!! Purple hair, nice car, and he doesn't harbor secrets about magic "swords"...all the things I look for in a guy), I missed a fair amount of the cinema of the day. I've since gone back to play catch-up, renting the classics I wasn't old enough to watch then, such as "Sixteen Candles", "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and Mickey's favorite, "Crocodile Dundee." Actually, I was old enough to watch that when it came out, I just can't resist a little friendly dig at the Man Down Under.
When I was asked to help write a piece on a movie called "The Outsiders", I was pretty convinced for about two minutes that I'd have to rent that crappy Disney cartoon about the mice who save that girl from evil adults, but it turns out that was "The Rescuers" and I shouldn't have panicked. "The Outsiders" is a crappy 80's movie about delinquents who save some kids from an evil burning church and then stage cinema history's least realistic rumble, and I'm not even forgetting about "West Side Story" when I say that.
"But you are not one of us...and I am not one of you."
I want to make sure you know that I'm an avid fan of movies. I have only ever walked out of the theatre once, but that was during the impressively wretched David Schwimmer dark "comedy", "The Pallbearer," so can you really blame me? Oh, and I fell asleep during "John Carpenter's Vampires." But then, who didn't? I like my vampires clean, well-dressed and as effeminate as possible, thank you very much, John. In other words, I tend to give most movies a fighting chance. Call me a glass is half-full optimist, but I truly believe that film can be the greatest of all escapes, as long as it has four things.
1) Well-developed plot.
2) Likeable characters.
3) Believable dialogue.
4) Hot guys.
"We're too sexy for your movie."
With the exception of the last item, "The Outsiders" is lacking any of my criteria for a good movie, and even the hot guys are only really hot by mid-80's standards. Which means they all have greasy mullets. Actually, grease is just one of the many (okay, two or three) themes that I plan on discussing in this article. But I don't want to get ahead of myself and forget to give you a brief overview of the plot, such as it is.
The movie opens up with credits that are suspiciously reminiscent of the windswept style last employed by "Gone with the Wind." Being very girly and a fan of Scarlett O'Hara, I had to wonder if this was just my subconscious trying to see more into this movie than what there was, for my own sanity's sake. It ended up not being just me, but more on that later. After the odd credits, the first five minutes of "The Outsiders" shows us three things. A diner. A fist-fight. And a drive-in theatre. It's like Francis Ford Coppola is hitting you over the head with a baseball bat screaming, "my movie takes place in the 50's!!" Well, it looked like the 50's to me, although the official website said 1966. I guess the Midwest where the movie is supposed to take place isn't exactly known for being on the cutting edge of pop culture, but I'm just going to keep thinking it was the 50's. Because I'm just stubborn like that.
Shortly after the painstaking time-period establishment, we meet our central characters. They are Ponyboy, Dallas (Dal for short) and Johnny, played respectively by a pretty, pretty boy, a younger, even less coherent Matt Dillon (I'm serious; I had turn the English subtitles on to understand what he was saying), and the irrepressible Ralph Macchio. You know how some people were only meant to live in a single moment in time? Ralph Macchio cannot exist outside of the 1980's.
"Try and find someone more 80's than me. I dare you. Punk."
They are also Greasers, the yin to the stuffy Soc's (pronounced So-sh, as in "I'm too cool to say 'society'") yang. The feud between rich and poor, accepted and unaccepted is as timeless as Jesus imagery; think Squares versus Drapes or Jets versus Sharks. This movie attempts, yet again, to cash in on hometown America gang warfare, while trying to make us see both sides of the story and get us to leave the theatre sobbing about world peace and our fellow man.
After Matt Dillon stumbles around for awhile speaking something resembling English, he and his way-underage buddies meet up with the only female of any significance in the entire movie, super-Soc Cherry Valance. You know, I told myself I wasn't going to make any virgin jokes, but it's like they're handing them to me on a pristine plate!! Cherry is supposed to refer to Diane Lane's bottle-red hair. Okay. Sure. It's sort of like when the football players called this cheerleader "dirty whore" because her hair was brown.
"Slater gives the funniest nicknames, hehe!"
All hymen jokes aside, Cherry is supposed to be the good Soc who sees the Greasers as human beings and not walking by-products of a dip in the Exxon oil spill, but really, she's just amazingly horny, licking her lips at both Dal and Ponyboy within the space of ten minutes.
Some more plot stuff happens. Emilio Estevez appears, looking slicker than ever. Patrick Swayze makes a stunning entrance as Ponyboy's oldest brother, and the first thing he does is send his greasy fist flying towards his little brother's nose. The sensitive big brother we all wish our parents would die and leave us with. After applying more oil to their hair, Ponyboy and Johnny run away, all the way across the neighboring lot. You know, everyone in this movie is slippery; I felt like bathing halfway through.
Long story short, some drunk Socs try to mess with Ralph Macchio, and he cuts them, man. It's wicked, man. However, the unfortunate side effect of stabbing someone with a switchblade is that they often bleed massive amounts and die. This plot twist banishes our characters to a whole other "city" in Oklahoma, on the lam and outside of society.
After seeing this movie, it's obvious that either Coppola or the sixteen year-old girl who wrote the novel it was based on has more of a yen for "Gone with the Wind" than most debutantes in Atlanta. When gathering supplies for him and Ponyboy, Johnny not only buys a copy of the book, along with ten pounds of bologna that spoiled within a day, but makes Ponyboy read it out loud to him. Then both boys have a long conversation about gold leaves and Robert Frost against a sunset backdrop that couldn't have been better painted. I love map painters; they are our un-sung heroes.
"As god is my witness, I'll never eat bologna again!"
Trust me, I could have spent many happy hours watching the borderline homo-erotic overtones between Ralph Macchio and Ponyboy, but all too quickly, Dal shows back up and offers to buy the boys better meat. Men like the meat; he could have been leading them to a brigade of cop cars with the mere promise of barbequed sandwiches and they would have gone willingly.
As it turns out, a combination of the tasty BBQ and a cameo by a very young Sophia Coppola asking the Greasers for money prompts Johnny to tell his friends that he wants to return to wherever they came from and turn himself in. Dal doesn't put up much of a protest to the suggestion, although he does tell Johnny that he doesn't want him to become hard in prison. Evidently, he likes his boy friends soft. Very, very soft.
"Soft enough, Dal?"
Still, who has time to turn themselves in for a high-profile murder when there's kids to rescue from the burning, abandoned church you've been hiding out in? Up until this point, I'd overlooked a lot of the plots rough edges and nonsensical turns, but this one just annoyed me. Okay, so the building caught fire because Johnny presumably left a cigarette burning when he went to get BBQ. Which means the fire would have started pretty much right afterwards. Yet somehow, this old, boarded-up church which is just a little bit on fire becomes the number-one best play-pen for a group of children? And then the dumb-ass adults just stand around, counting heads and wondering if they should have just taken the kids to the sandbox.
So, it's up to our intrepid, greasy heroes to save the day. Sure, run into the fire with a quart of unleaded combed through your locks...that's not at all like taking the proverbial match into the powderkeg, really! In true melodramatic form, Ralph Macchio saves the day, but takes one for the team. He's a little bit crispy, but his selflessness is enough for the cops to only charge him with manslaughter. I guess they figured in the karmic scheme of things, one Soc for five kids isn't a bad deal.
Ponyboy goes back to his brothers, Swayze and Lowe; then Estevez comes over, and Tom Cruise, too! It's like a smorgasbord of Who's Who in TeenBeat magazine, 1984. Mickey did promise me cute guys if I'd watch this movie and write this article, and I guess he didn't really fail me. All of the above have moistened a few pairs of panties in their day, but I wasn't drooling so much as being driven crazy by the fact that they were all sitting around in the 1950's watching Mickey Mouse...on a color TV!!! Now, even if this was 1966, color TV's did not come cheap, and I refuse to believe that a family who's income came solely from a roofer and a gas station attendant could afford one.
At this point, it becomes necessary to have a rumble. I mean, why not? Meet violence with violence. I just can't figure out why the guys from the right side of the track who look like they get manicures for fun always think they can take on a street gang from the wrong side who chew nails for breakfast. Is this an inexplicable guy mystery that I'm just not getting? Because from where I'm standing, grease and leather will always kick the ass of mint toothpaste and khaki.
"Bring it on! Gently!"
I took a stage fighting class at performing arts camp one summer. After two weeks of hour-long lessons, I'd only mastered the punch, the slap and the groin kick. Let me tell you, even now, six years later, I could have whooped up on every single one of the Greasers and Socs in the anti-climactic rumble. I don't think I saw a single punch that even looked like it came anywhere near someone's jaw, but there was always the nice crunch of celery to ensure us that contact was made. In the first five seconds of the fight, it began to rain, soaking all participants (something for the ladies, I guess), but the bonfire they were all kung-fu fighting around...never even flickered out.
Do I need to tell you who won? Let's just say, the Greasers walked away, free to lube up their hair in peace from then on. Dal and Ponyboy celebrated their victory by going to see Johnny in the hospital. And how did the charbroiled bastard thank them? He died as soon as they walked into the room, sending Dal on a crime-spree and making Ponyboy cry. Sheesh. That's gratitude for you.
The movie ends, sort of happily, with Dal getting shot by every police man in Oklahoma, and Ponyboy receiving a message from the floating, disembodied head of Johnny (all the way from beyond the grave!), telling him to stay gold forever.
Just like I think that overview was supposed to be brief, I think this movie was supposed to be very, very deep. I know I didn't nod off because I took consistent notes like "against the rest of the cast, Swayze actually shines," but I must have missed something. What I saw reminded me of experimental theatre, trying way too hard to come off as touching and thought-provoking.
"Life is like a can of oil..."
Still, I guess there were themes throughout. Good versus evil, pedophilia, redemption, man versus nature, man versus self, man versus switchblade. The problem is that everything is just kind of heaped into a hodgepodge of leftover pot roast with congealed grease holding the whole thing together. Frankly, I expected better from Coppola. But I guess this is why no one should let a sixteen year-old girl publish a novel, and if she somehow does, no sane filmmaker should buy the damn rights to it! It's just going to be full of supposedly cute guys acting macho and saying cheeseball lines like "he's so greasy, he slides when he walks."
Yes, this movie is so slick, it actually oozed out of the Blockbuster box. And unless you have vast amounts of Dove soap on hand, I can't say I'd recommend it. But then, you might be one of those rabid 80's fans who refuse to acknowledge that the decade produced anything that wasn't golden, including "Howard the Duck" and "Hot to Trot". If you are, and you like Robert Frost, "Gone with the Wind" and pretty, underage boys throwing half-hearted punches in the rain, this is definitely the movie for you. Or you could just rent John Waters' classic "Crybaby" and get pretty much the same movie, except with Johnny Depp singing and Ricki Lake giving birth. I guarantee you'll have a better movie-going experience.
After turning off my DVD player, I immediately had the urge to kick my wall. Not because of the movie itself, but because I'd put off watching it for so long, I owed Blockbuster another four dollars worth of late fees. Unfortunately my lack of shoes kept me from acting on my impulse, as dry wall tends to be rough on the feet. The next thing I knew, the floating, disembodied head of Mickey (all the way from Australia!) appeared to me. I was a little startled, but here's what I think he said.
"Kristen...Kristen, I've been thinking. Because you're gold, you know, green, new...the freshman on staff, you might not know that writing the second half of this piece means you have to decide which actor and what movie is next in the series. So, quit looking at the bloody sunset and get cracking! Cracker!" That might have been "crikey," come to think of it.
And just like that, he was gone. But his message lingered with me all of my days. Well, at least for another five minutes or so while I put on my sneakers. Kicking the wall turned out to be refreshing. I liked it so much, I kicked it again. Then I thought about Mickey's touching last words. I kicked the wall, ran through a list of actors, kicked the wall again, thought about Ralph Macchio, kicked it again. The pieces were all there; they just needed to come together.
That's when Mickey reappeared and said, "'The Karate Kid,' Scarlett!! 'The Karate Kid'!!!"
What can I say? We're slow like molasses down here, sugah.