This week for reasons unknown, though perhaps related to a fine bottle of California Zinfandel, I sat down and watched the movie “Grease.” The movie was released in 1978 when I was eight years old, and as my sister and I were both in dancing class, my parents took us to this clever addition to the great tradition of Hollywood musicals. Even at that tender age I could relate to the archetypal storytelling: there was the blonde-haired virgin princess, a hot rod chariot race against an evil villain, and a group of misfits following a leader and his buddy, which was a reflection of myself and my childhood friend who would one day become Captain Crozier. When I got to college and became an English major, I came to see that “Grease” had played a pivotal role in the development of my consciousness — which kicks in precisely at the age of eight — and the sense of life as a story, with all the men and women merely players in a cosmic drama of which they are unaware.
The 1950s, which is the setting of “Grease,” and its curious attractor qualities would routinely manifest themselves in my life. When I was 15 my friend and I watched “Back To The Future,” and I remember riding our bikes home in the dark filled with restless energy for what adventures life had in store for us. Two years later “La Bamba” came out, severing my interest in the culture of my own era and inaugurating me into ceaseless investigations of the past. I probably started watching “Twilight Zone” reruns around this time, and saw “American Graffitti,” which was set in ’62 and filmed near my home town. During the swing dance revival of the late ’90s, when I became an instructor and choreographer, I eventually tired of the Big Band sound and much preferred to dance to jump blues and early rock and roll. This scene from “Don’t Knock The Rock” remains my favorite swing dance number ever filmed:
When I eventually got my own hot rod, a “rockin’ little roadster” I’d stuff my board into and go surfing, I’d play ’50s West Coast jazz or rare doo-wop tracks with the sun on my face and wind in my hair. On the more adult side of the ’50s, I would write a piece for L’Uomo Vogue on the swingin’ space-age bachelor phenomenon of the ’50s, write about midcentury Americana here at Ivy Style, and hold Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman’s film “Indiscreet” from ’58 as one of my all-time favorites.
As I mentioned in a recent post, I spent the summer of 2020 tracing my way through my early childhood in the ’70s. But at some point I realized that my formative years were as much about the ’50s and ’60s as they were about the ’70s and ’80s. With constant exposure to “Happy Days” and old B movies on television, the imagery of the 1950s as some magical and mysterious era that had just preceded my entrance onto the world stage was inescapable. And this personal nostalgia was reflected in society at large: so much had happened in the late ’60s and early ’70s — vast social change, and the disillusions of Vietnam, Watergate and political assassinations — that America was looking bittersweetly backward throughout its pop culture productions of the 1970s, and no work better exemplifies the sense that a point of no return had been passed than George Lucas’ film “American Graffiti,” which chronicled a lost world that had disappeared a mere 11 years before.
As the wine steadily disappeared as wine is wont to do, several scenes in “Grease” took a poignant bite of my reflective heart. There’s the theme of star-crossed lovers, as in “Romeo And Juliet” or “The Age Of Innocence,” who are oppressed by both their social environment and their own human failings, as in Danny’s false behavior when he sees Sandy at the pep rally and capitulates to the pressures of maintaining a persona in the face of the collective, rather than express and validate his true feelings. And now, as a 50-year-old man who’s been to his own inner hell and back, how full of meaning is Sandy’s short number after the car race, when she becomes conscious of the inner voice calling her to embrace her shadow in order to grow, to undergo an ego death that is terrifying and yet necessary:
Look at me, there has to be
Something more than what they see
Wholesome and pure
Oh so scared and unsure
A poor man’s Sandra Dee
Sandy, you must start anew
Don’t you know what you must do?
Hold your head high
Take a deep breath and sigh
Goodbye to Sandra Dee
By the time the film reached its finale, the wine was gone and I was feeling like an alien anthropologist watching some cultural curiosity salvaged from a brief sliver of time. As the troupe sang “We Go Together,” and the camera floated up to the clouds — the place where the gods look down on the tragicomedy of human events— “Grease” suddenly appeared to me like a strange chapter in the history of the European peoples. For thousands of years they had survived in the cold north, worshipping the sun, living through ice ages and floods. Eventually they tamed the horse, invented the chariot, and migrated outward, spreading culture and language from Reykjavik to Benares. In the second millennium after Christ, they discovered and settled a vast continent, slowly building this new civilization westward under the aegis of Manifest Destiny. And when this so-called Faustian man reached the limit of this frontier at the shores of the Pacific, he found himself in a Golden State of perpetual sunshine. And when the Depression and World War were behind him and California became a booming land of prosperity, there lay in his lap a lifestyle that would have made his forefathers stare in rapt wonder at children riding to school in their own motorized chariots and celebrating their initiation into adulthood with the privileged triviality of amusement park rides.
Here it was, the summit of everything the ancestors had struggled for. They’d finally found paradise, and for a brief moment could sing in the sunshine. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD