7 December 2004 | JamesHitchcock
Coming of Age in Fifties Baltimore
Recent films set in the 1950s, such as 'Pleasantville', 'Far from Heaven' and 'Mona Lisa Smile' have tended to portray the decade as being a repressed, overly conservative period. A generation ago, however, the tendency was to take a more sympathetic, nostalgic look at the fifties in films such as 'Grease' or television programmes such as 'Happy Days'. The post-Vietnam generation seemed to look back at the period immediately before that war as a lost age of innocence.
'Diner' follows a group of young men from Baltimore, former school friends now in their early twenties, over a week of their lives, that between Christmas Eve and New Year, 1959. Some of them are still living and working in the town, others are now at college, but are using the Christmas vacation as a chance to get back together with old friends. The title is taken from the diner that is their favourite meeting-place. There is no real coherent plot; the film is very episodic in structure and concentrates on character rather than on action.
As is perhaps inevitable with young men of this age, many of their preoccupations are with girls and relationships. One of them, Shrevie, is married, but seems to be discontented with married life. Another, Eddie, is engaged. A third, Billy, discovers during the course of the film that he has got his girlfriend pregnant, but when he offers to do the decent thing by her, he is disconcerted to realize that she would much rather he did the indecent one. A fourth, Boogie, seems to lead a carefree life, flitting from one romance to another. The characters are not, however, preoccupied with love and sex to the exclusion of all else. We also learn about their other private obsessions with such matters as music, sport and the cinema. Shrevie quarrels with his wife because she does not share his passion for popular music and fails to understand his complex system for cataloguing his extensive record collection. (I wonder if this scene was the origin of a similarly obsessive character in 'High Fidelity'). Eddie's passion for sport is even more all-consuming than Shrevie's for music; he subjects his fiancée Elyse to a football quiz and threatens to break off the engagement if she cannot score a sufficiently high score. A minor character knows off by heart the entire dialogue from the film 'Sweet Smell of Success'.
Many of the young actors who starred in the film have gone on to become famous names in the movie world. From my point of view the best was probably Kevin Bacon as Timothy, the rebel without a cause who has dropped out of his wealthy family and lives an aimless life. (The first time we see him he is smashing windows just for the hell of it). I was, however, also impressed by Daniel Stern as Shrevie and Mickey Rourke as Boogie.
I have never been to Baltimore, but it was clear from watching the film that the director was trying to capture the spirit of a particular place and time. It therefore came as no surprise to discover that Barry Levinson, who both wrote and directed the film, is himself a Baltimore native, although slightly younger than the characters depicted in the film. (He would have been seventeen in 1959). Despite this concentration on the particular, however, 'Diner' has a universal appeal. The film with which it has most in common is 'American Graffiti'. Although that film was actually set in the early sixties rather than the fifties, it nevertheless deals quite openly with the idea of the pre-Vietnam era as a golden age. 'Diner' does not deal with this theme so overtly, but there is still nevertheless a distinct sense of an era coming to an end. It is significantly set in the final week of a decade, and in the wedding scene we see a large banner saying 'Eddie and Elyse- in the sixties and forever', a reminder that change is on the way, both for these young men and for America as a whole.
The most important change that the characters in 'Diner' have to come to terms with is neither social nor political, but rather the challenge of growing up. The traditional 'Coming of Age' film has tended to concentrate on adolescence and the teenage years. For many young men, however, their early twenties, when they are completing or have already completed their education, are setting out on their careers and are starting to think about more serious relationships with women, can be a time of even greater changes than their days in secondary school. All the major characters- except perhaps the serious-minded Billy who is keen to accept new responsibilities- want to hang on to elements of their boyhood even while moving into adulthood.
For Boogie, and, to an even greater degree, Timothy, this means keeping the freedom to be irresponsible. For Shrevie and Eddie, this means trying to keep hold of their youthful passions even after marriage. The discord between Shrevie and his wife (slightly older than him and considerably more mature in outlook) is caused as much by his fear that marriage will mean having to give up his association with his old friends as by her inability to differentiate between jazz and rock-and-roll. Barry Levinson's claim that Elyse's football test was based on a true incident may seem improbable, but there is some psychological truth in this part of the film. It has, after all, been said that every man's ideal woman is himself incarnated in the body of a beautiful girl, and Elyse's willingness to take this test shows that she is prepared to make sacrifices and enter into Eddie's male-oriented world.
'Diner' is a film worth seeing more than once. On my first viewing I found it dull, an inferior copy of 'American Graffiti'. The second time round, I started to appreciate it as a fine film in its own right. Barry Levinson has gone on to make a number of other good films ('The Natural', 'Good Morning Vietnam', 'Rain Man' and 'Sleepers'), but 'Diner', his first film, is perhaps his most personal and heartfelt. 8/10