Once upon a time, back when I could stay out until dawn and not spend the next three days paying for it, I used to go to a bar down on Mercer Street named Void. Actually, to call it a bar is not entirely accurate; it had a bar in it, and Lord knows my friends and I drank enough there, but with the speakeasy-style “lighting,” so low that a trip to the ladies’ required the loan of a Zippo, and the unpredictable hours (sometimes open all night, other times closed for a week…except Tuesday), Void felt more like a den or a lair, a place for coded conversations.
What I remember most about the place, besides needing night-vision goggles to navigate it, is the movies screened every night on one huge wall—Koyaanisqatsi, usually, or one of the The Endless Summers. Ski movies. Void had a DJ spinning records, so the movies were always ones patrons could enjoy with no sound, and as I watched Francis Ford Coppola’s director’s cut of The Outsiders last week, I kind of couldn’t get over how perfectly the film would have suited a late night at Void. As a movie, it’s deeply flawed—but not as flawed as I’d remembered it. As a silent movie, though, it’s a killer.
A first-time watcher of The Outsiders could easily follow and appreciate the plot without having to listen to the dialogue; everything is telegraphed visually, whether by the director and cinematographer (here, and on Rumble Fish, Stephen H. Burum) or by the actors. This will probably come as a relief to those of you who would maybe like to watch it again, but remember the dialogue as embarrassingly earnest, which it is. In fact, it’s as sugary and purple as an Easter Peep, and while Coppola’s fidelity to the source material is quite striking in some ways (more on that later), the blame for lines like the oft (and correctly) pilloried “Stay gold, Ponyboy” lies squarely with S.E. Hinton’s original. “Let’s do it for Johnny, maaaaan,” “Sure, little buddy, we ain’t gonna fight no more”—they land like balloons filled with ricotta.
Good news: you can mute it and put some Booker T and the MGs on the stereo instead, and you won’t miss a thing. The central Greasers-versus-Socs conflict is clearly delineated via the costume design, the Greasers in pomaded ducktails and denim and the Socs neatly kitted out in sweater sets and madras, and also in the Leone-esque shot set-ups Coppola uses when the two “gangs” share a scene: cuts between tight close-ups; low camera angles to indicate imminent danger; positioning the enemies on either end of a wide shot. At several points—the drunk Socs confront Ponyboy and Two Bit for walking with Cherry and Marcia; whenever Pony and Darrel argue; just prior to the climactic rumble—it looks like a West Side Story-ian dance number is about to break out. Which, of course, it is, sort of, except that nobody onscreen is singing and the music is Duane Eddy manqué instead of Sondheim.
But The Outsiders works as a silent film primarily because of the physical acting. Many among the cast apparently viewed the script’s utter lack of nuance as a license to treat the scenery as a buffet; Matt Dillon in particular is about to throw his back out with all the James-Dean-learns-to-vogue posing he’s doing on every line. Seen sans dialogue, however, the “Twyla! Twyla!” blocking really works. Emilio Estevez expertly renders Two Bit getting his drunk on at the drive-in: reeling, guffawing in the broadest clutching-his-stomach fashion, waving a half-full bottle of beer. Ditto Leif Garrett as doomed Soc-iopath Bob Sheldon; seldom has a movie character been set up as an irredeemable asshole so economically, and Garrett’s portrayal is equally efficient and unsubtle—but his reptilian pose body language, lidded stares, and pointed swigs from his Flask O’ Wealthy Evil don’t require any translation. And nobody but nobody did the “teen boy on the verge of tears” tremble-chin better than C. Thomas Howell.
And Dillon… oh, Dillon. Twitching and grinding his jaws (and gears) throughout, Dillon’s Dallas Winston is immediately, thoroughly, and hilariously over the top with the dialogue track on, but almost balletic if the movie’s on mute. He’s reaching for his switchblade with his entire upper body turned away from Two Bit! He’s punching a magazine rack, drunk with grief! And in case you’ve failed thus far to grasp The Tragedy, he’s dying in the street, shot down by the uncaring Tulsa PD for caring too deeply about his dead friend—and people, Matt Dillon is dying the hell out of it, crawling ass-up on his elbows, face torqued all out of shape, flailing over onto his back. It’s an ugly bit of acting, but if you subtract the campy “Noooooooooo!” and “He’s just a kid!” ululating of the other Greasers from the equation, it’s effective, even eerie.
Or maybe The Outsiders isn’t a silent movie; maybe, really, it’s more of a music video. For all the ways in which the film is deliberately out of its time—the old-school credits, listed in the Hitchcock style with ellipses separating character and actor names; the juicy Technicolor; the narratively clumsy double exposures to indicate dreams or memories—The Outsiders is in other ways unquestionably a product of its era. Eighties films pitched at the teen demographic featured montages set to contemporary music; parents who were absent, emotionally if not physically; one or more Brat-Packers; and an obsession with the class divide. The Outsiders nails so many of these tropes, you could make the argument that they all started therein.
The “contemporary” music in this case is The Ventures instead of The Psychedelic Furs, at least in the extended version; the soundtrack of the original release leaned heavily on treacly James Newton Howard-y string arrangements, and variations on a theme of Stevie Wonder’s risible “Stay Gold.” But in both versions, the score’s use as an instrument of direction, setting up the emotional backstory for the audience almost like a story pitch, is typical of the era in which it was made. Those of us who spent many a motionless hour in front of MTV twenty-five years ago will recognize in The Outsiders the ingredients of a successful Bryan Adams or Heart video. There is fog and/or ominous dripping. There is compromised architecture. There is pained pulling of faces. There is the sort of running reserved for Army obstacle courses and the drama club; quick cuts and loud guitars ratchet up the tension.
It’s pulled between the two poles genre-wise—silent film and MTV, realistic acting and stagey ham—but what The Outsiders hits right on the sweet spot is adolescent fantasy, especially for girls. Hinton is not Hemingway, but her ability to reach into an 11-year-old’s head and pull out the things we didn’t know we wanted is unparalleled. The absentee-parent aspect noted before is one example. The senior Curtises, we see in a flashback, died when a train T-boned their car (and as a sidebar: what is that about? Why is that such a constant in ’50s and ’60s culture, the car that gets stuck on the train tracks, with tragic results? You can see a train coming from some distance off—why couldn’t Teen Angel just open the damn door and get out?), and while that demise is not something a teen would literally wish upon his/her parents, it’s a representation of how many teenagers do feel about dear old Mom and Dad, to wit: go away. You don’t get it; you don’t understand me; just go away. It’s rebellion (“leave me alone”), but it’s also a feeling of abandonment (“how could you leave me alone?”). Almost every adolescent is pulled in both those directions, missing the easy relationship shared with her parents during childhood, but at the same time wishing the current versions would just disappear and let her come and go as she pleases (Two Bit), eating cake and beer for breakfast (Two Bit again) or dropping out of school to work with his best friend at the gas station (Sodapop and Steve Randle).
Almost every adolescent girl wants to believe that boys behave the way they do in the Hinton oeuvre—that is to say, like girls. The Outsiders is feelings porn, with all the crying these boys do and the anxiety they have about their relationships with each other. When the Curtis brothers are reunited in the hospital hallway, it was every ’80s tween’s dream—pretty Rob Lowe, sweet heroic C. Thomas Howell, and ripped Patrick Swayze in his foxy black t-shirt, clinging to each other and weeping and saying how much they love each other. You just wanted to insert yourself into that hug, and it didn’t have anything to do with sex. It’s between brothers and very safe, not scary and messy like sex seemed back then, and Coppola doesn’t entirely control the homoerotic overtones in some of the scenes, but he’s outstanding at translating Hinton sympathetically—recalling the adolescent fever-dream in tranquility, and with gentle respect.
We all wanted to build our own families with just fiercely loyal friends, to become a hero and maintain our poetically misunderstood status, to have a soundtrack follow our every action, to rename ourselves with unique, deep monikers instead of answering to boring old “Sarah,” to become a super-saturated Technicolor myth. It’s silly and childish, and we all outgrew it; Coppola takes us back to that time without rolling his eyes as we do at ourselves. Ponyboy and Johnny watch a sunset together, and Ponyboy shares the Robert Frost poem, both boys bathed in every yellow light gel Coppola could put his hands to—it’s deeply contrived and wildly overwrought, but that makes it realistic. It’s fake (the actors are obviously not even outdoors), but it’s what that time felt like, the feeling of sharing a poem you’d read in school with a friend who dug it the most, how that kind of connection could let you step outside of your crappy tenth-grade reality.
The extended version is much better at recreating that emotional time and place, because the additional footage takes the movie even further over the top, but paradoxically makes it feel more real, not less. In one extra scene towards the end of the extended version, Sodapop reacts to a dinner-table contretemps by running away—he literally jumps up and runs away from the meal, Ponyboy and Darry in hot pursuit. When his brothers catch up with him, Soda delivers an impassioned speech about getting caught in the middle of their fights; Rob Lowe didn’t have the chops for it at that point in his career, and on top of that, the scene itself kludges up the timing of the film’s denouement, but it works. If you look closely, you can see a faint halo of soap bubbles forming around Rob Lowe’s flawless head, but that’s exactly the sort of too-much reaction we had to arguments back then, and exactly the kind of too-neat narrative resolution we could see adult life was consistently going to deny us. The extra footage heightens the teen-dream melodrama, but somehow the movie feels truer to life for it.
It’s not meant to be coherent and tight, The Outsiders; to expect that from it, which I have done, is, I think, asking for disappointment. Coppola has said that he intended it as “a Gone With The Wind for 14-year-old girls”—although, as Editor Emeritus Matt Zoller Seitz so aptly put it, “I thought Gone With The Wind was Gone With The Wind for 14-year-old girls”—and because I think of GWTW as a “Void movie” too, something better seen than “read,” I’d say the film succeeds on that merit. But it also succeeds because of what it literalizes: the teenage desire, often never quite left behind, to matter. The need to believe that all of the clique wars and heartbreak and pointless quizzes on the Magna Carta exist in a grand, heroic narrative bathed in lights and tears. That if it’s made into a movie, it means something—The Story Of You, in Technicolor.
House contributor Sarah D. Bunting is co-author of Television Without Pity: 752 Things We Love to Hate (and Hate to Love) About TV. More of her writing appears at Tomato Nation.com.