Sunday 26 November 2017

1,001 Films: "Diner" (1982)

Ah, memories. Diner serves as a reminder of a moment when Mickey Rourke could still play softly spoken law students with part-time beauty salon work, positioning the actor at the heart of one of those touchstone 80s ensembles: see also The Outsiders, St. Elmo's Fire and The Breakfast Club. While the young men of late Fifties Baltimore gather in the titular institution to chew over the day's events and where they are in their lives, Barry Levinson gives himself a range of personalities to write for: there's the womanising Boog (Rourke), who gets the deathless scene with the penis in the popcorn, and has an unsympathetic habit of making money off his dates; the reckless Fenwick (Kevin Bacon), whose frustration never really seems to go anywhere, save into the destruction of a church nativity scene; the married Shrevie (Daniel Stern), beginning to wonder what he and his wife Beth (Ellen Barkin) actually have in common; nerdy compadres Modell (Paul Reiser) and Eddie (Steve Guttenberg), united in mutual annoyance; and the knightly Billy (Tim Daly), keenly avenging the wrongs of his schooldays while trying to do the right thing by his pregnant girl.

One influence has to have been the wildly successful American Graffiti - the film that dropped the flag for the 1980s to rerun the Fifties; Daly pre-empts Back to the Future's "Johnny B. Goode" revival upon taking to a stripjoint's piano - though this talk is altogether less tainted by the easy nostalgia generated by Lucas's selective, PG-rated mindset. Levinson's thesis - his gamble - is that what men were talking about in 1959 was what men were talking about in 1982, and most probably what they're still talking about today, namely sex, sports, rock music (Stern's Shrevie practically invents the anal alphabetising of one's record collection) and, behind these, vague grumbles that suggest they're not entirely happy with their lot. What Diner opened up was a routemap for those turn-of-the-Nineties indie jawfests where conversation became a means of exploring a particular milieu: Levinson lucked out in having his film backed by an adventurous studio, where Richard Linklater, Whit Stillman and Kevin Smith had to scrimp and save to get Slacker, Metropolitan and Clerks put together.

In Levinson's case, admittedly, the backdrop is the boomer-friendly one of the dawn of rock 'n' roll, live TV and Ingmar Bergman movies (perhaps only a brash American artefact would deign to show Steve Guttenberg making the wanker gesture when confronted with The Seventh Seal); though he writes good scenes for the women, including a stripper who seems to anticipate script meetings in responding to Daly's claim he's told his gal how much he loves her with a curt "Told her? Why haven't you shown her?", the focus is mostly on a bunch of guys communicating on broadly the same wavelength. Like many of the best bits of US pop culture, it's essentially ephemeral: nothing is resolved, and there's the suspicion all this jabber is being used to divert us away from exploring the issues raised in any real depth. The film's true subject is hanging out, the timekilling we all go through before we get round to doing whatever society demands of us. As such, it's a fine advert for friendship, good conversation and hearty food - even if you do come away from it convinced the twentysomething males of this Baltimore were doomed to clog their own arteries, and those of their city, in such a way as to make The Wire possible some four decades later.

Diner is available on DVD through Warner Home Video. 

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