The enduring brilliance of films you first watched when you were a kid
I don’t remember the first time I saw it, or how many times I’ve watched it since then.
All I know is that my unabashed love for Dirty Dancing was born in the age of VHS, when the decision to watch a film always began with a vague anxiety over whether a series of grey, wiggling lines would pass over the screen when you pressed play, and generally having to rewind the tape.
Somewhere in our family house, the original 1987 VHS copy sits in one of those clear plastic storage boxes at the bottom of a wardrobe, now unplayed and unplayable, alongside school exercise books, a neon skirt from Tammy Girl and a copy of my other Swayze-favourite, Ghost.
On a basic level, Dirty Dancing is a film about dancing and a 17 year old girl growing up and falling in love — so far, so child-friendly. But it’s also about social class, a sexual awakening, father / daughter relationships, values, men being good, men being bastards, and watching Patrick Swayze’s naked shoulder blades zig-zag around in time to an excellent soundtrack of 50s and 60s music.
And I’ll be straight up with you. I actually have no idea if Dirty Dancing is any good. I’ve watched it so many times, over so many years that I’ve lost all impartiality.
These days, it’s still that film I could happily finish watching, go to the loo, grab a plate of biscuits, and sit back down and watch all over again. I no longer know if it’s good, or bad, or just very familiar, or if the bits I find funny or sad are neither of those things and I’m just conditioned now; a victim of its old-school, feel-good, nostalgic charm.
What I do know is that the brilliance of Dirty Dancing is only recognised by other people who first watched it when they were little.
My (many) attempts to pass the love of this film onto University-age friends, flatmates, or anyone else who happened to admit to me in passing that they’ve never seen it or worse still, “sort of half watched it, once, years ago” have one by one fallen flat. Sure, they tolerate me mouthing the words as they watch it, and sometimes even enjoy it — but when it comes to gaining a spot in their All Time Fave Top 10, it never really converts.
But then perhaps Dirty Dancing is to them what, say, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is to me. Against all odds, I first watched this cult classic film all the way through in my late 20s. And, well — yeah, I liked it. It was fun. But did it grab me and compel me to watch it several times a year for the next 20 years? Negative, Ghostrider. It did not.
Ultimately, we carry on watching and enjoying films from our childhood, the ones that aren’t necessarily films made for children— not because we know and relate to what’s going on, but because we’re curious, and we get to know them more as we grow up. And the thing about watching the same film again and again since childhood is that your understanding of scenes or themes evolves over time.
I mean, let’s look at Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The cast is half animated, half real actors which puts it well into the realm of a nicely enjoyable if-a-little-risque-kid’s cartoon caper. But when you’re eight years old, how much can the idea of Roger Rabbit hiring a private detective to see if his wife’s “playing pattycake with someone else” really mean to you? I think I actually assumed it was some sort of game.
Or remember the subway scene in Ghost? The spirit who teaches Sam how to move objects just seems a bit weird and aggressive when you’re watching it as a kid, but then you get older and realise — although it’s never overtly stated — that he’s stuck in limbo because he’d committed suicide by jumping onto the tracks in front of a train.
Then I think about the years I spent watching Dirty Dancing without really understanding one of the main dramatic plot points. The language is carefully worded: Johnny’s dancing partner Penny gets “knocked up by Robbie the creep” and needs to see a doctor. The reason why is never overtly stated, even the term “knocked up” is ambiguous when you’re a kid. So you only know that she needed money to get an appointment, and then that it goes horribly wrong.
But the older I got, the more I understood that her illness was in fact an abortion. This explained the passing reference to the doctor’s “dirty knife and a folding table”, and all the secrecy; in 1960s US, abortion was still illegal. That then explained Baby’s dad Jake Houseman’s anger at being lied to (“it’s not illegal, is it?” “No, daddy!”), and the talk of whether Penny could still have babies afterwards: these were all new levels. The film stayed the same but I got older, and the story took on a whole new spin.
There are so many films that I have loved from first watch and every time since. But then there are just as many that I hated at first, only to watch later in different circumstances, and appreciate in a new way.
Back when it was released in 2003, I went to watch Lost in Translation at the cinema. Despite the hype at the time, I hated it, and was very, very bored. Fast forward to this year and I’m in Tokyo, drinking a cocktail in the hotel where it was filmed. When I got home, nostalgic for any cinematic depiction of Japan, I decided to give it another watch.
The film was the same, but I had changed: this time I loved it, and completely understood what all the fuss had been about back then.
So who knows what I’d make of Dirty Dancing if the first time I’d seen it was 2016 rather than 1990? Perhaps I’d draw the same conclusion that my housemate did on Tuesday night after the credits rolled on Channel 5: something akin to “I mean, yeah, it’s ok”.
Really, whether these classic films are good or bad doesn’t matter. Who can say for sure? Because most of the time the reason we like or hate something doesn’t even relate to the film at all. It’s entirely down to you.