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Saturday Night Fever Through the Lens of Stage Theory

2010 August 15

Today I watched the classic film Saturday Night Fever for the first time.  I was struck by what a elegant example it is of the tension that can be generated in 3rd to 4th Order transitions.

John Travolta’s character, Tony, is struggling to find a fulfilling life path and identity amidst the chaos of his Brooklyn working-class Italian-American community.  His buddies provide a sense of acceptance and high status as the community’s premier disco dancer, a role he has self-authored.  His community hands him a clear path to working-class success; all Tony has to do is follow the example of his paint store colleagues who have been in their jobs for 17 years.

Into the middle of this 3rd Order world drops his older brother, Frank, home to announce the unsettling news that he is leaving the priesthood.  His mother, subject to the opinions of extended family and neighbors, cannot accept the reality that her oldest son has taken this powerful step towards self-authorship.  Meanwhile, Frank’s example nudges the 4th Order thinking that’s already been percolating in Tony.  Exposed to the “better” community of Manhattan by his new girlfriend, Tony is now able to see his community-of-origin as object.  Emboldened, he publicly rejects their climactic dance contest victory as rigged and gives his prize money to the Latino couple who he knows came in second only because they weren’t Italian.  Meanwhile, the youngest member of Tony’s gang, subject to the community shame of getting his girlfriend pregnant, plunges to his death off the Verrazano Bridge.

The film ends with Tony making a pact with his girlfriend effectively stepping outside the constricting confines of his Brooklyn beginnings.  Amidst all the pain, Tony’s 3-4 transition is in full swing.

Given it’s cult status, Saturday Night Fever strikes me as an excellent pedagogical example for seeding such discussions.

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