Column: 35 years later, can ‘Breaking Away’ still compete?

BY JEFF LAFAVE

At what point does a modern classic become a relic of the past?

“Breaking Away,” the classic sports film based on IU’s famous Little 500 bike races, hit cinemas nationwide 35 years ago this summer. The July 1979 sports classic was a sleeper at the box office, but it was newspaper articles and a strong word-of-mouth reputation, reportedly — then a trusted American institution before Twitter, Facebook, and 24-hour cable news took our attention and never quite gave it back — that brought filmgoers to the movies in spades.

Director Peter Yates’ earnest film, written by IU graduate Steve Tesich, about four working-class Bloomington locals and their struggles in a college town even won the 1979 Academy Award for Best Screenplay.

…But does it hold the same weight in 2014?

Has it been replaced by modern, sexier, sleeker sports films with high-definition cameras? Does this old-timey, earnest film about a humble, self-contained Indiana community keep its wholesome nature intact — or does it banish “Breaking Away” to a select quadrant of the film community reserved only for the kitschy and left-behind as the film canon chugs along into 2014 and beyond?

* * *

There are four (two sets of two) ways, in my opinion, to properly review the cultural significance of “Breaking Away.” [Match a number with a letter]

1: Past — How the world chose to interpret the film during its 1979 debut.

2: Present — How the modern age, smartphones and all, might look back at “Breaking Away” 35 years after its debut.

A: Local — How Bloomington/Monroe County chose to embrace the film during its production,  national spotlight, and subsequent lasting legacy.

B: National — How the United States (and now, the international film world) chooses to label the film against a myriad of other sports movies, cliches, and re-told athletic narratives.

* * *

Past & Local: The Rise of “Bambino?”

I’ll disclose my advantage here: I’m a columnist for the Bloomington Herald-Times. In our company  basement, appropriately called “The Morgue,” we have access to every newspaper printed since we started printing more than 100 years ago.

And when “Breaking Away” debuted nationwide on July 20, 1979, the “Herald-Telephone,” as it was called then, gave the film a top-billing review in its arts section — reflecting the idea that the movie about the underdog was a bit of a dark horse itself.

H-T staff writer Mike Pearson wrote, “It was almost a year ago this week when rumors began to surface that a major motion picture company would make a film in Bloomington. For several weeks, nothing official was said. But the rumor persisted, with the Indiana University Foundation linked to whatever was brewing.”

Of course, the Little 500 race was born out of the IU Student Foundation, per general IU Foundation President Howdy Wilcox.

Citizens of Bloomington would only find about about the film project on August 7, 1978 (the year before), as Bloomington Mayor Frank McCloskey (a three-time congressman and initiator of the “Bloomington Transit” bus system) held a press conference in the City Council chambers with IU Foundation President Bill Armstrong (for whom the current Little 500 racing venue and IU soccer stadium is named), the British director Yates, and members of Twentieth-Century Fox, to make an announcement: a film called “Bambino,” loosely based on the town’s famous bicycle race.

“Bambino?” That name seems almost cryptic and tangential now — associated only with the “Great” Bambino, baseball legend Babe Ruth — but the film’s focus on an Italian family in Bloomington makes enough sense for the name to fit. One just has to wonder, however, if the film about a lesser-known sporting event in a small Hoosier town would have kept the film afloat with such a name.

In fact, “Breaking Away” seems to have debuted at only one theater in downtown Bloomington on opening night, even when the city boasted four movie theaters within a half-mile diameter in 1979: There was the Towne Cinema, which had the only explicit advertisement (according to the H-T newspaper ads I located in the morgue) of “Breaking Away,” the adjacent Princess Theatre, as well as Kirkwood’s Von Lee building (now home to a Noodles & Co. restaurant and IU’s communications department) and the Indiana (now “Buskirk-Chumley”) Theater, which operates primarily as a performance theatre/musical auditorium in the modern age.

On the Friday night debut of “Breaking Away,” the film had some quirky bedfellows to compete with at both the Towne Cinema and its nearby rival “Princess Theater,” as well as the national stage. According to that day’s newspaper advertisement section, Yates’ film would do full battle with any combination of “Rocky II,” Bond film “Moonraker,” “Escape From Alcatraz,” “Dracula,” Disney sequel “The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again,” all-time classic “Jaws” (held over from 1975, four entire years before, as limited film choices created such a “held over” standard for demanding theater houses before the advent of VHS and home-recording), Clint Eastwood’s “Every Which Way But Loose,” as well as “Alien,” in which Sigourney Weaver’s performance would place the film as the top-voted film of 1979 on IMDB.com; and two XXX adult films, “Taxi Girls” and “The Jade Pussycat,” back when video smut was almost exclusively available in late night “skinema” showings.

With such an intense, star-heavy (perhaps tittilating) lineup, it’s not difficult to see how a modest film about a bike race might be overlooked, even when filmed in its own backyard. Having relatively unknown actors for the time didn’t help.

In fact, its advertisement in the local paper was less-than-pretty. A box of plain text invited readers to a movie “Filmed Entirely in Bloomington, Indiana” — though some outskirts shots resembling nearby Brown County might otherwise question this pitch — at showtimes of 7 p.m. and 9:20 p.m. on the weekends, as well as four showings on Sunday. Tickets cost adults $2.50. Children and seniors cost $2.

(A used DVD copy of “Breaking Away” on Amazon.com, however, costs you about $7.50 in April 2014.)

H-T writer Pearson continued in his article about having lunch with the film’s extras before the film, some “nervously excited” Bloomingtonians who were paid to stand in for some candid shots, such as the famous “fight scene” in the Indiana Memorial Union bowling alley.

He wrote: “Most were local kids or IU students, yet they all had one thing in common; they were secretly wondering if this was their chance to be ‘discovered’ — if this movie would make them a star.”

Perhaps the students and faces themselves have become a grain of sand among a beach of sports film casts, but the “Breaking Away” phenomenon got noticed by Hollywood bigwigs and jet-setters alike. Bloomington, indeed, would become a star in 1979.

***

Past & National: The $2.4 million bargain

The early reviews of “Breaking Away” were almost a back-handed slap to the face.

New York Times’ film reviewer Janet Maslin wrote after its July 13, 1979, New York City premiere, “Breaking Away was made in Bloomington, Indiana, which is perhaps the film world’s equivalent of left field.”

“For that,” she continued, “it’s a classic sleeper.”

Pearson wrote in his H-T review that New York City’s art houses were turning over in spades to show the new film, perhaps for its midwestern novelty and unfamiliar green-grass wide shots. Vogue’s staff review called it “one of the most totally unique film experiences of this or any other year.” National critic Judith Crist called it “the feel-terrific movie of the year.”

A whopping third-page ad was taken out in the worldly Times, spattered with such quotes and high marks from area critics. Director Yates, even as an international star, made it his point to include the words “Bloomington” and “Indiana University” as much as possible, apparently to remind people that, yes, Bloomington is a real place, and yes, the tributed race did actually happen this spring.

Most remarkably, Yates got a coveted interview with the Times — the “Sunday feature” interview — even on a film budget of $2.4 million, when his box office competitors were spending millions more on special effects: “Rocky II” spent $7 million, “Jaws” spent $9 million, Alien spent $11 million, and “Moonraker” checked out with a tough $34 million pricetag, per some encyclopedia estimates.

Perhaps Yates’ comparatively thrifty $2.4 million budget, plus everything else about the charming cinderella story, kept the idea that “Breaking Away” was a genuine movie about genuine people, and something that should not be forgotten in 1979’s scary movie landscape of animatronic sharks, unlikely boxers, ballsy secret agents, and dystopian trips to outer space.

Los Angeles Times critic Charles Champlin felt the same, even in Tinseltown:

“It is very well crafted and wonderfully acted … ingratiating, funny, exciting, and pleasing … because it does not pretend to be more than it is.”

***

Present & Local: The Death of the Bloomington Filmhouse

Just two years after “Breaking Away” brought Monroe County citizens into the Towne Cinema, the theater burned down in an infamous fire.

On April 21, 1981 — the same week in which Delta Chi would take home the title for the Little 500 men’s race — a late night fire brought the theater down. According to the City of Bloomington’s “Historic Fires” website (quite the peculiar page with dozens of B-Town blazes) and the lore of a geocache description in the adjacent parking garage, a heavy fire started in the building’s third-floor apartment after a tenant left a hotplate burning. The fire quickly spread into the projection room, with piles of flammable film just waiting to catch. Seven firefighters were in the building when they were given the order to evacuate. Moments later, the roof of the film house which gave apparent local birth to “Breaking Away” collapsed. As the bottom structure stood tall to form a fiery canopy, all the rescue crew escaped. Two firefighters were injured, but the team largely survived what could have been a tragedy.

Four years later, the rival Princess Theatre would collapse for no reason. No patrons were inside, fortunately.

The block which held Towne Cinema has since become “Omega Management,” an downtown apartment leasing company, and “Butch’s,” one of more than a dozen pizza places in Bloomington. The Princess Theatre became a variety of restaurants, including “Princess Restaurant” and “El Norteno,” its current two-floor Mexican eatery — but the limestone marquee title remains outside and above the entrance today, perhaps a relic of a time long past. Patrons now enter “El Norteno” through what may have been the box office.

Today, the only true movie theaters in Bloomington are not located anywhere near the four which operated during “Breaking Away’s” run. There’s an AMC megaplex on the east side and an AMC megaplex on the west side. The IU Cinema (adjacent to the IU Auditorium) was reborn as a classic art house in 2011, but focuses primarily on independent films and niche, specialty, or themed showings.

Perhaps the disappearance of Bloomington’s filmhouses is part of Breaking Away’s history, an added part of the spectacle behind watching the movie to recognize local landmarks, as the film, too, is a time capsule for a city that has long changed.

For example, the campus trees of “Breaking Away” are just a bit more plentiful than commuter-heavy campus IU Bloomington knows today, and even famed downtown restaurants such as Opie Taylor’s appear different today; Opie Taylor’s was seen in the film as pizza restaurant “Pagliai’s.”

As such, the film still contains a genuine appreciation for life among Bloomingtonians and IU students alike, but some members of the latter have appropriated the film — based on my personal experiences — into a bit of a subjective drinking game. It’s not unlike any other appreciated film that might be subject to such diversion — be it a weed-smoking party for “The Big Lebowski” or yet another drag reincarnation of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

The “Drinking Away” rules are fairly broad, but pay tribute to the same idea: “Drink when you see a part of Bloomington you recognize.” — which seems rather uncanny for students age 19-23 to do for a film that is entering its 35th year in the sports film canon. Even the freshmen who attended IU in 1979 will be reaching age 55 shortly; there will someday be a time, perhaps within 30 years, when nobody on campus was around for the film’s production.

At some point, the ability to “recognize” must certainly be lost; it will be traded for “what I was told” or “what I saw in a book.” Or in this case, what I saw in the famous movie.

But considering how “Breaking Away” was written and filmed after 28 years of Little 500 racing (for reference, race season 64 is knocking on our doors come Friday), even director Peter Yates had to work with a considerable deal of hearsay to make his classic, and most citizens of Bloomington will tell you that his presentation of the Limestone City is somewhat reasonable.

***

Present & National: The “delightful treat”

The internet era, with its uncanny ability to resource and chronicle virtually everything, has not forgotten about “Breaking Away” in the slightest.

Today, the film boasts a relatively successful 7.8 of 10 ranking on popular film discussion site IMDB.com, or “Internet Movie Database.” (Its current No. 1 film, “The Shawshank Redemption,” boasts a 9.2 of 10, for reference.)

Other film discussion sites, such as “Rotten Tomatoes,” gives the “delightful treat” a strong 94 of 100 score.

All in all, “Breaking Away” seems to be applauded for what it is, not how it compares to its more melodramatic juggernauts, such as “Rocky” or “Rudy” or “Remember the Titans.”

Richard Schickel of TIME Magazine wrote in 2008: “There are a few moments when the picture’s easygoing pace turns into wobbliness, but these are insignificant compared with its many moments of shrewd insight into the lives of amusingly shaded, but very recognizable, human beings.”

The criticism of “Breaking Away,” as it stands, seems to be more of circumstance from the sports genre and its homogenous, repeated cliches.

“Though its plot wins no points for originality, Breaking Away is a thoroughly delightful light comedy,” wrote the staff of Variety in a rather terse modern review.

Joshua Coonrod, a fifth-year graduate student within Indiana University’s CMCL (“Communication & Culture”) department, gave the film a second review from modern eyes, based on his four years at Missouri and five years at Indiana University as a film scholar:

Notably, he says, the movie is still married to Bloomington — outsiders still know IU for its strong connections to “Breaking Away.”

“The movie is probably a bit more beloved around here than it is on the national stage, but you’ve got to expect that when a film focuses on someone’s hometown,” Coonrod wrote me. “With the prevalence of ‘Little 5’ in Bloomington, you know the film is going to be talked about by everyone at least once a year. Still, it has maintained its popularity throughout the country over the decades. Tell someone you’re coming to IU and don’t be surprised if it’s the first thing they bring up.”

This association, he notes, could be problematic in terms of a disconnect between the national reputation of “Breaking Away” and its local realities.

“I feel like you still see the same time divide between students and the locals. That’s an old story that doesn’t change much anywhere; when undergraduate students come to a new city for college, it’s rare they get involved in the community much past campus,” Coonrod wrote me. “An important difference between now and then is how much focus the film places on the bike race itself. Little 5 has always been an event, but now it’s so huge — between the visitors from out-of-town, the concerts, the parties, all the drinking — that a lot of people lose track of the actual event we’re trying to celebrate.”

I’ll agree with Coonrod there. “Breaking Away” focuses on the paths of four young cyclists in preparation for the race, but it has little to do with the literal cleanup of the city and resulting aftermath — which has become a notorious talking point in recent decades.

In the last four years, the Little 500 party season has merited 866 arrests from state excise officers. (These years, by coincidence, were my four undergrad seasons in Bloomington.) Perhaps this was of no interest — or simply not a problem — when Yates was directing his beloved film. But it might not be a part of the initial discussion someone outside Bloomington might have regarding the film far away, say, in San Francisco.

And it might not be “Breaking Away’s” fault, if a fault, for keeping the film wholesome and sweet. The sports genre itself has become exponentially grittier, dramatic, and violent.

Coonrod continues: “Sadly, I think the film might struggle if it opened today, even more so than it initially did. With so many films striving to make their subject matter seem like the most important events in the history of humankind, a small little sports drama about a kid’s challenges growing up might seem too minor to catch on. But never count out the ability of a heartwarming flick with personable actors to grow on people slowly. Right now in particular, sports flicks often offer a respite from so many of the giant, bombastic franchise flicks that fill up theaters.”

Never count out those Cutters, indeed.

***

Summary and the author’s personal thoughts

Thirty-five years later, it can be tough to speak about “Breaking Away” without recognizing how the film seems to have dated.

Not only is the film about cycling — a sport that has always been, and likely be — a niche sport in America, in a college town, in a small state, two years before the Reagan administration took office. It came before VHS release, before cable television streamlined the “tube” to be a constant flow of movies, brewing their reputation and presence into the minds of young and old Americans alike.

Simply put: “Breaking Away” may have come too early to be a national classic. We have the other underdogs —1986’s “Hoosiers” seems to hit that spot nicely, considered the No.1-ranked sports movie by the American Film Institute’s most recent list — but the smaller-scale story of “Breaking Away” simply might not be as pretty; might not be as easy to take home and keep on the shelf.

The same film made 10 years later in 1989 might have married it to a niche directing style, such as John Hughes’ classic teen films of the ’80s, including “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Sixteen Candles.” Yates’ film, in my opinion, is one “Tears for Fears” song and slow-pan montage away from this story trope. This, for better or for worse, would assign it to a campier, larger auteur style.

Hell, “breaking away” could be an apt two-word metaphor for any of Hughes’ ennui-ridden adolesecent-based films.

At the same time, I cringe at how the film could have been mishandled by a special-effects hungry director in the late 1990s or 2000s: Humor for me, if you will, a hasty re-make.

Some CGI-saturated violence here, a bar fight there, an unnecessary sex scene in the back parking lot of a generic dormitory, and bam — you’ve got the standard “box office summer hit” that has been recycled based on decades of tropes, trends, character actors and forced pushing of the envelope.

“Breaking Away” should feel more like a family dinner than “Top Gun,” and its fans continue to make no apologies about that.

In comparison to any other modern sports production — be it a tear-jerking episode of “Friday Night Lights” or the gritty life-after-tragedy boxing realities of “Million Dollar Baby” — Breaking Away really seems like something genuine that shouldn’t be messed with.

Breaking Away is your grandparents’ story you’ve heard for the hundredth time. It’s the dusty photo album of people whose names we may have forgotten — or maybe even never met properly. It’s a vital snapshot of Bloomington, a community that has itself, changed several times over, and will continue to re-phoenix itself as thousands of new students enroll (and graduate) every year.

With A-lister concerts, infamous drinking ticket totals, and a dramatic surge in raceday cycling technology, even the Little 500 race as Bloomington knows it is a candy-coated shell of its humble 1951 beginning. The men’s race is entering its 64th year, and even the freshmen who attended the first race are at least 82 years old at this point.

…so how can we expect the film made 35 years ago to keep up?

Simply put, it can’t: The theatres where it all began are long-gone, the city in which the story is filmed has since grown into the future, and the race itself has become a come-one, come-all attraction for the college party lifestyle:

…We broke away from the film a long time ago.

All we can do — and by God, I pray we keep doing it — is to keep watching the movie, keep cheering the racers, and keep pedaling as hard as we can to get by in Bloomington, Indiana.

The rest will come naturally.

# # #

Jeff LaFave is a 2013 graduate of Indiana University Bloomington and a full-time columnist who still lives on East 10th Street. You can email him at jlafave@indiana.edu.

 

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