December 22, 1998
A movie, a simple little story, really, about four friends from the poorer side of an Indiana college town, has resonated with me through the years since I first saw it in 1979. It was October, a beautiful fall that year, as I recall, and I had only recently moved back to Columbia, gotten a new job and an apartment.
This movie, Breaking Away, was so real and believable and funny to me then that I saw it again and again. I can't explain why. I had never before had such a reaction to a movie, had never seen a movie more than twice previously. I think there were a lot of things about it that struck me at the time: the four best friends who palled around and were inseparable -- the friends you wish you had had when you were 17 or 18; the parents who were so real and flesh- and-blood they made you completely suspend disbelief that this was a piece of fictional moviemaking; the conflict between the four buddies and the rival college kids who had more advantages in life; and finally, the bike competitions and the movie's hero and star, Dave Stoler, played by Dennis Christopher. I just wanted to see myself in that character. In fact, I saw a lot of myself in him. The screenplay by Steve Tesich won the Academy Award that year, and so wonderful and real was the dialog that I had large sections of it memorized. Again, I really can't explain this phenomenon which came over me. I saw in my mind long afterward scenes from the film such as the one in which Dave is sitting on the sidewalk by a parking meter in downtown Bloomington, looking up into the sky with eyes closed and then opening them to see Kathy who has come to tell him she's going to Chicago. This after Dave has admitted to her his Italian routine was all an act and he wasn't an exchange student after all. Who can forget that scene who has seen the movie?
I guess what it symbolized was innocence lost. Dave is reconciled with his father who never could understand or comprehend his son. A stonemason or limetone cutter who was laid off from his job, Dave's father is gruff and stern and unreasonable, but you can't help love him with all his flaws. Dave's mother is everyone's idea of the perfect mother, in the best sense of the word. The camera lovingly captures the rural Indiana countryside that I discovered for myself several years later during road trips across the country. Sugar Creek, the covered bridges, the town of Crawfordsville -- I recall it all now as I write. It is beautiful countryside, containing scenes and places you dream about in rare dreams of happiness and contentment. I suppose in a jaded world, rural Indiana is a refuge. In Shades Park as I walked among the tall trees bordering Sugar Creek, I knew this was the kind of place I'd want to return to again and again, if I could. Alas, it's been along time since I've been there.
Breaking Away always brings a smile of recognition when I hear about it or see something written about it. I'm affected by it in a different way, now, of course. It brings me back to a time when I was capable of much different and stronger emotions than now these many years later. I grasp and try to hold onto those memories, not because I need to, but because they are still with me and still can make me smile in recognition and longing.