Beneath the cobbles lie the Hamptons: violence and aesthetics in Weekend at Bernie’s (1989)

During May ’68, 50 years ago this past month, Paris students took to the streets, literally. Under the slogan “Sous les pavés, la plage!” (“Beneath the cobbles, the beach!”), protesters tore loose the stones that made up the streets of the Quartier Latin in Paris, so as to gain ammunition against the gendarmes. But this was not only an anticapitalist battlecry. At the same time, it was an affirmation of one of capitalism’s guiding principles, the desire for leisure and luxury, the ‘beach’ waiting at the end of their struggles. While not an activist film, the 1989 comedy Weekend at Bernie’s (directed by Ted Kotcheff, written by Robert Klane) also represents an attempt to get to the beach, the luxury summer estates of The Hamptons, New York. And like the ’68ers, the film’s protagonists are not only youths violently seeking to liberate themselves from the yoke of capitalism, in so doing, they reach for remarkably aesthetic means: by deploying the dead body of their boss as an object to be manipulated in a performance of the nouveaux riche lifestyle.

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Dirty Dancing: alienation, ideology & emancipation

Beyond the formula

When it comes to writing a Hollywood script, there are certain easy ways to make a plot appealing. First off, if you’re trying to make a romantic drama, not too brainy, you have to make sure that your lead characters exhibit a lot of easy-to-understand contrasts: he should be dark, mysterious, from a poor background, whereas she is kind, light-hearted, idealistic. Also, make sure that you have a particular theme that resonates with young people, such as, say, dancing or summer vacation. Situate these tropes along a familiar story arc and you get what is called the `Hollywood formula’, an easy-to-consume, ready-made film that is bound to generate a profit.

Continue reading Dirty Dancing: alienation, ideology & emancipation