On Sentimentality: "Breaking Away"

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the adjective "sentimental" came into use in the middle of the 18th Century, meaning "characterized by sentiment," or "affected by or showing emotion rather than reason." By the end of that century, the word was already being used as a pejorative, as in "sentimentality" ("exaggerated or superficial sensitivity") and "sentimentalist" (a person cultivating or affecting sentimentality; a holder of sentimental ideas.")

This pejorative use has strengthened over the centuries, particularly among the classes of people that consider themselves thinkers. These days, if you are one of these types who likes to opine knowingly in the public sphere – say, a highfalutin film critic – it's one of the most powerful aspersions there is. "I just found it so sentimental," you can say over a Pimm's Cup made by an unemployed actor catering your friend’s swanky soiree, squinting ever so slightly to indicate that you would certainly never fall for the baser inducements of a film like that one; and when you do you can be certain no one will contradict you, because to defend sentiment is akin to admitting that you're lowbrow, a sappy plebeian, not a thinker at all.

But it's best to proceed with caution in these matters. Because a closer look at the OED reminds us that the word was originally used in a favorable way, as in "characterized by or exhibiting refined and elevated feelings." It's a word, then, with two meanings. It was once used to denote someone, or something, in whom or which the capacity for feeling itself was highly developed; at its furthest reaches, the word indicated a capacity for feeling something that was actually inaccessible to other people. It's now more frequently used to derogate, because we live in a world in which (most evidence to the contrary) we'd like to believe rationality has triumphed over emotion.

Which is not to say that Hollywood doesn't pump out reams of films that really are sentimental in the pejorative way; it is, rather, to say that one of the signal questions to ask about a film that trades in naked emotion – particularly of the feel-good kind – is that of the way in which it's sentimental, and what parts of it might fall into either side of our definition.

Is said movie something in which the emotional appeal is "exaggerated or superficial"? Or is it something in which the feelings are elevated for the purpose of allowing us to feel something we might otherwise not, refined for the purpose of exploring something, namely emotional life itself, that's far more subtle complex than our contemporary rationalist culture scolds might like to admit?

Breaking Away, from 1979, is often termed a "coming of age" film, meaning that it tells the story of young people moving through a pivotal moment in their lives and gaining an understanding of maturity or adulthood in the process. Like many of these films it centers on a group of friends.

Mike, Cyril, Moocher, and Dave are recent high school graduates in Bloomington, Indiana, home to the University of Indiana. Mike (Dennis Quaid) was a star football player who still harbors dreams of glory even though his athletic career is over. Cyril (Daniel Stern) is a loveable outcast who serves as the group's clown. Moocher (Jack Earle Haley) is undersized, has a chip on his shoulder about it, and is about to get married to his high school sweetheart. But at the center of the story is Dave (Dennis Christopher), a pure romantic who has discovered his passion in life: bicycle racing, and in particular racing as it is practiced by the Italians. He rides his bike everywhere, trains religiously, and has taken to shaving his legs and speaking exclusively in a heavy Italian accent, much to the dismay of his parents Ray and Evelyn (Paul Doolie and Barbara Barrie).

The main source of conflict in the film comes from the denigration of these folks by the local population of college kids. The term for the locals in the film is "Cutters," which comes from the fact that a good deal of the population works quarrying and cutting stone, much of which was used to build the stately buildings of the university. It's a term with two meanings: for the locals, Cutters is a self-applied name invested with a blue-collar pride; for the college kids, Cutters is deprecating slang (similar to "townies") that indicates people who aren't elite enough for university life.

This friction comes to a boiling point when Dave meets a college girl named Katherine (Robyn Douglass), who naturally takes him for an Italian exchange student. This being a movie about sports, Katherine of course also has a boyfriend named Rod who's a jock, and who doesn't take kindly to Katherine being wooed. After a skirmish in which Rod and his college buddies beat up Dave's friends, a solution presents itself: the Indiana University Little 500 bike race (a real race, still occurring annually in Bloomington) in which teams of four riders compete.

Rod's fraternity team is the favorite to win the Little 500, but the Cutters have a plan: Dave will just ride the entire race, never resting, and beating everyone. Things get a little more complicated than that – Dave falls, and each of the other three have to take a turn on the bike until he can recover – but in the end the Cutters win. Dave loses Katherine when she finds out that he's been lying to her, but he also realizes that going to college is something he can do. When he enrolls in the closing scene, he meets a beautiful French exchange student. Which is perfect, Dave decides, because the French are the greatest bike racers in the world…

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With its feel-good tone and underdog politics, Breaking Away is a openly sentimental film. But, to put my cards on the table, I think it's one of the best examples of a Hollywood film engaging in a sentimentality that elevates rather than superficializes, and that sees emotion as the deeply complicated engine of human life rather than as a handy tool to manipulate the audience. What fascinates me about the film are the reasons for this, because I think they shed some light on the way movies in Hollywood succeed and fail in general.

The thing that raises and purifies the sentimentality in the film is, I think, very simple: it has a deep understanding of emotional life itself. Perhaps the best example of this – and maybe the highlight of the entire film – is Dave's family unit.

His father Ray is grumpy, middle-aged, and almost constitutionally unable to admit how deeply he loves his son, although this is clear to everyone around him. (Doolie steals every scene he's in, and in many ways his performance is the centerpiece of the film.) The relationship between Ray and his wife Evelyn is tremendously well observed. She matches his bluster with a dry humor that reveals both love and perseverance (Barrie was nominated for an Oscar for the performance). When she delivers a line like "The only reason I'm giving you these French fries is because you promised to calm down. Don't expect to get them again," we see, in her playful command over the situation, much of their relationship laid bare. He lives with a middle-aged frustration, and she puts up with it because she understands its source, while also maintaining her position as the center of the family.

Ray's frustration, it turns out, comes from the same place as that of Dave and his friends. He was once a stonecutter, but an economic slowdown pushed him out of the industry and into the business of selling used cars. He explains to Dave at one point that he helped cut most of the stone that makes up the buildings of the University, which in turn then slowly but surely made him and the other locals feel as though they weren't good enough for its august halls. His obstreperousness comes from dreams faded away to almost nothing, and his anxiety over his son's transformation into an opera singing, leg shaving Italiano arises directly from his worry that Dave will suffer the same fate he did.

Sentimental, yes. It’s an exploration of what gets termed by the rationalists "economic dislocation" from a point of view of the emotional life of someone who has gone through it, but does not have the emotional equipment to always explain to those around him what he's feeling. And it does have a happy ending, in that Dave moves forward – on to university life – in a way not afforded to his father. But what elevates it are the specific details of character and relationship, the way in which the story builds familial dynamics with such detail and accuracy that it allows us insight into their actual human existence, rather than simply using their story to make us (or force us) to feel something.

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This insight is mirrored in the class politics of the film, which are not built out of argument or rationality. It's true the film reduces the college kids to stock characters…but anyone who grew up in a college town (or a tourist town, as I did) knows that that reduction is an unavoidable reaction to the way the interlopers in those towns treat the locals as little more than faceless hired help. More interesting is Breaking Away's understanding of the lived side of class, the way that the vagaries of history become internalized.

The use of "Cutters" is pivotal here. Dave and his friends call themselves Cutters, but Ray reminds Dave at one point that he and his friends aren't Cutters at all: they've never worked in that industry. It was Ray and his friends – who are now Dave's friends' parents – who were actually Cutters, who actually worked in the quarries and cut the stone. What Dave and his friends have done instead is repurpose an insult, taking the word the snotty college kids use for them and turning it into a token of pride.

Again, the psychology is closely observed. What's at stake is the way historical events do not just shape our lives, but shape our psyches as well. The economic forces that control theses people – the rise of the stone industry, the creation of the university campus, the decline that forced Ray into another line of work – have also determined the very way that they think of themselves, and what they call themselves. This has created an anxiety the locals live with daily, and which is personified by the college kids. As with the family dynamics, the precision with which this is rendered moves the film away from being any kind of class-based broadside and into being a meditation on what it feels like to live with these kinds of pressures.

All of this shapes the film's notion of what it means to "come of age" as well. Despite the victorious ending – the Cutters team winning the race, and Dave ending up the University himself – the movie is clear-eyed about what adulthood consists of. Moocher and his new wife will not triumph in the way Dave has: her ambition, she tells him, is to get promoted to head cashier at the store in which she works. Cyril does poorly when he takes the college entrance exam, and we're given no indication that Mike's frustrations will be overcome. The examples for what they will become are those of their parents; like Ray, they will be saddled with the burden of being born at a certain place and time, in which history has preordained a certain possible range of outcomes. The "breaking away" of the title is possible for Dave, but not for them.

Put differently, the victory Dave has won at the end of Breaking Away is a contextual one. We are given no indication that it is a repudiation of the larger forces around him, nor that those forces – the unfairness the fact that some kids can can afford college and some can't, some kids are born small like Moocher, or weird like Cyril – will ever be shaped any differently. The Cutters are still Cutters, for better and for worse. But what we've been given is an opportunity to elevate our own feelings and understanding through the experience of someone who has triumphed.

It is a sentimentality of the specific, the closely-observed, the internally human. It is a sentimentality that allows insight into emotion, allows us to understand something about our own condition, and that of our fellow citizens, which might have been obscure to us before. Molto bello, one might say.

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