In 1977’s Saturday Night Fever, Tony Manero (as played by a young John Travolta) systematically loses faith in everything that gave his life structure and meaning:
1. Family: They fight and are petty to each other; Tony runs out of the house in disgust.
2. Friends: They’re racist macho jerks. Tony leaves them behind in their car and walks home alone.
3. Personal Integrity: Tony fails to be there for his troubled friend, who later commits de facto suicide by falling off a bridge in front of him.
4. Religion: Tony’s brother quits being a priest, and claims Jesus no longer has any meaning to him.
5. “Manhood”: Macho posturing leads to Tony getting involved in a “revenge” fight against the wrong people & getting his ass kicked.
6. Traditional Working Life: Tony tries to be a good employee at paint store but his boss tells him basically that nice guys finish last; later his dad makes fun of him for not making enough money.
7. Love: Tony finds out his sophisticated older girlfriend is sleeping with her boss in exchange for financial help, and that the “good girl” who had a crush on him had sex with the rest of his friends as “revenge.”
Through all these disillusionments, one thing keeps Tony going: his love of dancing. Regardless of everything else that happens during the course of the film, at least he has this one pure love.
Once he finally wins the dancing contest, he’s still not happy. He gives the prize to the 2nd-place couple and storms out.
Tony and his girlfriend then make out in his car—but he tries to go too far & she smashes him in the nuts and tells him to go to hell.
Now he has nothing: no prize, no woman, no friends, no family, no faith in God, no faith in himself.
He has no sense of personal identity. It’s gone. What does it mean to be a Man? The fuck he knows. What does it mean to be a dancer, a creative person? Is it the stuff in the club, for a cash prize? What does it mean to be a good person? He let his friend die.
Bruised and despondent, Tony goes for a ride on the subway. And this scene is great, because it really gives you the sense that the subway = hell/limbo.
And so Tony—who, at the start of the film was blissfully shoving two slices of pizza simultaneously down his throat, enjoying/never questioning his lifestyle—now has a tremendous existential dilemma. He has to change. There’s nothing left for him.
He has to change!
And that’s…when things get a little weird:
Not quite Joseph Campbell, but that’s all I got.