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Passions in Motion: A Philosophical Exploration of 'Saturday Night Fever'

By MatTehCat | MatTehCat's Blogs | 22 Jun 2023


"Our passions are the true phoenixes; when the old one is burnt out, a new one rises from its ashes." - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

 

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The 1977 classic dance drama "Saturday Night Fever" is probably not regarded as a profoundly or philosophically complex film by many of its viewers. In fact, I would argue that many viewers misunderstood the film's message. Nevertheless, the story of Tony Manero, a nineteen-year-old Italian-American living in Brooklyn, possesses spiritual complexity. Directed by John Badham and written by Norman Wexler, based on the writings of Niki Cohn, the film captivated audiences in the late '70s for a good reason. Today, I will explore some of the hermetic or alchemical themes in "Saturday Night Fever," based on Julius Evola's work, to demonstrate that the film is deeper than it initially appears.

 

 

The title of the film, "Saturday Night Fever," may initially appear straightforward, but it encompasses far more complex themes. Let's delve into it. First, "Saturday" is commonly associated with a day of rest, but it also derives its name from the Roman god Saturn. In alchemical symbolism, Saturn represents bone, limestone, the father of time, and congealed mercury. The term combines "Sat" and "Uranus," the latter being a primordial representation of the sky and heavens or even the Cosmos. Together, they signify the completion of the heavens or sky. Secondly, "Night" is typically associated with darkness, ignorance, sleep, and demonic and violent forces. When combined with the subject, the word "night" provides a clearer insight into the film's purpose: it represents a cosmology of darkness and ignorance, an encapsulation of dark elements, or the congealing of ignorant aspects. Finally, we have the word "Fever." It can denote heat, warmth, burning, and nervous excitement. Thus, "Fever" represents emotional passion, which the film possesses in abundance. In summary, the title "Saturday Night Fever" encapsulates the cosmogonic structure of the period between the completion of heaven and its rebirth or palingenesis through fervent or passionate excitement. This description aptly reflects the film's narrative structure.

 

 

Next, we have the character portrayed by John Travolta: Tony Moreno. Tony embodies the ideal man: he's desired by all the ladies, making progress in his career, holds a steady job, is capable of commanding men, navigating a dynamic and chaotic environment, and is smarter than he appears. Our first introduction to Tony is a rhythmic walk down the street to the Bee Gees' song "Stayin' Alive" while carrying a paint can in his right hand. The paint's color: gold. Tony holds the power to create and attain gold, i.e., to reach for the stars and become an ideal man in a world of dissolution, chaos, and disorder (Evola, pp. 64-65). Tony's signature drink Seven-and-Seven helps the viewer to understand his character further. This drink's significance lies in its association with the seven celestial bodies or deities. By partaking in the underworld's seven bodies and the celestial heavens' seven bodies, Tony symbolizes his desire to be tested and ascend to a higher, more complete state (Evola, pp. 52-55). His romantic involvement with Steffanie also reflects this upward inclination. Initially dressed in white attire, Steffanie represents Tony's aspiration for refinement through feminine influences. Through his complicated relationship with Steff, Tony undergoes personal growth. With respect to the posters on his walls, Tony seeks a stable identity and resembles a seedling yearning for rebirth and expansion. Ultimately, he achieves this by challenging himself, confronting the feminine, and ironically, allowing it to define and restrict him, becoming his metaphorical prison (Evola, pp. 71-78).

 

 

Bobby C, an easily overlooked character, serves as Tony’s foil. Bobby is going through a challenging time in his life. Like Tony, he wastes his Saturday nights with his friends at the 2001 Odyssey. However, unlike Tony, Bobby has impregnated a young girl whose religious convictions prevent her from aborting the child. In a scene between Bobby and Tony’s brother, Frank Jr., Bobby reflects upon the film’s audience the reality of the world Tony et al. inhabit. Their world is chaotic, filled with unexpected occurrences, and a realm for souls unwilling to mature and grow, enraptured by their passions. As the film climaxes, Bobby’s character reaches a somewhat expected conclusion. He descends into a literal abyss after the night's passions overcome him. Bobby lets his desires possess him, which results in his dissolution into the Chthonic or feminine abyss.

 

 

Tony, on the other hand, avoids such a fate. He is perpetually unsatisfied, constantly seeking a better high. One prime example is his obsession with dancing. Tony aspires to be the best dancer, not just in his community but in the entire world, as evidenced by the conclusion of the dance competition. In doing so, he distances himself from the entrapments of the world he inhabits. The first indication of this is his pursuit of Stephanie, who symbolizes his longing for refinement, as mentioned earlier. Furthermore, this quality becomes apparent when he is juxtaposed with his father, who embodies Saturn's congealed, rigid, and decaying aspects. Tony's father is stagnant, unemployed, and stuck in one place. In contrast, Tony is active, works hard, and strives to improve himself. Whether consciously or not, Tony sees his father as a model to avoid. Another instance of Tony turning away from all-consuming passions, like those that ensnare Bobby, is his relationship with Annette. Annette is obsessed with Tony, but he merely desires a casual encounter at best. When Stephanie fails to show up to dance with Tony one Saturday at the club, he seeks solace in Annette's embrace. However, upon realizing that she lacks contraceptives, he refrains from further involvement with her. Unlike Bobby, Tony refrains from purely emotional or sentimental impulses. He avoids an unwanted pregnancy and imprisonment in the fiery and hellish world surrounding him. Lastly, Tony's actions in the dance competition exemplify his refusal to accept fake or counterfeit success. He wants the genuine article. Feeling like he unfairly won against the Puerto Rican couple, he relinquishes the first-place prize money and trophy to them. Once again, Tony consistently rejects elements of the world that would lead to his destruction, captivity, and enslavement through their illusory nature. While this resistance creates tension between him and Stephanie, catalyzes the film's climax – his rejection of his hedonistic lifestyle, his "friends," and his transition into a higher realm with Stephanie's assistance. By turning away from the passions of Saturn's night, he unifies with the refined feminine presence within and reflected by Stephanie. Additionally, their white attire, the open window behind them, and the cold light of morning confirm his transformation into a purer form, emerging from the darkness enveloping him. Like a true hero, Tony Moreno descends into hell to be reborn.

 

 

Tony also seeks comfort and a home in the feminine, representing the earthly realm. Like a seedling, Tony requires a nurturing environment to grow and develop (Evola, pp. 84-85). He primarily finds this at home with his parents and in the embrace of women like Stephanie. After an argument with his mother regarding her and his father's treatment of Frank Jr., Tony embraces her, signifying his emotional growth. While he is justified in supporting his brother's decision to live on his terms rather than conforming to his parents' expectations, Tony realizes he's hurt his mother by rebuking her. This embrace illustrates his emotional development. This motif is also present in his relationship with Annette, who helps him gain a more mature understanding of sexual relationships, further contrasting him to Bobby. We also observe this tendency in his relationship with Stephanie. Stephanie represents the earthly realm that restricts Tony – she embodies both water and earth. During their first date, she consistently attempts to belittle him by name-dropping celebrities and elites and showcasing her superior education. Her derision emphasizes the divide between their worlds and highlights Tony's lack of readiness to grow within her sphere; it also limits Tony's fiery spirit. However, Tony's persistent determination allows him to evolve as an individual instead of succumbing to Stephanie's derision, enabling him to find solace in her embrace. Their unification symbolizes that he has shed and dissolved the inhibiting aspects of himself and is ready to blossom anew. The fusion of Stephanie (earth and water) and Tony (fire and air) creates a cross-shaped window leading to a new world. Here, Tony's rose can fully bloom.

 

 

By the film's end, we see a remarkable image of a man propelled by his passions, forming a cross encompassing solar and lunar forces (i.e., the ego and intellect). He emerges as a fully developed individual who has traversed the seven celestial realms, culminating in a rebirth on a Sunday. His process of regeneration is now complete. Notably, his passions, rather than his intellectual faculties, acted as the driving force behind his self-development and creation. In the hermetic-alchemical tradition, the passions stimulate the red core (the sulfuric and fiery region, i.e., blood), which breathes life into the white sinews and brain (the lunar domain), merging it with the solar realm or ego. Through harmonious coordination and refinement of his passions, Tony is able to fully blossom once he unites with Stephanie, who represents the more refined and mercurial feminine form. Of note, and the film does little to discourage this interpretation, Tony and Stephanie are represented as opposites. They are like oil and water, respectively. They may be out of sync with one another, but they nourish and grow together. In this dynamic, we witness the fusion of both blood (oil) and water -- the two ends of mercury -- signifying a complete resurrection, a triumph over death (Evola, pp. 86-89).

 

 

Regarding one's moral development, an important lesson to glean from "Saturday Night Fever" is that the intellect and the passions or heart are inseparable. The latter effectively serves the former. In the hermetical-alchemical tradition, the human body, also known as the "stone of Man," reflects both the world and oneself. Concerning the passions (such as amines or peptides) and the heart or blood, they indeed serve the intellect, often referred to as Sophia or the mind. The brain fails to properly function without blood, just as the Moon (representing the intellect) lacks illumination without the heart or the Sun's fiery light. Analogously, without one's spiritual energies, the Sun's light cannot move, the ego lacks motivation and remains dormant, and fire's dynamic flow ceases, impeding the growth and enlightenment of the intellect, preventing it from illuminating the slumbering world within and without. Consequently, the ego fails to realize its state of slumber or ignorance, being captivated by the waters of Lethe. In other words, when an individual confuses the Moon's light, symbolizing the power of intellect, with the Sun's or ego's power or the latent Mercurial energies encompassing them (including creative passions), they fail to develop themselves and produce works that lead to their descent into the abyss of the underworld.

 

 

What's remarkable about the film's reception is that many viewers became enthralled by Tony's lifestyle. However, "Saturday Night Fever" strongly implies that Tony and his friends' lifestyle was negative, destructive, or abyssal. Properly analyzing the film would have led one to avoid replicating Tony et al.'s lifestyle. Unfortunately, it seems that many viewers misinterpreted the film, perhaps getting caught up in its visually stunning scenes, excitement, and captivating soundtrack. In many ways, while Tony's story presages Disco's death, its reception symbolizes an America easily enraptured by pleasure and ecstasy, to its detriment. If America were to descend into an abyss, it would be the direct consequence of a failure to coordinate and channel the immense power of its passions. Alternatively, America could fall through the negligent disregard of those passions altogether.

 

 

Amidst the intoxicating allure of Tony's world, "Saturday Night Fever" reveals the danger of mistaking the seductive facade for truth, beckoning us to awaken from the slumber of unexamined passions, lest we find ourselves descending into a self-created abyss, or worse, relinquishing the transformative potential they hold.

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References: 


Evola, Julius. The Hermetic Tradition: Symbols and Teachings of the Royal Art. Inner Traditions International, 1995.

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MatTehCat
MatTehCat

Writer, Blogger and Vlogger creating stories, rhetorical arguments, and editorials on philosophy, psychology, religion and art.


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