Diner: American Nostalgia and the 1950s

Will Carroll /
Jan 26, 2017 / Film & TV

Few are the institutions more quintessentially American than the roadside diner, a hallmark of film and television for the last century that shows no signs of shutting up shop.

Happy Days kept its squeaky clean microcosmic America safe and warm in its iconic diner setting, Edward Hopper painted lonely, haunted diners after hours, and in 1982 Barry Levinson made the timeless American eatery his symbol of coming-of-age at the end of the 50s.

Following the lives of Eddie, “Shrevie”, “Boogie” and “Fen”, Diner presents through its main circle of twenty-something friends, reunited for a wedding, a postcard-perfect imagining of camaraderie and friendship. Levinson’s screenplay encouraged improvisation and adlibbing throughout filming, and the actors all hung out together prior to filming to further their perceived life-long friendships. Diner demands the audience to map their own past and present friendships onto the young Baltimore quintet, seeing our own sarcastic quips, pranks and petty arguments in each letter of Levinson’s still-perfect screenplay.

These friendships are the most poignant vehicles for the film’s message of growing up and moving on from the small-town ties of college, family and part-time jobs. Mickey Rourke’s endearing yet reckless turn as ‘Robert “Boogie” Sheftell is the maverick friend we’ve all had at some point, and his womanising and gambling vices mark someone who’s still really a kid at heart, immature and lost. Kevin Bacon’s turn as the disillusioned Timothy “Fen” Fenwick speaks back to James Dean’s red-jacket icon Jim Stark, a kid caught in the limbo of wanting to be young forever but to also be accepted as some who’s made it, who’s made a name for themselves and can give up their old hometown guilt-free.

The Fells Point Diner is the film’s locus, at the heart of the film’s cinematography and atmosphere. Even on the movie poster, its single image cleverly morphs into the table the main characters are seated at in the final shot of the film. Growing up in the 50s, in a close-knit town where the doors are always open and, to quote a not entirely dissimilar show, ‘everybody knows your name’, hangouts like the Fells Point Diner speak for a lot more than coffee and gravy-soaked French fries (a recurring appetizer in the film). It’s a place of safety and disconnection from a colder world beyond; it’s introduction to us is on Christmas night, and the diner is bustling with customers all laughing and sharing stories. The camera takes this all in, all of society connected and communing in the Diner’s tiny four walls, before panning to the film’s central group. Peter Sova’s cinematography in this film is all about framing the lives of those beyond the group, not just their own bildungsroman narratives. Diner may as well have the entire population of Mid-Atlantic America on its poster and not just the five main characters.

Such believable characters are built on little quirks that are only a stones throw from our own odd idiosyncrasies, and it is these charming qualities that bring the Diner and its denizens to life. Daniel Stern’s clean-cut Laurence “Schrevie” Schreiber and his obsessive vinyl collection cataloguing mask the obvious marriage difficulties he shares with his wife Beth (Ellen Barkin), yet when he is with friends his memorised trivia becomes a self-validating escape from the pressures of growing up. His worries are our worries, and the concerns over the trivial and mundane shared by Eddie and his group are down-to-earth, and so very real.

Above all else, where Diner succeeds is its subtle tapping into our endless craving for nostalgia. Seeing the twilight of a quiet American town being held at bay by the neon forecourt of the Fells Point Diner for the first time is magical. For a moment we leave behind our own anxieties shared by Eddie, and Schrevie, by all of them, and we take a seat in the booth next to them. We order a coffee, maybe even a plate of gravy and fries, and we listen.

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Words by Will Carroll

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