Theirs is a passive outlook, young men products of a culture that for too many generations has grown to depend on a corporate entity, mistaking the mill for a permanent, nurturing cultural institution. Their learned helplessness is systemic. Lacking education and the skills that come with it, they have few ways to solve their complex social and economic problems, and they have become indignant because the problems have not been solved for them. Unlike Masi, they are not able to break away and take control of their lives.
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Dave Stohler’s parents, friends, and neighbors in the college town of Bloomington, Indiana, don’t know what to make of him when not long after graduating high school he develops a passion for all things Italian. This passion, which transforms into an obsession, causes Dave (played by Dennis Christopher) to adopt a fake Italian accent and speak in pidgin English, reversing, in an endearing yet bizarre manner, native and foreign languages. He greets his mother and father in the morning with a cheerful “buon giorno.” He plasters his bedroom walls with posters and maps of Rome, Venice, and Florence, surrounding himself with images of Italy. What provokes Dave’s odd change in behavior? Why did he feel the need to assume this unlikely identity?
Because Breaking Away begins in media res, no explanation is provided, though it is not a stretch to assume Dave feels insecure about his future. Peter Yates’s coming-of-age film, built upon Steve Tesich’s Oscar-winning screenplay, depicts a side of small-town, blue-collar America that went unacknowledged for decades, and in doing so anticipated many of the simmering tensions that have boiled over to create our present divisive political and social climate. The film resonates, 40 years after its making, as America, and by extension the world, is forced to reckon with the stifled, frustrated side of our country that Dave, his family, and friends inhabit. Indeed, revisiting the film causes us to familiarize ourselves with the vulnerabilities that have transformed Rust Belt ennui and anger into a force with much political power and social agency.
Dave’s preoccupation with Italy and his subsequent appropriation of a new cultural model commenced after he received an Italian-made Masi bicycle as a prize after winning a race. Perhaps the bicycle triggered something in Dave’s imagination, conferred upon him a sense of relevance, emotions he needed in order to fill the void caused by his lack of direction. With little to look forward to – he did not apply to college and has no prospects for a job – Dave’s first-place performance and the prize bicycle gave him a sense of self-worth. To cope with a deficit of the self, he looks elsewhere for fulfillment, beyond the confines of small-town life, to understand who he is, and his obsessive fascination with Italy implies his own culture cannot provide him with what he desperately needs.
Unlike the generations before him, Dave has no clear path to the middle class. His father, Ray (played by Paul Dooley) – health too poor to do the physical work of a limestone cutter, a job he once took pride in and loved – sells used cars, an occupation he himself finds shameful but also necessary, given that he, like his son, has virtually no career options. Ray believes he has been forced, due to his economic situation, to compromise his ethics, and though an essentially good man, he willingly sells lemons to college students, lies, and does not honor his warranties. Ray tolerates his guilty conscience because he, like the other Bloomington locals, resents the college students’ privilege and prospects for greater social and economic mobility. Dave’s father does not serve as a positive role model until much later in the film, after he experiences his own personal epiphany.
Dave’s eccentric behavior stems from a perceived lack of choice. His quirky Italian affect, at first comical, is displayed in the opening scene, as he pedals through his working-class neighborhood singing an aria by Enrico Giomondi. An elderly woman sitting on her porch comments, “He was as normal as pumpkin pie, but now look at him,” and his concerned, unsympathetic father in a similar vein complains to his wife, Evelyn (played by Barbara Barrie), “Look at what’s happening to him. He’s turning into an I-talian!” Dave’s friends – Mike (Dennis Quaid), a former high school quarterback already regretting the loss of his glory days, Cyril (Daniel Stern), a gangly has-been basketball player, and Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley), a sensitive but tough misfit often bullied for being short – seem to accept Dave’s eccentricities, even when they discover he is planning – as the Italian cyclists he idolizes do – to shave his legs, something the conservative friends find incomprehensible.
Indeed, Dave attempts to become a completely different person. He literally begins to identify as an Italian, or, rather, what he wants to believe an Italian is. Beneath the eccentricities (Dave becomes a sort of small-town Don Quixote), he reveals something deeply felt by all the characters in the film, the vulnerability of his working-class American identity, the dissolution of its promise to provide a stable and comfortable life, and the romanticizing of a mythical “good old days.” Interestingly, through contrast and hyperbole, and as a form of satire, Yates has Dave look back not at the supposed glory days of America, but toward older Italian cultural values and achievements. Dave buys into the stereotypical ideas of Italian culture: flamboyance, passionate speech with emotive hand gestures, a love of opera and art, a stable, healthy world ordered by long-standing traditions, the primacy of the family and the power of emotion, all qualities that have died in his town. In Dave’s Bloomington, the university seems the stable force, but for the blue-collar townspeople, this is not the case. Their stability was founded upon the quarry mill, not the university – the mill part of a corporate entity never intended to serve as a permanent civic provider, yet seemed to evolve into one over the course of three or four generations. Dave’s attraction to Italian culture, or at least the culture he constructs in his imagination, reveals what he feels is lacking in his own community, for we can infer that if his needs were being met he would have no cause to look elsewhere to fulfill them.
Dave finds himself, in short, in the midst of an identity crisis that is both personal and cultural, and though he has never been to Italy and knows no Italians firsthand, he immerses himself into what he believes Italian culture is. What other options does he have? He cannot be a limestone cutter because the jobs have disappeared. He has, in fact, been cut off from the blue-collar identity he was taught to believe is a birthright. But, as an alternative solution, he cannot become a university student, either, as he has inherited the working-class aversion (in the film it is depicted as a fear) to higher education. Fantasies of being Italian prop him up, a stop-gap measure constructed out of delusions built on pipe dreams and fragments. His fantasy replaces a culture that vanished before he could ever experience it, but in the process he develops a nostalgia for something that, at least in his lifetime, never existed. Both the nostalgia for an imaginary past and his Italian fantasy are indicative of his sense of cultural instability. The same nostalgic fantasy seems to have arisen in the current iteration of America, the slogan “Make America Great Again” implying that during some undefined time period in the past, life was far better than it is now. Ultimately, Dave’s neurotic behavior represents an anxious search for meaning and community consciousness, and he seems, like the group of people he is to represent, to possess contradictory qualities. On the one hand he is incredibly vulnerable; on the other he was raised to be determined and strong. Part of his frustration is that aside from cycling he has no legitimate way to express his strength. So, too, the film suggests, with Americans living in what is referred to now as the Rust Belt. What are these people capable of doing if there is nothing for them to do?
One answer to that question is Dave, and, if viewed as an allegorical figure, he leads to another, more important question. What exactly is lacking in his own heartland culture that makes him reject it and seek (or, rather, invent for himself) his Italian identity? Some clues are provided in the dual populations of Bloomington, which is comprised of Indiana University students, professors, and administrators, and the local townspeople referred to alternately as “townies” or “cutters,” the later existing as the locals’ most important signifier. The term “cutter” is used as a derogatory term by the college students who look down on them, but it is also used as a term of pride and self-identification by Dave and his friends. (The word “nigger” is used in a similar way by racist whites as well as black people these days.) We learn that though still in operation, but on a much reduced scale, the local quarry provided the building material used to construct the university, and it served as the main provider of jobs for the majority of the local townspeople, Dave’s father being one of them until he had to change occupations due to a heart condition. Because the mill operations have been drastically scaled back over the years, Dave and his friends are cutters only in name. To Mike, a former high school football star, the term cutter is a painful word to hear – an insult hurled at him by fraternity boys when he cruises town in his partially restored hotrod (the motif of incompleteness permeates the film) – because unlike his father and his grandfather before him, Mike has been denied the opportunity of being what he feels he was born to be. The friends like to swim in a defunct quarry that has filled up with water and serves as their local swimming hole – bathing in the emptiness of what is to them a symbol of a broken promise. Dysfunctionally, they become angry when college students discover the place and swim there, too. Full of a proud self-pity, they want the sense of failure all for themselves. Mike even loses in a swimming race with a fraternity boy, and he cuts his head badly on a rock, embarrassing him because he does not appear to know what he is doing, even in his own territory.
Indeed, gainful employment (intrinsically linked to cultural stability) and identity are entwined in Breaking Away. Mike, the leader of the foursome, insists the friends stick together, work together at the same job, which is now an impossibility, and agree that if they all can’t work at the same place they simply won’t work at all. They are wedded to the belief that this is how life should be in a world that is right – the working life their fathers and grandfathers had at the quarry mill – but the problem is the factories and mills that provided a framework for community and a culture of brotherhood no longer exists. Inflexible, or simply not knowing how to adapt or change (which makes sense, since the young men had no one to model such flexibility for them), the friends hang out, unemployed and broke, and as such they serve as the allegory for displaced, white, angry, blue collar youth. Their defiant refusal to change – to demand the world return to how they believe it once was – unifies them. They stubbornly refuse to understand the realities of the present, and so fester in their indolence, nostalgic for the youthful innocence they are in the process of losing, unable to make something of themselves. Mike especially resents the university students who Cyril says “have it made,” though his resentment blocks him from understanding the hard work and study that gave them the opportunity to go to college, as well as the opportunities that await the college students after they leave “B-town.” Mike copes with his lack of agency by becoming an angry young man. He cruises campus in his beat-up Chevelle, tries to pick fights.
Dave’s flights of fantasy deepen as he becomes unable to cope with his lack of direction, but unlike Mike, he is too sensitive to live in a state of prolonged, self-consuming anger. He intuitively understands that his blue collar identity was dependent on the mill rather than anything deep and lasting. Consequently, he comes to realize he does not live within a framework that’s able to support him as he tries to transition from adolescence into adulthood.
The Masi bicycle he wins – handcrafted by Faliero Masi in Milan – reveals an alternative. The faceless corporate entity that downsized and reduced production, leaving the Bloomington working class in a state of economic paralysis, is replaced in Dave’s mind with a vision of an independent, hardworking craftsman who achieves independence through personal initiative. The quarry workers took rock from the Earth, a reductive act; Masi, a start-up small-business man, constructed his own bicycles, a process of increase, a building up. The cutters feel the corporation owes them something more than a paycheck. They demand it become, like a cultural institution, something that permanently supports a way of life. Masi, in contrast, took control of his own destiny.
The tensions between the two worlds Dave inhabits create a crisis within. He studies Italian using language tapes, though he has no one to speak Italian with. He renames Jake, his cat, Filipe. Then his neurotic behavior spikes after two incidents occur. While bicycling across the university campus, Dave sees a student named Katherine (played by Robyn Douglas) drop a red notebook before she hops on a Vespa, the iconic Italian motor scooter, and speeds away. Dave’s fantasy and his reality converge in that moment, and he races on his bicycle after her. In an act of chivalry, he returns the notebook to her. As he hands it to her, he speaks in his fake Italian accent, and she asks him if he is an exchange student. Lying, Dave says, “Si, I am Italian. My name is Enrico Giomondi,” and in doing so takes his fantasy to a new level, tries to impress Katherine, whom he calls Katerina. Dave also discovers that the Italian cycling team, Team Cinzano, is coming to race in Indianapolis, which inspires him to train even harder and qualify. He has temporarily found a purpose in life – a woman to woo and a competition in which he can compete with his Italian cycling heroes. He not only wants to meet the cyclists, but it becomes clear he wants to impress them. Though the ultimate goal is not defined, it is not a stretch to believe Dave hopes the Italians, impressed with his abilities, will invite him to join them.
As Dave’s fantasy deepens, and as he falls in love for the first time, he is filled with joy, which becomes contagious. Like Don Quixote, his behavior, a sort of benign insanity, amuses the people he encounters, and though people think Dave has lost his mind, he causes them to rethink how they view their own lives and place in the world. Dave becomes a force of agency and inspiration. In fact, his mother joins in, learning the words to the Italian opera Dave repeatedly plays on the stereo and which she sings while waxing the floor, and she also begins to cook Italian food, like sautéed zucchini, a trend her husband pounces on. Ray insists, in a comic moment, “Give me American food; give me French fries!” It seems Evelyn, also plagued by a feeling of small-town ennui, finds something meaningful in Dave’s fantasy. She knows she set her dreams aside long ago, but still yearns for fulfillment. She carries a passport she has never used in her purse wherever she goes, certainly an allusion to the Joyce character in his Dubliners story “Evelyn” who dreams of running away to Buenos Aires with her boyfriend Frank, but at the last moment gets cold feet and refuses to go. In one scene Dave’s mother can be seen reading the lurid novel Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann – quite the contrast to Evelyn’s sedate life in Bloomington.
Dave also inspires his friend Cyril to learn how to play the guitar his dad gave him “knowing,” as Cyril bemoaned, “I would fail.” This is a small-town America that has come to find comfort in the expectation of failure, in its insistence that there is no opportunity, despite the fact the university, and the educational opportunities it presents, stands before them – is, in fact, something their fathers and grandfathers helped build. The film implies the cultural divide runs deep, is systemic.
For the time being, though, Dave’s mental and emotional survival depend on his Italian fantasy. With Cyril on guitar, Dave serenades Katherine at her sorority house and woos her. They take a night walk together, and he wins his first kiss. One of the sorority girls, though, recognizes Dave’s transgression. Though she does not know Dave is posing as an Italian exchange student, she recognizes he has crossed a cultural boundary. He cannot, according to the unspoken rules, sing a song in a foreign language to an American girl on an American campus. She calls Rob, the fraternity jock who has his eye on Katherine, and he and his fraternity friends chase Cyril and beat him up to avenge the transgression.
Meanwhile, Mike, too, struggles with his identity. He wants to play the role of masculine American male, regain the high social rank being a high school quarterback once conferred upon him, but now that his glory days are over the only role model he has (given his father and all his father’s friends have failed) is the Marlboro Man, the idealized cowboy he sees in cigarette ads in magazines and on billboards. Just as Dave adopts an Italian affect, Mike adopts the role of the tough, independent, rebellious American male, always holding a cigarette in his hand or carrying a pack of cigarettes rolled up in his t-shirt sleeve, but confesses “I can never bring myself to smoke one” and that he still feels compelled to “stay in shape” because in his fantasy (and he admits, unlike Dave, it is only a fantasy) he’ll get the call to play college football. Theirs is a passive outlook, young men products of a culture that for too many generations has grown to depend on a corporate entity, mistaking the mill for a permanent, nurturing cultural institution. Their learned helplessness is systemic. Lacking education and the skills that come with it, they have few ways to solve their complex social and economic problems, and they have become indignant because the problems have not been solved for them. Unlike Masi, they are not able to break away and take control of their lives. Mike waits on a call from a college coach that will never come. The men in town wait for the mill to increase production, though it won’t. Caught in the trauma of an economic sea change, they – reminiscent of the characters in Joyce’s Dubliners, and much like the people in Rust Belt America today – are frustrated and paralyzed. What they expect to happen, what they demand to happen, will never happen. Ironically, the solution, education, stands before them, if they become more flexible and see beyond the confines of their irrational expectations.
Ultimately, though, Dave’s attempt to acquire Italian culture collapses. He takes the day off from work at his father’s used car lot to participate in the 100-mile bicycle race with the Italians, something he trains for with the zeal of Rocky Balboa in Rocky or Maggie Fitzgerald in Million Dollar Baby, and we are to understand, as is always the case in films in this genre, that the underdog has a chance to win. During the race, he eventually makes it to the head of the pack, where the four Italian cyclists pedal in the lead. Dave greets them in Italian, apologizing for the poor weather, “Que humido oggi,” but the Italian cyclists ignore him. In fact, they seem to disdain his effort to speak their language. They come across as arrogant and exclusive, not at all curious about the American beside them. Nevertheless, they allow Dave to take the front position for a while, but only to make their riding easier for themselves in his draft along a deserted country road; and Dave takes pride, even as he is forced to exert the extra effort of riding in the first position, thinking he has been accepted. But as the cyclists approach a small crowd of fans waiting around the bend, one of the Italians reaches over and shifts Dave’s gear into high, thus causing him to break his rhythm, slow down, and fall several yards behind the Italian riders who save face as the fans wave and cheer. Dave’s hero worship persists despite the setback, and he tries to impress the Italian riders a second time, catches up to them, again addressing them in their language. As the race nears its conclusion, it becomes apparent the Italians begin to perceive Dave as a threat to their victory, so one of them rams a thin bicycle tire pump into Dave’s spokes, causing him to crash and lay injured in a ditch, unable to finish the race. One of the Italian riders flips Dave off and mocks him, calling out “bravo” sarcastically as they ride to victory. Just as Dave suffers a massive blow, so too does his father, who is stricken by an apparent heart attack. Both events cause Dave and his father to reevaluate their situations and change their outlooks on life.
Disillusioned by his encounter with the Italians, Dave returns home, tells his parents what he has known all along but has refused to admit, that “everybody cheats.” He drops his fake Italian accent, takes down his posters and maps of Italy. Embarrassed by his charade, he confesses his lies to Katherine, whose heart is broken by the truth. She asks him during the climactic moment of their conversation, “Do you know what you are?” and he responds by saying, “I don’t have a clue.” Then she says, tellingly, “I’ll tell you what you are.…” But, turning away, she doesn’t complete her sentence, as only Dave can do that for himself.
Without his Italian identity (the Italians enforced their cultural territory just as the fraternity and sorority members enforced theirs), Dave is powerless. His father, mostly recovered and a changed man himself, emerges as a guide. He takes Dave to the college campus at night, where they tour the limestone buildings, the stone his father and his friends’ fathers cut. Though Dave’s father “doesn’t feel comfortable here,” he suggests Dave eventually might. Dave, adopting the tone of Mike, says “I don’t want to go to college. I’m proud to be a cutter,” but Dave’s father reminds him that he, himself, is a cutter, but Dave isn’t. In other words, Dave’s father tells his son he cannot claim that identity for himself, and in doing so implies Dave must adapt. Ray acknowledges that Dave does not share the same cultural identity – he’s no more a cutter than he is an Italian – and so he’ll have to create a new identity for himself. During their discussion, Dave admits he took the college exam and “did pretty well,” indicating he, like Masi the entrepreneur, initiated his path to independence.
Meanwhile, the film begins to near its climax. A bike race called the Little 500 sponsored by the University of Indiana is on the horizon. For the first time, the locals will be allowed to participate, in part, the president of the university explains, to make up for the altercation in the bowling alley between Dave’s friends and the fraternity members that took place after Dave serenaded Katherine. The president reminds the fraternity members that “they are just passing through this town” and that after four years “you won’t live here anymore.”
One of the rules of the relay race is that all the riders (Dave forms a team with his friends) use the same model bicycle – an American-made AMF Roadmaster, which Dave refers to (in comparison to his Italian Masi bike) as “a piece of junk.” The film highlights the decline of American craftsmanship that began to take place in the 1970s and criticizes American mass consumption, demonstrating how it has eroded pride as well as quality. Still, Dave brings all his passion and skill into breaking down the secondhand Roadmaster, cleaning it, tuning it up – suggesting that his immersion into his Italian fantasy was not a complete waste. He has acquired, through self-education, an aesthetic appreciation for bicycles as well as the expertise of a skilled bicycle mechanic.
As predicted, against all odds, the underdog Cutter team defeats the heavily favored university teams, and Dave, still recovering from injuries he sustained when racing the Italians, emerges as a local hero. He subsequently enrolls in college, patches up his strained relationship with his father (who takes to riding a bike around town), and makes the first steps toward finding out who he is. Nevertheless, the film suggests such personal discovery might be quite problematic, at least in the insular, divided America Dave inhabits. In the final scene he bumps into a female French exchange student struggling to locate the registrar’s office, and Dave, correcting the syntax of her awkward English, offers to take her there. Riding their bicycles Dave says, perhaps in yet another opportunistic white lie, “I was thinking about taking French, but it’s only my first year,” and as they pass Dave’s father by chance, Dave shouts out in French, “Bon jour, Papa!” causing the father, in a moment of comic disbelief, to do a double take, perhaps thinking “Oh, no! It’s happening again!”
And indeed it is, but this time Dave is not alone, locked in his own head with his Italian fantasy. Instead, he has connected with a real person. Dave has exchanged Italian for French, but he still feels attracted to the possibilities of a richer, deeper, more satisfying cultural identity. What choice does he have if his perception of American culture doesn’t provide him with the sense of connection he needs to feel whole?
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Unless otherwise indicated, all images are screenshots from the DVD.