Following a miraculous recovery from incapacitating depression in the spring of 1979, there came along a deeply moving, humorous, and all-too-human movie about friendship, family and growing up that more deeply and passionately lifted my spirits than anything else, before or since, as I emerged into the light of day after so long in darkness.
Forty-four years later I still think about that movie and its impact on me. It’s difficult to explain to others who may have enjoyed it, but not anywhere near the extent I did. That’s okay. It’s not puzzling because, as with so many films that endure in memory, the context is all-important. For me, that context of time and place was everything. A single film gave me ecstatic hope after the darkest of times.
Simply put, the movie symbolized innocence lost, and later, newfound wisdom that arose out of that loss. The plot centered around a bicycle race that profoundly affected the lives of four best friends on the cusp of adulthood, but the race was only a clever device. It allowed this deeply-moving and utterly real movie to tell its story and flesh out the main characters and their roles.
It centers around the main character, Dave Stohler, played by Dennis Christopher, and his Mom and Dad in Bloomington, Indiana, home of Indiana University. Dave is ultimately reconciled with his father, played to perfection by Paul Dooley, who could not understand or comprehend his son. A stonemasaon who was laid off from his job, Dave’s father is gruff and stern and unreasonable, but you can’t help love him with all his flaws. Dave’s mother is everyone’s idea of the perfect mother, in the best sense of the word. Barbara Barrie was memorable in that role. In fact, the entire cast was perfect.
The camera lovingly captured the rural Indiana countryside that I discovered for myself several years later during a road trip across the country. Sugar Creek, covered bridges, the town of Crawfordsville and Wabash College — I recall it all now as I write. It is beautiful, rolling countryside, containing scenes and places you imagine in rare dreams of happiness and contentment. I suppose in a jaded world, rural Indiana is a refuge, the kind of place I’d want to return to again and again if I could.
From a journal entry I wrote in 2003:
“…I left New Orleans to return to South Carolina in the summer of 1979, nervous but full of hope for new beginnings. After all, I was only 28. I still had my life to live after the long winter just past.
It is truly remarkable, how, when you have the gift of appreciating life restored to you, you become so profoundly grateful that you embrace life and love people as if you had forgotten how to do any of that. I got a new job, amazingly after only a couple of months looking and through the recommendation of my inspiring former employer, and I found a place to live with woods to gaze out on, full of tall hickory trees that turned gold-orange that fall.
And in October of that year, I traveled by train to Washington, D.C. to visit my sister, and I was overcome with emotion at how large and grand and beautiful the world seemed: brilliantly colorful autumn leaves in surrounding Virginia and in the city; the Great Falls of the Potomac; Dumbarton Oaks Garden; and a huge exhibit of works by my favorite artist, the 19th century French painter and caricaturist, Honore Daumier, at the National Gallery of Art. I was so flooded with emotions, and the contrast with life only months earlier was so stark, that I wandered around in kind of cautiously ecstatic daze. I felt the proverbial urge to pinch myself — was this really happening? I wanted to see and do everything that was humanly possible to squeeze into the waking hours of a day.
But when I returned to Columbia in the early part of November, something else happened that set my spirits soaring, and it was something as simple and un-profound as a sleeper movie with a seemingly pedestrian plot that just spun me around with its riveting grasp of life in a college town. Life is strange that way sometimes.
No mere film or movie has even touched the impact “Breaking Away” had on me that fall, before or since.
Many agree that it is a good, even excellent movie, but people have been curious and baffled that it could exert such an influence on me. The answer is unexplainable, really, because it has to do with recovery from depression, and only those who have been into that world of “darkness visible,” as the novelist William Styron described his own descent, can fully appreciate what a movie like “Breaking Away” meant to me and symbolized.
Many years ago I tried to explain what it was all about to a friend who was puzzled by my enthusiasm. “It was a very nice movie and all,” he said, “but I don’t understand the attraction it had for you.”
Here is part of what I wrote in reply:
“I’m glad you got to see the movie. The question you raised is entirely understandable, because the movie, while quite good, is seemingly not the type of subject that inspires great cinematic art.
I saw that movie in the fall of 1979 after I had re-established myself in Columbia following that period of depression I mentioned. I was so happy to be alive and free of those heavy chains, that every ordinary event seemeed suffused in golden light for awhile. This lasted for some months, through the end of 1979 and into 1980. I’d sit transfixed listening to old songs I’d always liked from the radio. It was like I was hearing them for the first time. I was reaching out and responding to people as never before, or so it seemed. I plunged into photography with a new passion, and got re-acquainted with old friends, some of whom I thought perhaps I’d lost, or else wondered if they had given up on me.
“Breaking Away,” with its jubilant ending, symbolized my recovery from illness. It represented hope, youth, and the future. It is not the simple story and plot it seems at first glance. It takes you immediately into the life of the main character who is taking on the personna of an Italian exchange student, and it keeps getting more involved until the events later in the movie change everything. You see Dave reconciled with his father, and, as I wrote you earlier, I sought some kind of reconciliaton with my own father, with whom I had a lifetime tumultuous relationship, before he died.
“In the movie, there was something about the character Dave, that spoke to me very directly. It was his facial expressions, his sensitivity, his innocence, I guess. It all made me think, what if I had had a friend like that in high school? What adventures we might have had since I didn’t have any real, close friends at that age. I thought, perhaps, I was like that intellectual side of Dave, the one who’s going to go to college, going to see the larger world beyond the rock quarries. I imagined a friendship with someone like him would have grown and become very strong. At least that’s what I imagined.
“All the characters in the movie created a very real world for me…it was a world that was alive with Dave’s enthusiasm, his naive hope in the goodness of others and fairness of life, but at the same time, it was sad in that the four friends would be leaving each other and growing apart. They were all very different from each other, but they were best friends. They had each other.”
Trailer with some of the best scenes from the movie:
“Breaking Away” from Wikipedia