Friday, April 01, 2011
IN THE LIMO OF FIRE: the Freebase Firebomb Cinema of Jeffrey Squier
When discussing the career and person of an auteur like Jeffrey Squier, one is tempted to use words like: didactic, shrill, and corpulent. However, what do such words mean, in the end? They do little to analyze who he was, and what his pictures stand for: GAS OF AGES (1984), THE UNLEADED (1984), PARENT REPELLENT (1990), and BACKSEAT DIER (1991) are all considered classics of the “burning limo” genre (hereafter referred to by their common parlance as “B-Ellers") even as they confound expectations.
Of course the B-Eller began with 1978’s Clint Eastwood vehicle IN THE LIMO OF FIRE and for many it ended there. As you may recall, Clint played a burned-out limo driver (pun intended), whose plan to torch his limo and collect the insurance goes awry when he inadvertently forgets there is a coked up client in the back, whose own freebasing tools aid in turning what he intends as a small leather seat blackening into a full-on fireball. The second half of the picture becomes a ghost story: the corpulent cokehead's ghost follows the now limo-less and disfigured Clint hither and yon, eventually prefiguring his grisly death at the hands of a burnt-out Sumo wrestler with nothing left to lose who swallows a half a tank of gasoline and enters a sauna without permission.
Influential, reviled, discussed, IN THE LIMO OF FIRE slowly ignited a crude oil wellspring of discussion, beginning on college campuses and gradually leaking out all over the world. Though only a marginal box office success, imitators began to accrue: There was the Italian knock-off contributed by Mario Bava’s distant non-relation, Luigi Bavacelli, who gave us El fuego Limosina (FIRE OF LIMOUSINE) for example in 1979, and LIMO OF ENDURANCE, LIMO OF ENDURANCE 2, and BIG BLACK BORIS AND THE FREEBASE MACHINE in 1980. As none of the three were released with subtitles or even dubbing, or even Italian, the US audiences were confused by these films, and nervous if they saw them at the drive-in, especially if their cars were parked next to a long limousine, as was the style of the time (as in the ill-advised "freebase limo" party tie-ins). But New World Pictures contributions to the budding genre: BURNT LIMO and HOT HOT DRIVER (both 1983) did reasonably well for a flame and limo-hungry public for whom the strange psychological meanings of the tale were only beginning to register on the ride home, as they wondered about their own cigarettes in proximity to the gas tank.
Then Squier came out with his second major offering, AT LAST A LONG LIGHT, in 1986, reigniting the smoldering genre. The film features an emotionally shaky limo driver (Lance Henriksen) being offered a cool thousand dollars if he will escort a very, very hot girl (Lori Candide) across town. The trouble is, this girl is so hot Henriksen needs to flame retard the white leather seats and put non-conductive fibrous casing around the metal door handles and frames; the girl is so hot she must be handled with tongs. Yet even with all these precautions, it seems inevitable that you-know-what is going to happen. All this contributes to the suspense-packed finale as the shaky driver is stalled at intersection after intersection, anxious to reach his client's destination before the inevitable fireball that signals the climax of all these pictures.
Now, while the sociological reading of the B-Eller’s popularity is obvious (privileged freebasers, exploding, signifiers of wealth bursting into cathartic flames, symbolic redistribution and rejuvenation of a depressed culture), Squier’s work defies logic, becoming instead an opening salvo towards a Brechtian deconstruction of the genre's trappings. Suddenly it was all right to play with audience expectations and maybe (heaven forefend!) not even have the limo burn at all. By now the audience expected the limo to burn, the rich cokehead to run around in flames, and the limo driver to drink and nod wearily, generally getting away with nothing but a few third degree burns and a lecture from his dispatcher. Squier changed all that, and what followed was to be considered the classic of the B-Eller oeuvre.
Squier's mid-western coming-of-age drama, GLASS OF AGES (AKA 'WINDSHIELD'), for example, had no mention whatsoever of a limo or flame in its title. In fact, a limo doesn’t even appear until halfway through the film, when the glasscutter’s son takes his near-sighted date to the prom. Yes, the son lights a cigarette as he waits for the date to come down the stairs, but he extinguishes it long before entering the limo and, unlike most limo clients in these films, never once freebases. The few lines of coke he does snort seem like trivial child’s play in comparison to the gaudy, nostril-swelling excess we'd grown used to in the B-Ellers, and since this mild episode is soon over and the focus of the narrative back on the glass-cutting and clock-watching, why even classify it as a burning limo picture? But that was Squier, as we will see in the next work.
PARENT REPELLANT (1990) seems to conjure up images of fiery retribution for freebasing authority figures with its mere title. One hears the name Squier and sees burnt, scarred, limo-riding zombie parents shambling after their terrified progeny with relentless determination. The plucky children and the emotionally vacant limo driver hole themselves up in a deserted bus station while ghost limos circle the parking lot and the hideously burnt father urges, ghost-like, from without: “Come join us, kids, you can sit in the front!” But absolutely none of that happens in PARENT REPELLANT. Instead Squier gives us 90 minutes of shrill guitar tuning, used to drive parents from the room so kids could freebase and explode on their own.
Moving in yet another direction, Squier's UNLEADED stars Winona Judd as a dissolute caviar connoisseur who must adapt to quail eggs when she is unfortunately stranded in a part of rural Wales with no upscale markets. Her limo driver (far from burnt-out and in fact quite randy) tries to order some caviar for his stranded passenger via the internet. Foolishly, Judd’s character gets impatient and attempts to make caviar out of jellied gasoline and freebase cocaine. Strangely enough however, she only explodes near the limo, not inside it. Fans barely noticed the difference.
Literally, Squier was backing away from the smoky, charred remains of the B-Eller, and his next, BACKSEAT DYER would confound BL conventions even further by having the limo driver be both emotionally scarred and played by Meryl Streep Most of the film involves her chauffeuring around various models and acrobats, none of whom even talk dirty, much less freebase. Finally, in a special moment, an actor with a glass pipe enters the limo, but then he pulls out a pouch of tobacco, and proceeds to smoke quite normally, with jaunty music on the soundtrack, indicating Squier is deliberately disrupting narrative expectation ala Godard or Brecht.
In the end however, it may have been too early to be so flippant about meeting the audience's expectations. DIER tanked at the box office, and the Italians and New World/Concord people went off in search of different targets to imitate, namely FRIDAY THE 13th-- instead of freebase and limos, it was axes and hockey masks. For some of us, though, the B-Eller still drives through those lazy midnight stop signs while we smoke at home, but thanks to blu-ray, we can cheer over and over as the fireballs brighten the surrounding shop windows, and the screams of rich cokeheads echo through the ages like a pyromaniac Marxist lullaby. In our economically depressed times, isn't it time to burn them once more?