Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Anti-Authority Nowhere Land: CONVOY (1978)

America needs a hero again, c'mon back Rubber Ducky 10-4 and remember that song "Convoy" by ole Cash McCall. Sure, now that the trucker craze is decades gone and it just sounds like some grizzled old Marlboro man babbling into his receiver while a Curtis Mayfield instrumental plays behind him on the FM dial, but in 1975-6 we had a great big Convoy haulin' ass up the charts until it became the hood ornament on a full-on cross-country trucker fad. It was the kind of thing we all heard on the radio in our parents' car nonstop and either loved or ignored (we didn't really 'hate' things in the 70s). If we ever take moment from the daily din of 'Civil War Mach 2' perhaps we can all, regardless of the color of our state, listen to old McCall warn fellow drivers about the bears, and remember how, a mere 40-ish odd years ago, we all loved the same song, hated the same thing (the highway patrol), dreamt the same dreams, and drank the same beer while watching the same sunset, and then one last thing we did together: we avoided the 1978 movie version of McCall's song, Convoy when it finally came out. Because when a craze dies down in America, we become kind of ashamed and remorseful for letting ourselves get so carried away. We pack it up in a basement-bound box to wait until bored Williamsburg college students unearth it while smoking pot down there when you're at work. The fuzzy dice hood ornament might be too dusty to use, and they don't have a car, but they like the hat, and the PBR belt buckle, and the bandanna. But the CB's busted, I think. Let me go and check....

(comes back ten minutes later:) Well, I don't know where it is, or the fuzzbuster, but if we're ever going to get ourselves together again we need to remember we once had them and not let alarmist hysteric news cycle warmongers and shadowy Russian puppets tear us asunder. The Rooskies and a billionaire Aussie are using our own patriotism, educational system, and freedom of speech against us, c'mon back! We're gonna need to use our CBs and that old trucker code to stop them, as they're listening in on our phones, man. For their handles let's call Putin Big Red and Trump the Orange Capo.

But yeah, c'mon back, good buddy, to the movie CONVOY---get your ears on. For songs could get so big in the 70s they'd make a movie around it. was another big thing in the 70s, movie versions of goddamn songs were commissioned. We loved some songs so much we needed, producers guesses (wrong), to see someone's film version, the novelization not far behind.  But the more we pull a song to us the harder we push it away later, so the movie inevitably bombs and today only a few of us remember they even existed. Take the more northern state-style 'softie' radio obsession that came upon as after McCall's song had died away, Debbie Boone's 1977 hit "You Light Up My Life." Whole families would pull over when "Light" came on the car radio, and cry in unison, mine included, when that damn song came on. A Light up my Life movie was immediately commissioned, producers ill-advisedly presuming America wouldn't be long sick of the emotional hit by the time the film came out later in the year.

We were. And to this day no one has ever seen You Light Up My Life.

But Convoy (1978) had more than a feelin', by which I mean Peckinpah directing, which meant slow-mo bar fights. It came out three years after the song had been forgotten. Emotion didn't enter into it, not the sappy kind anyway, only a comforting feeling of strength and solidarity with the truckers of the open road. It sat in our minds next to Burt Reynolds' middle finger and our ability to get truckers to honk real loud if we turned around and made a 'toot-toot' gesture as we passed them. The real appeal for those of us too young to drive, though, was the novelty of the CB radio and all its crazy code words: You could get on there and play talk radio DJ, and more importantly tip off the reverse going traffic if you spotted a 'bear in the woods' i.e. a speed trap waiting for traffic on the other side. The idea of a kind of anonymous fame (anyone, could be listening in - a kind of early Twitter). Once in awhile we got rides in the older kids' cool Trans-Ams or Firebirds and it hooked us. The automotive store became a kind of secondary Spencer Gifts. We eyed the Playboy bunny mud flaps and bought novelty rearview ornaments to hang over our beds like dreamcatchers. We'd sit in our sixth grade class wearing black driving gloves, just in case. Meanwhile at the movies, the masses clamored in love of the motorized outlaw. Sugarland Express (1974) and Vanishing Point (1971) paved the way for the whole "mass of Americans rallying 'round one outlaw car'" cause thing. By the time Convoy rolled off the line that thing was quite overdone. It rolled alongside High-Ballin' and Every Which Way But Loose, choking on the dust of Smokey, Handle with Care, Breaker Breaker, High-Ballin', White Line Fever... on TV, the genre devolved into Nielsen scavengers like BJ and the Bear, Dukes of Hazzard and TV movies like The Great Smokey Road Block and Flatbed Annie and Sweetie Pie. If your curious, the junkyard in the back of Amazon Prime streaming is laden with them. Most look like shit but some still got the gleam in their grille.

I never really had more than a fleeting yen for the trucker life back, myself, as a grade schooler in the 70s and was horrified by that cropped afro look rocked by Ali McGraw in the Convoy commercials, not that there were many, but they played here and there during Saturday morning cartoons. The trucker craze was ending by then, and so the movie seemed like that straggler who shows up at your party after it's already over and you're in bed, but he's drunk and laughing at his own jokes and brought whiskey so you wake up and entertain him for five minutes, then chase him out warning him not to wake the neighbors but two hours later you wake up again and there he is... on your couch watching Mr. Green Jeans and smoking cigarettes, or worse, arrested out on the front lawn after neighbors had to call the cops. Typical.

Still, Pauline Kael defended it, and 38 odd years later, that was enough:
"Peckinpah uses the big rigs anthropomorphically, and while watching this picture, you recover the feelings you had as a child about the power and size and noise of trucks, and their bright, distinctive colors. Graeme Clifford's editing provides fast, hypnotic rhythms, and sequences with the trucks low in the frame and most of the image given over to skies with brilliant white clouds are poetic gestures, like passages in Dovzhenko. As a horny trucker, Kris Kristofferson lacks the common touch that might have given the movie some centrifugal force, though he's as majestic-looking as the big trucks. 
Hell, forget it. As Kristofferson might say, "Dovzhenko, my ass!" But I am a Pauline Kael disciple and thanks her odd associations and my man crush on Kristofferson, for better or worse, I have joined the Convoy. Wanna ride with the Duck, come on back?

Burt Young - the king of country
Kristofferson's handle is 'the Duck' and despite the name, he looks, talks and acts like real live trucker might, and is the only member of the main cast who does. Peckinpah clearly doesn't know much about the trucker red state mystique, so for casting didn't look farther than the NY Actor's Studio: Queens-born Burt Young (handle: "Love Machine") is about as cowboy as a Nathan's egg cream. When he delivers lines like "Long highways sure grind the souls off us cowfolks," you wonder if it's supposed to be a joke --if it is, it's flat, man. Couldn't Peckinpah find real country boys to ride these rigs instead of a bunch of NYC character actors? Other local boys include Brooklyn's own Franklin Ajaye (he played Maya Rudolph's Quincy Jones-esque dad in Bridesmaids (handle of Spider Mike) and--as the bullying highway patrol creep entrapping Duck, Machine and their Spider Mike via trucker code on the CB in order to  then shake them all down--Ernest "Fatso Jetson" Borgnine ("Cottonmouth"). He's so greedy for bribe money, old Cottonmouth shows up an hour later to shake down Spider Mike a second time, not even an hour later, at a crowded diner, everyone watching, which is beyond idiotic, like getting away with stealing someone's wallet, then following him into a crowd and shooting him in broad daylight for not having a second wallet.

In sum, Peckinpah ain't thinking things through. Is he even reading his own rewrites? Maybe he can't. Maybe it's the booze. Hell yeah, it's the booze. Sam likes a drinker two. And the truckers need a reason to be chased by the law of course, just as Burt Reynolds was chased by Jackie Gleeson for the shadiest of reasons in Smokey and the Bandit -(but Gleeson had such a grand time that the fat and sassy Southern sheriff became a comic foil for every subsequent picture ever made that has a fast car in it. The Fat Sheriff archetype even made his way into Bond films, a mere four years earlier. (1)

Life sure happens fast if you don't think twice: the truckers all become outlaws automatically, never bothering to question any plot device that helps them finally escape that tedious truck stop molasses fight. Duck picks up this close-cropped perm-fro'd Ali McGraw on the way out (she jumps ship from her previous ride) and she becomes his chronicler with her fancy camera or something. She's still gorgeous, but seeing her close cropped permed hair is one of those majorly churlish directorial 'bad hair' decisions (not unlike Orson's cropping Rita in Lady from Shanghai) by which an auteur unwittingly reveals his misogyny. As Vincent Canby wrote at the time: "to transform a naturally beautiful woman into a figure of such androgyny seems, at best, short-sighted; at worst, it's mean-spirited."

Don't mean to shit on this otherwise interesting flick but considering the amount of shitting on our collective hats (without even doing us the courtesy of telling it's raining), old Sam does, well, it's a pretty good spot for it. Some stretches of his signature rapid editing (1970s midwestern small town American faces and sights) help undo the damage. All them old faces all drinking and smoking in the proximity of flags feels authentic - but without Easy Rider's redneck-demonizing or Altman's tacky mummery, or Smokey and the Bandit's lecherous bouncing and guileless harmonic score.

Then again, it also lack Rider's truly revolutionary spirit, Nashville's sense moveable feast community, and Smokey and the Bandit's star power, momentum, and casting. In the latter, for example, Jerry Reed, Burt Reynolds, and Sally Field bring out a special something in each other hard to duplicate: Reynolds might come off macho for the press, but he loves (and is not threatened by) strong women like Fields; and Jerry Reed well, he loves Fred, his hound dawg. All four of them look authentic, like they could have driven straight up from Florida or Texas. The only authentic looking 'red state American' main character in Convoy on the other hand is Kristofferson, but even he feels out of place. He's too cool to behave logically, too pointlessly iconoclastic to even try to save himself from 20 years in the pen. The whole mess of issues Bobby "ain't so good at stringin' words together as you are" creates for his self through his stubborn insistence on not being this and not being that, gradually he starts to feel like of Munchausen-by-proxy, like the guy too dumb to hide his weed going through customs, then bitches and moans when he gets busted. He likes to drink "Everclear" and listen to "we don't smoke marijuana and we don't take LSD" like there's no hypocrisy there. Again--a joke? The alcoholic Peckinpah has no right to get anti-anti-establishment. That said, Duck's not afraid to have a few big rigs get together to smash open a police station where Spider Mike's been violated, rights-wise. Shit gets smashed up for real in these films and that's why they endure. If you see a cop car go flying off the interstate and through a billboard, better believe some stunt man did just that. And it just feels real good, that metal crunch.

Alas, when not crashing cars, the Peckinpah signature over-editing and slow-mo fight thing does not always work: a haphazard brawl in a rest stop cafe isn't quite the same ode to violence as the opening or closing of The Wild Bunch. With all its slow motion and quick cuts it becomes abstract and unseemly: cutting back and forth to about eight different characters in various states of falling, rolling, punching, ducking or running - all in a very close quarters diner environment--it's a fight that would have blown our minds in the hands of a tight-editing Walter Hill (as in the bathroom fight in The Warriors) but Peckinpah infamously wasted weeks filming and it's clear that about 100 different takes are all used for one single movement to create a bewildering sense of time and relative space (a character might start falling off a stool at one end of the counter and land behind a table on the other, his eyes indicating he somehow has aged 20 years in frustration with his director in between the two angles). Then there's the big events and demonstrations as the convoy the Duck's leading gets longer and longer as his struggle goes viral through the CB network of little people and the people tired of getting pushed around; shitty cops like Borgnine come to the fore from all walks of 'yawn' life. One can argue that these rapid montages of images from these populist organizations is almost Sam's version of Nashville. It works at times, in others, it's just a lot of nowhere shorthand for 'everyday' America. I guess it's inspiring, but man, these trucks must be driving mighty slow. What about them poor pigs back of Love Machine's rig? What about their freedom? The sooner I can stop associating Burt Young's harsh face with actual pigs and the tang of sulphur and asphalt, the better. Son, dump them pigs loose upon the plain, and get thee to a ROCKY pinball machine, stat!


So why'd the trucker craze leave before Convoy could recoup? The 70s was a great time for fast turn-over fads -- they swept the nation and then were gone like phantoms, only to have feature films like this come out months after the craze had dwindled off, mainly because they just took damn long to finish thanks to their big budgets subjecting even the smallest decision to overthink and second-guessing. These came out after the TV movie knock-offs, which turned the tropes so many different ways we couldn't help but lose interest. I vividly remember watching some trucker adventure, I think it was Flatbed Annie and Sweetie-Pie on network TV with our babysitter back in 1979 and thinking dear god, why are we still caring about big rigs on the run from corrupt local law? I mean, on a pop culture terms, the Dukes of Hazzard had premiered the night before. BJ and the Bear was going strong into its second year. Enough was too damn much.

The result is like a rich giant little brother trailing after sleeker meaner trend setter B-movie older sibling, and then TV movies after that, leaving a big, sprawling gloriously trashy messes like Convoy in the middle of the road for the middle states to absorb through half-asleep drive-in eyes.

But if a year found big movies actually setting mega-trends the result was electric. Sharks in '75, for example. 1977 set a new benchmark, as we saw three major motion pictures all swirling around in our collective consciousness (and unconscious): The Spy Who Love Me (we dreamt of owning underwater cars) Smokey and the Bandit, and of course Star Wars, and to a lesser extent, Semi-Tough. This was a time before VHS, Cable and Betmax, when, for example, one never in a thousand years would hear cursing on television or see gore or nudity (unless it whisked by an artsy PBS-BBC show like I Clavdivs) anywhere but a theater or drive-in.  This gave the 'R' rated films a holy power to us kids who couldn't see them. If you watched something like Semi-Tough or Smokey today, and pay attention to the comedic rhythms, you hear the pause after each expletive, the way comedies pause for laughs after punchlines, so the audience could whoop in delight at the utterance of these verboten syllables. This makes them hang in the air in a weird way: For all his swagger, every expletive Reynolds utters in both films comes with quotation marks --there's a sense of 'oooh I'm saying something naughty!" in ways totally foreign to us today where 'shit' and 'goddamn' are so common as to be unnoticed even on prime time.

Another thing new to us was, of course, nature. Seeing the Drapers leave their picnic trash behind in Mad Men made my generation lurch back to life and remember the old family habit of throwing our McDonald's trash out the window as we drove home, until the crying Native American by the dirty highway got us to stop.  Another thing is just general animal rights awareness. I remember of course feeling kind of guilty at zoos with jungle cats in tiny concrete cages, prowling endlessly back and forth, but I never imagined it was wrong. Now I have to run to change the channel when ASPCA commercials come on. I'm sensitized to the point I see a cowboy tie up his horse by a bar in a western and I wonder, what about the horse? You gonna leave him out there in the wind with no water or food? These things bother me now. Convoys are all well and good, Love Machine, but what about those pigs left for days back of the rig? And when do you all stop for gas? And don't you got somewhere to be with those truckloads? Was the script wroted by a drunk illiterate six year-old? War his name Sam?

I mention this, as I have in the past, to preserve it for future generations who may see something like Smokey or Convoy and wonder what the fuck we in the 70s were thinking. In this case well, it was freedom and a crossover between the shit-kicking conservative and the blue state suburban swinger we can only dream of today. It's the money earned by car chase pictures from the Corman canon like 1975's White Line Fever giving way to good old boy Burt Reynolds and the invasion of country singers like Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton, and Glenn Campbell into the mainstream Top 40. And the rise of the CB and the 'Fuzzbuster' into the mainstream Spencer Gift 70s lexicon. One thing follows the next because, and that's why I'm taking time to chronicle it all, pop culture was a much smaller tent. The three channels (not including local stations and PBS), made water cooler breeze-shooting much easier. But if you were watching Flatbed Annie (above) on a Saturday night, or as we thought of it then, Laverne and Shirley as Truckers, then you were stuck at home with a babysitter and the only alternative was The Love Boat. 

Animules from top: Clint and Clyde - Every Which Way But Loose;
Jerry Reed and Fred - Smokey and the Bandit;
BJ and the Bear
(them pigs? couldn't find a good pic - they're all dead to me now)

It was--on a lot of levels--a kind of reverse class-envy, a grass-is-greener longing by middle class suburbia to live on the open road and be among the beer-guzzlin, speed-takin', Marlboro-smokin' common man who didn't take no shit about drinking and driving or smoking in elevators. Some of this of course survives today 00s Williamsburg hipster thing with PBR, ironic belt buckles, fuzzy dice rearview mirror ornaments, and big ass mustaches. But these are generally uber-fey poseurs with tinny little voices that bespeak their unfamiliarity with tobacco and shouting at neighbors. Real men have voices you can feel in your bones, the ground trembles in anticipation of their Frye boot heel.
Sure, they're all dead or dying of throat or lung cancer now, but you damn well gotta die of something. Who's to say smokers don't have an extra special first class seat in heaven, shortening their life spans so that Earth's natural resources don't need to buckle under the weight of one more greedy mouth? (2) Maybe that's not tomorrow's America, but it was damn well yesterdays. Depeneding

America's current identity crisis is not borne of ideology and belief I think but of fear and TV ratings. We need to find common ground again, as we once did with Burt Reynolds, CB radio / trucker crazes, speeding, drunken tavern brawls (the kind where stuntmen go flying through the front window in slow mo without spilling their beer, then everyone shakes hands, laughs off the bruises and goes fishing). Convoy is out on Blu-ray, where the picture is pretty --trucks shine real fine. So git it and fall in love with fossil fuels and fists. I would, but living in Soft Hands NY has made me so sensitive I can smell the asphalt tar tang and the weird bodily exhalation smell of gasoline and sulphur in the hot desert air just writing these gridlocking symbols of rootsy solidarity and it makes me quite ill. See, I'm no longer in touch enough to root for the Little Guy. I'm just ashen thinking 'bout his squealing cargo, those poor pigs. Damn I hate... fucking... awareness.  

1. J.W. Pepper in Live and Let Die (1971) and Man with the Golden Gun (1974)
2. This coming weekend I'll be one-year quit -- not being able to absorb any oxygen in your burnt lungs - that'll do 'er.
3. As in Rocky II made the following year (1979)

1 comment:

  1. I watched Convoy a couple of years ago, and man, what a dog of a movie. It was really hard to find any kind of legitimate conflict - how big was Ernest Borgnine's county? You forgot, or I missed, the BIG Trucker TV show, Movin' On! It starred Claude Akins, and they were truckers who changed the lives of the people in the towns they passed through Had a great country theme song. Big wheels rolling, got to keep 'em going, big wheels rolling, Movin' On! (Don't ask me to do math) I was a kid when the trucker craze swept the nation, but being a Texan, the redneck angle of it was everyday life for me. So when I saw the movie, I had to look up, Why the CB craze? Turned out, it was in reaction to the lowering of the highway speed limits from 70 to 55, in reaction to the fuel shortage, and the truckers would form convoys because Smoky couldn't stop them all! That's a pretty big FU to Government! That said, there was always a trucker contingency to county music, with Gitty-Up-Go and Teddy Bear, and even an early version of the Blue Collar comedy vein with trucker jokes. But yeah, Convoy, that's a movie based on contracts more than script rewrites. Great cast, but, to no end, Good Buddy.


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