Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception, for your aghast befuddlement

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 rap is here to stay, McCall just sounds like some grizzled old Marlboro man babbling into his CB receiver while a Curtis Mayfield instrumental plays behind him on the FM dial, but in 1975-6, his "Convoy" was haulin' ass up the charts until it became the hood ornament on a full-on cross-country trucker fad going no place at 80 mph, downhill. It was the kind of thing we all heard on the radio in the car nonstop and either loved or ignored. We didn't really 'hate' things in the 70s, there weren't enough options. We had to listen to what the DJ played, so we just figured it was 'new' and we'd get used to it. Lack of options made us less judgmental.

It's been gone, but now it's back - on Blu-ray no less, so c'mon back, good buddy, all the way through, put the CB back in the box and turn to the movie of CONVOY at long last. Why? Because Pauline Kael liked it. And cuz Kristofferson is in it. But why? Why was it ever made? It's hard to fathom nowadays, because songs are too scattered along generational formats, but back in the 70s a single could get so big across so many demographics that movie versions of goddamn songs were commissioned. We loved some songs so much we needed, producers guessed (wrongly), to see a film version the same way we needed the novelization of a movie (but that's different since --don't forget--this was the time before videotape, so the only way to 'own' a film was via the paperback).

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 for another example 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. 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 DJ to maybe millions, maybe no one; you could 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. We didn't have Twitter or cell phones, but those didn't exist yet - CBs did - but you needed cool parents to get it and install it and teach you how to use it, a combination of elements that no one I knew managed to pull off.

Car culture was huge, still. 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, so big at (of course), the drive-in. 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 you're 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 even then I 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, like that straggler who shows up at your party at dawn after it's already over and your parents are in bed, but you're up waiting for the cartoons to start, and he's drunk and laughing at his own jokes Your parents wake up and there he is... on your couch, snoring.

That cropped afro, man, what a bad bad bad decision.

Still, Pauline Kael defended it, and 38 odd years later, that was enough for me to get the Blu-ray:
"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--and Kael's opinion-- he alone looks, talks and acts like real live trucker might, and is the only member of the main cast who does. Peckinpah clearly didn't know much about the trucker red state mystique because for the rest of the cast he apparently 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 sucks. Couldn't Peckinpah find real country boys to ride these rigs instead of a bunch of uber-ethnic NYC character actors? Brooklyn's own Franklin Ajaye is the black trucker (handle of Spider Mike) and Ernest Borgnine ("Cottonmouth") is such a foul, greedy cop he entraps Duck, Spider and Machine on an off-road, shakes them down for $50 each, then follows them to a crowded diner where he tries shake down Spider Mike a second time, with 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. But the truckers need a reason to be chased by the law, because Burt Reynolds was chased by Jackie Gleason in Smokey and the Bandit, and Gleason had such a grand time that he birthed a whole archetype: the fat and sassy Southern sheriff. He 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) But Borgnine sucks the fun out of it. Convoy aint a fun picture. Cathartic at times, sure. Crazy, daring, odd, but not fun.

But hey - the fight happens, the truckers all become outlaws and then folk heroes without ever bothering to question any weird plot device that happens along. Duck picks up this close-cropped perm-fro'd Ali McGraw on the way out of the diner (she jumps ship from her previous ride) and she becomes his chronicler with her fancy camera or something. McGraw may be still gorgeous, but  her close cropped permed hair is continually depressing. In the annals of 'bad hair' decisions it makes Orson's cropping Rita's long tresses for a short blonde flip in Lady from Shanghai seem inspired and lovely instead of churlish and mean. Together in fact, Rita's and Ali's hair crops make a great collective illustration of how a petulant male 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 Peckinpah does during the movie, well, it's a good place to vent. On the plus side, there are some stretches of Peckinpah brilliance vis-a-vis his signature rapid editing through tight shots of crazy locals in various states of intoxication. A series of old faces, drinking and smoking in the proximity of flags, feels authentic enough - and all done without Easy Rider's redneck-demonizing, Altman's tacky mummery, or Smokey and the Bandit's lecherous bouncing and guileless harmonic score.

Then again, it also lacks Easy Rider's truly revolutionary spirit, Nashville's sense of moveable feast community, and Smokey and the Bandit's star chemistry. In the latter, especially, 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 genuinely loves (and is not threatened by) strong female co-stars like Fields - and that's apparent in their chemistry; 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, and all of them got star wattage charisma to burn. By contrast, the only authentic looking 'red state American' main character in Convoy is Kristofferson, and 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, even if it's the easier, righter thing to do. 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, begins to feel less like working class heroism and more like of Munchausen-by-proxy stupidity, like the idiot kid who's too dumb to hide his weed going through customs, then bitches and moans about violations of human rights when it gets taken away. 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 (it's pre-CGI) and that's why films like Convoy will 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 got tang!

Alas, when not crashing cars or eye-fishing roadshow funerals, the Peckinpah signature over-editing thing does not always work: that truck stop cafe brawl with Cottonmouth, for example, isn't quite the same ode to violence as the opening or closing of The Wild Bunch (1969). 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--is numbing and dumb rather than riveting. 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 rebel convoy gets longer and longer, word spreading analog viral through the CB network of all the 'little' people from Flyover USA who are tired of getting pushed around. Yawn. It works at times, in others, it's just a lot of nowhere shorthand for 'everyday' America. I guess it's inspiring, but man, that food in the back of them trucks crawling along is gonna spoil. And what about them poor live pigs being hauled by Love Machine? What about their freedom? The sooner I can stop associating Burt Young's harsh face with actual pigs and the tang of sulphur, methane, diesel and asphalt, the better. Son, dump them pigs loose upon the plain, and get thee to a ROCKY pinball machine (3), stat!

Young in Rocky II - made the following year (1979)

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 too 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, (CB radios) and of course Star Wars (light sabres), 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 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. 

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 (beta cucks in the alt-right paralance) 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 real dead or dying of real 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. 

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... again. I would join you, 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 diesel gasoline emissions 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.

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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