Monday, March 5, 2012

I'd Love To Turn You On - At the Movies #34 - Joe (1970, dir. John G. Avildsen)

The first thing the namesake character for the 1970 cult classic Joe says when he appears on screen is the N-word. He’s sitting in a blue-collar bar somewhere in New York ranting about the state of the world -- blacks and black-loving hippies are messing up the country and making it hard for a workingman to get by. He’s supposed to be a parody/cultural-critique character, sort of a proto Archie Bunker, someone for us all to laugh at or recoil from, but he caused a sensation when the movie first appeared on the silver screen. Men would watch it and stand up from their seats, shake their fists and shout along. Which is scary, because Joe does a little hunting by the time the final credits scroll through, and it’s not deer he aims his rifle at.
This legend is part of what elevated the flick to cult status and inspired me to rent it from the video store in the first place. It looked like an artifact of bygone craziness, and it is, but what keeps me coming back to it is its profound darkness and weirdness. In addition to Joe’s rants (which are hilarious, if you can get past the racism, because they’re so dumb and impassioned), you’ve got: the surliest hippie boys who’ve ever graced the big screen – scowling, greasy-long-haired guys who devour every drug in reach, lie and steal and treat their women like shit; women who take three measly hits off a joint and get so high they rip off all their clothes and jump on the nearest guy; and a grey-haired corporate exec who unwittingly murders hippies and says really creepy things while he’s peeing at urinals. Ultimately they all converge around a hookah for an inter-generational love fest that goes horribly wrong. All along the way the plot is punched up with low-budget psychedelic effects. They’re like a cross between the light shows they used to have behind bands in the late sixties and the superimposition-heavy dream sequences from mid-seventies soap operas. It sounds horrible, but it’s quite lovely to look at, like an outrageously and wonderfully garish find at a thrift store. Plus it’s Susan Sarandon’s first role (and yes she gets naked). 
All told, this mélange of gloomy oddness paints a telling portrait of that period in time in a way that only Hollywood can. There’s something about the way the movie industry tackles big social trends and issues and crams them into their violence-loving formulas that makes for a kind of apropos bleakness that would be unbearable were it not for all the hilarious schlockiness. Then again, some people took this particular piece of pop-culture pertinence as a rallying cry and seized the racist, hippy-hating Joe as a hero. And that makes Joe all the more fascinating. It’s one of those cases where Hollywood puts out something that seems totally phony and punched up with gratuitous sex and violence. Yet it’s on point for the way a lot of people in country are feeling. To me, that makes the film as valid a depiction of the late 60s/early 70s as Woodstock or Zabriskie Point or any of the other classics we associate with that period. It’s just another side of a many-sided story.

-Joe Miller

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