Tuesday, December 06, 2005

JOE (1970) - John Avildsen

This movie starts Overlooked ‘70s Week off with a bang. BANG! BANG! BANG! As in hippie bodies flying everywhere. I never guessed a movie with such an innocent and deceptively simple title as Joe could have so much pent-up aggression. They should have called it Die, Dirty Hippie, Die! because much of it feels like that sort of movie, a drive-in exploitation flick capitalizing on the counter-culture trends at the time. Or better yet a poor man’s precursor to Taxi Driver. It’s somewhere between those two, linked by Peter Boyle.
 
The story plops us down square in Hippie Central-- Greenwich Village circa 1970. We spend a good deal of time with a young Susan Sarandon, a daughter of privilege who’s slumming it Boho-style with her drug dealing boyfriend. They mainly take baths, shoot dope, sell oregano to minors. Then the sleazy boyfriend gives her a near lethal dose of speed which sends her to the hospital and her wealthy businessman father, Bill (Dennis Patrick), into a rage. He confronts the sleazy boyfriend in pretty unconvincingly staged accidental murder scene chock-full of wince-inducing acting and poor camera placement.
 
After Bill covers his tracks, he heads to a nearby bar for a drink to calm his nerves only to meet perhaps the biggest, baldest bigot in NYC, Joe (Peter Boyle), currently spouting anti-hippie, anti-black, anti-fill-in-the-blank diatribes to anyone who would care to listen. The two strike up a reluctant bond when Bill lets slip that he may have just killed one of those “damned dirty hippies” that Joe claims are ruining the country.
 
When news of the dead hippie hits the streets the next day, Joe remembers the little talk and tracks Bill down in his high-rise office. Bill’s convinced that blue-collar Joe’s going to put the squeeze on him for hush money and, for a little while, so are we. But that’s not Joe’s style. He just wants to be BUDDIES with Bill. He thinks Bill’s a great American hero.
 
The movie then becomes a kind of high-culture meets low-culture bonding exercise, Joe inviting Bill to drink with him in his bars, eat take-out Chinese diner with his family, sample his extensive gun collection. Bill does so reluctantly at first, thinking he has to keep on Joe’s good side so he won’t spill the beans. But then, he starts to enjoy it and even realizes he needs Joe’s help to find Sarandon after she wakes from her stint in rehab, realizes what her father did, and disappears deep into the Village.
 
At this point, Joe moves into classic Paul Schrader territory (i.e. Hardcore) as the two men attempt to infiltrate the hippie subculture looking for Bill’s daughter. But they have to blend in to get the info. This makes for some amusing fish-out-of-water drug taking scenes and a very funny (inadvertent or not) orgy scene where the two are initiated into the world of free-love, before things turn to violence.
 
There are a lot of interesting elements in Joe -- class warfare, the various manifestations of bigotry, the futility of American Dream -- that unfortunately are just not handled that well under Avildsen’s direction. This has virgin-effort written all of over it, from the B-Movie acting to the lackluster staging of action to the terribly inappropriate choice and placement of so-on-the-nose-it-hurts music: "Hey Joe, dudn’t it all make you wanna go and make a war." To which I say: "Hey, John, dudn't it make you wanna go and make a better movie? He did...it's called Rocky.

1 comment:

Jordan Hoffman said...

I think I like Joe more than you did. But 2 interesting things to add.

1 -- Susan Sarandon is a hottie.
2 -- This movie had one of the great unplannable tie-ins, which was a police riot that happened in Lower Manhattan at just around the time the movie opened. There was a rally staged by construction workers against the office of Mayor Lindsay for all sorts of economic reasons. This then bled over into a general march against Lindsay who, although a Republican, was thought too liberal. Hence the "hardhats" as the press then termed them (and the "Joe" publicity team continued) wound up making this a "support our troops" pro-Vietnam thing. Which upset the overwhelmingly liberal NYC base. Hence a near major riot in lower manhattan, which hasn't happened since the Draft Riots of the Civil War. My gf's father was working for AT & T, a block from City Hall, at the time and was trapped in his office for hours. Since no one was killed this is kind've a forgotten moment in recent history, but at the time this was the first swing of "silent majority" reactionarism, just what Joe was all about. Its topicality is what led Joe from being a little New York indie into something of a hit.

This is all covered at length in J Hoberman's terrific book The Dream Life about film during the Cold War era.