Monday, November 27, 2006

"Good morning, you fascists."

American cinema in the 1970s produced such an array of stone-cold, undeniable classics that it is breathtaking.
Let us consider that the cinematic decade began - aesthetically, at least - with Bonnie & Clyde in 1967 and ended with The Right Stuff in 1983. In between there are such films as the Godfather 1 & 2, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, Jaws, American graffiti, Carrie, Annie Hall, Chinatown, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, the Warriors, Deliverance, The French Connection, Dirty Harry, Apocalypse Now, Halloween, Badlands, Shampoo, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, Saturday Night Fever, the Exorcist, Star Wars, All the Presidents Men and Manhattan. That is the most cursory of lists, and I could easily double or triple it with less celebrated films from those years of more or less equal value.
But I still retain the capacity to be amazed when I see a film from that era I have not encountered before and it just reassures me that I'm right - American cinema in the 1970s seemed to have some sort of Midas touch.

Electra Glide In Blue is one such film. Directed by James William Guercio in 1973 it played at Cannes only to be greeted with boos and cries of "Fascist!". Guercio never made another film and Electra Glide was a commercial failure. The film is the story of "Big" John Wintergreen, brilliantly played by Robert Blake. An unusually short Motorcycle Cop in the Arizona desert, Wintergreen dreams of a promotion to the Homicide unit, of wearing a suit and a Stetson and of smoking a cigar as he stomps around crime scenes. A possible murder on his beat gives Wintergreen his chance.

Entirely shot in that most iconic of American landscapes, Monument Valley, Electra Glide is explicitly intended to play as a modern Western and it shares many of that genres thematic preoccupations. The role of the lawman in American society is given an examination, and in the early 1970s that was a more topical subject than at possibly any time in the preceding decades. The Vietnam War dragged on, disaffected veterans returned and presented the country with a unique social problem - the film reflects this by making Wintergreen a veteran and having him pull over a truck driver who is also dealing with his role in the conflict - as did the still-thriving counterculture, campus riots and underground terrorist movement.

Wintergreen's mentor on the homicide squad, Detective Harve Poole (played by Mitch Ryan, better known as General McAllister from Lethal Weapon) directly comments on this when he talks about a deliberate campaign of police genocide in operation across the US. Indeed, at an early parade-ground revue, Wintergreen's sergeant bellows the following at a line of Motorcycle Cops : "TEN-HUT! Good morning, you fascists. You pigs. You bigots. You PINKOS. You FAGS! You BASTARDS. Fuzz. This indoctrination of vocal harassment was compiled by our own Juvenile Division in preparation for the concert this weekend." The difficult position of the police force in America in the early 70s is also made clear by a scene where Wintergreen and Poole visit a commune. Wintergreen - always playing good Cop, mainly because he is one - is unsuccessful in a search for information. So Poole resorts to brutality, and gets results.

These elements make the accusations of fascism understandable. As does the fact that the most obvious "villains" in the film are long-haired hippies. Electra Glide In Blue even appears to set itself up as the anti-Easy Rider. Wintergreen practices his shooting on a range by blasting away at a poster of Denis Hopper and Peter Fonda. The ending of the film is a sort of reversal of the ending of Easy Rider, and just as much of a kick in the gut for the audience. But Electra Glide is a more complex film than those Cannes detractors understood. It condemns the police just as evenly as it does the counter-culture, and seems to scorn the entirety of US society, in fact. Poole turns out to be a semi-corrupt blowhard, far less a man than the meeker Wintergreen (this is made clear in a long scene which seems almost to have come from a different film, wherein Jolene, a barmaid both men have been seeing, informs each of the others existence and rages against Poole for his impotence while bemoaning her sad and lonely life - the film is just as interested in the value of masculinity as any Western). The ultimate villain of the film emerges as Wintergreen's partner, the Zipper.

The most memorable aspects of Electra Glide In Blue are purely cinematic, however. It is one of the best-looking films of the 1970s. Almost every shot is elegantly composed by the legendary cinematographer Conrad Hall. Any film using Monument Valley is partly a tribute to John Ford, and the long tracking shots down empty highways here pay homage to the old master as well as any film ever has. The line of the horizon bisects almost every shot, the sky shimmering blue, the desert below a succession of oranges, browns and yellows. Wintergreen is often shot against that landscape, riding his motorcycle - the Electra Glide - in a specifically Fordian reference. There is a motorcycle chase that features some slow-motion stuntwork - bikes exploding into flames, men flipping through windows - which is brilliantly put together. As is the opening montage, a superbly gripping sequence of a man preparing to commit suicide. Guercio was primarily a musician when he made the film - he worked with 70s behemoths like Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears - and he composed the score, a weird but unforgettable blend of electronic and symphonic rock. The way the second scene of the film is cut perfectly to that score and depicts Wintergreen donning his leather bike gear seems acutely, self-consciously arty. There is something fascist in the uniform itself, a fact that George Lucas acknowledged with his use of a similar look for the black-clad robot guards in THX 1138:

The music is an overture of sorts and it rises to a euphoric crescendo for our first glimpse of Wintergreen fully dressed and walking out into daylight, a lawman in the modern world. Each shot is so carefully composed, lit and cut that the importance of the scene is underlined. Again, it recalls the iconography of the Western, for we see - in lingering, warm close-up -Wintergreen slide his revolver into a hip holster and button that holster shut, a gesture familiar from a hundred Westerns.

But there is something indefinable about the best films of the 1970s, and Electra Glide shares that ambiguity. Complex and conflicted, it has a tonal unevenness and refusal to limit itself to genre that makes it fascinating. It is a police thriller, but also a Western, character study and social drama, an art film, an action film and it has its moments of offbeat comedy. It also has the cold heart that so many films from that decade seem to possess - like Medium Cool or the Parallax View, for instance, it has a shattering climax, brutal and pitiless in its conclusions.
Having seen it, the fact that a talent such as Guercio never made another film seems something of a minor tragedy. Though hes still alive, and contributes an introduction and commentary to the R1 dvd of the film, so maybe its not too late...

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