Saturday, July 24, 2010

Everyone Has Their Faults

So my car got stolen. Not fun. Not cool. I’m still looking for work and the dollars are dwindling. Again, not much fun at all. It’s been a pretty lousy week. You know how in movies when somebody gets their car stolen it’s all part of some wacky farcical mix up or the Dude getting mad in THE BIG LEBOWSKI? Yeah, in real life it never feels as funny. For the record, it was legally parked, I had no outstanding tickets or anything. It was just gone. Strange thing is, it happened when I was in the middle of writing about a movie where an entire running gag centers around a pair of car thieves and the film itself could even be looked at as the sort of dark comedy one feels when they’re trying to figure out what happened to their car. So I figured I’d continue writing about it. What, like you’ve got a better idea? Right now I’m finding it difficult to write very much about anything so please just go with me here.

Fifteen years after Richard Lester came over from England to direct PETULIA, a satirical, heartbreaking look at a changing America, the director covered the same territory with SUPERMAN III, another comically skewed look at the U.S. but from a much more sour, angry perspective making for a somewhat unpleasant experience. Only twelve years after making the Oscar winning MIDNIGHT COWBOY, an even sadder look at the USA, English director John Schlesinger returned to the States to make his own comically sour, cynical look at present-day America with HONKY TONK FREEWAY, with much of it actually set in the very state that Joe Buck and Ratso are trying to get to at the end of their movie. Two directors, responsible for some of the most iconic films of the 60s, returning to similar territory in a way that reveals how the sadness they once expressed in a time of dwindling hope had become what feels like outright anger towards things at the beginning of the Reagan eighties. HONKY TONK FREEWAY doesn’t have a scene set on an unemployment line, unlike how SUPERMAN III begins, but it certainly feels like it could have. Costing a then-huge $24 million in an effort to make a sprawling, multi-character comedy clearly going for a Robert Altman vibe (“NASHVILLE on wheels” said Variety, though that was more a point of description than actual praise) crossed with the crass flavor of a post-SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT road movie, HONKY TONK was a huge flop at the time of its release in August 1981 and looking at it now doesn’t offer very much evidence that its director had any real sense of humor. I never saw it in the theater though I do remember countless viewings on cable back in the day, where I imagine that much of the satire and a few of the racier jokes went right over my head. Those memories as well as the fact that I like this sort of multi-character comedy anyway means that I still have a fondness for the movie and while there might not be much of a case that could be made for it, I could still try.

A huge new Freeway is constructed in Florida and the small resort town of Ticlaw is denied an exit even after town mayor Kirkby T. Calo (William Devane) personally arranges a payoff to the construction coordinator, delivered in a Kentucky Fried Chicken box. As Kirkby marshals the town to figure out alternatives to their dilemma, which includes literally painting the town pink, a diverse array of people are making their way to Florida heading down that new freeway in the direction on Ticlaw, including a pair of New York City garbage men (George Dzunda & Joe Grifasi) who have recently robbed a bank, Duane Hanson (Beau Bridges) writer of children’s story “Ricky the Carnivorous Pony” who meets up with the beautiful Carmen Odessa Shelby (Beverly D’Angelo) who is taking a promised vacation with an urn containing the ashes of her late mother, a husband and wife (Howard Hesseman & Teri Garr) vacationing in an RV with their two kids who do nothing but watch TV including a son (Peter Billingsley, two years before A CHRISTMAS STORY) with his own particular phobia, a pair of nuns (Geraldine Page & Deborah Rush), a retired ad man (Hume Cronyn) who "invented bad breath" with mixed drink-swilling wife (Jessica Tandy), a pimp (Sledge Hammer himself, David Rasche) traveling down to Miami with one of his girls (Sandra McCabe), a drug-peddling hitchhiker (Daniel Stern) and a truck driving songwriter (Paul Jabara) headed for Ticlaw with a Rhino for the local safari park. There’s also a water-skiing elephant named Bubbles in Ticlaw who Kirkby hopes will be their star attraction.

Written by Edward Clinton (no other credits), HONKY TONK FREEWAY at least has a lot going on in every scene. It’s energetic, acted by a high-spirited cast and features a great amount of activity in the frame throughout (legendary production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti is credited as “Visual Consultant” just as he was on AMERICAN GIGOLO and SCARFACE) but it’s never particularly likable and just winds up a sort of hodgepodge even while being entertaining. Schlesinger’s point seems to be that all of America is the same, a nonstop freeway of cheesy motels and restaurants populated by people who are just drifting aimlessly, eventually drawn together to the tiny “wonderful, beautiful” town of Ticlaw populated by good-hearted citizens representing the little guy who stay attached to their roots and bring all these wandering travelers who represent America together. Daniel Stern’s hitchhiker comments how ever city is the same and Beverly D’Angelo’s beauty mentions how she sits at the same table in every single IHOP restaurant she goes into, smiling as she says, “The International House of Pancakes is the one constant in my life,” so they’re the perfect people to wind up in Ticlaw, a place striving to be unique while still being recognized by the world and given that greatest of prizes, an exit to allow the tourists to reach them.

It’s a big, sprawling character comedy but if it is sort of a mess it’s the kind I guess I’ve always enjoyed (shades of 1941). I didn’t laugh all that much while watching it this time around but did find myself smiling pretty consistently, much of it due to the high spirits given off by the various actors and though I’d never call the tone endearing it still treats everyone better the outright contempt Richard Lester regards his characters in SUPERMAN III. In the case of this film, it’s more like Schlesinger looks at these people from a bemused distance, shaking his head with a slight bit of sympathy but not wanting to get too closely involved. Nothing too much ever really happens in the various story threads except for the main one and everything screeches to a halt with massive car-crash ending, which is definitely impressive but just feels kind of cruel with ‘funny’ sound effects--even if the movie shows us that nobody is injured it still feels like a few of them are being punished for no reason other than they were just being themselves on the big Honky Tonk Freeway that is America. One of the few real grace notes in the film, involving Deborah Rush’s novice nun taking a private morning swim, seems to express the ambivalence Schlesinger feels for these people, possibly not quite sure how he should be treating them. The final punchline involving ‘Ricky the Carnivorous Pony’ and some Asian orphans is pretty awful and there’s also some running gay jokes, which seems notable considering it’s coming from the director of MIDNIGHT COWBOY—well, since Schlesinger was gay if he was ok with them then whatever. And there’s the car thieves, but they’re nice car thieves—they take the car but always leave whatever was inside because to take the stuff would be wrong. When Hume Cronyn lets loose all his frustrations about his life after his prized antique car has been taken it now kind of hits close to home, maybe the first time I’ve ever found myself identifying with Cronyn in anything. Interestingly, Janet Maslin in The New York Times (It opened in New York at the Ziegfeld! Damn!) seems to have had a similar reaction to the film when she reviewed it that I have now—thinking it’s a mess, the racier jokes are no good and yet finding it “almost as surprisingly funny as it is silly.” Maybe it’s the enthusiasm of the whole thing, the willingness to get out there on the road to make this movie and present all these people for better or for worse. Maybe I can’t really defend it to any great extent but I still kind of like it.

IMDB reports that the first cut was around three hours which with this type of film seems possible but because it’s all so loose it feels like very little is getting short shrift, with the possible exception of Hesseman and Garr’s bickering married couple. The production is large and impressive with some footage of the freeway construction over the opening credits that would probably have some interest for somebody who lives down there as well as, in addition to the huge crash scene, a massive explosion late in the film which possibly didn’t get the right kind of coverage when they shot it since we never seem to cut to a fully satisfying angle. Of course, John Schlesinger was never exactly a director noted for shooting huge explosions so maybe getting the big money shot wasn’t as necessary to him. William Devane also responds to that big explosion by saying “Holy Shit,” a pretty guaranteed laugh getter way back then. Adding to the fun is a diverse array of music from the title number which we hear about five separate times throughout (sometimes I think I hear this song in my sleep), “Faster Faster” which is sung by Paul Jabara as the truck driver and written by him as well, a country ditty on the soundtrack sung by Beverly D’Angelo, the memorable “Ticlaw Anthem” (again, something that probably haunts me during odd hours) co-written by George Martin and an extremely energetic main theme by Elmer Bernstein some of which sounds so similar to the score for STRIPES, out the same summer, that I almost wonder if he was working on the two at the same time and got them confused or something.

My good feelings about it extend to the actors and there really isn’t anyone in here I don’t enjoy watching. The very best of them make their characters more likable than I suspect they were on the page, including the boisterous Devane (also in Schlesinger’s MARATHON MAN), the ultimately endearing relationship of Cronyn & Tandy, Beverly D’Angelo’s adorable glances that indicate her own ambivalence about herself (she slept with 300 men in Paducah, Kentucky adding, “It wasn’t easy”), the double act of Dzunda and Grifasi, a sort of Laurel & Hardy act done as PG-rated sleaze and, maybe my favorite, Deborah Rush (familiar from numerous TV and film roles) as a nun clearly having doubts about her choice. The very familiar Celia Weston makes her film debut as a waitress who gets recruited by Rasche, Jerry Hardin plays the Governor (he has what I think is the one F-word in this PG film and the way he says it gets a laugh out of me) and Anne Ramsey, before her voice changed, can be spotted as a TV chef. Twins Jason and Shane Keller (graduates of the Scarsdale High School Class of 1989, thank you very much) appear briefly as Beau Bridges’ sons.

The slightly cruel undercurrent which is definitely there keeps me from being more favorable about it, but any anger the film expresses about the state of things (or at least, the state of things in 1981) is something I can kind of understand this week. After all, right now I’m not able to go driving out on the freeways like the characters in this movie in search of something better. I didn’t even get to keep the stuff that was in my car. But while watching the film again I’m reminded that its energy keeps it moving, some of the characters are endearing, the music is catchy, Beverly D’Angelo sure is cute and sitting here right now I can’t even say I think the movie’s cynicism is all that wrongheaded. It’s just not always as funny as it should be. Which doesn’t prevent me from thinking fondly of it and I could imagine popping the disc in once again sooner rather than later. In the meantime, could anyone out there please buy me a plane ticket that would send me someplace faraway like the Amalfi Coast? I really could use that right now. It’s been that kind of year.


JESCIE said...

Mark Hodgson said...

I remember seeing the trailer at the time and thinking, "that looks rubbish".

This was my reaction as a teenager who went to see SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT and CANNONBALL RUN films!

Sean Gill said...

I only recently discovered your site, and I must say that I'm really diggin' sifting through your archives. You have a very eloquent and engaging way of describing exactly why we love these- sometimes hard-boiled, sometimes just plain nutty- idiosyncratic flicks of the 60's, 70's and 80's.

You make an apt comparison between Schlesinger and Lester and submit some nice 60's vs. 80's observations, but I can't help but feel this is a flick that I should reserve for those unfortunate times when I'm subjecting myself to a lesser Hal Needham-style bender.

And I'm terribly sorry to hear about your car...

All the best,

le0pard13 said...

Very sorry to hear about your stolen car, Mr. P. I remember seeing the ads for this when it first came out, but never took it in. Your very interesting review has me hoping Netflix will get copies to rent out. Always enjoyable to read your posts. I sincerely hope the job (and car) hunting land you something worthy of your writing talent. All the best.

p.s., thank you nailing so eloquently what made SUPERMAN III such a screwed up mess, my friend.

Anonymous said...

So sorry to hear about your car Mr. Peel. In L.A. the car is both anchor and wings; it just depends on the day as to which it will be. I feel certain that a writer as strong, insightful and with such unique (& eye-opening) viewpoints as you will find what you seek here in L.A. If L.A. can't find a place for an individaul like that then it's time to roll up the sidewalks. Good luck to you and I look forward to many more of your film essays. No one else writes'em as well.

- Bob

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Thanks for the very kind thoughts, guys. The car has been found by the police, but stripped. It's done. So I guess I'll just have to figure out what happens next. Onward.

Blake said...

Shit, sorry to hear about that Mr. Peel. I'm just glad my car isn't worth stealing (if someone did decide to steal it they probably wouldn't get very far in it, anyway).

I saw Honky Tonk Freeway years ago when I was a kid and don't remember particularly liking it or not liking it, just kind of being puzzled by the whole thing. Maybe I should give it another look; anything with William Devane can't be all bad.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


Many thanks, although I'm not sure my car was worth stealing either. But I guess it didn't stop them.

I don't think the movie's all bad, even if it is problematic. Check it out if you get the chance.