Sunday, June 23, 2024

Some new nadir in sordid behavior


Directed by Roger Corman
Written by Charles B. Griffith and Peter Bogdanovich

Spoilers: moderate

The year 1965 had been most unusual for Roger Corman as a director, for, in 1965, he simply didn't make a movie, and in the ten years between 1955 and 1964, not one year had passed where he'd made fewer than three.  With 1964's The Tomb of Ligeia, he'd finished off his Edgar Allan Poe octologynot remotely a goal he'd originally set out for himselfand while Ligeia and its same-year predecessor The Masque of the Red Death had avoided the trap of formula, that doesn't mean Corman hadn't gotten bored, and as he would straight-up tell you that he had, he ditched Poe and attempted to ditch American International Pictures, his relationship with that company having always been to some degree antagonistic.  Dreaming big, he signed two successive contracts, with United Artists and Columbia, which led to precisely one actual movie, The Secret Invasion; Corman groused that all the projects they wanted him to do were too boring, while all of the projects he proposed were too weird.  Columbia finally managed to place him as the director of A Time For Killing, in mid-1966.  He walked off it in June, two weeks into shooting.  (It's Corman.  Maybe he assumed he was already done.)

We can suspect, then, that when Corman slunk back to AIP, he was frustrated and resentful and listless and anxious, and perhaps that's why his next movie, The Wild Angels, is so much about frustrations and resentment and listless anxiety, the first of his pictures avowedly about and for the counterculture.  ("Avowedly," because nearly all of Corman's movies were for "the youth," and there had been subcultural and countercultural elementspsychedelia, dancing one might describe as "go-go," a certain salaciousnessin his movies for ages, even in his nominally-square literary adaptations.)  Alternatively, Corman was just a good producer, who knew how to anticipate a fad.  But it was in the works for a little while: released in July 1966, even with Corman's fast-and-dirty efficiency, it's hard to believe it could've gone through production and post-production in six weeks, though I suppose it's possible.  It's a film amenable to fast dirtiness.

Even more basically, Corman's said he just wanted to do something with tangibility to it.  Ligeia had been a step in this direction, not to speak of The Secret Invasionbut The Wild Angels gave him the opportunity to capture the changing culture of his home turf in California in real time.  It was his first movie not to be either a period piece or fantastical in several years, and although Corman was no "message" filmmaker, with The Wild Angels he had something to say.  Even if he says it like a distorted, blaring klaxon.

Whatever the case, he wasn't the first to make a biker movie.  We can be glad he wasn't a "message" filmmaker by temperament, because Stanley Kramer was, and I find his 1953 production of The Wild One to be modestly terrible, though it basically invented the genre.  It had somewhat kicked off the juvenile delinquency movies that AIP and Corman had made bank on during the 50s, though they'd since tapered off.  Just as importantly, The Wild One is probably the single piece of media most influential on the real-world outlaw biker movement that reached its full flower by 1966.  Corman wasn't the very first to exploit this new biker panic: it might've been Russ Meyer, even faster and dirtier than Corman, with the previous year's Motor Psycho, a movie that has a hallucinatory air of Z-grade cheapness to it, but I still like it more than The Wild One's A-picture kind of phoniness.  Even so, The Wild Angels was to the 60s as The Wild One was to the 50s, with God-knows-how-many descendants.  (Of course, the really big one, and the most direct, is Easy Rider.)  Judging by the title, The Wild Angels obviously tips its hat to The Wild One's primacy; there's also a clear homage to the earlier film's opening shot of bikers in the distance, slowly getting closer until their great speed suddenly makes itself apparent, and they blast past the camera, but The Wild Angels does it better, on the basis of being in Panavision, for all movies about the road should be in widescreen.  And, like The Wild One, it drew upon true events.

As the title also suggestsas the font on its "fictional" bikers' colors makes patently clearThe Wild Angels is about the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, the premier outlaw biker organization in the country in 1966, especially as measured in brand awareness.  They'd been somewhat obscure until the nationally-reported outrage of a 1964 gang rape in Monterey, CA, suddenly mainstreamed them; it garnered them a new infamy and because this is America, infamy led to regular old fame.  Hunter S. Thompson's article in The Nation was published in 1964 (later expanded into his 1967 book), and, partially through this association, they became affiliated with the Northern California counterculture, indicative of a perennial weakness in my side's political reasoning.  Basically, it boiled down to "cops hate them, we hate cops, so they must be hippies, too."  They liked unconventional sex and evolved towards unconventional drugs, but they weren't hippies, as demonstrated when a bunch of Angels beat up a bunch of Vietnam protestors trying to make their way to Oaklandon behalf of the police, no lessprompting Allen Ginsburg to write a pussy LSD-infused poem to Sonny Barger.  And so it came as a disappointing shock to some that the all-white gang that wore swastikas, punched pacifists, and talked a lot about race war weren't leftists.  Who could've seen it coming?  Thompson, for one.  His book, which is still somewhat journalism, is not as entertaining as Fear and Loathing In Las Vegaswhich was "about" his attempted coverage of a motorcycle race, as I recalland it evinces one hazy understanding of "rape."  But Thompson has his insights, not least that the Angels, at heart, were a lot more like cops than either would've preferred to admit.

I think that's what informs The Wild Angels: like Thompson, it does comprehend the vicarious appeal of the biker outlaws, and with this comprehension it netted Corman his biggest hit ever, with an industry-rocking $15.5 million take on a budget of $360,000; it furthermore understands that if they are only pretending to be Nazis, it's because they're not disciplined enough to actually be Nazis.  The difference between this and The Wild One is that The Wild One was laser-focused on sympathizing with its inarticulate biker brute; The Wild Angels just... hates them.  It doesn't hate them without any convolutionit's not exactly a screed, and never quite feels like onebut it pretty much does hate their guts.  It also somewhat hates you for thinking they're cool.  It's bizarre that the Venice Hells Angels actually helped make it (otherwise Corman probably wouldn't have dared), but distinguishing between positive publicity and negative publicity was never the organization's strength.  On the other hand, Corman claims they threatened to kill him afterwards, which I don't necessarily believe, but it would make sense.  The film was specifically prompted, anyway, by two unrelated events: the 1963 Hells Angels rally at Bass Lake that had resulted in the defiling of a church (which I'm dubious actually happened) and the 1965 funeral pageantry given to a chapter leader, Mother Miles, buried in his home town of Sacramento (which went completely peacefully); Corman, being a sensationalist before anything else, glues those two events together.

To have a funeral, of course, we first need a corpse.  So: after a clever bit of ambiguous symbolisma little kid on a tricycle encountering an Angel on a motorcycle, and subsequently hustled back to the safety of his yard by his frightened, (over?)protective mom, her fenceposts framed as either a fortress or a cage, and a hard cut to the Angel, liberated (or desolated) by the roadwe begin our story proper, with Heavenly Blues (Peter Fonda), the president of the Angels of San Pedro, visiting his best Angel pal, The Loser (Bruce Dern), at his job.  His arrival gets Loser fired, but Loser doesn't give a shit, and even his wife Gaysh (Dern's wife, Diane Ladd), is only briefly upset, because Blues has received intelligence on the disposition of Loser's recently-stolen bike.  It turns out it was the Mexican gang down in Mecca, and so Blues, Loser, Blues's old lady Mike (Nancy Sinatra), and the rest of the Angels head south, and, with a little light racism and some pummeling, the Angels make their reprisal.  However, this brings down the heat, and Loser steals a police bike, and while the other Angels return to their campsite to party hearty, Loser is gunned down, not-quite-fatally, but the prognosis isn't good.  After some deliberation, Blues launches a rescue mission.  It goes poorly: with trickery and Sinatra's unsurprising ability to look like a square, they retrieve Loser from the hospital, but he dies within minutes.  All this has gained them is that a nurse can identify Blues, entirely because of the one good thing we ever see him doat least for anybody other than Loser, although even that's disputablenamely stopping an Angel from raping her.  Blues is therefore a fugitive, but he isn't going to skip his friend's funeral, though numerous people would've been better off if he had.

That's an orderly-enough narrative (credited to Charles B. Griffith, though it's known Peter Bogdanovich rewrote it at Corman's behest), and it's only 93 minutes, so, in fact, it does proceed in an orderly-enough fashion.  It still feels like it's kind of unfocused, and while I'm not dead-certain Corman intended exactly that, that's how it shakes out, with Corman's usual willingness to throw in dog's-ears scenelets aligning pretty perfectly with the unfocused psychology of his antiheroes.  It winds up doing a lot more than you'd expect an outlaw biker B-flick would, which is intentional.  A useful tell, though this is my least favorite thing about the movie because it's so fucking artless and stupid, is when Mike upbraids Blues for "changing" since Loser's death (an event that occurred approximately twenty-four hours earlier).  But otherwise it's reasonably subtle, allowing itself almost by default to become a study of small group leadership at the ass-end of society, depriving Blues of his best friend and closest ally, and so increasingly depriving him of his authority at the same time he's becoming increasingly unfit to lead, so that out of vulnerability, full-on emotional freefall, or both, he finally makes some wildly self-destructive swings, even though, until now, he's always seemed composed.  Then it throws in some character study for good measure, as it also becomes increasingly obvious he doesn't even dig this scene anymore, and he's forcing it.

The Wild Angels is, accordingly, much smarter than it looks.  That's thanks to Bogdanovich and Corman, but also Fonda, for whom this was a breakout role, confirming his deliberate redefinition of himself as Hollywood's countercultural counterweight to, basically, his dad, and there's something instantaneously productive about Henry Fonda's prettyboy son (chip off the old block) in a modernized Western, where he's both blackhat and hero, and the modernization means that a "Western," properly-speaking, can't work anymore.  As it happens, Fonda's Blues was a miraculous accident: it was supposed to be George Chakiris, who lied to Corman about being able to ride a motorcycle, so he got summarily dismissed and Fonda, previously lined-up to play Loser, got promoted.  This had the knock-on effect of putting Dern in that role; it's really difficult to imagine Fonda in it instead, which I mean as a compliment to Dern.  But it provides immediate verisimilitude, for starters because they could both ride (if there's any rear projection here, except maybe during Loser's wipe-out, I couldn't tell you where it is), but also because you have a pair of actors given the task of being evil mirror versions of drugged-out hippies, and it helps so much that it's a pair of guys who were drugged-out hippies, but were also professional enough to, like, show up for work.  I'm sure it's not all docudrama accuratethe women's fashions are too beatnik-y, perhapsbut the Angels' costumes seem right, the lingo seems right, the sociology seems largely right (albeit heightened), and little about it feels phony even as Corman goes out of his way to libel his subject, which wrenches some sympathy for these devils out of you anyway, because that guy in the casket draped with the NSDAP flag was still somebody's brother.

But I was speaking of Fonda, who keeps finding new ways to be inwardly diffident and very clearly trying (and failing) to envision some kind of future, yet still commanding allegiance with a seemingly-unflappable charisma; or, at least, until it gets flapped pretty hard, when confronted with some very basic questions from the Main Cop, as incarnated by a preacher dragooned to officiate at Loser's funeral (Frank Maxwell, whose flawlessly-angular stolidity is pretty great itself).  Fonda's eyes now betray him, revealing that his specious bullshit about needing to be free to be free, while persuasive to his followers, isn't persuading him anymore.  It leads to some spectacularly defeated body language in the denouement, though in between there's what feels like the big reason Corman made his movie, to just be as gross and edgy and nauseatingly cynical about the whole trajectory of America's youth culture as he could get away with.

Corman's in fine form here, and by 1966 I think only those with an intractable bias against him would be able to claim he hadn't become a crackerjack filmmaker.  There's that suffusive loosenessnothing ever feels too determined, even in Bogdanovich's (if this was him) strong second-unit photography of the highways and low-rent habitationbut also a lot of compositional intelligence, too, a tendency towards a slight voyeurism in the way shots get arranged, with crap in the foreground, like we're peering into a secret world.  When the occasion calls for semi-psychedelic wooziness, such wooziness now came naturally to Corman; Richard Moore's naturalistic, somewhat-oily cinematography is aces, too.  But there's some tight stuff here: the editing on Loser's wipe-out, alternating between POV shots and axial shots of Dern convincingly being a freak with a bullet in him, adds up to make a terrifically effective chase that is, still, the last real action in what was apparently received as a rousingly-populist crime movie.  (The more mystifying part is how Corman makes it feel like deadly violence is always incipient, even though this is it.)  The movie can range into the artsy-fartsily opaque: there's an apparently-pivotal sequence where Blues has a little trouble with his bike's starter and for some reason the sound design places a cacophony of howling cats on the soundtrack to accompany his unclear mental state"herding cats," maybeand I love how oblique this is.

But the centerpiece is as far from oblique as possible, about as subtle as a chain-whipping: the funeral, at Blues's instigation, becomes a sacrilegous bacchanal, and the goal was to go as far as possiblethe beating and humiliation of a priest; gang rape; the more prosaic fractures of mere rutting adultery; and, finally, corpse desecration, because you can take the Corman out of the Poe, but not the Poe out of the Cormanand also for as long as possible.  The scene is unnervingly long, longer than it needs to be to get the mere point across; it wants you to sit with it, soak in this unholy parody of a hippie dance party shot with the same basic language as the earlier, somewhat-more-wholesome Angels party, except now more leeringly and drunkenly.  For all its provocations, the most assaultive thing about it is that there are somewhere between two and four songs simultaneously playing on the soundtrack during it (it depends on whether you count diegetic bongos and nondiegetic guitars as "the same song"), party music intercut with a much more mournful song, alongside the gibbering weirdos' dialogue.  Ultimately, things outlast the party song, so it starts over, because Corman isn't done, which is "the wrong" decision but, after all, what's "right" here?  (The music from Mike Curb is kind of up and down overall; it's only 1966, and it's difficult to describe the incidental riding music as nearly hard-going enough to suit demoniac bikers, especially the one that sounds like "Mickey.")  Anyway, this sequence is complete formal chaos; it's comparable to the climax of Red Death, but without the medieval fantasyland, or cosmic beings, or obvious choreography, just a lot of despicable humanity, rubbing your nose in how it isn't actually fun, and even if you did initially find it fun, you're going to get tired of it, and how much time it spends on canted angles and wiggling butts and juxtaposing that big-ass eye-searing Nazi banner against the austere Protestant cross behind it.  It's probably a little over-the-top in its moralizing; but because it's basically Blues's fault, it drives the irony of that previously-mentioned denouement, whereupon he's revolted by himself, by the dishonor of it all, and by the failure of his last, incompetent attempt to give his friend a dignity in death he never got in life.

I'm unsettled on The Wild Angels: it's great, but exactly why (or even how) is hard to pin down.  Why it was a hit, I have no earthly idea.  (It prefigures, but not really, Bonnie & Clyde, a movie I abhor, albeit more because the Barrow Gang are annoying dipshits than because of its proto-70s nihilism.)  The movie is not, anyway, "fun" in the term's ordinary meaning, and I found that disorienting from Corman.  But it's got something, both a vibe and an argument, and even if my initial reaction was correctit's a movie better built to prosecute a harangue than be a storyit prosecutes that harangue well, with a certain filthied humanism, and it combines for some real high strangeness here.

Score: 9/10


  1. I am very, very glad you’ve reviewed this film so that I don’t have to watch it myself: also, thanks to this review, I now have a pithy response to any idiot pushing Nazi symbolism as a hot trend (“Well then I’ll start wearing a star”*).

    *I like to think that this gets the point across even when one isn’t Jewish.

    1. I had to show some slight discipline and cut this down because of the digressions I was making about the resonances of the late 1960s with the early 2020s. But one thing I had wanted to keep in this vein was a footnote about HST, who's weirdly soothing inasmuch as he keeps yammering on about the impending collapse of civilization, but, you know, it's sixty years later. Doesn't mean our latterday doomers are wrong, but at least they've been wrong before.