Should a few young crazies not be too busy lobbing abuses back at Spiro Agnew and abetting his hustling of an overentertained electorate, I could recommend an oily film of real obscenity to them. The crazies and the Vice-President doubtlessly deserve each other on the hustings, but I could wish they would all slither into a darkened theatre and learn something instead.
But what to recommend to lighten the screen? Certainly not The Strawberry Statement, Getting Straight, or R. P. M. Possibly some crazies could stare unblinking at these aging "radical chic" films, but I doubt even they are that narcissistic. Earlier If, Easy Rider, and Zabriskie Point had some art and honesty to explore the vacuity and banality as well as the virtues and vitalities of some of the young. But the new genre of youth films — melding elements of the older western, gangster, war, and musical genres — has been trivialized ever since.
Rather let us turn to Joe. My fellow Americans, I give you the quintessential kill-a-hippie-flick. Unless I missed my count while gagging, eleven young people get strangled or shot to death in it. Easy Rider is "Andy Hardy Goes Motorcycling" by comparison. And the tragic realities of Kent State and Jackson State, if possible, pale beside this pernicious fantasy for the unyoung, uncolored, and unpoor majority of our country.
The plot of Joe is simplicity itself. A wealthy advertizing executive kicks and chokes to death a young pusher who is shacking up and shooting up with his willing and wayward daughter. Improbably, he ducks into a lower-middle-class bar while running from his crime and blurts it out to a boisterous drinker on the stool next to him.
Behind the drinking glass is of course the working class. Enter the title role, Joe, a hard-hat, and a character with not much more depth than that stereotype. Joe has moments of humanity given to him, but more often he serves as a cliché maligning manual laborers even as it panders to them. I am relieved that my grandfathers, one a die maker who raised roses and one a bolt counter who wrote poems, died before this film was released.
The remainder of Joe is given up to the strange friendship of the establishmentarian and the hard-hat against their common enemy, the young. Joe envies, even salivates over, the first murder and infuses the father with the animality he needs to believe he has begun noble deeds. Mutually fortifying the courage of their conventions, the film ends with their both slaying a whole commune of kids, including the father's daughter. A final solution to Renaissance hair, drugs, and youthful sexations—and the free-floating future-shock of their elders—is found in a blaze of bullets. It is no film for children.
Significantly, such an excess of firepower is brought to us by the Cannon Group. The producers of Cannon films first made a small fortune from sexploitations before turning to films of "some redeeming social importance." They do not now outdistance their beginnings, and more than their budgets remain low.
Many of the lines in Joe are taken from some pirate's parrot, and there are all the obligatory scenes. Marijuana, speed, and horse? No turn is left unstoned. Nudity in the tub for two, sex orgies, and urination? Enter the French postcard of a technological society. Violence? For openers there is a skull-crushing in a bloody flurry of instant-replays, and for closers there is the shot-gun blasting of the daughter in chilling stop-frame. One technical cliché after another is conscripted to shore up and complement the script.* I bolted from the theatre gasping for fresh air and longing for Bonnie and Clyde now that we have need of their restraint.
Now, why dwell on a film so cinematically lame and morally leprous? And why recommend it to young crazies, or more hopefully, to the greater number of thoughtful young people concerned for their country? Because for all its hyping of the electorate, Joe is a cold, clear exploration and exploitation of resentment. And it could move some of the young to ask how anybody could get to be like Joe and how Joe gets to be used like Joe can be used. If Joe serves no useful purpose other than raising that question, it will have "some redeeming social importance." Surely the young should not be left so ignorant of the past that they see nothing unusual in the present.
Suppose Joe is nearing fifty. If we look back, behind the film, we could see a gathering sense of doubt and darkness in his life from his birth. At nine, the depression. His childhood world was one of widespread unemployment, and possibly he touched cold and tasted hunger in his own home. The dance marathon of survival—They Shoot Horses, Don't They?—began in his first decade. In his second decade Joe went to manual work—possibly not through high school and surely not to college—and his forced, hastened labor drove home the lessons of privation and struggle. At "free, white, and twenty-one," World War II. What-ever virtues of gallantry and courage war may arouse in a man—Patton—it ultimately sullied G.I. Joe. He learned to hate in order to live. If he still hums some stanzas of "We're Going to Find a Fellow who is Yellow and Beat Him Red, White, and Blue," it is no simple racism and love of violence singing in him. He lost buddies in ways more tearing and wrenching than losing them to drugs, suicide, jail, and Canada.
World War II concluded darkly under that ominous mushroom cloud. Joe came home and tried to catch up on his late start toward a trade, a home, and a family. The fifties were halcyon years only in contrast to the sixties. Living those years, Joe had to digest the fact that two oceans had dried up as sanctuaries surrounding the United States. There were nuclear missiles aimed at his country and, he was led to fear, almost no one but subversives within it. When he stepped "over thirty," the cold war turned hot. If he was not called to kill "gooks" in Korea, too, he still had to puzzle out some meaning for a war which was not a war—M*A*S*H*—in which his best beloved Pacific commander was sacked when he was too determined to "win" in a way Joe could understand.
At thirty-seven, Joe heard sputnik's beep taunting his country's technological superiority. Joe taxed himself heavily, if foolishly, to put his man on the moon to say it isn't so. At forty, just when life begins, Joe's uneasy peace was disturbed by those "colored" people who appeared to want nothing more than what he's got in his home, schools, and union.
Even crazies know Joe's torturous fifth decade. To be fifty today and like Joe is to have lived a life of constant, mounting uncertainty and of searching for nothing more than a little peace and quiet. Joe is surely not to be pitied, or made saintly, or given a special stone ahead of the rest of us in the cemetery. When the present young reach fifty, they will have endured years far more trying for their country and their humanity than has Joe today. But he is to be understood and, I think, respected.
Joe will not help the young much toward that end. Probably a critical viewing of films of the late thirties, the forties, and the fifties on the insomniac hours of television would be better studies in both the mythology and social history of America. But Joe is brutally clear on one point. While much of what Joe has become will not be helpful for the future, his rage and resentment can be fatal for it. Some of the young who want to live should see Joe.
*That script should be published in balloons for some cartoonist. It often seemed the creation of a committee of understandably unemployed sociologists setting a typology and a model against a construct. Or, RED NECK, WHITE ETHNIC, BLUE COLLAR and ORGANIZATION MAN versus ALIENATED YOUTH