Saturday, May 3, 2008
To watch most of the films that came out of the late 60s and early 70s, you’d think that the whole of America was jamming to Hendrix, getting stoned, rebelling against the establishment and dropping out of society. Films like Easy Rider, Gimme Shelter, Medium Cool, and Midnight Cowboy have so ingrained an image of that specific time and place (a lot of it no doubt untrue) in the collective unconscious that it has become a sort of de facto reality. With this in mind, it’s easy to forget that the radical shift going on in America at the time was only half the story, and that even as the younger generation was shaking up the culture, there was a large part of society that was still clinging to the old ways, resentful of all the sudden changes.
As played by Peter Boyle, the title character of 1970’s Joe represents that strata of society as much as Fonda and Hopper’s Wyatt and Billy represented the counterculture. A hard-working WWII veteran and pro-establishment right-winger, Joe Curran is disgusted by the peace and love generation, by blacks, gays, and liberals-- anyone that doesn’t embody the old-time patriotic ideals that he sees as making America great. He is the very picture of intolerance and bigotry. When he’s not at home in the basement of his modest home-- which he has turned into a shrine of patriotism complete with war memorabilia, flags, and a large collection of firearms-- he’s getting drunk at the American Bar and Grill (where else?) and ranting to the bartender about the dismal tide of hippies that have hijacked his country, spouting off lines like “forty-two percent of all liberals are queer. The Wallace people did a poll.”
It is at this bar that Joe first encounters Bill Compton (Dennis Patrick), a wealthy ad-man who seems to share his views. Compton’s daughter Melissa (Susan Sarandon in her first role) has shacked up with a smooth-talking hippie--a sometime painter and full time drug-dealer--and has developed a heroin habit. When an infuriated Compton goes to confront the boy, his disgust and rage get the better of him, and he inadvertently kills him. Panicked but not altogether distraught, Compton confesses his crime to Joe, who proves to be a most sympathetic listener. “It was like being back in the war, wasn’t it?” Joe tells his fellow veteran. “After, you feel bad and good all at the same time.” Joe sees the murder as nothing less than a humanitarian act, an extermination of a bothersome pest. For him, one less hippie on the streets is nothing to grieve over, and his encouragements help to soothe Compton’s conscience and stir up the other’s own disgust with the counterculture that claimed his daughter. Despite their different social backgrounds, the two quickly form a friendship based around their mutual discontent-- a bond that bridges even the biggest social gaps. So when Melissa goes missing after discovering what her father has done, Joe, now complicit in the crime, is the first to step up and lead Compton into the wilds of Greenwich Village in search of her.
Although the years have dated it quite badly, from its overuse of music to the often-silly photography, Joe is a thoughtful and not easily pinned-down look at the turbulent times of the late-60s. More than perhaps any film I’ve seen, it manages to capture the ambivalence and chaos of the split between the establishment and the counterculture with a respect and subtlety that’s not often afforded movies about the period. Upon first hearing Joe’s twisted, epithet-laced rant at the film’s beginning, I was worried that the movie would be so heavy-handed and didactic as to be unwatchable, but after this fiery opening it falls into a rhythm of surprising realism.
What makes Joe such an excellent film is that it constantly complicates and reinterprets its theme and its characters in such a way we can come to no easy answers or conclusions-- it’s a film that understands that it’s operating in moral and political gray areas, and director John G. Avildsen (Rocky, The Karate Kid) respects his audience enough to let them enter that realm along with the characters. We quickly come to detest and perhaps pity the ignorant Joe, but thanks to Boyle’s brave and detailed performance, we are never able to completely write him off. Just when you are ready to declare him an evil bastard, he’ll be given a line of dialogue or a moment that reasserts his humanity, as in a scene where he and Compton compare their respective careers and a drunken Joe solemnly asks “do you ever feel like your whole life is just one big crock of shit?” Boyle’s biggest accomplishment is that he manages to hint at all this despite presenting the most despicable and intolerant of outside appearances.
It is this uncertainty about their own viewpoints and identities that makes the scenes between Compton and Curran so effective. Compton, for instance, realizes the hypocrisy of his comfortable office job, which he describes as an ongoing race to see who can push the most paper, but like Joe, he sees it as a sacrifice he made in order to provide for his family. If any explanation can be given for why the duo has such disdain for the youth movement, it boils down to a certain bitterness and envy-- the kids aren’t playing by the rules that the older generations have begrudgingly been obliged to follow. When during their search for Melissa the men find themselves at a drug-fueled orgy (which Joe comically calls an “or-gee”), they don’t hesitate to join in. As this and some of their lines seem to hint at, what really bothers them about hippies is not the excessive lifestyle, but the sense of entitlement-- what Joe sees as the conceit that they believe they deserve such a way of life. While this realization certainly doesn't exonerate either man for his despicable behavior, it is yet another way in which Joe repeatedly complicates the accepted premise of what the struggle of the 60s was really about.
For all its thematic realism and its 60s excess, Joe eventually comes to what was for me an unsatisfying conclusion. It’s neat, clever, and utterly terrifying in its implications, but it seems to run in a different thematic direction from what had preceded it. It’s a great ending that ends up feeling like it belongs to another movie. In the end, the film’s overarching theme, which had been somewhat amorphous throughout, comes dangerously close to just being outright muddled. But even though Joe is an imperfect film, it's should still be considered a substantial accomplishment, if only for the honest and brutal way that it approaches its subject matter. For all its flaws and outdated style, Joe is a film that deserves to be watched and placed alongside Easy Rider and the others in the pantheon of great films about the 60s. It's a perceptive and complicated movie that shouldn't be written off as a mere relic of the time. It’s rare that you see a film that is so honest with the evils--however horrifying-- of all its characters.