Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Pick-Up (1975): or, Swingin' in the Swamp

Here is the complete plot synopsis of Pick-Up from the back of the Deimos DVD Welcome to the Grindhouse Double Feature:

"An off-beat story about two young women whose lives are forever changed when they hitchhike a ride in a mobile home."

And strictly speaking, that's accurate--or we assume it to be, anyway, since there's really no way at the end that we can tell whether the events depicted here have indeed changed the girls' lives forever. But basically that's the plot--two girls, a mobile home, and a hitchhike ride. But allow me to draw your attention to one little hyphenated word in that synopsis: "off-beat."

Never have seven letters and a punctuation mark encompassed so much entertaining weirdness.

Quick, how many movies can you name that open with a tight shot of a huge rectangular belt buckle? How many of those follow that opening with a slow pan down the button-fly and then the tell-tale sound effects of a beside-the-road pit-stop? I can name only one, and this is it.

Groovy dude Chuck is the driver/roadside whizzard, who is in the middle of a cross-country mobile home delivery and soul-searching road trip. Thanks to the Fickle Bladder of Destiny, he has stopped at just the right place and just the right time to meet up with Carol and Maureen, two free-spirit hippie-chicks sitting in the waist-high weeds and communing with nature and child-like Carol's boo-boo kitty. Carol skips up to solicit a ride from Chuck, despite Maureen's spiritual objections. Chuck is an Aries, she can tell by looking, and with Aries in ascention and passing through the house of Saturn or Pancakes or something or other, he's giving off a real bad vibe that Maureen does not at all dig, not in the least. Carol pooh-poohs Maureen's astrological reservations, however, and soon enough they're boarding the bus, destination unknown.

There it is, ladies.

Once on the bus, Carol and Chuck sit up front and proceed to get high while listening to groovy tunes on the mobile home's sound system. We quickly learn that this is indeed a high-tech transportation machine, as it boasts not only a hi-fi stereo but also a mobile phone! (It's a rotary, kitchen-wall-phone model bolted to the vehicle's frame right behind the driver's seat.) Chuck gets a call from his boss, played in dripping-with-fried-chicken-grease Southerner mode by Tom Quinn, who seems to be channelling the spirit of Charles "Doc Hopper" Durning from The Muppet Movie, four years in the future! The boss threatens to withhold Chuck's $20 bonus if he doesn't make it to Tallahassee by nightfall. Meanwhile the instantly-baked Carol is go-go dancing for a truckload of libidinous hillbillies on the road in front of them, shakin' her money-maker and flashing her breasts for their amusement. Maureen sits in the back, morosely reading tarot cards and predicting gloom and doom. Chuck and Carol predictably ignore her Cassandra-like warnings.

Things go awry when a hurricane strikes (out of a clear blue sky! Seriously, all we get are stormy sound effects over a sparsely-clouded skyline while a Howard Cosell-like radio weatherman details the path of the tempest) and the freeway is closed to through traffic, leading Chuck to take a detour into the heart of the Everglades. Thanks to the heavy if invisible rains, once they get a few miles in the bus gets stuck in the mud up to its axle, and our trio of counter-culture travellers are stuck in the swamp, miles from nowhere.

It's here in the swamp that the psychoactive drugs that the characters are on (and presumably the filmmakers too) start to have their most serious effects. Chuck and Carol prance off into the undergrowth for fun and frolic, while Maureen does some morbid meditation. It's not long before Chuck and Carol are both buck naked, apparently having found the one square acre of the Everglades where mosquitoes and deer ticks are not indigenous. Over the next hour we see the Adam and Eve-like pair going at it in several paradisaical settings, including but not limited to a prehistoric-looking fern grove, a surprisingly crystal-clear swimming hole, and in the wildest segment on a huge sex swing that they must have fashioned from hanging creepers and a couple of old sticks! Hey, if you've got it, why not exploit it?


Meanwhile Maureen is having a trip of her own, not quite as jolly but just as entertaining. Wandering away from the relative safety of the mobile home, the spiritual-minded hippie chick is not at all surprised to discover a marble altar to the god Apollo, where she is entrusted by a white-robed priestess with the ultra-phallic Scepter of Apollo, for reasons that are deliciously unclear. Honored, Maureen throws off her own white robe and writhes on the altar like a living, sexy sacrifice. Later, back at the mobile home, she receives an out-of-nowhere visit from a campaigning politician (complete with straw hat and oversized "Vote for Me!" button), who panders to her every political opinion in the name of getting her vote. (Maureen is notably unsurprised by the politico's going door-to-door in the middle of the swamp; I guess once you've held the Scepter of Apollo, it takes a lot to shock you.) Once the political/social commentary requirement is fulfilled, we're ready to get back to our regularly scheduled program.

During this psychedelic, surreal section of the film we also get the backstories of each of our characters, told in flashback to each of their tender youths. (You can tell the girls are young, because they wear their hair in pigtails!) We see music-student Maureen molested by a priest at her religious conservatory, leading to her rejection of Christianity and embrace of alternative religions. We see a teenaged Carol acting out against her repressive mother by going into the woods with a group of boys in the ZZ-Top Mobile, then inviting the dumpiest and blondest of them (who it must be said looks about 15 in real life) to take her virginity. And finally we see young Chuck, the HAM-radio enthusiast (?) being berated by his gravel-voiced mother for some reason or other. So that explains everything.

As the movie speeds toward its conclusion, however, things take a turn for the sinister. Searching for her oversexed friends, Maureen goes into the swamp and meets one of the most disturbing clowns in cinema history. The jester's silent, mime-show actions and slasher-mask visage will haunt your nightmares and make you view every bunch of balloons with suspicion, I assure you. Somehow Chuck and Maureen end up together, and they make wild pagan love on the altar of Apollo. Meanwhile, Carol is found and pursued by the group of hillbillies from the pick-up truck at the beginning, who want to see a little more of her show. Just when it seems all of Maureen's awful predictions are coming true, though, the movie takes a twist you probably saw coming and brings us full circle right back to the beginning. Carol and Maureen re-board the bus, the worst behind them, and Chuck drops it in gear and heads toward the horizon...but why is there now a sinister bunch of balloons attached to the back of the bus? (Dun-dun-DUNNN!!!!)

Don't sleep. Don't ever sleep again.

Pick-up is an awful lot of fun, but only if you're in the right mood for it. If you're looking for engaging story, great acting, or competent filmmaking, then you'd best look elsewhere. However, if you're in the mood for drugged-out nonsensical plotting, laughably over-the-top performances, and loads and loads of gratuitous nudity and sex, then you're in the right place. 2.25 thumbs for this exploitation odessy oddity. Dig it, man.


Karswell said...

Sounds cool... off-beat is my middle name.

Inspector Winship said...

I was too embarrassed to by this double feature at Best Buy since the gal behind the counter was kinda cute and the titles of the double bill didn't scream "Art House Film." I'm a wuss I guess.

db said...

This is one of my all-time favorite movies, and seeing it at an impressionable age quite possibly forever shaped my tastes. I'll admit that some people probably find it over the top, but the student film quality is part of what I love so much about it -- they just keep throwing things in the mix and don't stop to care if it's "coherent" or "tasteful" or whatever, and god bless 'em for that -- it's one of those films that really takes the promise of a film like Easy Rider seriously. Because of this we don't get a lot of pandering and boring conversations making clear that the Everglades has become the externalized shared consciousnes of the three stars and we can go straight to the action, which is exactly what more films need. I suspect most of the people involved in this film knew it was going to be the only film they ever made, and so like a great '60s 7" single they put everything they had into it.

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