Every now and then I almost forget just how different the world of 70s filmmaking was from the world we now live in. Especially with so many recent films striving to emulate the look and feel of movies from the "grindhouse" era, it's easy for someone who watches a lot of these films to succumb to the fallacy that these stories are just older, worse-looking, sometimes even slightly quaint versions of the movies littering our multiplexes in the present day. Perhaps this isn't true of some of the grittier horror or most insane sci-fi of the 70s, but when it's a screwball road movie or a fluffy little comedy, it's easy to imagine that the movie, even if not inhabiting the same neighborhood as the gag-a-minute taste-free comedies that the Farrelly Brothers or even National Lampoon make their livings on, it nonetheless lives in the same filmic zip-code, just a few decades down the block.
Then something like Larry G. Brown's 1971 biker "comedy" Pink Angels finds its way into my DVD player, and I'm suddenly reminded that not only are we not on the same street, we might very well be on different planets.
For literally 98% of its 81 minute running time, Pink Angels plays like a zany spoof of the biker movie subgenre, whose formula had already been set in stone by such classics as The Wild Ones and Easy Rider. The 70s are littered with imitations and re-imaginings of those movies--some featuring girl gangs, some undead ne'er-do-wells, some even freakin' werewolves--so it makes sense that some enterprising soul would plumb the comedic depths of such a popular and lucrative type of movie. Hell, the poster even features madcap art in the style of Mad Magazine, possibly by one of Mad's famous artists. (I can't tell for sure--my expertise and google-fu fail me here, and there seems to be a dearth of information on the internets about this flick.) And it's funny--not often in the laugh-out-loud way, but at least in the smirk-and-mild-chuckle way.
But then--at least for this viewer--that last 2% takes SUCH a hard left-hand turn, it threw me COMPLETELY off-balance and made me question whether I and the filmmaker were laughing at the same things, and if so, whether that says something very unflattering about me as a person. I DEFINITELY wasn't in Kansas anymore.
I've been lucky lately in my ongoing quest to watch movies with hilariously overblown songs over the opening credits, and Pink Angels is no exception. After an enigmatic but soon-to-be-explained opening scene, we get a patriotic travelin' song that sounds like it was performed by Don McLean's less talented but much more earnest and taking-himself-seriously brother. "I see America, she's just around the bend! The Star-Spangled Banner...just lookin' for a friend!" It's striving SO hard to be inspiring and moving, you kind of have to go along with it and be inspired and moved...TO LAUGHTER.
As the song plays, a group of bikers gather in a field of gigantic concrete culverts, rallying around a flag and getting ready to start their picaresque journey. Each biker seems rougher and more intimidatingly attired than the last--we're talking rebel flag patches, skulls and crossbones, and even some prominently displayed swastikas for good measure--until finally the group of six clamber onto their 3 bikes and sidecars and hit the highway, leading to more travelin' tunes and some already by this time cliched shots of the wild men on the road.
True to formula, the bikers soon pick up a lonesome hitchhiker, who is obviously intimidated by their virile and threatening masculinity. With the naive hitchhiker hanging on for dear life, the gang rolls into an A&W cafe and intimidates the staff into giving them mass quantities of cheeseburgers, hot dogs, and root beer. The boys talk gruffly about their mean machines for a while, until there's an argument between two of them that looks like it'll turn ugly--when suddenly a FOOD FIGHT breaks out! It only takes a few flying frankfurters and some girly screams from the combatants as they spray suggestive jets of mustard and ketchup on one another before the hitchhiker tumbles to what's going on:
"Jesus Christ!" he yells. "You're all FAGGOTS!"
Yes, there you have our set-up, ladies and gents. This is a rough, tough biker gang, made up entirely of homosexuals and cross-dressers! After the hitcher runs away (in considerably more terror than you suspect he would have had the guys JUST been white supremacists or Nazis), the homo-bros shrug it off and get back on the road to more groovin' 70s tunes, but now with a knowing wink to an audience that's in on the joke.
And actually, as spoof premises go, it's not that bad. Consider the gang's first formulaic encounter with the podunk fuzz in one of the small towns they rumble through. The cops come out of their car with more firepower than Rambo, after radio-ing to HQ an inflated number of "long-haired freaks" they've pulled over. Brandishing a shotgun in the most phallic way imaginable, one cop asks the leader Mike (John Alderman) why they're headed down the coast.
Cop: "What are you gonna do in LA?"
Mike: "A BALL."
Cop: "What kind of a ball?"
Mike (in Clint Eastwood "Make My Day" inflection): "A COTILLION. A LADIES' cotillion. You understand?"
The cops have to release them when their licenses come up clean, but the basic modus operandi is now set--the boys travel across country on their way to a drag show in L.A., in which their beauty boy Ronnie (Maurice Warfield, the only black guy in the gang) is set to compete wearing a gown designed by the extremely fey, wiry little troublemaker of the group, Henri (the hilarious Robert Biheller)--presumably their tough-guy biker outfits are a disguise designed to keep the squares off their backs. Along the way they have various adventures according to the standard biker movie formula, only with the twist that they're all "cupcakes."
Also along for the ride: portly, fake-bearded muscle Arnold (Bruce Kimball), who nonetheless has perfect diction and a giant vocabulary; Arnold's lover Eddie (Henry Olek), a poet sporting John Lennon glasses and a terrible Liverpudlian accent, and David (Tom Basham), the best-looking guy in the group who is always putting off the advances of the opposite sex, often unsuccessfully. (A scene where he tells of having to satisfy the desires of a female benefactor in order to get new spark plugs for his bike is fairly amusing and typical.)
Running parallel to this narrative thread are the adventures of The General (George T. Marshall), a crazy militia man with a Patton complex who spends his days listening to what we'd now call ultra-conservative talk radio, preaching about the un-American evils of "freaks" and "long-haired bastards!" (Marshall looks exactly like an American version of Graham Chapman's General in the Monty Python "Precision Drilling" sketch, and seemingly not for nothing--like Chapman's character, the general is unknowingly surrounded by flaming gays.) The General has some men guarding his compound--obviously a suburban home--and a longsuffering secretary named Hildegard (Karen Bouchard) with one of the most amazing 70s water-buffalo hairdos it's been my pleasure to witness.
The scenes with the General are entirely random (him listening to his biker-hating broadcasts, planning what to do should the Commies attack his compound, having Hildegard time him while he comically takes apart and reassembles his pistol blindfolded), and his story line doesn't cross paths with the Pink Angels' until the very, very end.
As I said before, the jokes here are more smirk-inducing than gut-busting, but I still found myself pleasantly entertained by all the broadly comedic shenanigans the boys get up to. It helps that all the actors have good-natured, "Isn't this a gas?" charisma to spare, particularly Alderman and Basham; and Biheller's over-the-top flaming fashion designer turn is funny because it completely lacks any of the mean-spirited ridicule that so often ruins such characterizations. Everybody's having a good time and nobody's hating, so it works--or so it seems, at least.
Something interesting about Pink Angels is the way that large sections of the film seem to be entirely ad-libbed, or if not, at least Brown was willing to let the cameras roll and catch all the flubs and recoveries his actors put out there. Several scenes with obvious non-actors are rather strange and interesting to me too, usually when the boys are vamping it up in a grocery, a dress shop, or a shoe store. Brown even takes a few seconds in the grocery store to interview a bystander about what she's seen, with obviously unscripted results. Not exactly gonzo, but still, I was digging it.
The boys' adventures along the road are hit and miss, but the ones that hit work well enough to keep you going. Standouts include an encounter with a group of well-aged call girls at one roadside attraction, Arnold and Eddie's amazing exchange with a gum-chewing topless waitress at their LA hotel (I don't know *where* she was holding all the drugs she offers them) that contains one of the most stupidly hilarious foley inserts I've heard in a while, and a scene near the end where all the guys shed their biker skins and slip into something more comfortable and comical for a night on the town.
But the movie's best episode is the most narratively significant as well: again taking a page from the Biker Movie 101 playbook, Brown has his effeminate bikers meet up with a rival biker gang, who despite the tell-tale signs (a picnic table with candelabras and full formal place settings at their camp, for instance) have NO IDEA that the Pink Angels are gayer than your average leather-clad bikers. The Rival Gang leader (Michael Pataki) is a real hoot, the sort of guy who'll look at a lineup of call girls and pick the senior citizen hooker just for kicks--exactly the kind of grizzly, truculent bastard you'd want leading your gang, despite his unfashionable sock cap. But children of the 70s will be most interested in the fact that his right-hand man is none other than a very young, extremely buff Dan "Grizzly Adams" Haggerty! I guess you could say this was the beginning of his fascination with "bears," IYKWIM...
Things start out sociably enough when the two gangs come together, but they go south quickly when, after an evening of hard partying, the rivals awaken to find the Pink Angels gone and themselves in garish whore makeup with ribbons in their hair! Not at all down with homoerotic humor, the Rival Gang Leader vows that when he catches up with them again, "I'll KILL those bananas!"
Well, the rival gang does catch up with "those cupcakes!" again late in the movie, but the expected gang fight doesn't happen, exactly. Completely fooled by the boys' drag disguises--which is part of the joke, as only David could really pass, and then only if you were cross-eyed and retarded--they all saddle up and head to a party somewhere else; though due to bad directions, they somehow end up at the compound of The General, whose existence by this point most viewers will nearly have forgotten. Again, the fascist soldier and his minions are played for broad yuks, as when the gatekeeper reports the approach of the bikers via a rotary telephone secreted inside the General's mailbox!
The General is also fooled by the Angels' get-up, leading to a funny exchange between him and Henri, and then a reveal that shocks the General into even greater lunacy. Staring with crazy-eyes at the now de-wigged biker in an evening dress, the General recalls via voice-over a threat he made earlier in the movie, now given a new context: "I'd love to get my hands on some of those long-haired freaks!" The General smiles, smacks his riding crop into his hand, then breaks the fourth wall and stares straight at the camera, almost but not quite winking...
I hesitate to go too far into the realm of hyperbole here, but I was honestly shocked, startled, and more than a little disturbed at the direction the movie takes here, literally in the last 2 minutes. I thought I knew what kind of movie I was watching--I was familiar with its conventions, I had an idea what to expect, I even felt I could picture the very next scene after the General's smile. My ending was consistent with the lighthearted, easy-going humor of the whole thing, completely cliched, the kind of denouement that would not be out of place on a Saturday night sketch show. But hey, that's the way the whole movie had been up to that point, minus some off-putting, leathery nudity and a little drug use. My ending fit in perfectly with my idea of the film.
Suffice to say, my punchline was NOT the punchline that the filmmakers went with here. This movie is available as part of the BCI/Eclipse "Drive-In Cult Classics Vol. 3" set, and as a result I'm not going to spoil it with a detailed description of the Big Joke here. I will say, though, that it nearly knocked me over, and made me wonder, had I known the way *this* joke turned out when I first started watching the flick, whether I would have been able to watch the previous 79 minutes in the same way. Somehow, I don't think so. In the same way that the sweetness of the first half hour of Audition is altered irrevocably by everything that comes after, I'm thinking the first 98% of Pink Angels could not be experienced the same way twice. At least not for me.
It could very well be that I'm overstating things here. I may be the one person on the planet who would react this way to a silly, slight movie from the 70s and its beyond-tasteless-in-hindsight final gag. After all, part of the wonder of 70s trash cinema is its gleeful pre-PC, anything-goes and damn-the-offended attitude. But every viewer has his buttons, and I guess Pink Angels managed to lull me into a very unguarded place before taking the hammer to mine.
Your mileage will definitely vary, but I'm going to go ahead and give Pink Angels a 2 Thumb, see-it-at-least-once rating. It's mildly amusing, engaging enough to keep you checking in until the end, and then that final shot--well, watch it and then tell me whether I'm getting too old and touchy. There are definitely worse ways you could spend your 81 minutes, and really, I want to know.
Monday, December 8, 2008
"As he growed up, that little drag queen became the best friend Adams ever had...and together, they became a LEGEND!"