Monday, December 8, 2008

The Pink Angels (1971): or, The Beautiful Freaks

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.

"Hotsy-totsy, I'm a Nazi!"

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: "BALL."

Cop: "What?"
Mike: "A BALL."

Cop: "What kind of a ball?"

Mike (in Clint Eastwood "Make My Day" inflection): "A COTILLION. A LADIES' cotillion. You understand?"

"I know what you're thinking: did he have three canisters of lipstick, or only two?"

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 Flying Nun 2: Out of the Habit

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.

David entertains his comrades with the tale of The One That Got Away.

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...

"As he growed up, that little drag queen became the best friend Adams ever had...and together, they became a LEGEND!"

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...

"And now for something completely different!"

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.

"You know how to whistle, don't you, Duke? You just put your lips together...and blow."

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.


Unknown said...

I love biker flicks, even the crappier ones. So if this film is even half as good as you say, I'll probably like it. I've seen quite a few of them--I'm actually surprised I haven't even heard of this one.

This sucker punch of an ending sounds very intriguing.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Rev.: It is surprising there's not more info out there on this flick--when I was doing my cursory research for this write-up, I found almost nothing on the Internet about it, which almost never happens. I guess I'm an authority now!

As I say, it's amusing without being LOL funny, and the ending really threw me--but I might be overselling it. Let me know what you think if you get a look at it.

The Duke of DVD said...

Well now, I'm intrigued as well. I almost want you to email me the ending, dearest Vicar, because I'm afraid it will be a while before I get around to watching this obvious gem, but I think I shall wait and see for myself. Even knowing that there's a trick ending will alter my viewing somewhat; I dare not alter it further.

I absolutely worship movies that lull you into a sense of calm, or happiness, before pulling the rug out from under you with something heinous or at least unsuspecting. That, coupled with gay bikers, and what's not to love? I will definitely watch this one, post haste.

Kudos to you for the fantastic review, as well! I was entertained throughout, and only once did I begin to feel ill, but that probably had more to do with the bigfoot steak grilled over Moon rocks that I had for brunch more than anything...

Anonymous said...

I've always wanted to see this so I enjoyed your review. I came across the trailer on Yotube a year or two ago and thought it looked like a hell of a lot of fun!

... goes off to hunt down Drive-In Cult Classics Vol. 3.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Hi, Cinebeats!

I got my copy of Vol. 3 at my local Best Buy for like 9.99. (Volume 1 was on sale for 6.99 the same day, so I snagged it too, despite already having two of four the double-feature discs it collects.) I'll definitely be reviewing more of the selections from both of those.

Love your blog!

Yum-Yum said...

This is probably the most comprehensive review of The Pink Angels ever written. Nice work.

totallyqueer81 said...

I just watched this movie last night.

The ending had me go WTF? I don't know if I can watch it the same way. I loved everything up to that point though.

I am glad I found your review. :)

The Vicar of VHS said...

@totallyqueer81: I'm glad you found it too! I felt the same way about the flick--really liked it, right up until BANG. That ending. After that I was confused and more than a little put out.

Thanks for commenting!

Anonymous said...

I won't say I was offended by it as much as others (not that I condone the action that was represented), but the ending was as sharp a left turn as I've ever seen in film.

What I found more odd than the ending, though, was the way that the concepts of Gayness vs. Transvestism appear to stand-in for one another almost randomly. I wouldn't be surprised if neither the writer (a woman IIRC) or director even knew anyone of either persuassion.

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Anonymous--You're dead-on about the whole Gayness/Transvestitism thing--there seems to be he assumption in this and many other films of the era that one activity entails the other. Like I said in the review, sometimes you have to be jolted into the realization of how much attitudes/knowledge has changed since then! Thanks for commenting!

Unknown said...

I was absolutely shocked and quite depressed by the ending. I am afraid that there are still people out there that would applaud such actions. I wish I had not seen this movie now. I am still in a funk because of the ending.

Rufus said...

My take on the film, and I'll admit this is probably way out there too, is that the ending is supposed to be tragic and make us feel for the main characters. In fact, I actually think it's pretty subversive to goad the audience to laugh throughout at the silly "gay" stereotypes and then show us the dark results of homophobia. Also, given that the target audience was clearly hippies, I felt they were asking the audience to relate to those social outsiders vs. the violent establishment.

I'm probably reading a lot into it though.

Anonymous said...

I'm probably reading a lot into it though.

Not a chance. There's no way the director makes a left turn like that without a reason. He definitely wanted to shock viewers into having having some simpatico w/ the protagonists.

I'm even wondering if the inter-change-able-ness / confusion between homosexuality & transvestitism was a deliberate choice to emphasize that outcasts are outcasts just for their differentness, not necessarily the specifics of how they deviate from the norm.

Christopher Coffel said...

Glad to see someone else write about Pink Angels. I think it's an absolute gem of a film that I'm shock not to hear more people talk about. The end is a shocker that come out of nowhere, but I think it actually sends an important message. I definitely think its sticking up for our protagonists and people like them. People that society, particularly during the time this film was released, often see as outcasts and feel they should be treaty differently.

I think Pink Angels has a very strong message. Everyone should have equal rights and be treated the same, regardless of their lifestyle.

Anonymous said...

Nice to see a write-up of this oddity, which achieves amazing levels of incompetent filmmaking not to mention narrative surrender. The ending is jarring but so surreal it lacks emotional impact. I will say that it's clearly aping EASY RIDERs finale so the left turn at the end is keeping with its genre antecedents....

Unknown said...

I'm watching the movie right now for the first time--about an hour into it. From the varying campy films of that time period it seems to be one of the better ones. I haven't seen Easy Rider so luckily I don't have to compare but I find it enjoyable; and if it has the hardcore ending as so many state it has then I don't feel it'll be that surprising. Homosexuality may be more acceptable today but even this film touches on many of the current stereotypes.


Lothar said...

The ending is one of the most disgusting endings of any film i have ever seen in my life. I really don't think the filmmaker had any kind of deep social commentary in mind when making this piece of garbage. This is almost as disgusting as the film "The Choirboys". I place the causes of many gay teen suicides squarely at the feet of that filmmaker, and I will never watch another episode of 'Hill Street Blues".
it's important that there is actual recorded evidence of how gays were (and some still) treated by society. We aren't all "The Happy Homo" as seen in "Glee" and "The kathy Griffin show".

Justin said...

It's a super gimmicky movie that got some laughs out of me, and I can't take anything it presents seriously. I say this as someone who's openly bisexual. I can't believe it even got distribution. As for the ending, it certainly surprised me but I wasn't offended. I can't help but feel they were just out of ideas for a good ending to a dumb comedy. It's an S. Clay Wilson comic without the hardcore sex. An oddball artifact

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