Formerly "Dave's Blog About Movies and Such"

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Electra Glide in Blue (1973)

dir. James William Guercio

"Me, I listen to everybody in the whole damn world except me."
-John Wintergreen

Electra Glide in Blue belongs to that rare group of great movies in which the director who made it never made another feature. Other movies in this group include Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter, Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls, and Leonard Kastle's The Honeymoon Killers. EGIB's director, James William Guercio, was also the producer of the band Chicago, so I assume he had his hands too full producing smooth music to continue with a directing career. It's a shame because he could've had a great career as a cult director in the vein of Walter Hill or Peter Yates.

The plot of EGIB may seem like typical cop movie fare. Robert Blake plays John Wintergreen, a Vietnam vet turned motorcycle cop who plays by the rules. Although he takes his job seriously, he longs for the day when he can get off of that "elephant" that he has to ride and become a homicide detective. After he finds the body of an apparent suicide case, he surmises that this man was a homicide victim. When his hunch turns out to be true, he is promoted to the role of driver for ornery homicide detective Harve Poole. Things go well until it is revealed that the two men have been knockin' boots with the same gal, Jolene. Suffice it to say, Wintergreen gets demoted to his old post. Even so, he continues to do freelance detectivin' on the murder case he discovered (side note: according to spell check, detectivin' isn't a real word but I don't care. I play by my own rules. I ain't gonna be contained by no spell check (second side note: according to spell check, ain't is a real word. I guess all those English teachers who told me otherwise were full of shit)) .

As I said, the plot may be familiar, but the ways that Guercio deals with this story and the nuances of the Wintergreen character truly set this movie apart from the herd. It is evident that Guercio has a deep love of westerns. He is an admittedly huge fan of John Ford, particularly his movie The Searchers. The most obvious homage to Ford is this movie's use of Arizona's Monument Valley as a primary location. Wintergreen is a modern day cowboy with an Electra Glide motorcycle instead of a horse. As indebted as Guercio's film is to the classic western it is also just as preoccupied with the deconstruction of the western myth and with a critical examination of Americana. This is done primarily through the characterization of Wintergreen. He is less of the godly hero type that John Wayne usually played (that's not to say Wayne didn't have his fare share of complex characters. The Searchers' Ethan is a perfect example of this) and more in tune with the vulnerable, complex heroes of the New Hollywood: the types of characters usually played by Harvey Keitel or Bruce Dern. Although Wintergreen might see himself as morally righteous, he is frequently too timid to stand up for his beliefs and sometimes ineffective at doing his job. He is the hero of the movie, to be sure, and we are meant to root for him, but unlike many of the classic western heroes, he is fallibly human.

For me, the defining moment in this movie occurs when John Wintergreen, engaging in target practice, shoots at a poster of Easy Rider (This moment is quite satisfying to me because I have never been a big fan of Easy Rider despite the fact that I admire the cast. Easy Rider feels too simplistic and obvious to me, from the depiction of brain dead rednecks antagonizing the long hairs right down to the Steppenwolf heavy soundtrack). This scene is significant because it comes right after a scene in which Wintergreen and his psychotic partner Zipper stop a hippie who is driving a magic bus. Zipper clearly enjoys provoking the hippie and even plants some grass on him. Wintergreen, however, stands idly by. He tries to convince Zipper that he is going too far but mostly he is ineffectual. Placing the target practice scene right after this scene is interesting because, earlier, it seemed as though Wintergreen sided with the hippie. It turns out to be more complex than that, however. Wintergreen most likely has problems with the counterculture. His anger at Zipper's actions stemmed more from Zipper's refusal to follow proper police procedure. Wintergreen's inability to stop Zipper, shows that Wintergreen is not quite perfect cop that he might like to be.

When EGIB was screened at Cannes, it was derided as being fascist. I'm certain that the target practice scene was one of the reasons for that. Another bigger reason is this movie's ending, but I won't reveal what happens there. You'll have to watch it and decide for yourself. I can't understand the labeling of this movie as fascist. It paints a complex and, at most times, damning image of law enforcement. Aside from possibly one or two characters, none of the counterculture types in this movie are vilified. There are no blacks and whites in this movie. It is a movie whose morals are composed of shades of grey. This is the kind of stuff the French usually love (I don't know. Maybe they were upset that Guercio cast Peter Cetera as the leader of an unruly biker gang. You know, nothing says badass like the Chicago bassist and his gang being pursued by cops in a motorcycle chase while smooth jazz plays on the soundtrack).

This movie is not without its faults (By the way, I don't consider the aforementioned motorcycle chase a fault. Anyone who doubts me can come and check out the 6'x4' Chicago poster hanging in my apartment. Wow, I really sound like a square (side note: I don't actually like Chicago)). John Wintergreen is pretty much the only truly fleshed out character in this movie. Many of the other characters are interesting and fun to watch but they aren't as three dimensional as him. This becomes abundantly clear in a scene where Jolene reveals to Harve that she and John have been sleeping together. She delivers a wonderful, heartfelt monologue in which she drunkenly describes, among other things, her soul crushing defeat after going to Hollywood to try to make it as an actress. The only problem is that her character had only shown up once before in this movie in a short scene in which she was leaving Wintergreen's home after an early morning fuck session. The audience does not have any context for this character. This monologue scene can not work by itself. It seems more of an exercise in trying to imitate the kind of soul baring, uncomfortable dialogue of Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf. Had this movie explored her character more, it would have been a much more powerful scene. As it stands, her character is more of a plot device.

This movie has gained quite a cult following in recent years. Possibly the biggest reason for this is the stunning photography by acclaimed cinematographer Conrad Hall. Guercio was so eager to work with Hall that he declined payment in order that the movie's meager budget could afford to pay Hall's hefty fee. When Guercio hired Hall, he asked him to shoot the movie exactly like a John Ford western. Hall was against this because he thought that that style was old fashioned, so they made a compromise: all the exteriors would be shot in the epic John Ford style while Hall would shoot the interiors in his style, which involved tight closeups and odd angles. The movie is worth watching alone for this interesting experiment in photography.

Anyone who has ever heard me talk at length about movies knows how much I prefer the American movies of the seventies to any other era (excepting, maybe, the movies of the late forties and early fifties). This movie is one of the best examples I can give for the supremacy of seventies movies. In EGIB's complex portrayal of law enforcement and its lack of easy answers, the best descendant I can think of today isn't a movie but the TV show The Wire. TV has lately proven much more adept at creating compelling art than the movies but that's a subject for another post.

This post is significant in that I am discussing a Robert Blake movie and I waited until the last sentence to mention his recent murder trial.