by Steven Boone (images by Conrad Hall, A.S.C.)
The second most costly hostage held by the powerful in order to guarantee your full compliance with destructive policies is your self-esteem. (The first is your security.) What fuels self-esteem varies between individuals, but it’s possible to profile groups roughly according to their confidence triggers. Among a group of educated
hipsters, for example, the trigger might be one’s ability to project flippant irony and intellectual seriousness simultaneously. Failing to meet a particular group’s unwritten standard of poise and mastery puts you out in the cold. There’s no love out in the cold.
For macho men, the trigger is simple (but not easy): to be (or be perceived as) the most suave, commanding and potentially lethal man in the room. The macho man has a lot of models to draw from, but arguably the richest source is the past century of Hollywood movies.
The military, the police and corporations recruit by appealing to this basic insecurity, of course, promising a macho diploma in exchange for killings, errands and purchases. Movies simply provide the seductive iconography. It’s impressive, with all the ways the Macho Deception has been deconstructed and mocked in the past 50 years of pop culture, how many millions of men it continues to extort with images of masculinity threatened and defended.
I call ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE (1973) the greatest American studio film of the 1970’s for hundreds of spectacular reasons, but above all for the way it deconstructs and mocks the Macho Deception without humiliating the deceived. It’s as if producer-director-composer James William Guercio decided there was already enough shame and cruelty in the air; why manufacture some more? Guercio has nothing but empathy for the lonely males in this modern-day Western written by Robert Boris.
Eleven years after John Ford used THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE to take stock of masculine codes embedded in Wild West lore, Guercio chose to shoot many iconic ELECTRA GLIDE scenes in Ford’s signature location, Monument Valley.
But Guercio ventures where Ford, a studio craftsman, wouldn’t dare, into the mess that macho extortion makes of one’s love life. Imagine becoming a stooge for Authority in order to attract the kind of woman who just loves a man in uniform, only to somehow find yourself denying your relationship just to avoid stepping on Authority’s toes. Just to preserve your career. In one of the saddest and loveliest film scenes of the 1970’s, diminutive Native American motorcycle cop-turned-detective John Wintergreen (Robert Blake) and his John Wayne-like superior, Harve Poole (Mitch Ryan), come face to face with their shame, in the form a heartbroken barmaid.
They reveal a kind of cowardice worse than anything an Army deserter might do.
Powerful institutions do this to us, if we let them. Their calculated enticements can pervert a relationship into a tangle of bribes, threats and transactions. You might laugh at how this shakedown turns macho men into flexing, posturing monkeys, but the same distortions are at work in all other social scenes. A friend of mine once said it all, observing some professors engaged in a vicious intellectual pissing match: “Yo, these dudes show off their knowledge the way young thugs back in our old neighborhood flaunt their sneakers.”
American rugged individualism might be a real thing. I imagine it’s partly what brought us through certain pivotal historical moments on the noble side of the issue at hand (slavery, women’s rights, desegregation, etc.). But when film, television and advertising projected this idea of individualism as stock images that even the most aimless conformist could wear like a regulation football jersey, its meaning became inverted.
ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE is about shedding the uniform. At first, Wintergreen, who likes to inform the ladies that he’s the same height as SHANE star Alan Ladd, longs to shed his patrolman blues for detective brown and beige. Eventually, no uniform can do anything for his stature or protect him from a violent American legacy. It’s up to him.
If all this sounds as heavy-handed as a crabby New York Times reviewer once made it out to be, let me stress that Guercio packed the film with warm, improvisatory humor and local color.
Best known as the producer of the rock band Chicago, he cast rocker, roadie and hippie friends as weary survivors of America’s post-Woodstock counterculture crackdown.
Old cowboys, flirty girls, rumpled detectives, fading retirees and hard put working men fill out Guercio’s canvas.
The director sacrificed his own salary in order to afford master cinematographer Conrad Hall, who dapples the canvas with smoky shadows and sugary highlights that turn potential cliches into solemn visual poetry.
And then there’s the breezy, funk-scored motorcycle chase that the creators of CHiPs must have studied. This is one of the few scenes Hall didn’t shoot. The playful groove tells us that poetry’s temporarily on hold while we celebrate the "wonderful brimming spirit of innocence and fun" of a classic American chase sequence.
With its low-budget genre movie flourishes and tenderly observed conflicts, ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE is a protest song, an appeal to those of us considering paying the ransom. You are better than that, it cries. It’s from 1973, but, as America’s decline accelerates, to a chorus of opportunistic Tweeters and snarksters, aggravated by antiseptic and demeaning corporate images, it’s right on time.
VIDEO: NOTES ON THE GREATEST AMERICAN FILM OF THE 1970’s