Sunday, April 01, 2007

My Illogical Penchant for Clint Eastwood's Shitty Chimp Movies

I’ve always been a solid Clint Eastwood fan, going back to the long-running Dirty Harry series and the brilliant Kelly’s Heroes, although Donald Sutherland as the prescient hippie tank commander stole that movie from him. I also like some of the more interesting choices he’s made as an actor: Bronco Billy, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Honky Tonk Man, Escape from Alcatraz. I like that he’s a Republican and was actually the mayor of an affluent California town: it makes sense in the context of his career.

What I’m trying to figure out, and have had little luck thus far, is determining why I’m so enamored of his two shitty chimp movies, Every Which Way But Loose and its pointless sequel, Any Which Way You Can. I know they’re truly terrible movies. But I noticed something a few years go. Every time one of these movies came on TV, usually on the weekend or a listless Tuesday night, I wouldn’t just watch it, but would find myself laughing along with the stupidity. It’s grown so bad that I’ve bought both on DVD and watch them a few times a year to remind myself how much I like them.

Even the opening scene of Every Which Way But Loose gets to me: a long view of the San Fernando Valley on a summer’s evening, with the camera panning in on Clint as Philo Beddoe, driving his truck back to the depot as Eddie Rabbit croons the 70s-lite country theme song. Something about the song and the grittiness of a truck driver navigating through a no-frills California landscape registers. Eastwood was 48 when the movie was released in 1978; he looks to be in his early 30s and wears a dirty t-shirt and jeans with authority.

It doesn’t take him long to kick somebody’s ass: in this case, a fat redneck in a bar who taunts him as “a squirrel” for hogging peanuts from a bowl on the bar. Eastwood’s knock-out punch sends the redneck into the jukebox, a record clicks into place, and it’s magically the Eddie Rabbit theme song fading back-in. I don’t find it funny now, but I remember first seeing Dirty Harry movies in the 70s, and even this movie, and laughing my ass off every time Eastwood’s characters got into a fistfight. Something about the way the camera would frame his face breaking into that famous scowl, the pronounced way he’d rear back and ball up his right fist, the camera angle that would follow his hapless victim tumbling from the blow. The fistfights in his movies seemed like logical conclusions to perversely stupid situations – of course, an age-old myth of action/adventure flicks.

In short order we’re introduced to Philo’s wacky mother (Ruth Gordon), his brother Orville (the great character actor Geoffrey Lewis), and beer-drinking orangutan Clyde, who playfully pummels Philo when he goes out to Clyde’s shed to offer him the bar peanuts. (Philo may have won Clyde in a bar fight; I guess he kicked some carny ass when Ringling Brothers hit Burbank.) It’s clear from the scenery that Philo’s working-class: cars in disrepair in the front yard and a non-descript ranch house in which the family lives. The orangutan must shit somewhere – I suspect the yard holds more surprises than old carburetors and tires hiding in the tall grass.

The next scene, Philo does his thing: handily kicks a guy’s ass for money in an organized parking-lot fistfight. Philo has a solid reputation on the west coast as a bare-knuckle brawler to supplant his truck-driving salary. Orville serves as his manager, canvassing redneck bars near factories and cattle farms to scout out local talent willing to fight Philo, with their take being whatever the odds-on betting pool allows.

That night, we learn that this is all a lead-in to what Philo truly represents: the modern-day cowboy. Philo dons a black cowboy hat, Orville his sideways-turned trucker’s hat (pre-dating hiphop fashion by a solid decade), and they hit the Palomino Club in North Hollywood, the legendary country/western bar which was still going strong in the late 70s.

While there, Philo catches a rote country song from Lynn Halsey-Taylor (Sondra Locke). Cowboys are her weakness, she lets Philo drive her back to her trailer park, where we learn she has a weasly boyfriend who doesn’t mind her fooling around … and we’re off to the races. All you need to know after that is there’s a half-assed motorcycle gang called The Black Widows that Philo alienates when two of the gang disrespect Clyde while riding shotgun in Philo’s pick-up at a red light. (Bill McKinney plays one of the hapless bikers – you might remember him anally raping Ned Beatty in Deliverance?)

It turns into a road movie when Lynn Halsey ditches the trailer park with her errant boyfriend. Philo, Clyde and Orville follow her to Colorado, with The Black Widows in tow, and a pair of cops whom Philo beats the shit out of one night at the Palomino (although they were off duty at the time, but took the humiliation as a personal affront).

I’ll give you a moment to catch your breath, as I’m sure this detailed synopsis requires the same intellectual dexterity as reading Joyce’s Ulysses while high on acid.

It’s a stupid movie, and that’s paying it a compliment. So why does it work for me?

Part of the appeal for me is Korean War vets, especially as represented in 1970s America. Which is to say, by and large, invisible men in their 40s who registered nary a blip on the cultural radar. The connection to Eastwood is his character in 1974’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot: a wayward Korean War vet who’s turned to a life of hustling, finding himself chased through the American west by fellow vet George Kennedy, who has a score to settle regarding a botched federal reserve robbery. Eastwood as Thunderbolt teams up with a young Jeff Bridges as Lightfoot, and they eventually join forces with Kennedy and his partner (Geoffrey Lewis, again) to re-rob the same federal reserve. It’s an Eastwood movie, but the odd chemistry between Bridges’ smart-ass kid/hustler and Kennedy’s gritty/cynical war vet is what makes the movie work. (And lest we forget the omniscient Bill McKinney, who has a brief role as a maniac driving a beat-up street rod with an exhaust pipe in the back seat and a trunkful of live rabbits. Eastwood and Bridges make the mistake of hitching a ride from him, with Eastwood eventually knocking out McKinney when he rolls the car, kicks open the trunk and starts shooting at the rabbits with a rifle.)

All these years later, I can see that the characters in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Every Which Way But Loose and Any Which Way You Can informally represent that forgotten Korean War vet in 70s culture. Guys well along in years, living non-descript lives with little fanfare, listening to country music in redneck bars, drinking Olympia beer (or whatever cheap regional brew was available in their neck of the woods). I’m roughly the same age now (early 40s) and can see that this is the magic age, when we disappear. Marketers can’t target us unless it’s for a mortgage, Viagra or a funeral plot, we may have kids who are in our twisted youth culture limelight, and if not, even more reason for us to quietly fade away before everyone can make fun of us for being truly old in about 25 years. I suspect this held just as true in the 70s as it does now.

These 70s Eastwood movies pay tribute to Korean War vets, in a subdued, non-aggrandizing way that I like. Granted, the chimp movies are stupid, an embarrassment, but they also positively represent the kind of characters (truck drivers, factory workers, construction workers) who were and are often portrayed as rabble and racists in Hollywood. The 70s were also the time of the anti-hero – think Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon – and it didn’t occur to too many people to make a hero out of a truck driver living with his mother. Vietnam vets were portrayed as damaged, righteous, cool guys in their 20s trying to find their way after the insanity of a senseless war. (Think Jon Voight in Coming Home, or Nick Nolte in Who'll Stop the Rain.) Korean War vets? Who gave a shit? Have a beer. Punch up some Haggard on the jukebox. The war’s been over for a long time, buddy. How are the wife and kids? The job?

That sort of invisibility is actually a blessing in disguise, as the end result of being deemed cool in our culture is to have a severely romantic (and unfulfilling) myth built around a nondescript reality. Most Vietnam vets I knew (as a kid in the 70s) were quietly working in factories and moving on with their lives, much as their fathers had done after World War II and Korea. You don’t get that sense watching movies about them from the 70s, where they were portrayed as damaged, sensitive souls or deranged maniacs.

(Even a movie like 1989’s tolerably good Jacknife, with Robert De Niro and Ed Harris as old Vietnam War buddies reconnecting, revels in this sort of mild anti-heroism. The Deer Hunter? Why do I find that best parts of the movie are the long lead-in with the last work day at the factory and the wedding, and the subtle town scenes once DeNiro returns and finds everything amiss? The "Vietnam" scenes are necessary in showing what the three friends went through, but the real beauty in that movie is how well Cimino captured the look and feel of a Pennsylvania coal town, before and after war.)

This may all sound a bit off, but if you look at how well Every Which Way But Loose did at the box office (according to the DVD notes, it was Eastwood’s biggest hit of the 70s, grossing almost $100 million), there was an audience out there for these types of characters. Granted, part was Eastwood’s star power, and part was the idiotic attraction of having a chimp in a movie. But I suspect underneath that, the simple truth is characters like this were rarely portrayed positively in 70s movies, and there were millions of people out there who wanted to see this. Burt Reynolds massive success with Smokey and the Bandit supports this theory. (But Reynolds made far better, grittier southern-based movies before this: Deliverance, The Longest Yard, White Lightning, W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings. Good stuff!)

I have to believe this is in some small way true … otherwise, it’s all about the lowest common denominator paying good money to watch a chimp drink beer, give the finger and makes faces. Granted, there are some funny scenes: Philo breaking into a zoo at night to get Clyde laid, the oft-repeated “right turn, Clyde” line, which allows Clyde to knock out various bad guys with a potent right cross, Clyde’s penchant for defecating on the front seat of police cars.

But there was something to be said for Eastwood’s star power in the 70s. The Dirty Harry series portrayed him as a murderous, hard-assed cop with a very dark sense of humor: a great image for an actor to have, and to play against. This worked in tandem with his similarly macho roles in spaghetti and 70s westerns. This bizarre chimp movie must have seemed like an extreme gamble at the time, but it worked. Bronco Billy, from 1980, may have been the best of Eastwood’s against-type movies, in which he played a New Jersey shoe salesman who reinvents himself as wild-west star in a traveling roadshow on the verge of bankruptcy. Instead of pandering to the audience with a chimp, he went for an old-fashioned appeal to sentimental values. It worked. Eastwood managed to play both anti and straight heroes, manipulating American stereotypes he sensed were not meant to be compromised or questioned in the context of a fictional motion picture. That didn’t happen much in the 70s, and no one was going to call you a genius or auteur for doing it, especially when it involved a fucking chimp.

The less said about the sequel Any Which Way You Can, the better. Every Which Way But Loose is a stupid movie; Any Which Way You Can is a really stupid movie. It’s basically the same movie, only this time the mafia are the fumbling bad guys who come up against Philo, and he inexplicably gets the girl, although it was made clear at the end of Every Which Way But Loose that she was batshit crazy and not to be trusted. The movie is redeemed somewhat by legendary Hollywood badass William Smith as Philo’s fighting nemesis who teams up with him to screw the mafia. And there’s a rolling Quiet Man-style brawl at the end that must have been great fun the first time I saw it.

What happened to movies like this? Thankfully, they disappeared, or went unnoticed without that Eastwood sort of star power. The only clear-cut contender for Eastwood’s brand of enjoyable stupidity was Patrick Swayze, with his equally brilliant 80s action/adventure trio of Point Break, Roadhouse and Next of Kin. (In Point Break, he made a skewed, Una-bomber type sense as leader of a renegade surfer gang who saw armed bank robbery as a logical antidote to a day job; Roadhouse is a perfect redneck movie that was the pinnacle of Swayze’s career; Next of Kin was the weakest of the three, and much like Donald Sutherland with Eastwood, Liam Neeson stole the movie from Swayze as his entirely believable Appalachian brother set on avenging their younger brother’s murder.) These tough, fun, entertaining movies don’t make up for chick-flick travesties like Ghost and Dirty Dancing, but they gave Swayze’s career a sense of balance that he never capitalized on as Eastwood did.

Still, like a 15-year-old discovering the joys of masturbation and rubbing his penis raw, I will watch Any Which You Can on occasion, a movie that was clearly meant to be watched only once. I’ll watch Every Which Way But Loose any time. I’ve had debates with friends that there are no such things as guilty pleasures – that if a piece of art or entertainment gives you pleasure, then there is no guilt involved. But god damn if I don’t feel guilty over liking Clint Eastwood’s shitty chimp movies. I get the vibe that I’ve set the bar too low for even a degenerate pop-culture kitsch hound, and it spooks me. If you catch me watching American Gladiator reruns on ESPN Classic, with no pants on and a can of Old Milwaukee in hand, don't say I didn't warn you.

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