Streets of Fire (1984)

I’m sure there are plenty of real-life biker gangs that have been a terrifying menace in whatever communities they rumble through, but I feel like most of my exposure to that culture has been sanitized & defanged to the point where I don’t see them as a threat.  From Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones to Vanilla Ice in Cool as Ice, there’s a long history of retro biker gangs that look tough on the screen but never actually follow through on their threats.  Likewise, most bikers I see in the streets these days appear to be bored men in midlife crisis, trying to muster up some Leather Daddy fashionability instead of just plain Dad Vibes.  Apparently, that de-emphasized biker menace bothered notorious genre filmmaker Walter Hill as well, presumably after growing up in the Marlon Brando era of biker-with-a-heart-of-gold dramas as a teenager.  Hill seemingly made an entire feature film just to make bikers feel genuinely dangerous again, terrorizing a 1980s audience with revamped black-leather bullies from his 1950s youth.

Streets of Fire is a 50s teen-delinquent throwback sleazed up with 80s music video neons.  Self-described as “a rock & roll fable” set in “another time and another place,” it exists in a make-believe limbo that covers both decades at once – the same neon-noir aesthetic as Alan Rudolph’s Trouble in Mind.  It’s basically The Wild Ones sped up for MTV sensibilities, with music-video crosscutting and a constant, aggressive drumbeat keeping the audience’s blood pumping like mad while its rabid biker gangs raise Hell up & down the streets of the fictional city of “Richmond” (read: Chicago).  Bikers get away with stripping innocent citizens nude in the street and dragging them across the asphalt trailing behind their roaring bikes as they smash every storefront window in their vicious path, but they cross a line when they kidnap a famous rock ‘n roll singer in the middle of her sold-out concert.  The heist mission to rescue that singer from biker-gang territory nearly burns the entire city to the ground, and it’s legitimately terrifying in a way few—if any—1950s biker films were allowed to be.

The only thing that really slows Streets of Fire down is its dead-eyed lead, Michael Paré, which is bizarre since the rest of the cast is packed with exciting, charismatic people you always love to see.  Willem Dafoe is a gorgeous sex goblin as the main biker villain, recalling his leather-clad brute performance in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Loveless.  Likewise, Diane Lane’s performance as the kidnapped rock ‘n roll singer feels like an MTV-era update to her persona in The Fabulous Stains, right down to the red & black color story of her wardrobe.  Rick Moranis is maybe the only main player who’s cast against type as the tough-guy music manager who hires a vigilante to rescue his missing talent, playing the part of a macho bully that’s usually reserved for men three times his size.  Paré does not bring much to the table as the mercenary hero in contrast.  He’s generically handsome, but he’s got no personality to speak of.  Walter Hill directs every single character to deliver action hero one-liners in amphetamine-rattled noir speak, and Paré’s the only one who mumbles his way through them like a long-lost Stallone brother.

While Paré is a major liability as the narrative center of attention, Hill’s high-style visual theatrics more than compensate for his lack of screen presence.  Flaming motorcycles, S&M butcher outfits, neon crosslighting, and a music video performance of the soft-rock hit “I Can Dream About You” all violently combine to make a singular genre picture – one that revitalizes a long-subdued subculture that’s rarely as tough as it looks.  For the record, Cool as Ice is also a high-style delight; I just wouldn’t say that Vanilla Ice was exactly “scary” in it.  Meanwhile, Willem Dafoe is a goddamn nightmare.

-Brandon Ledet

Kathryn Bigelow and the Loveable Scumbag

On of the more popular theories as to why Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman to ever win an Oscar for Best Director is that she almost exclusively makes movies about men. Her prestigious war dramas aren’t exactly jingoistic love letters to American patriotism, but they do appeal to a kind of macho sensibility that helps explain why they would be praised over women-led projects with a quieter, more introspective bent. I don’t believe this is some calculated, cynical angle Bigelow chose in order to earn Awards Circuit accolades, though. The nature & textures of masculinity (and masculine violence) have been an auteurist preoccupation for the director dating all the way back to her early career as a genre film toughie. Her breakout success Point Break is a passionate bromance between an undercover cop and a dirtbag adrenaline junkie. Her cult classic vampire Western Near Dark follows the seduction & indoctrination of a macho farm boy into a subservient role among a clan of ghouls. Her Y2K sci-fi epic Strange Days—our current Movie of the Month—follows history’s greasiest anti-hero’s exploits in worming his unwanted, uninvited way back into his ex’s life. Masculinity is the thematic through-line throughout Bigelow’s decades-long career. It’s even one that concerns her debut feature.

Bigelow’s debut feature as director, The Loveless, is an early 60s motorcycle gang pastiche. It essentially remakes the Brando beefcake classic The Wild One as in introspective art piece (as opposed to Cool as Ice, which remade it as a breakfast cereal commercial). A young Willem Dafoe stars as a tragically beautiful biker brute in his first lead role. Unlike the mouthy charmer Ralph Fiennes plays in Strange Days, Dafoe hardly speaks a word in his leather biker get-up. Rather, his classic machismo is communicated though intense stares and hardened body language. Occasional poetic voiceover about how “the endless blacktop is [his] sweet eternity” suggests there’s a poet’s mind behind his stern eyes and supermodel cheekbones, but that suggestion of vulnerability only makes his machismo more dangerous. When Dafoe’s biker gang parks in small-town middle-America on their way to the races at Daytona, his pronounced male beauty inevitably captivates local women – leading to their ruin at the hands of jealous, abusive townies. Dafoe’s biker beauty isn’t as actively malicious as Fiennes’s scumbaggery is in Strange Days or Patrick Swayze’s hedonistic thrill-seeking is in Point Break, but his leather jacket & rockabilly lifestyle is still a destructive force for those seduced by his allure. His masculinity is both a pleasure & a bane, something Bigelow would expand upon in later works.

Fortunately, her sense of filmmaking craft & narrative purpose would expand as well. The Loveless is visually sumptuous in a way Bigelow’s later features consistently are (reflecting her formal education as painter). However, it’s also frustratingly inert – often feeling like a nostalgic fashion magazine shoot rather than a proper feature film. Willem Dafoe is so goddamn beautiful to gaze at in his leather get-up that it’s hard to complain too much about the film’s narrative shortcomings, but its 82min runtime still manages to linger for a relative eternity. The closest the film comes to exhilarating action is in a climactic, crazed shootout at a townie dive bar. However, it’s a violet display Bigelow later perfected to a very similar effect in Near Dark – making this early trial run feel trivial in retrospect. The entire point of the film, then, is the visual seduction of Dafoe’s macho posing & posturing. It was Bigelow’s very first film and she was already fixated on what masculinity means, what it looks like, and what effect in manifests in the world. There can be a debate as to why that fixation is rewarded in critics’ and awards institutions’ circles over the preoccupations of other women auteurs, but it’s clear to me that the impulse in Bigelow is at least personal & genuine. Like Angela Basset in Strange Days, Keanu Reeves in Point Break, and Marin Kanter in The Loveless, she can’t help but fall for a loveable scumbag.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, Kathryn Bigelow’s Y2K sci-fi epic Strange Days (1995), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, our look at the director’s continued fascination with police brutality in Detroit (2017), and last week’s comparison of its police brutality themes to those of Blue Steel (1989).

-Brandon Ledet

Motorpsycho! (1965)

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With his first two black & white “roughies”, Russ Meyer was palpably building towards something special that just quite wasn’t in reach. In what critic & friend Roger Ebert dubbed Meyer’s “Gothic period,” the tirelessly perverted director had established a very distinct atmosphere of violent, maniacal, sex-crazed dread in Lorna & Mudhoney that was pushing his career towards the cartoonish war of the sexes trashterpieces that would eventually make him a B-movie legend. Unfortunately, before Meyer would more or less perfect the roughie picture with Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, he would end up making one of the worst films of his career, Motorpsycho!. Halfway between Marlon Brando’s landmark motorcycle gang classic The Wild One & Roger Corman’s Easy Rider-precursor The Wild Angels, Motorpsycho! is a fairly straightforward proposition of Meyer’s usual bevy of buxom babes recontextualized in a world of instrumental psych rock & loud motorbikes. Too bad it’s a grotesquely misogynistic bore & one of the most vile films of the director’s entire oeuvre. I’m usually on board with Meyer’s peculiar brand of brutish horndoggery, because it reveals such a deeply strange character underneath his militaristic, all-American façade, but Motorpsycho! is honestly too repugnant to excuse on artistic grounds, campy or not.

There isn’t really much plot to speak of here. A biker gang that looks like The Evil Beatles terrorizes a small desert community, particularly preying on isolated women. True to Meyer fashion, tragedy befalls couples wherein a man is inattentive or just generally a bad lover, but in this case the victims are almost invariably female. Early in the film when a man complains that his wife’s noisy playfulness “ruined the fishing,” she cheekily retorts, “You’ve got the best there is on your line right now!” This kind of banter might be entertaining if it weren’t immediately followed by the woman being physically assaulted by a bunch of young male punks in leather jackets. There’s no particular sense of purpose for the film’s ultraviolence. It just sort of happens without rhyme or reason. By the time Meyer appears in the film himself, playing a cop (of course) & remarking upon the body of one of the gang’s victims (to her grieving husband!) “Nothing happened to her that a woman ain’t built for”, the whole affair feels unbearably sleazy, nothing conceivably being able to redeem it from its own pointless, misanthropic cruelty.

As much as I despised Motorpsycho!, I’m still glad it was made. The story goes that after making the movie, Russ was stricken with a brilliant idea: to retell the story, except featuring buxom hotrod women instead of brutish motorcycle men. Thus, the basic idea for the much superior Faster, Pussycat! was born. Motorpsycho! also saw the first appearance of Meyer superstar Haji, who would go on to star in Pussycat!, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Supervixens!, and so on. Haji only has exactly one memorable moment in Motorpsycho! (being shouted at by a male co-star to remove snake venom from a bite on his leg with hilarious, in bad taste shouts of “Suck it!” & “Spit it out!”), but it’s still a start. Besides its historical significance as a Faster, Pussycat! precursor, Motorpsycho! also partially inspired the White Zombie track “Thunderkiss ’65” & provided the name for a Norweigian indie rock band (much like Pussycat! & Mudhoney) as well as being credited as one of the first on-screen representations of Vietnam War-related PTSD (in the gang leader & last surviving member of The Evil Beatles). It also marks the beginning a period of time when Meyer significantly scaled back the nudity in his films (a godsend in this case), possibly due to the exhausting morality case coutroom battles instigated by Lorna & Mudhoney that later Hollywood productions would greatly benefit from. Otherwise, there’s not much else to see here. The best of Russ Meyer was still yet to come, one of his most repulsive works now thankfully behind him.

-Brandon Ledet