Friday, January 16, 2015

Freedom is the Open Road and a Shipment of Someone Else's Stuff

As the sun sets across the vast American plain and you lay you down to sleep this night, give a thought and say thanks for a rare breed of man out there, the embodiment of the U.S. of A.'s fine soul, mankind's last ditch rebel yell for freedom, the Trucker. At least, that's the mystique that surrounded the profession in the 1970s, giving rise to numerous television series and films, some would say the best of which is Sam Peckinpah's 1978 film Convoy. The plot of the film actually very closely resembles a more softball, Hollywood version of 1971's Vanishing Point and suffers from the comparison. But Kris Kristofferson gives a charismatic lead performance and Convoy has a lot of visual beauty.

I'm not going to complain about the premise that truckers and law enforcement officers are age old enemies, I won't complain about the fact that cops shouldn't have too much trouble chasing semi trucks when they'll have to stop for gas at some point, I won't complain about the fact that the convoy of trucks that slowly accumulates to follow Kristofferson's character Rubber Duck are all driven by spotlessly pure-hearted guys, I won't complain about the fact that no mention is ever made of the companies these truckers are supposed to be hauling freight for. Because Peckinpah makes it quite clear this is a fantasy film with the trucker cast in the role of the legendary old west outlaw, a representative of the independent American spirit in a land being overrun by bureaucracy. Though on that point, it's somewhat ironic that Rubber Duck spits on the idea of unionising and then the film becomes about the truckers uniting as workers for their own interest rather than the companies they work for. But this is only one of a long list of films that superficially denounces socialist philosophy while in practice actually portraying a socialist ideal.

Incidentally, to any young men reading this--this is how you grow a beard. See how there's no hair coming out of his neck? You're supposed to shave that part. It's called grooming. If you don't think this kind of beard looks good on you, I guarantee you the addition of hair from the neck won't help.

Like Vanishing Point, Convoy involves a handsome man of few words who leads cops on a cross country chase after a small initial infraction and along the way he becomes a living legend, people throughout the land following his story and cheering him on as a symbol of the human heart attempting to break free from cynical mechanisms of society's narrowing existence. But Convoy is much more vague on the particulars. Unlike Kowalski, the protagonist of Vanishing Point, Rubber Duck does little that's actually illegal. The worst he does is get involved in a bar fight with some cops after the film's villain, Wallace (Ernest Borgnine), tries to arrest a guy for being black.

Which recalls the racially motivated beatings in Vanishing Point as well. Though Vanishing Point's hero is slightly more realistic in not having the power to stand in the way of such ugly human behaviour--it's the sense of helplessness that is in part responsible for his race across the country. Rubber Duck seems much more content and his motives more vague--it seems deliberate, too, as a reporter who interviews the various drivers in the convoy finds each has his own idealogical reason for participating--whether it be to protest racial discrimination, to protest government programmes, or just to spread the word of Jesus. I wondered what would have happened if one of the truckers had said, "I'm doing it because I hate the Jews!" How would Rubber Duck have reacted? All I can imagine is him frowning and continuing to drive silently.

Rubber Duck's motives for running seem more ambiguous, which is again more audience friendly. Also unlike Kowalski, he gets a girlfriend played by Ali MacGraw, whose main purpose in the film is to love him even as she doesn't quite understand him.

The ending is also much softer than Vanishing Point's but since it really didn't have the foundation of that earlier film a similar ending would have seemed a bit silly anyway.

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