Friday, November 21, 2014

Cheesy Rider: PUSHING UP DAISIES (1973)

If there were two movies that marked the end of the '60s and heralded in the new decade of cinema, they would be EASY RIDER (1969) and THE WILD BUNCH (1969). You could also argue 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) and you would be right, but putting that aside, you have two films that demonstrated a profound change in society on many levels. Both have a sense of perseverance in the face of adversity and deep alienation from their environments with a marked cynicism and fatalism not previously known to mainstream cinema. The much reviled Vietnam War was already 14 years old, and the much loved President Kennedy had been killed, as had Martin Luther King, a man that promoted ridiculous things like non-violence and racial harmony. There were good reasons to be cynical, and we hadn't even gotten to the Watergate incident that would forever ruin confidence in our elected officials.

Because of the deep chord these films struck with audiences, they were wildly successful at the box office. EASY RIDER was made for $400,000 ($2.5 million today) and it made $60 million in global returns (or $388 million today). By comparison, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014) was made for $170 million and grossed $768 million world wide. For every dollar spent, EASY RIDER returned approximately $155.00, where as GUARDIANS returned only approximately $4.50 per dollar spent. Somebody get Kevin Feige in off of that ledge.

As always, any film that makes a wad of cash that would make a pimp jealous is going to breed knock-offs faster than a Harley Ultra-Glide rolls down the highway. Err, come to think of it, that is not very fast. Of course, you could make the argument that EASY RIDER was merely one film in a long progression of motorcycle movies dating back to THE WILD ONE (1955) and it actually punctuated the end of the biker genre much like THE WILD BUNCH did with Westerns. Either way, it influenced many filmmakers down the line including a then unknown (and frankly now not very well known) Ivan Nagy.

Partnering with veteran TV and indy movie actor Ross Hagen (who co-wrote and produced), neophyte director Nagy decided that the movie he wanted to do to launch his career would be a completely odd blend of both RIDER and BUNCH, with some awkward comedy thrown in for good measure.

A quartet of ex-cons, Maddux (Ross Hagen), Wilbur (Hoke Howell), Kelly (Kelly Thordsen), and A.J. (Eric Lidberg), decide that holding up a dirtwater town bank didn't get the returns that that they were hoping for. After stealing a car from a huckster salesman, Maddox and Wilbur decide to rob a gas station run by a good ol' boy grease-monkey (played by Christopher George, if you can believe it), while Kelly and A.J. rob the cafe across the street. Unfortunately for the the latter, the cafe is a hangout for the state police and half of our quartet end up on the chain gang busting rocks with sadistic guards who are itching for a chance to kill. And this is all before the opening credits!

Speaking of the opening credits, they have got to be the most bizarre and annoying credits I have ever witnessed. Clearly made by people who were experiencing the fruitful bounty that Timothy Leary endorsed, they show in slow motion and freeze frames a guard intimidating and stabbing a black prisoner who is pleading for his life. This is done with no music, but instead uses heavy reverb causing the screaming dialogue to slowly echo across your speakers. This goes on for an agonizing full 2 minutes! If that doesn't seem like a long time. Take a stopwatch to the closest angry infant you can find and start the countdown. Cash money says you will never make it to 120 seconds.

Maddux and Wilbur decide they are going to bust out their buddies which comes none too soon as the sadistic guard forces the prisoners to bury the dead man and jump up and down on his grave chanting "it's garbage we're stomping on" while Jimi Hendrix's distorted rendition of "Amazing Grace" blares across the soundtrack. It's actually weirder than it sounds. Following a full-blown western-style shoot-out, the four are back on the road trying to figure out a plan (for something) and arguing about whether the prison served butter or margarine. I think this is the alleged "comedy". Hard to tell.

Maddux is the leader of the mini mob because he went to high school, is an ex-green beret and has a tendency to wax metaphoric, saying things like "it's not how long you live, but how." Dude, that's deep. He figures the best plan of action is to rob another bank, this time dressed as nuns (perhaps inspired by 1972s FUZZ) and hightail it to Mexico. The robbery scene is pretty perfunctory (though they do make sure to include an injun stereotype and a butt gag). Much of the film shows a marked lack of motivation. Some scenes are clipped so short that they cut off lines of dialogue while others go on so long that you can presumably have time to load up another bong hit and get into the groove of the flickering images. Actually that's not a metaphor, there are some very odd stylistic choices during a few scenes of the movie where we get multiple freeze frames and heavily edited dissolves that seem completely out of joint (no pun intended) with the rest of the film.

The final third of the film is the boys riding across the desert on motorcycles to get to a cantina in Mexico where they plan to whoop it up and bet on prostitutes in an armwrestling match. Really. There is a lot of riding going on here. Much like horror films that have relentless rock climbing, here we have riding. At one point Kelly asks Maddux why they were riding bikes across the desert. Maddux tells him "it's like the old west." To which Kelly says "you can keep the old west, I never liked it anyway." For some reason I'm pretty sure most of the dialogue was improvised.

This movie is slower than a southern drawl on a hot day, but for some reason it manages to lure you in with it's drug-addled, somewhat charming ineptitude. The music, all of which I'm sure are stolen tracks, is an utterly bizarre hodge-podge of styles. During the orgy scene (yes, Kelly Thordsen is involved in an orgy), in addition to the disorienting hand-held camera and rapidly edited close-ups, we get a shrill, cheery ukulele number on the soundtrack! I can only think that the music was a temp track that never got a finished score. Matter of fact, the whole film looks like it could have been a work-print that was rushed out the door.

Unreleased on video in the US, it was released theatrically by the brand new distribution arm of the original Cannon Group (before the arrival of Golan and Globus in '79) with an obviously replaced title card. The original title was FIVE MINUTES OF FREEDOM and I am not really sure if that title is better or worse, neither gives any idea as to what kind of film it is. As far as I know, the only video release it has gotten was in the early days of video in Holland (where else?). The subtitles add a bit of minor entertainment. For instance when Wilbur falls off of his motorcycle (a clearly unscripted goof) he says "damn bike" and the subtitle reads "satans dike". I guess some of us are easily amused.

Ivan Nagy followed this up with another crime comedy titled BAD CHARLESTON CHARLIE (1973), a roaring '20s period piece reteaming Hagen and Thordsen and the odd 1975 thriller DEADLY HERO before moving into TV land. He is known to horror fans for his 1993 slasher film SKINNER starring Ted Raimi, but really he is mostly remembered for being Heidi Fleiss' boyfriend.

As it stands, this redneck hippy movie may not be the best way to spend 90 minutes of your life, but there's something about it that will keep you watching if you are in a forgiving state of mind.

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