If you're a cultural historian, a movie geek, or just looking for an excuse to spend three hours watching TV, here's a video double feature you should try. First watch the premier pot-smuggling flick of the 1970s, Cheech and Chong's Up in Smoke. Then pop in the decade's most famous film about Coors smuggling, Smokey and the Bandit. When you're done, try to figure out just how the good ol' boys and the hippies, two American tribes who were supposed to be sworn enemies, wound up flocking to such similar movies. The stories aren't twins--the heroes of Up in Smoke are too stoned to realize they're ferrying illegal cargo or that a smokey is on their trail--but if you catch them in the right light, they look like brothers.
These days it's widely recognized that it was the 1970s, not the '60s, that marked the real cultural revolution in the United States. The earlier decade might have seen America's traditionally tiny bohemia become a mass phenomenon, but it was in the '70s that the wave crashed, breaking down the boundaries between the rebels and the mainstream. One sign of this was a burst of creativity in Hollywood, where figures who spent the '60s soaking up the counterculture and making low-budget exploitation features--Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jack Nicholson--used their new freedoms and their unorthodox training to transform the face of American film.
Meanwhile, other hands kept turning out those exploitation movies. In the new book Hick Flicks: The Rise and Fall of Redneck Cinema (McFarland), Scott Von Doviak gives us an entertaining and illuminating look at their world.
"While blaxploitation pictures ruled the urban grindhouses, providing heroes and myths for those trapped in the inner cities," he writes, "hick flicks dominated the drive-in circuit, bringing their own set of archetypal figures to flyover country." Von Doviak, who covers film for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, has cast a wide net; he ends up discussing everything from early B movies to 21st-century fare, from backwoods creature features to arthouse documentaries. But the heart of his book is the 1970s, and the soul is movies about outlaws driving cars or trucks, ideally with a load of illicit spirits.
I can't endorse every opinion Von Doviak espouses. Notably, he fails to appreciate the peculiar charms of Sam Peckinpah's Convoy, surely the only film that is simultaneously a Christian allegory, a vaguely anarchist political fable, and a feature-length adaptation of a novelty song about CB radios. (It isn't a good movie, but it's much better than any picture starring Kris Kristofferson and Ali MacGraw has a right to be.) But Van Doviak is a witty and astute student of these films, entertainments that could simultaneously reflect the values of both the American counterculture and its alleged opposite.
I don't want to overstate this point. Hollywood has always celebrated individualist rebels, and the Southern backcountry has a longstanding anti-authoritarian tradition that, as the historian David Hackett Fisher put it in Albion's Seed, was "more radically libertarian, more strenuously hostile to ordering institutions than were the other cultures of British America." Smokey and the Bandit was not a story that could be imagined only after 1969. It was a classic bandit narrative in the tradition of Robin Hood and Jesse James, with an invulnerable hero who defies unjust laws (in this case, speed limits and alcohol regulations), battles an oppressive sheriff (in this case, Jackie Gleason), and can move almost invisibly among the common folk who admire his heroic deeds (in this case, other drivers).
But this Robin Hood was rebelling at a time when the word rebellion invariably suggested the word freak. This Little John was played by Jerry Reed, a guy who used to jam with Elvis. This Sheriff of Nottingham was a fat racist cop, a cultural archetype that took hold during the civil rights movement--and was most evocative among those who sided with the protesters. The genre that begat them reached its peak after the country relaxed its attitudes toward on-screen sex, violence, and sympathy for lawbreakers, a change largely driven by the cultural revolution.
And there was something else. Once the ideals and fashions of Haight-Ashbury had leaked into the rest of the country, there was no predicting the ways they'd be adapted to local circumstances. By this point, those rednecks weren't just jeering the same sheriff as the hippies. Some of them were growing their hair, smoking weed, and listening to trippy music.
Such behavior swept the South and West in the '70s, but its headquarters was Austin, the city at the heart of Jan Reid's The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock (University of Texas Press). Originally published in 1974, Reid's compulsively readable book was revised and reissued last year in substantially expanded form. It tells how a group of Texas-based musicians, most famously Willie Nelson, created a new style of music, usually called outlaw country, and a new cultural archetype, dubbed the cosmic cowboy. Larry Yurdin, who spent a chunk of the '70s running radio stations in Austin and Houston, once described the cosmic-cowboy scene to me as "the Texas version, in 1972, of what happened in San Francisco in '67. In a good ol' boy, Wild West context, it was the Summer of Love. With guns."
Once such a tremendous cultural collision has happened, it starts to look natural, even inevitable, in retrospect. By 1979 Hank Williams Jr. could sing, "If I get stoned and sing all night long/It's a family tradition" --and sure enough, the tradition was there, and not just in the Williams family. It just had to be discovered first.
It's during that period of discovery, when cultural identities are being reinvented and reshuffled, that things look more ambiguous. There's a scene in White Lightning, one of the better hixploitation flicks, where two moonshine runners walk past a hippie van that has the slogan "Legalize marijuana!" scrawled on its side. "Legalize that shit, it's gonna ruin moonshine liquor forever," spits one of the rednecks. I like to imagine the van was carrying Cheech and Chong.