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Hardhatsploitation

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In a belated tribute to Peter Boyle, Before the Storm author Rick Perlstein remembers the reaction to Joe, the biggest culture-war flick of 1970:

joe
Mad

His character, Joe Curran, was a tool-and-dye maker from Queens, what the New York Times described as an "ape-like, dese-dem-and-dose type," who strikes up a conversation with a businessman in an East Village bar. "Forty-two percent of liberals are queer and that's a fact," Joe says. "The George Wallace people took a poll." He said he'd like to kill himself a hippie–"just one."…

Joe is not a particularly good movie, despite Boyle's riveting performance. But the film's argument, though heavy-handed, resembled a book of the time by the radical sociologist Philip Slater, The Pursuit of Loneliness: American Culture at the Breaking Point. Slater argued that people loathed and feared the hippies because deep down they knew the hippies were right–"we fear having our secret doubts about the viability of our social system voiced aloud"–and envied their freedom.

In a process that would be repeated when Archie Bunker came to prime time, viewers who were supposed to loathe Joe frequently loved him instead:

Life's reporter followed Peter Boyle around his West Side Manhattan neighborhood. An excited little old lady approached him: "I agree with everything you said, young man. Someone should have said it a long time ago." Construction workers shouted, "Joe!" and greeted him like a long-lost friend. Boyle was horrified.

In a sharp passage, Perlstein notes that the filmmakers' outlook wasn't much more sophisticated than the grassroots right-wing reading of the picture:

In interviews when the movie came out, Boyle agonized about his portrayal of Joe: "Sometimes I worry we were too hard on him." He'd talk about how guys like Joe were living on the bubble, how their horror of disorder, their racism, had its roots in economic anxiety: "He's got every penny he ever made sunk into his house, and a black family is moving in on the same block….It's a real problem that most liberals never encounter."

This was a wise observation–wiser than Slater's, or the makers of Joe, who fantasized the left-wing reaction to bourgeois alienation was purely innocent. It wasn't. A perverse pleasure can be had in seeing the characters one identifies with depicted as enlightened apostles of peace and love, then watching as they are mowed down as the victims of sadistic know-nothings. Indeed, Pauline Kael came up with a label for this particular neurosis: "liberal masochism." That explains why legions of countercultural youth flocked to see Joe–and stood up at the end, shrieking almost joyfully: "I'm going to shoot back, Joe!"

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  1. What about Death Wish? Now that is a great culture war flick. Charles Bronson plays a liberal whose wife is murdered and daughter raped who then goes about getting revenge uttering every liberal criminal civil rights platitude as he mows the criminals down. That movie was an enormous box office success and played to cheering crowds as Bronson explained to criminals their rights as he killed them. Now that is a culture war flick.

  2. I have not seen Joe. Is it worth watching as anything other than a cultural artifact and for Boyle’s performance?

  3. Speaking of Joe, where is joepboyle@hotmail.com to add his insights?

  4. I don’t know squat about Boyle and I have never seen the movie but:

    His character, Joe Curran, was a tool-and-dye maker from Queens

    It’s Tool and Die Maker. Dye is a colorant for fabric. However, a die is a tool used in stamping and drilling operations.

  5. I heard of this movie years ago and it dropped off of my curiosity list. It is back on now.

    The “All in the Family” reference reminds me of a pathetically stupid observation by Rob Reiner about Archie’s character vs. Michael the ‘Meat Head’. He assigned people’s like of Archie to Carol O’Conner’s great acting ability (and I am one who considered him a very good actor too) in creating a powerful character out of what was written as “an ignorant fool”.

    Mr. Reiner missed the obvious, which many an arrogant elitist seems to wear as a badge of honor, that Michael was an arrogant professional student living off of the altruism of a hard working man who Michael constantly accused of not caring for others.

    IIRC, Mr. Reiner continued in the interview that people still called him ‘Meat Head’ when they saw him on the street, but Mr. O’Conner did not get the same treatment and that people don’t realize that on the show he was being called ‘Meat Head’ by an ignorant fool. Seems there is another ignorant fool in the mix and I bet he is oblivious to his contribution to the demise of The Smothers Brothers Show too.

  6. Let me add another culture war flick: Billy Jack.

    I remember watching it as a kid on network tv and liked it ok.

    When I saw it again in college, I was cheering on the rednecks as they were kicking hippie ass!

    I had 2 Deadheads as roomates, which in retrospect, may have contributed to my joy of seeing hippies being the targets of redneck ill-will.

  7. Holy crap, I agree with Guy about something 🙂

  8. I had something to post, but after reading Guy’s brilliant comment I find that whatever I was going to say would pale in comparison.

    Nice job.

  9. “Take that hippy! Four more years!”

    Is the inscription on one of my t-shirts, with a picture of GWB pointing out to the reader.

  10. jf and Bergamot,

    Thank you very much, but this is not a competition. Whatever you thought is every bit as valuable as what anybody else can think of.

  11. A perverse pleasure can be had in seeing the characters one identifies with depicted as enlightened apostles of peace and love, then watching as they are mowed down as the victims of sadistic know-nothings.

    I think the movie you’re groping for here is “Death Race 2000”.

    Guy,
    What was Rob Reiner’s contribution to the demise of The Smothers Brothers Show?

  12. Wow, lotta hate on the right.

    Why can’t we all just get along?

  13. don’t Mussolini us joe!

  14. What was Rob Reiner’s contribution to the demise of The Smothers Brothers Show?

    He was hired during or close to the last season and kept berating the other writers for not being radical enough. Tommy Smothers was already radical enough to have the show on the verge of being cancelled for pissing off the network that was paying for it. Mr. Reiner’s contribution, arguably, pushed it right into the mid-season cancellation bin.

    Actually, it was cancelled right before airing when Tommy Smothers decided to hold the tape of the first episode not to air until the day it was to play. Kinda late in the day from what I remember. Somehow, the network was not amused.

  15. Paul,

    I wouldn’t Mussolini you. You haven’t done anything.

    But I would advise you to learn the difference between a people and a government.

  16. Warren,

    I carry Death Race 2000 with me everywhere I go. It’s on my iPod. Along with The Warriors, it’s one of my favorite movies that could never go on any “best of” lists.
    Great frickin’ movie.

  17. Rheiner is just an idiot. What kills me about him and Lear is when they talk about Bunker they always talk about how they humanized him. It never occurs to them that they were presenting over the top straw men of any right wing views. To Rheiner and Lear, Archie’s views are the views of anyone who disagrees with them. They honestly think the show was fair because they didn’t make Archie into some kind of sociopathic killer or something. That is the Left’s idea of a “balanced portrayal”.

    Another Culture War classic from the late 60s and early 70s is of course Dirty Harry. I still love that movie and can even tolerate its unworthy sequels.

  18. Another Culture War classic from the late 60s and early 70s is of course Dirty Harry. I still love that movie and can even tolerate its unworthy sequels.

    Check the reruns of Clint Eastwood on “The Actor’s Studio”. He gives some great background on a lot of his roles and style. He even gets laughs from the flaiming leftoid audience when he mentions that Duvall turned down the role for some political reason. His story about John Wayne refusing to shoot a character in the back just because “that new kid” did is great too.

    Well, the whole show is great.

  19. Archie was an ignorant fool. The Meathead was right. The character was liked because he was written and portrayed to be likable in spite of that. People won’t watch a tv show for long if they hate the main character.

  20. It boggles the mind that people would spend time worrying about a dislike of hippies. Anyone who has ever done something they’d rather not do to earn a paycheck can tell you exactly what they don’t like about hippies.

    “There is no social justice because I have to get a job,” is not a sympathetic position.

  21. If Archie Bunker was “over the top straw men of any right wing views,” then why was he so popular among right-wingers?

  22. I was going to wonder aloud about the on-set relationship between Boyle and the noted social conservative Patricia Heaton, but the answer’s already available: pretty heated. The article attempts to smooth it over, but I remember briefly clicking past a Larry-King-hosted Boyle retrospective, and noticing her absence as being conspicuous; all the other Raymond principals were there.

    Thanks for making me aware of Joe. Sounds like it should be required viewing for some of the yokels who overpopulate a couple of the bars I frequent.

  23. I’m really struck by the revisionism about Archie Bunker and whether people liked him because they liked his politics.

    I grew up in a liberal-ish household watching All in the Family. I was just an 8-year-old kid at the time, but even then it was clear that Archie Bunker reminded us of my grandparents…in other words, people liked him because he was a lovable caricature of post-war parents.

    He was ignorant and did (and said) stupid things. But he was also funny. The subject matter was groundbreaking. And they dealt with serious issues that previous shows had never touched.

    I’m sure some viewer watched because they agreed with Archie. But then there is the magic of the show…there was something for everyone.

    To isolate the show and the character from the times is to really miss the point.

  24. People won’t watch a tv show for long if they hate the main character.

    Yea, every time I watch Seinfeld I think “wow, so many people in the world agree with me about how nice these characters are”, it is like deja-vu from The Young Ones.

  25. “If Archie Bunker was “over the top straw men of any right wing views,” then why was he so popular among right-wingers?”

    Because right wingers can laugh at themselves. They got the joke. Ironicly, the people doing the joke, Lear and Rheiner, never did.

  26. If Archie Bunker was “over the top straw men of any right wing views,” then why was he so popular among right-wingers?

    Joe, I will give you at least anecdotal evidence to support your question.

    When I was growing up in middle america, all of the adults I new liked Archie as a character and supported most of his views.

    I was 5 at the time of the Archie, Edith, Gloria, Michael episodes so my memory may be a little faulty.

  27. Guy,
    I did not say anything about any characters being “nice.”
    Do you hate Kramer?
    Do you hate Vyvyan?
    They’re buffoons, but they aren’t hateful like Archie could be.

  28. IF Bunker wasn’t an over the top straw man of right wing views in the 1970s, he wouldn’t have been funny. That is what made him funny is that he was so rediculous and over the top in his views. It is just sad that Rheiner and Lear honestly seem to think that Bunker was a fair portrayal of those views.

  29. Part of the enduring quality of “All in the Family” is that ALL of the characters have more to them than their stereotypes. Indeed, I think the quality acting and character development partially sabotaged Norman Lear’s intent to use the show as a polemic.

    As to “Joe”, even at 39 years old I’m not old enough to have ever heard of this flick prior to this post. Sounds dreadful, to me.

  30. “They’re buffoons, but they aren’t hateful like Archie could be.”

    Go ask the bubble boy or that poor man who got deported to Pakistan how hateful those people were.

  31. I grew up in a liberal-ish household watching All in the Family. I was just an 8-year-old kid at the time, but even then it was clear that Archie Bunker reminded us of my grandparents…in other words, people liked him because he was a lovable caricature of post-war parents.

    Another very important aspect was that Archie was truly compassionate, like many of the old ‘ignorant fools’ we meet in real life. Meat Head was an arrogant, selfish ass who kept pretending to be compassionate as if from a checklist that he learned at the Humanaties Department and had to prove his ‘compassion’ by telling others that they were not. Just like the people who are still living at the student union long after our children have graduated from college.

    It was pretty cool that Lionel had a lot more in common with Archie than he did with the ‘concerned liberal’.

    Well, John said it a lot better than I did, with a lot fewer words.

  32. “Indeed, I think the quality acting and character development partially sabotaged Norman Lear’s intent to use the show as a polemic.”

    I think is probably very true. Although some of the episodes are almost funny now for their 70s liberal naivety. My favorite is the one where Archie is lectured about how there is no such thing as the Cosa Nostra. It is all just a racist rumor to slander Italians.

  33. John,

    “Because right wingers can laugh at themselves.”

    But they weren’t laughing at “themselves.” They were laughing at a character created by Norman Lear, a character you just described as “over the top straw men of any right wing views.”

    So which is it? Did Lear create an ugly straw man, and right-wingers are so ugly themselves that they enjoyed his very ugliness? Or did Lear (the terrible, agenda-driven, conservative-hating liberal) create an accurate, human character?

  34. All in the Family friggin’ sucks.

    And not because of the politics, but simply because I found the wife screachy and annoying, and their situation pathetic.

  35. Do you hate Kramer?
    Do you hate Vyvyan?
    They’re buffoons, but they aren’t hateful like Archie could be.

    The Krameresque folks I know in real life I really can’t stand. If I knew a Vyvan in real life we would probably be listening to the same music, but I probably would not stand to hang around with him much either. And that damn ‘people’s poet’ might be the glue for me to stand Vyvan long enough for us to drag that dork down the highway behind my Jeep.

    NO I DON’T LIKE EITHER AND I LOVE THE SHOWS, UGH!

  36. Because right wingers can laugh at themselves.

    No John…no they can’t.

    Your criticisms of Reiner & Lear may be accurate. But right wingers, generally, have a rotten sense of self-deprecation.

  37. Wow, John, did you ever miss the point of that episode.

    The guy lecturing him was a mobster. That was the joke!

    “That is what made him funny is that he was so rediculous and over the top in his views. It is just sad that Rheiner and Lear honestly seem to think that Bunker was a fair portrayal of those views.” The number of right-wingers who cheered Archie and clapped Carol O’Connor on the back would seem to disprove this theory.

  38. My favorite is the one where Archie is lectured about how there is no such thing as the Cosa Nostra. It is all just a racist rumor to slander Italians.

    That is true and expressing that alternate fantasy can be quite hazerdous in certain circles. But I don’t know nuttin’ about dat.

  39. “So which is it? Did Lear create an ugly straw man, and right-wingers are so ugly themselves that they enjoyed his very ugliness? Or did Lear (the terrible, agenda-driven, conservative-hating liberal) create an accurate, human character?”

    They created a strawman that was funny. Lear created a human character that held crazy views that were charactatures of real views. For example, one of my favorite lines from the show is Archie saying “If English was good enough for Jesus, it ought to be good enough for you.” Do I honestly believe that Jesus spoke English? No. But, it is a really funny way to lampoon people who think immigrants ought to learn English, something I agree with. I am just not so full of my self not to see the humor in that statement.

  40. “The guy lecturing him was a mobster. That was the joke!”

    No Joe. He was a mobster, but he was a member of “organized crime” not the Cosa Nostra. There was nothing Italian about it. That episode was made during the height of Italian rights rallies that were protesting the association of Italians with organized crime and ironiclly enough sponsored by a real member of the Cosa Nostra.

  41. I’m gettin outta here before there is an accident.

  42. He was ignorant and did (and said) stupid things. But he was also funny.

    Ultimately Archie Bunker had a good heart. When he baptized his grandson, when he said goodbye when the Stivics were going to California, when his best friend was getting a divorce, when Archie was trapped in the elevator with the Hispanic lady having a baby, the writers and actor were smart enough to make him a decent person, regardless of his politics. You could tell that he was a racist because he was ignorant, not because he was evil. He was redeemable. That is what made him likeable.

    Do you hate Kramer?

    After a while, yes, but George even more so. That seemed to be the point of the last episode. I think the cast and writers were astounded that the characters were so popular, because they recognized them to be so profoundly unlikable. So they spent the entire trial reminding people how despicable their actions really were.

  43. Can we at least recognize thet there are educated people and uneducated people who are ‘right wingers’, and that maybe these two groups are laughing for different reasons?

  44. We’ll have to agree to disagree, then, John. I’m pretty sure the “there is no mafia” line was played for laughs.

  45. You could tell that he was a racist because he was ignorant, not because he was evil. He was redeemable. That is what made him likeable.

    Bingo! If only people from both the left and right wings could understand that (for example, children tend to be less racist than their parents, or second generation immigrants tend to assimilate quite well into American society) people change, and society changes, they might stop looking at the world as so black and white. The reason Archie Bunker was so popular and beloved was because he was redeemable, not because he was an intransigent bigot.

    One other thing, almost completely unrelated, but driving me nuts enough to put it in bold and all caps (so I beg everyone’s forgiveness):

    THERE IS NO “E” IN RIDICULOUS!!!

  46. I’m gettin outta here before there is an accident.

    Yeah, I’d hate to see someone here accidentally shoot themselves in the back of the head a couple of times.

  47. “But right wingers, generally, have a rotten sense of self-deprecation.”

    Really? Because I thought that the way those Alabama residents reacted to the Top Gear hosts driving through their neck of the woods was the height of good taste and laughing at themselves.

  48. I have found that the most strongly committed lefties and righties often lack self-deprecation. Is exaggerated self-importance necessary to become such a person in the first place?

  49. The reason Archie Bunker was so well-liked by Lear’s liberal audience is that he was a decent, kind-hearted man, with flaws like anyone else.

    I don’t think he was supposed to be redeemable, in the sense of being convertable. He was just a good person, with some screwy ideas.

  50. As to “Joe”, even at 39 years old I’m not old enough to have ever heard of this flick prior to this post.

    At 40 years old, I distinctly remember the MAD Magazine parody.

  51. “An excited little old lady approached him: “I agree with everything you said, young man. Someone should have said it a long time ago.”

    I know that’s not a real quote but why is it that everyone remembers “Joe” was anti-hippie but forgets him doing drugs at the end of the movie? To me, that’s where the filmmaker’s lack of “sophistication” shows.

    And I doubt the filmmakers had any sophisticated intent in the first place. All the quotes about the movie seemed like some sort of “let’s goof with the critics and not let on to the fact that it’s just a silly low-budget exploitation movie.”

  52. The Seinfeld characters were unlikable, but not bigots like Archie. They were self-absorbed and unempathic.
    I don’t think the comparisons between Seinfeld, the Young Ones, and All in the Family are valid.

    Anyhow, Archie and the Meathead were both dolts. The Meathead was just more with the times. Edith the dingbat was wise one, although she was quite naive.

  53. I thought that the way those Alabama residents reacted to the Top Gear hosts driving through their neck of the woods was the height of good taste and laughing at themselves.

    That’s your evidence to the contrary? Pretty weak, there, media geek. But as ChrisO points out, extremes on both sides are pretty humorless.

    In any case, whatever example you come up with is simply an exception that proves the rule.

  54. Wouldn’t more than one counter-example make it more than an exception? What if the counter-examples outnumber the original?

    I guess this is another way of sticking your fingers in your ears to avoid reality.

  55. Joe it has been a long time since I have seen that show. You may be right and I may be out to lunch.

  56. highnumber,

    If you never saw bigotry in Seinfeld characters then you never watched the show and just took a class on it in a coffey house.

    “I am not getting a reding from her? She is not A Chinese!” might not pass for your bigotry, but it is bigotry. Plenty of other examples too.

    That seemed to be the point of the last episode. I think the cast and writers were astounded that the characters were so popular, because they recognized them to be so profoundly unlikable. So they spent the entire trial reminding people how despicable their actions really were.

    The last episode had no point and I have deemed it “The episode that killed Sinatra”. If you are unaware, Frank Sinatra died the day after the fina episode.

  57. If you never saw bigotry in Seinfeld characters then you never watched the show and just took a class on it in a coffey house.

    Damn! Busted.

  58. highnumber,

    Nice admission, but I was thinking more like the set of Friends

  59. It is aleays interesting that the bigotry of Michael and George gets a pass in discussions like this.

  60. Is this an orggy?

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