Movies

Hardhatsploitation

|

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!"