Super Fly: Four of five stars.
Duck Soup: Five of five stars.
Do you ever wonder whose side certain people are on? Well, you will when you watch two of the three big movies we're dealing with today. Picking a side isn't the most important thing in the world. Knowing what side you are on, however, can be crucial, and in the Land That Drugs Forgot, also known as the 1970s, it isn't always easy.
Take for instance our first feature, Joe (1970). I'll tell you straight up that you'll want to watch this John G. Alvidsen-directed film if for no other reason than to see a young Susan Sarandon naked. We also get to see Peter Boyle naked, although our love for Mr. Boyle in the buff is what you might call an acquired taste.
His acting, however, requires no acquisition. Here he is his typical brilliant self and also his typically bad self, playing a working class racist that would make Archie Bunker run and hide. He is Everyman and that is precisely what is so scary about him. Is that us up there on that big screen, momma? Boyle plays the title character in this film and when Joe meets Bill Compton, played by character actor Dennis Patrick, he confesses that what he'd really like to do is "kill one of them."
"I just did," Compton blurts out, referencing the murder he just committed against Frank, a lousy stinking drug dealer played to despicable perfection by a guy we've never heard of named Patrick McDermott. We in the audience hate Frank because he has turned the beautiful Melissa Compton--who we recognize as the beautifully naked Ms. Sarandon--into a freaky addict. Frank is trying to pull together enough cash so that he can buy a big sack of drugs which he will sell and the proceeds from which he and Melissa will presumably use to stay high indoors for the rest of their lives. To accomplish this, Frank cons local kids into buying vitamins that he assures them are some heavy head trips. So we hate Frank because he's a heartless junkie, because he has wrecked the beautifully naked Susan Sarandon, and because he sells fake drugs to kids. But when he tells Melissa's father that his daughter balled half the guys in the Fillmore, well, sir or ma'am, for a moment there we feel pretty darned good when the old man starts pounding the stinking drug dealer's head against the wall. When it turns out Compton has killed Frank, we're not really all that upset. After all, it's just one less cockroach in the world.
Then, dammit all, we find out that our thinking on this matter is the same as that of Joe, the resident bigot and violence freak.
This movie comes at you in a hundred different ways, many of them quite comical and each and every one of them highly deceptive. Everything that happens in this film, originally titled The Gap, will surprise you. A lot of it will probably offend you, and rightly so, which is pretty amazing considering that we have evolved so far as a species in the forty-two years since this mesmerizing movie was released. The only problem with that preceding sentence is the part about us evolving because, as you will see almost immediately, nothing has changed at all, not even one infinitesimal iota, my friends. We still want what's best for our families even if we have to destroy those families in order to give it to them. We still think of the world as being divided up between whites and blacks, the working and the freeloaders, the women and the men, the gays and the straights, the haves and have nots. And then this movie comes along and shows us that some well-off advertising executive and a guy who sweats over a radiator all day can be equally out of touch to what is going on, that makes it not all that surprising then that the young people we see in this movie are all a bunch of parasites.
See? You weren't expecting that word, were you? Yep, every last person in this film, except possibly the gloriously naked Ms Sarandon, is either vaguely or precisely despicable. The young people in this movie are very much the way the bigoted Joe characterizes them: they screw all night, take drugs that they stole to pay for, and laugh at other people's pain. So if you were expecting this movie to be like Norman Lear or something, think again, muchacha, because this movie will take you places you have never been.
And yet it does occasionally fly its real colors. Killing the very young people that we raised to be just like us says a lot about what a sick-ass society ours often is and Joe does not flinch from this truism.
Our second film, Superfly (1972) does not flinch either. Watching it again last night, I tried to count all the different levels on which this movie was calculated to offend people and gave up somewhere around one hundred eleven. Ron O'Neal plays Priest, the bad ass mofo who wants to make one last and large score of cocaine so that he can take his million dollars and get out of the life. This movie, as O'Neal himself would later admit, is basically a commercial for cocaine, and yet, once again, we find ourselves pulling for this guy because he's still the most noble person in the film and I guess we learn to expect to try to identify with somebody. As with our first picture, Superfly gets by on the occasionally phenomenal talent of the title character actor. O'Neal's career didn't go far, but you'll wonder why after watching him play this incredibly intense fellow who does not have a heart of gold, no, not by a long shot. Yet we like the fact that, as Curtis Mayfield reminds us during the glorious soundtrack, he "Had a mind, wasn't dumb." Indeed he is not. He outsmarts the corrupt connection between the cops and the syndicate, he manages to get what he wants from everyone, including Eddie, the partner who betrays him, from Fat Freddie, the jealous clown who gets killed running from cops and criminals, and including the women whom he uses because they have the audacity to think that they are using him.
So anyone waiting for anything socially redeeming about Superfly must take another bump and split. And that reminds me: After you watch this film, just try to think up any urban expressions that this film did not anticipate, a fact that not only suggests something about the way young audiences continue to relate to this film but also about the limited imaginations of succeeding generations.
And speaking of imaginations, director Leo McCarey and writer Bert Kalmar dip into the vitamin jar to come up with Duck Soup (1933), a cosmic and brilliant political farce every bit as timely today as when it was release between the two world wars. The choreography and songs are far less jarring here than in most comedies of that period and the one-liners that Groucho snaps back with are still indescribably hilarious.
Mrs Teasdale: This is a gala day for you.
Rufus T. Firefly: Well, a gal a day is enough for me. I don't think I could handle any more.
Firefly: Remember, you're fighting for this woman's honor, which is probably more than she ever did. Well, that covers a lot of ground. Say, you cover a lot of ground yourself. You better beat it--I hear they're going to tear you down and put up an office building where you're standing. You can leave in a taxi. If you can't get a taxi, you can leave in a huff. If that's too soon, you can leave in a minute and a huff. You know, you haven't stopped talking since I came here? You must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle.
You'll need a good bowl of Duck Soup to wash the bile out of your system from the other two movies, although the truth is that these three make for a great evening, especially if you watch them with someone as beautifully naked as Susan Sarandon, a point I hope by now to have made abundantly clear.