The counterculture and the reactionaries are equally problematic in John G. Avildsen’s complex, underrated Joe. With its bitter, murderous white males at the center blaming their, and the world’s, ills on marginalized groups from hippies to blacks to “queers” – and reacting violently to this perception – the film is more timely than ever in Trump’s America.
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During Donald Trump’s campaign for the White House, more than a few commentators noticed some similarities to George Wallace, and especially Wallace’s 1968 campaign for the American Independent Party. His statement that “If I ever get to be president and one of those demonstrators lays down in front of my car, it’ll be the last car they ever lay down in front of” (Small, 1999). Feels like exactly the sort of thing that Trump might tweet early in the morning. We wait to see how Hollywood reacts through its films to the current situation; in the meantime we can revisit a surprise hit that aimed to explore many of the tensions that fed Wallace’s popularity.
Joe is a curious film – a low-budget exploitation flick made by a director of soft-core pornography (who would go on to Paper Tiger, Rocky, and The Karate Kid) that made close to $20 million and launched the careers of Peter Boyle and Susan Sarandon (Powell & Garrett, 2009). It was a film that divided critics and audiences. Some people came out of theatres loving a character who had voiced their concerns about society (loving it enough that an LP of Joe’s speeches from the film was released). Others shouted threats at the screen: “We’re coming for you, Joe”; threats real enough for Peter Boyle to try to establish the difference between himself and his screen persona in several magazine interviews, and distancing himself from violent roles in the future (Durham, 1970). But what to make of this divisive film after 34 years? Does it still have the power to split an audience, or does time give us the distance to appreciate it anew?
Despite the title, we have to wait 20 minutes for Joe to appear. The film opens with Melissa (Sarandon) framed in a montage of hippie imagery. She drifts around town accompanied by a soft song. A pretty cliché, her life is exposed as a sham when we meet her drug-dealing boyfriend Frank, a typical late ’60s confusion of symbols (he calls himself The Lone Ranger and sells pills to young girls while professing to be an artist). They share a bath (but their feet never come clean), a bed, and a needle. When Melissa’s trip goes bad, Frank is elsewhere, leaving it to Melissa’s upper-middle-class parents (ad exec Bill Compton and WASP archetype Joan) to supervise her recovery. In a quest to recover some of Melissa’s clothes, Bill goes to her apartment and meets Frank. An exchange of views occurs, then Bill loses it, and, in a psychedelic blur, bashes Frank’s head against a wall. Gathering up the drugs (we’ll see them again) and his daughter’s clothes, Bill staggers to the American Bar & Grill where he meets Joe, a loud-mouth racist and homophobic hard-hat framed with a picture of Iwo Jima over his shoulder. When Bill accidentally confesses his crime, Joe sees an opportunity – not for blackmail but for hero worship. Excruciating class-comedy ensues as Joe tries to ingratiate himself into Bill’s life, having him round for Chinese take-out and serving peanuts in the tin. The film turns when Melissa, at home but not seen by her parents, hears of her father’s crime. She flees, and Bill, with Joe in tow, sets off into the Village to find her. These two men reveal their envy and desire for the hippie lifestyle, finding themselves in an orgy (pronounced with a hard “g” by Joe) in exchange for Frank’s drugs. They awake to find their wallets stolen and most of the hippies gone. After Joe slaps the location of a hippie commune out of one of the remaining girls, they set off and the film turns into a violent execution where Joe’s fantasies of blowing away the evils of society are made real. Bill faces the decision – join in and cover his crime, or stop Joe. He chooses the former and, as luck would have it, shoots and kills Melissa.
So far, so exploitation. The film shows enough “exposé” of hippie lifestyle, titillating nudity and violence to satisfy those who search for such things, but beneath the cheap veneer sits a more complex and interesting film that avoids simplistic moral conclusions, and ably dramatizes the ideological conflicts of the time. The film echoes the Puritan captivity narrative and westerns, like The Searchers, but concludes in a way that exposes the moralistic lies behind those archetypes. Ethan Edwards might relent at the end and hug his niece. Bill Compton shoots his daughter in the back. And no wonder – this film exposes everyone as a sham, white collar, blue collar, and hippie alike.
The hippies, despite all their counterculture slogans for peace and love, are happy to steal when it comes to getting high – besides, getting one back on the “squares” is entirely justified. Their confused depiction seems typical of the time; it recalls the Linny Raven character in Coogan’s Bluff, as if all the contradictions of the era (peace campaigns and campus riots) are rolled into one single stereotype. This confused depiction reflects the era and the older generation’s inability to understand the massive social changes occurring around them. It’s as if all social problems (no matter how contradictory) are projected onto the kids, those that oppose the values of the homes they were brought up in. The film’s original title, The Gap (dropped because of the rise of the eponymous fashion chain), reflects the film more accurately, identifying the distance between parents and children (tellingly Joe’s two boys never appear, always absent), upper and lower whites (united by their alienation, but divided by much else), and the shifts in society.
Bill Condon (played by journeyman TV actor Dennis Patrick) displays a nice line in self-loathing. An ad exec who knows how shallow his line of work and life really are. The murder of Frank leads him to Joe, and he gets a vicarious thrill out of his association with the anger and confusion the latter displays. Sure he thinks he’s better than Joe, but he loves the adulation he receives – after all, he’s done what Joe only dreams of.
What of Joe himself? Despite first appearing late on, Boyle dominates the film (even though he’s far too young to have been in WWII). He’s crass, racist, and sexist, but also patriotic, confused, and alienated. He spouts fake news (“42% of all Liberals are queer. That’s a fact. The Wallace people did a poll.”), blaming the liberals, the niggers, and the queers. The world around him is changing (blacks moving into his neighbourhood), and his unseen kids remain pointedly absent. His wife, Mary Lou (can you get any more down-home?), works to relentlessly appease him, but underneath he’s seething. His hideaway, the basement of his home, is bedecked with flags and guns – nostalgia for when he was killing “Japs,” for a time when he knew who the enemy were, and what to do about them. All those guns suggests how tenuous Joe’s masculinity really is, symbolically castrated by his own reliance on his beloved phallic symbols. It’s an excellent performance by Boyle, making Joe repellent but mesmeric.
For all their anger and masculine pride (in houses, wives, etc.), both Joe and Bill are shown to be a sham. Their adventure into the Village ends up with them both in a love-in, but consciously unmanned by the experience as they are rejected by the younger women (with Joe’s companion claiming “That must be a new record.”). They may hate the hippie lifestyle, but it’s a hatred born from envy – goddammit those kids are having a better time than they ever did.
Harking back to the captivity narrative, Melissa at first appears like a 20th-century Mary Rowlandson, a nice girl kidnapped by the feral outsiders. She is mistreated by her partner Frank, she’s a slave to him and the drugs, but when she curls up in bed she hugs her childhood doll, seeking solace in something safe and innocent. Unlike Rowlandson, Melissa isn’t reborn through her experiences; she rejects her parents’ life, realising how phony they are too. It’s a decision that costs her her life, after she pertinently questions her father, “Are you gonna kill me too?” Neither world works for her – each abandons her.
Far from offering a specific position, the ending leaves us with problems, not resolutions. Joe has finally indulged in his great desires, taking part in an orgy and executing the hippies. Bill caves in to Joe, unwilling to take a moral stand and responsibility for the murder of Frank (below). He could turn his gun on Joe and stop the slaughter, but instead he joins in to cover his own back. This one choice, the decision to protect himself rather than do the right thing, condemns Melissa. She dies, freeze-framed in the snow, having had a pitiless time. Abused by her boyfriend, controlled and lied to by her parents, and finally murdered by her father. The film’s titles play over a frame of Melissa lying in the snow and Bill standing in the porch of the commune. In the end, everybody, be they management or hard-hat, hippie or square, has failed.
In 1976, Taxi Driver was released, concerning a spiritual descendent of Joe, Travis Bickle. Boyle appears briefly as Wizard, an older taxi driver who attempts to counsel Bickle. Boyle’s performance is a clear counterpoint to Joe, with Wizard praising liberal values. His advice, of course, fails and the narrative is restaged, but this time the girl is rescued (whether she wants it or not). The captivity narrative returns, the confusion remains. Is Bickle a saviour? His costume confuses, a gunslinger with a mohawk. The good guys, the bad guys, all blend into one. At the Oscars that followed, Taxi Driver lost out to Rocky for best picture and best director. John G. Avildsen, having arrived with Joe, signalled another change in America with a more optimistic piece, in which it was very clear who we should root for.
Joe was clearly a film born out of its era, hitting the zeitgeist at precisely the right moment. Several months before it was released, the action of the film was prefigured by the real-life murder, on May 7, 1970, of hippie daughter by Detroit railroad worker Arville Garland. Garland had had enough of his daughter’s new lifestyle and friends, and went to her university and shot them. Although Norman Wexler’s screenplay for Joe had been completed before the crime, the parallels were obvious, not least for the trial judge who instructed the defence and the prosecution to watch the film, and screened the jury to make sure they had not (Thomas, 2014). Like the fictional Joe Curran, Garland had many supporters too, receiving letters and gifts while in jail.
Judged from a distance it’s clear to see how open the text is, feeding off the anxieties of different sections of society, allowing for different gazes to engage with the film differently. The contemporary reaction missed just how subversive the film is, taking neither side in the debate, but exposing the hollowness of both the older generation and the counterculture. In a time when the same old debates have resurfaced, Joe is well worth rediscovering.
Durham, Michael (1970). “Reluctant Hero of the Hardhats.” Life. October 16, 69-70.
Powell, Larry & Garrett, Tom (2009). The Films of John G. Avildsen: Rocky, The Karate Kid and Other Underdogs. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
Small, Melvin (1999). The Presidency of Richard Nixon. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press.
Thomas, Bill (2014). Second Wind: Navigating the Passage to a Slower, Deeper and More Connected Life. New York: Simon and Schuster.