Joe (1970)

If there is one thing that best explains why so many people remain firm supporters of Donald Trump in spite of it all, it is white supremacy.  Racism has always been with us, of course, but today it is more desperate than ever, for demographic trends indicate that the white race will no longer constitute a majority in the United States before this century is out.  And Trump supporters believe he is their best hope for keeping America white.  But even when America was overwhelmingly white, with no sense that things would ever be otherwise, there were plenty of people who feared and hated anyone who was different.  And so it is that while we see examples of bigotry every day, it can be interesting to take a look at how it expressed itself in the past.  For that purpose, we have the 1970 movie Joe.

Early in the movie, Bill Compton, a respectable businessman, kills his daughter’s drug-dealer boyfriend in a fit of rage after she overdoses and almost dies. In shock over what he has done, he goes into a bar to have a drink. In the bar is Joe Curran (Peter Boyle), a man who hates blacks, hippies, homosexuals, and communists.  He gives full vent to his spleen. In one sense, Joe’s rant is dated, couched in terms of the cultural changes of the 1960s. But in another sense, it is a timeless expression of bigotry, one that it is just as fresh in the twenty-first century as it was back then.

Schopenhauer said a great dramatist like Shakespeare knows that when the villain speaks, he’s right.  Examples of this may be found in The Razor’s Edge (1946), when Isabel argues that Larry is a fool for thinking he has cured Sophie; in Shane (1953), when Ryker makes his case against the homesteaders, and in Hud (1963), when the title character argues for selling off diseased cattle.  In the end, we reject these villains.  But while they speak, even if just for a moment, we are captivated.  And so it is with Joe.

When Bill first walks into the bar, Joe is mainly complaining about the blacks, the way they burn down cities and get welfare.  The government even gives them free rubbers, he says, but they sell the rubbers to buy booze and then have more babies so they can get more welfare.  Little by little he gets around to the hippies, doing drugs and having orgies.  However, this is not really a change of subject, because for Joe, blacks, hippies, homosexuals, and communists are not unrelated, but rather are all of a piece.  And yet, it is difficult to brings these groups under a unifying concept, or at least to show how they are all interrelated.  But toward that end, he says things like, “Forty-two percent of all liberals are queers.”  Of course, as far as Joe is concerned, liberals are communists, and the hippies are all a bunch of anti-American commies, having orgies on Easter.  The bartender gives Joe a quarter, telling him to give everyone a break and play some music on the juke box.  Joe goes over to the juke box and stares at it.  The bartender says, “What’s a matter, Joe?  You’ve got all those opinions, and you can’t pick a record?” to which Joe replies, “The goddamn nigger loving hippies have even fucked up the music.”

Perhaps a separate comment about communism is in order.  Just as hippies could no longer exist after the end of the Vietnam War, so too does it seem that communists could no longer exist after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  However much we might still regard Russia, China, or North Korea as enemies, it is their nuclear weapons we worry about, not their communist ideology.  The right still fears socialism, of course, as evidenced by the political rhetoric of the day, but socialism is something we mostly associate with Canada or the Western democracies of Europe, countries whom we regard as our allies.  Those opposing “Medicare for all” are more likely to point to Great Britain, unfairly or not, as an example to bolster their case against socialized medicine than to the healthcare system of Russia.

Now, for Joe, the Russians would have merely been the ultimate example of communists.  He is the kind of guy who would have said to any hippie complaining about the evils of American capitalism, “If that’s the way you feel, why don’t you move to Russia?”  And his mantra back then was “Better dead than red.”  But this is no longer the case among the far right, which has come to have a more favorable view of Russia than one might have ever thought possible, as can be seen in an article at Vox.com, which features a picture of Trump supporters wearing shirts that say, “I’d rather be a Russian than a Democrat.”  The article explains this shift in attitude toward Russia as “negative partisanship.”  But I say the real reason is that the Russians are white.

In any event, at one point in his vituperative spiel, Joe says he’d like to kill one of those hippies.  Bill tells Joe that he just did, because it makes him feel good to admit his crime to someone who understands, though he quickly says he was just kidding. Later, when Joe realizes that Bill actually did kill a hippie, something he has always wanted to do, but probably never would have on his own, he calls Bill up and says he wants to get together. The two of them form a deadly combination, resulting in a massacre of hippies. Inadvertently, Bill kills his own daughter, Melissa (Susan Sarandon), who happens to be among them.

The first time I saw the movie was in 1970, when it was first released. As the years passed, my memory was that Bill and Joe killed a bunch of harmless, peace-loving hippies. But having seen the movie again recently, I realize that the hippies are not portrayed sympathetically.  Early in the movie, when Melissa enters the room she shares with her boyfriend, he is taking a bath. She gets in the tub with him, and he immediately gets out, criticizing her for being a rich broad who never had to earn a dollar in her life, just sitting in the bathtub on her fat ass. It is not clear whether he is merely indifferent to her romantic gesture, or whether he despises her, but either way, he treats her like dirt.

Speaking of dirt, that reminds me of their feet. Notwithstanding the bath, their feet are filthy. Back in those days, having dirty feet was de rigueur for hippies, because that was a way of displaying contempt for the rules of society. And just to make sure we know they have the required dirt and grime, when they get in bed together, the camera films them from the end of the bed so that we get full view of the bottoms of four filthy feet.

It is a sordid scene:  a squalid room, a syringe, a bowl of pills.  Melissa’s boyfriend is so rude and obnoxious that we don’t feel sorry for him when Bill brutally murders him.  But while Melissa is a frail for whom we have some pity, we are put off by the way she lets herself be mistreated and by her own irritating behavior when she is on drugs.  However much we may feel sorry for people addicted to drugs or caught up in abusive relationships, this movie does nothing to promote such sympathy, encouraging feelings of revulsion instead.

After Melissa recovers from the drug overdose, she runs away from the hospital and returns home, only to overhear her father admitting to killing her boyfriend, and so she runs away from home too.  With Joe’s help, Bill starts looking for her.  They meet some hippies from whom they hope to get some information about Melissa.  In the process, Bill and Joe end up participating in an orgy of sorts, and we get the spectacle of Joe’s naked beer gut coming down on top of some hippie chick as he prepares to have sex with her, but not before remarking that he doesn’t need any foreplay, which he regards as proof of his manhood. While this allows us to see how crude Joe is, it also illustrates some of that hippie promiscuity he was grumbling about earlier.  Furthermore, the hippies are thieves, for they rob Bill and Joe of their wallets.  In other words, the hippies are portrayed as unlikable, scroungy, and immoral.

Bill and Joe track them down.  Earlier, we saw Joe’s gun collection, and he has a couple of those rifles in the trunk, which he says they will use to scare them.  But things get out of hand and the massacre ensues.

I saw the movie at the drive-in, so I was unaware of any audience response.  But a friend of mine said that she saw the movie in a theater, and she was horrified at the way the audience cheered at the end, because, as she characterized it, “They got rid of a bunch of dirty hippies.”  I have since read that this audience reaction was quite common.  I was surprised at the time, but now I realize the movie encouraged that response.  And so, what I once took as being a criticism of bigotry, I now have to wonder whether this movie just went a little too far in giving us the villain’s point of view, or whether there might have been an intentional justification of such, with an exculpatory tragic ending tacked on in the final reel to disguise the movie’s right-wing sympathies.

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