Two midnight-appropriate releases from 1966 being the subject of this current article
The Wild Angels
More dysfunctional and more unhinged, and thus more disarming in its brazen unholiness, than the zeitgeist-defining Easy Rider, Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels was – like any Corman production – a craven attempt to cash in on a pop culture craze. And, like most Corman productions, its discombobulated recklessness in achieving that goal is evidence enough that we are in the company of, if not maddened genius, at least something akin to sufficiently crazed, frequently atonal, bubblingly inspired, seemingly unintentional craft. Hells Angels become Hell’s Accident.
A bewildering mixture of the ludicrous and the almost elegiac, the Corman-directed film marries a hot-headed screenplay with at times ice-cold filmmaking in its depiction of a gang of possibly right-wing anarchist bikers, adjacent to, and functionally, the Hell’s Angels, but never named as such. More a mood piece than a narrative proper, the film evokes the escalating desperation and aimlessness of the crew as they look for any American pie to stir when the bike of a member, Loser (a salacious Bruce Dern), is stolen. From there, retrieving the bike dive-bombs into nastier, fell counter-actions as the gang, fronted by the divinely named Heavenly Blues (Peter Fonda), leave behind their respective girlfriends and wives (Nancy Sinatra for Fonda, Diane Ladd for Dern) to ride a strip of highway straight to hell.
Although it is forgotten today, The Wild Angels is no recluse in the moment. American International Pictures, Corman’s company, was a full-throated make-a-buck exercise in gung-ho capitalism on Corman’s part, and while this inherently prefigured his path toward certain trailer-ready concept-heavy films, his pictures seldom became mired in their ideas. Instead, they were head-strong, barrel-chested, rough-housing films with a certain grotesque moral outrage that was primarily, even exclusively, the progeny of Corman’s desire to weaponize anything in his path for his own gain. For The Wild Angels, this meant capitalizing on a lascivious rejection of social propriety in order to rake in the dollars (after all, what could be more American than giving in to social recklessness and upending moral conservatism only when the capitalist drive to commodify anti-capitalist social rebellion entered the fray?)
Anyway, entering the fray is devoutly wheat The Wild Angels does, although its demeanor is more twisted and confused than all this might suggest. Perhaps a visualization of the chaos of Corman, a social square without an idea of what to do with the youth, directing a film by screenwriters Charles Griffith and Peter Bogdanovich, more youthful types and chroniclers of social change, The Wild Angels is a testy, bedeviled motion picture torn apart by its interests. On one hand, the film is a thoroughly agitated, gloriously inebriated, disreputable embodiment of the rebel culture – or at least, its pungent version of the rebel culture. On the other, it is an alienated, alarmed leave of absence from that culture, a fearful, weary frightfest about a counter-cultural happy accident turned uncontrollable mongrel.
What emerges is a mess, a film that fails to survive from its competing interests unscathed, but also a curiously bedeviled embodiment of the idea of counter-culture as existential paradox. However rough, the film’s artless charisma is throat-grabbing in its expression of an anti-social rebel’s paradoxical need to conform to the rough-hewn mechanisms of a group. Essayed in The Wild Angels, the familial bonds among the riders are untethered into tribalism, a simmering volcano teetering around eruption when Loser passes on and the nervous tangle of rhythms tentatively tying the crew together is disrupted and the scrap heap from which they came is throttled into an oblivion no one can contain.
There’s a primitivism to the piece that evokes a nihilistic, spiraling decadence of toxic hostility with a causeless unfettering of the normative American social code that, in this exploitative vision, manifests in a coarse excoriation of the anarchic fluctuations in a right wing, Nazi-garbed crew. Rebels become wraiths on another plane of existence from the physical world searching for a fix, their drug of choice being normative establishment icons to jostle or hector until there’s nothing left for them to rebel against but themselves (the woodenness of the actors even registers as vacancy or emptiness in their eyes). Compared to say, Rebel Without a Cause, The Wild Angels is almost willfully unable to tidy up any sense of its vision of the counter-culture, which is why it is so provocative and even challenging today, like an expression of a contradictory time period rather than a commentary on it. In the right mood, one might even call the film genuinely dialectic in its simultaneous embracement and derision of the need to reject, pervert, and misshape.
Almost immediately, the obelisk of the New Hollywood – erected out of clay equal parts Corman’s independent cinema and the French New Wave – would clarify and crystallize the violently uncentered likes of The Wild Angels with renewed purpose and vigor, resulting in slews of superior films every year. That said, on its own terms, there’s something bracing, equal parts fetid and fresh, about the essentially amoral, purposeless nihilism of a film like The Wild Angels, which appears to have been not so much directed as dynamited.
An intentionally trivial, grayscale real world introduces us to Fantastic Voyage as a kind of inoculation, a centering, before the discombobulated day-glo poetry of the psychedelic inner body steps in for the party proper. A neon purple tube – “the sterilization quarters” – is the intravenous injection that melds both sterile sober-house and drug-craze and smoothes the way from one world of normality to the other of hostile possibility in a film that imagines the inner space of the human self as a magnetic, psychotropic fever dream cheekily set against the space travel raising so much of a ruckus all around audiences in the mid-‘60s. We really don’t understand our inner beings, Fantastic Voyage suggests, and with such groovy interstitial fluid coursing through our veins, who in their right mind cares about outer space?
Of course, the film also explores less affectively charged physical surfaces and ideological spaces, such as the drably functional halls of the early goings before a team of scientists is to be miniaturized on an adventure into a human’s body (this being one of the de facto television-episode plot-veins for decades, especially in animation, where the torrid psychedelia of the body can be rendered with a grace and imaginative fluidity uncommon in live-action). But the early goings here are a barren, bone-dry proving ground, a crucible of static angles and monotone dialogue that is, I suspect, a deliberately sullen contrast for the more candy-coated Technicolor dreamscape of the inside-us realm. A certain creaky soporific trudge marks the early goings, roughly the first third, like waiting in line at an LSD-fueled party where the bouncers are particularly keen on talking to every last guest before you can get up front.
Anyway, once we’re inside, the film isn’t exactly a marvel of suspense, but the tone is more plastic and elastic than the rigid arteries of a thriller might suggest. The film is best viewed as a phantasmagoria, a hazy trip, and a placid planetarium (to return us to the space-metaphor) of star-gazing restfulness and wonder rather than a jolt to the electrons. The flora and fauna of the body do attack, but the film doesn’t. Instead of feel thrilled, we’re meant to imbibe in the jubilant transmogrification of literally human space redrawn with the imaginative fibers of the mind. The film both metastasizes the body as an attack vessel and suggests that the mind, in its ability to poetically sketch the body anew, can in fact hold court over matter.
There are a few cunning interchanges – a conversation about intelligent design vs. evolution is slashed into when the failure of the intelligently constructed submarine interrupts the haggard old “you can’t possibly believe such intelligence wasn’t designed?” line. But, primarily, the film doesn’t hiss or purr with dialogue as Stephen Boyd, Edmund O’Brien, Donald Pleasence, Arthur Kennedy, and Raquel Welch jostle around between individual struggles with the body that register primarily as visual tableaux that would curdle into deleterious crackpot fantasia if you aren’t operating on the film’s wavelength. Lines like “each beat (of the heart) separates a man from eternity” acclimatize us to the film’s particular Shakespeare-on-mind-altering-substances stream of consciousness and optical day-glo poetry. The parade of crystalline blue spears, cloudy white plasma, fetid green ganglions, and protoplasmic red spheroids take you the rest of the way.
Now if Coolio was in it…