During one of my recent visits to the local dollar store I was surprised to discover a copy of Breaking Away in the DVD bin. In fact there were plenty of other fine titles to be had for a buck and I quickly loaded up my arms. I guess Blu Ray is making its mark (to say nothing of pay-per-view, iTunes and other less savory options).
Gathering the family and cueing up an old and very personal favorite is always a bit of a risk (Buckeroo Banzai (wp) earned me some eye-rolling and a universal, “Boy, was that ever a Dad Movie!”), but I needn’t have worried about Breaking Away. The story of four misfits who don’t know what to do with themselves now that they’ve graduated from their small town high school still has appeal. It helps that the characters are holding onto traits that are essentially childish: bicycle racer Dave’s loopy insistence on speaking with an Italian accent, Moocher’s “Oh, hi! You just caught me in the middle of a bench-press set” posturing, Mike’s idolizing of the Marlboro Man (“That's the place to be right there, Wyoming! Nothin' but prairies and mountains and nobody around. All you need is your bed roll and a good horse.”) and Cyril’s adolescent wise-cracking (“Don’t forget your toothbrush. You’re still in your cavity-prone years.”) blend together to keep the mood pleasantly sweet.*
The movie places Dave at the center of the narrative, and takes pains to frame his particular lostness via spirited exchanges between his Mom (Barbara Barrie) and Dad (Paul Dooley). It’s an amusing set-up — most of the movie’s memorable lines come from the Dad’s Archie Bunker-like bluster (“I know I-tey food when I hear it! All them ‘eeny’ foods. Zucchini. Linguine. Fettuccini. I want some American food, dammit! I want French fries!”). I mentally dog-eared this as stagey, if charmingly so, but didn’t register just how subtly it worked until midway through the movie, when it hit me that the parents — he with the bum ticker, and she with the looming empty nest — were just as lost as their boy and his buddies.
I had very strong memories of the climactic bicycle race, of course, but hadn’t realized that the entire final lap was a single, unbroken, immaculately choreographed shot. It’s a fitting metaphor for the entire film. This is one of those flicks where every movie-making ingredient you can name falls magically into place and conspires to make the viewer fall in love, not just with what’s on screen, but with movies, period.
*Played by Dennis Christopher, Jack Earle Haley, Dennis Quaid and Daniel Stern, respectively — all of 'em very young.
A Chicago mob boss opens a brown paper package. He shows the contents — a pile of raw wieners — to Lee Marvin. “We’ll need some boys,” says Marvin.
The wieners, as the preceding minutes have made plain, are what remains of the last collector the mob sent to Kansas City. A Cadillac limo picks up the requested boys, one of whom has to kiss his mother on the cheek before he leaves. The set-up in Prime Cut is rather bald, to say the least: these big city mobsters are taking a trip to America’s Heartland to discover just how hideously cancerous it really is.
It’s worse than I imagined. There are babes wearing nothing but hairspray and false eyelashes, arrayed fetchingly in pens bedded with fresh straw. There is an International Harvester combine that consumes a car and excretes gears and tires. And there is Gene Hackman literally feasting on the scenery while Marvin watches with convincing disbelief.
Prime Cut caromes so wildly off anything credible that it has to be viewed as violent cartoon comedy, a primitive precursor to the sorts of movies the Coen Brothers now excel at. Unfortunately its sincerity is its undoing, deflating all attempted tension even as it delivers bales of ironic pleasure. The presentation of nudity alone is worth the price of admission. It’s completely female (young, of course), completely gratuitous and completely drenched in late-60s counter-cultural attitude.
Considered within the movie’s aesthetic cultural-historical framework, it could be persuasively argued that these girls’ naked bods are used to convey any combination of the following messages: (1) “I’m naked. Get over it.”; (2) “Check it out: gorgeous naked chicks just sitting in the straw!”; (3) “Your prurient interest in these unclothed wymyn is proof that you’re every bit the male chauvinist pig that Gene Hackman is!” While I’ve always been an (admittedly distant) admirer of the first attitude, the latter two remain entwined in a way that seemingly requires Joe Francis to help our society sort out.
Plus ça change, I suppose. As a trip down memory lane to ideological carnivals of old, Prime Cut is certainly worth the spin, if not necessarily the purchase — even from a dollar store.
Amazon: Breaking Away, Prime Cut. And here is a Whisky Prajer rewind where I consider what mature sexuality might look like in the cinema. I recently re-watched Rob Roy, and I think it still holds up.