Movies THE PLOYS OF SUMMER

Well, at least the theaters are air conditioned.

Ask a dozen people what they’d really like to do for a living and maybe half of them will say, “Drive a truck.” Cruising along for days at a time, through every kind of landscape, accelerator pressed to the floor, Willie Nelson in the background – that’s a life. The fantasy has as much to do with assumptions about freedom and independence as it does with the appeal of speed and powerful machinery. It seems to make little difference that most truckers are conservative law-and-order types who are more concerned about timetables and freight rates than bucking the establishment. In current folklore, freedom is doing 80 to Tucson.

Convoy, in fairly mechanical and obvious ways, presents the romance of trucking the way F.I.S.T. presented the romance of unionizing. One hesitates to call it a good film – the script is largely an afterthought and the acting of Kris Kristofferson and Ali MacGraw could easily be confused with puppetry – but it has a casual, laid-back quality that slowly wins you over, especially if you enjoy looking at the West. Some sequences might have come from a travelogue, while in others director Sam Peckin-pah, not known as a jokester, has some fun with American notions about hero worship. Nothing heavy-handed or preachy, just playful.

And how could it be otherwise with this kind of material? As every C&W fan knows, the convoy is led by one “Rubber Duck” (Kristofferson) whose consuming ambition seems to be to get to the coast as quickly as possible. Enter Smokey (Ernest Borgnine), whose mission in life is to see that this doesn’t happen, and a small army of independent truckers, who fall in line because it’s easier than trying to follow a map. Pretty soon the convoy has the look of a movement. An ambitious senator assumes that it’s a protest of some sort and tries to buy off the leaders; television considers it a goldmine for the 10 o’clock news; spectators along the route take it as a sign that the downtrodden and disenfranchised are about to rise at last.

All of this is worth about 30 minutes of film, after which Peckinpah fills in the gaps with shots of trucks moving balletically across New Mexico and Arizona or, when the situation demands it, crashing through buildings and into ravines. He is a genius at wrecking things, and Convoy sometimes looks like a cross between Smokey and the Bandit and a Laurel and Hardy two-reeler. Although there is some violence, including one particularly pointless beating of a black driver, Peckinpah’s direction is generally mellow. The fights are accompanied by waltz music and the downside of the trucker’s life is glossed over. Summer is no time to be grim, after all.

The one sour note is the film’s insistence that the nation’s highways are the site of a moral struggle between the forces of law and decency, represented by a grinning Borgnine, and free spirits like the Duck and his friends, who simply want to make it to the next cafe before all the easy waitresses have gone home. It’s the same sort of message we got in films like Easy Rider, and it isn’t any more convincing now than then, though Peckinpah packages it ingeniously. Example: The Duck, having outwitted Smokey and friends for a week, comes upon some army artillery, brought in to put an end to the Mack menace. As others cringe, our reluctant hero pushes toward the bridge, diesel roaring. Shells explode, the truck topples into the river, Ali weeps. Cut to a memorial service, where the fatuous senator is eulogizing the deceased while a caravan of trucks passes in review. Shot of Kris-tofferson and MacGraw laughing in the back of a hearse. No cliche has been overlooked, and Peckinpah has even ransacked his own films, particularly The Wild Bunch, for appropriate images. Not a promising course for a veteran director. Still, considering the emotional batterings he’s given us in earlier films, Convoy is refreshingly light-hearted.

Drop adjectives like “refreshing” from any discussion of Jaws II, which isn’t a sequel to the block-buster original but an anemic imitation. We’re back in Amity once again where the doltish mayor (Murray Hamilton) and his doltish developer friends are trying to convince the locals that all those splintered boats and bloody cadavers don’t necessarily mean SHARK! It’s tough enough making a living, they argue, without having alarmists like Sheriff Brody (Roy Scheider) driving tourists off the beaches, or showing up at the town hall with photographs of a you-know-what.

“Is that a fin or isn’t it?”

“Looks like a fingerprint to me, sheriff.”

“Just look at those teeth, all pearly and white.”

“Scratches on the negative, sheriff. Just scratches.”

That gives you a fair idea of the film’s dramatic intensity, not to mention the lofty level of the dialogue. Poor Roy Scheider, a good actor when given half a chance, is probably wondering why he wasn’t eaten alive in Jaws instead of Robert Shaw. That’s the star system for you. The only way Jaws II could have been interesting was for it to be more technically ingenious than its predecessor, the way some of the recent James Bond films have held their own against the originals, despite the predictable format. But for that you need a Steven Spielberg, a master of grisly fun who knows how to get the most out of mechanical props, even when he doesn’t get the most out of live actors. Director Jeannot Swarc just isn’t up to the task. Jaws II is plodding and repetitive to the point that we yawn whenever another victim goes under. This new shark has no class, no moves, and why it takes nearly two hours to dispose of him only the folks at Universal can say. The one reason for staying awake is that the boats are usually filled with nubile teenagers, all suffering from chronic sunstroke. Anything that depletes their ranks, even momentarily, is worth cheering.



So many people have told me that Grease is a marvelous film, the perfect Fifties fix, that I felt guilty showing up without my white bucks and pegged pants. I went anyway and can now report that one good song and two good dance numbers do not a musical make. “Aw, I bet you don’t like musicals anyway,” my informants counter. Wrong. I love musicals. I’ve seen Singin’ in the Rain a dozen times, Top Hat at least ten, and I’ve lost count on West Side Story. I’ll go anywhere for My Fair Lady, and last summer I sat through two hours of Ethel Merman at Summertop. If that doesn’t make me a musicals fan, I don’t know what does.

But Grease is a musical in name only. It clomps along from one scene to the next, the editing is terrible, and most of the dance routines could have been created by my old drama teacher, Miss Ryan, whose idea of snappy choreography was to have everyone run upstairs sideways. Olivia Newton-John, who sings pleasantly, is so wooden that she makes Doris Day seem like an acrobat. As for John Travolta, who ought to have been wonderful as Danny Zuc-co, Olivia’s punk boyfriend, he seems to walk through his role rather than play it. There are few signs of the energy and intensity we saw in Saturday Night Fever. Danny and Sandy together are as sparkling as wet matches. He dances, she sings, but they don’t do much together. The best moments are the highly stylized dance numbers, like “Beauty School Dropout,” which owe much more to the Thirties and Forties than to the Fifties.

“But you’re missing the point,” the fans respond. “Grease is a parody, a spoof.” But while the raw materials are there – the hot rods and leather jackets and penny loafers – they seem like only so much window dressing. I’m tired of instant nostalgia flicks in which some aspiring young director slaps on a few 45s, recreates a malt shop, and thinks he’s won us over. Films like American Hot Wax and FM are about props, not people, and anyone who doesn’t know the difference should catch American Graffiti, which started the whole craze. Grease is funnier and more inventive than most of the competition, and it gives us a chance to see old favorites like Eve Arden and Sid Caesar, though in thankless roles. It’s just too bad that director Randal Kleiser didn’t do more with the material. The only developed character is Rizzo (Stockard Chan-ning), and it’s clear that the triumph is hers rather than the director’s. God knows the Fifties were bland and innocent. I just can’t remember their being so drearily predictable as well.

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