March 15, 2012
Cinematic Hell: The Pink Angels (1971)
Stars: John Alderman, Tom Basham, Henry Olek, Bruce Kimball, Maurice Warfield and Robert Biheller
When I started my Cinematic Hell project, the aim was to watch (or rewatch) some of the worst movies of all time and try to build a primer into who, what and why. Much of my planning was on including a suitably wide range of titles, genres and key names to take care of the 'who' and the 'what', but over time the 'why' of it all took over. I became fascinated about why films like these were made, why anyone ever thought they might have been a good idea. Perhaps inevitably at that point, the scope morphed a little from bad movies to inexplicable ones. After all, there's a huge crossover between the two, and most of the films I'd covered fit both categories because the more inexplicable a picture is, the more likely it is to be really bad too. Yet The Pink Angels is something of an exception. While it's certainly no great cinematic achievement, it's capable in so many ways that it escapes the usual levels of badness. Yet it remains wildly inexplicable.
The most obvious reason it was made was because of a bet, as with Manos: The Hands of Fate. Someone bet producer Gary Radzat that he wouldn't be able to make and obtain US distribution for a motion picture. I don't know who bet him, when the bet was made or whether he ever got his winnings, but Radzat certainly won that bet as Crown International released The Pink Angels to five thousand theatres. Beyond being bet winners, Harold G Warren and Gary Radzat couldn't be more different. Warren was an inept filmmaker who chose to serve as writer, producer, director and star anyway; Radzat took a saner approach and hired people to make his picture, restricting himself to the role of producer. Warren's budget was $19,000, while Radzat surely raised more than that. Warren's career died as it began but he would have made films forever if only people would have let him; Radzat seems to have had no interest in making another movie.
Perhaps because of those differences, the results are light years apart. Warren made an unholy and incoherent mess, thoroughly amateur in every regard and full of every mistake in the book. I'm still not sure what Radzat made, but at least it feels professional. It's certainly watchable and yet unlike anything you're likely to have seen before. It could easily stake a claim to being ahead of its time, with its nearest comparisons coming a quarter of a century later: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. So I should explain who the Pink Angels are, given that if you google for them you're going to come up with paintball guns and Japanese rape fantasies. Initially they seem to be a random bunch of bikers, in their denim, leather and Nazi memorabilia, but we soon find that they're really drag queens, not just gay but really gay, heading down the Californian coast in disguise to a cotillion.
The scene in which we discover the charade is one of the great 'Huh?' scenes of cinema. The six leads drive into an A&W, paired up in three motorcycle sidecars, and play up biker stereotypes, disrespecting their surroundings and hinting at violence to the girl behind the counter and the hitcher they'd just picked up. It's all obviously fake but their true selves quickly become readily apparent. One gets jealous and calls his bitch, get this, a 'fickle pringle', only to have his fake beard ripped off in return. 'We're being watched,' one points out as a crowd gathers. 'Everyone is looking at us!' So they deepen their voices again and start a food fight with condiments. 'Hit me hard, you fool!' one cries as the ketchup and mustard fly like they're in an action painting. No wonder the hitcher runs. However it's apparently some sort of revelation to him that, 'Jesus Christ, you're all faggots!' Did he miss the white garter the gang leader wears on his arm?
It was here that I first wondered just what the motivation for the picture was and everything that unfolded from that point on merely added to my wonder. Put simply, I could see two audiences for the movie, bikers and gay men, which were both seemingly written away from. The opening scene in terrible light is only discernible as some sort of standoff with authority at a hotel pool, though I'm not sure if it feels more like an acid trip, aided by experimental music, or a bad frat comedy of the sort that has drunken pledges dressed in drag. It's followed by a general being chauffeured to his base, where we later find him sitting in front of the stars and stripes fondling a riding crop while listening to reel to reel tapes that rail against deviants and sex criminals. The credits unfold against a gloriously cinematic backdrop looking like nothing less than a Pink Floyd album cover, a sort of graveyard for huge concrete conduit.
Obviously we're setting this up as a clash between freedom and oppression, hardly a surprising theme for a biker movie, but it's a really bizarre way to frame it. Maybe The Pink Angels can only be understood by looking at what was happening in the counterculture at the time. Bikers had been a dominant image since the fifties because they felt they could opt out of society and live free on the road. Was there ever a more blatant threat to society than Brando in The Wild One? When he's asked, 'What are you rebelling against, Johnny?' he famously replies, 'Whaddya got?' Biker movies were an exploitation genre of their own in the late sixties and early seventies, after the massive success of Easy Rider. Another key genre at the time was porno chic, as for a short few years porn was fashionable, vaguely feminist and near mainstream with Deep Throat, The Devil in Miss Jones and Behind the Green Door playing in mainstream theaters to celebrities.
It's hardly surprising that audiences were reevaluating sexuality and authority, given a backdrop of free love, Vietnam war protests and the civil rights movement. Changes in the world of cinema helped that to be reflected on screen. By the late sixties, the production code which had defined morality on screen since 1934 proved to be no longer enforceable, allowing filmmakers a much broader palette to work from. Also studio bosses lost touch with the youth audience, which had drifted away to a growing world of independent exploitation cinema. They attempted to address this by hiring film school gradutes to make Hollywood movies with million dollar budgets and complete artistic freedom. The so called New Hollywood directors, such as Dennis Hopper, Peter Bogdanovich and Francis Ford Coppola frequently came from Roger Corman's companies and made movies rooted in the counterculture that changed the face of American film.
So with this background, was The Pink Angels an argument that gay men were just as marginalised as outlaw bikers in the American society of 1971? In combining these two oppressed minorities, was it highlighting their similarities or suggesting that bikers had become more accepted than gay men, given that the latter have to disguise as the former to get by. Regular folk don't mess with bikers, bars have prostitutes all ready for them and even cops understand how to deal with them. In fact, while there's a suggestion here that homosexual and transvestite are synonyms, it's the latter that gets a particular nod in a telling scene that has our leading ladies pulled over by the cops. While they have trouble with the bikers being fairies, with one of them being black, confederate flags not withstanding, and one being a Liverpudlian poet without a driving license, it's the women's clothing that really throws them and seems the biggest disconnect.
Half of me believes that The Pink Angels is a product of its time, when it seemed natural to question things and raise issues in film, especially independent film, just as a matter of course, and it's natural to explore what those questions and issues are, especially when the story is as wild and unexpected as this. Radzat freely admits that his film was shot as cinéma vérité, a varied style that seeks truth through provocation. Yet the other half of me seems pretty convinced that I'm just searching for meaning in a picture that doesn't have any. The filmmakers may have set up scenes to be improvised through but there may be no truth to be found. The writing credit is to Margaret McPherson, who never earned another one, suggesting that maybe she didn't actually have a lot to say. How much was she responsible for the plethora of what now seems painfully stereotypical gay behaviour and how much were the obviously improvising actors?
The latter is a good possibility, because for a movie built off a bet it has a substantial cast from which you'd recognise a few faces. Mostly it was cast from film school students at the University of Southern California, male and female, but also from independent exploitation film regulars. Two of the six leads were prolific: John Alderman as Michael, the leader of the gang, and Bruce Kimball as Arnold, the big guy with a fake beard. With credits back to 1958, Alderman appeared in what seems like every exploitation subgenre in the book, all the way to hardcore porn in the eighties under the pseudonym of Frank Hollowell. Kimball had been working since 1966, often in biker movies like Run, Angel, Run!, Wild Wheels and Chrome and Hot Leather, though not always as a biker. He was also a regular in softcore hicksploitation for Bethel Buckalew and featured in other exploitation titles from The Mighty Gorga to Dracula vs Frankenstein via Love Camp 7.
Henry Olek, who plays Eddie, the Liverpudlian in John Lennon glasses, was just starting out but he became a regular face on American TV throughout the seventies. Ronnie, the black queen, is Maurice Warfield, who retired from the screen but returned in 2000 for a few film and TV roles. Robert Biheller plays Henry, the most flagrant sissy of the group, who looks like a moptopped Monkee. He made a few films in the sixties but this was it between 1968 and 1993. He earned a lot of TV credits though, including a long run on Here Come the Brides, which has nothing to do with this film, I promise. Rounding out the Pink Angels is Tom Basham, who reminds massively of Bill Murray as denim clad David. He returned to the screen in 1975 for The Psychopath, which was written, produced and directed by this film's director, Larry Brown. In that he played the lead role of a children's TV show host who stalks and murders abusive parents. Hell, yeah.
Half an hour into the picture our fake biker gang meets up with a real biker gang and there are even more recognisable faces there: Michael Pataki and Grizzly Adams himself, Dan Haggerty. Pataki is their leader, channeling Jack Nicholson and building up his counterculture presence a bit from his mime role in Easy Rider. He was prolific in the seventies, on TV and film, but stayed active, earning his last credit in 2010, the year he died. Haggerty is in amazing shape as one of Pataki's barechested bikers. He'd been in Easy Rider too, though uncredited as both an actor and a motorcycle builder. Obviously part of the scene, he was also a bodybuilder, animal trainer and stuntman, but most of his parts at this point were as bikers. It isn't surprising. If he walked down the road towards you at this point, he wouldn't look like a mountain man but a biker. Amazingly neither of these two get much to do, beyond wake up in make up and with bows in their hair.
Admittedly the last third of the film involves a vague pursuit plot as the real bikers chase the fake ones to 'kill those bananas' but they end up picking them up instead, as they'd switched into drag and these bikers are idiots. It's all ignorable, just as the brief scenes with the General, played by Putney Swope's George Marshall, amount to nothing more than a vague excuse for the blisteringly out there ending, which apparently was shot later because, as Radzat describes him, 'the director was insane' and had forgotten to film one. To our eyes, the General is a cross between Henry Gibson's character in The Blues Brothers and General Jack D Ripper from Dr Strangelove. As he doesn't connect with the main story whatsoever until the last minute, I'm sure his few scenes were shot along with the ending. It's as outrageously hamfisted an ending as I may ever have seen and it's hard to believe that they couldn't come up with a better one.
The way in which the ending doesn't fit in the slightest highlights the suggestion that there was no script at all, merely a set of locations that the actors got to improvise in so a vague picture could be edited together after the fact. The whole film has a destination which never arrives, so perhaps the only way to end the film is a surgical strike, quick and painless, which the General does at the 80 minute mark. There was a film, now there isn't. There's one final view that comes totally out of nowhere but it can't really be considered as part of the film proper. Really the last few minutes can be completely ignored as we go back to the most overt cinéma vérité, as the Pink Angels realise their women's clothing is lost and so have to outfit Ronnie afresh from local stores, ones apparently run by their real proprietors, given the shocked and bemused reactions captured on camera. I'm sure mine looked rather similar but for different reasons.
Ultimately, after all the questioning and analysing, I'm still not convinced this isn't just a one joke movie. If the film was constructed during the editing phase from however much footage they shot in potentially useful locations, maybe that's all it is. It's a situation comedy designed around having limp wristed caricatures pretending to be tough bikers. That's really not a funny joke to begin with and it doesn't get any better, though it might improve with a serious quantity of narcotics. The funniest may well be when David can't pick which bathroom to use at a gas station, but when he finally picks the gents, Henry prances out of the ladies. Maybe it's when David is dropped back with the others by a couple of girls who have apparently raped him and stolen his jeans. Surely it can't be the picnic scene, with red tablecloth and candelabras. Let me lend this to a gay friend and see if he can find anything remotely humorous. I doubt it.
In fact I should do that anyway to try to discover the audience. While this is a film built around gay characters and oppression, I have a feeling the gay audience would be offended by the use of stereotypes and inaccurate merging of subcultures. At least when our leads become ladies, they adopt drag conventions and refer to each other by persona rather than name. Yet what would a biker audience make of it? Surely having tranvestites pretend to be bikers is about as offensive to them as having a black audience watch white men in blackface playing dice and carving up watermelon. If they can get past that, what would they think of the real bikers, who are the densest in the whole film. How many stoned hippies were going to drive ins in 1971? Maybe at the end of the day, there was no audience, there was just a bet. Whatever else this film achieved, it won Gary Radzat a bet. Perhaps that's enough.