Monday, September 25, 2017

Pick-Up (1975)

I've begun working my way through Mill Creek's "Drive-In Cult Classics: 32 Movie Collection," which is comprised entirely of films from the Crown International catalog. That studio was (is?) one of the biggest names in cult, exploitation, and low-budget fare; when I think of the seventies grindhouse movies with chunka-bow-bow funk scores and flashy cinematography, I'm becoming more and more aware of the role Crown International actually played in creating those cliches.In researching these movies from the set, I'm seeing a lot of one-sentence or one-paragraph reviews, as if the craziness or brilliance or cheesiness contained in each Crown International movie could be  encapsulated or dismissed with a single statement. I was bothered by the trend, so here's my attempt to do service to the movies that demand more than that (some of them don't demand more than that), starting with a movie that I don't think has gotten its due.

Pick-Up is a 1975 film that seems ill-defined by the poster above. This is not unusual for a grindhouse-style movie, but it seems to me that the posters for these cheap drive-in flicks are usually a lot better than the movies, not the other way around, which is the case here. The plot: two hippie girls (Carol and Maureen) are hitchhiking their way through Florida when this dude named Chuck stops in a huge mega-bus to take a leak by the side of the road. The bus is awesome, the kind that a band like Foghat would use for their American world tour, or that Stillwater drove in Almost Famous, only nicer. Chuck has to get the bus to Tallahassee (to that sweet sassafrassy), but he's not really in a hurry, as evidenced by his laid-back demeanor and affection for jazz cigarettes. Within minutes of the title screen, the trio are on the bus, partying, smoking pot, and getting lost. When a big storm blows in, the gang find themselves stranded in the middle of the Everglades with no idea how to get back on track. The next 80 minutes is a journey of self-discovery and some *really* trippy visuals.

Crown International were masters of the exploitation persuasion, but this movie doesn't really feel like exploitation. It's been lauded as everything from an "art film" to psychedelia meant to be enjoyed while viewers were stoned. I'd say that the truth lies somewhere in the middle, and that's a good thing. A lot of the movie consists of these young people wandering through  nature, doin' it, interacting with wildlife, doin' it, learning about who they are, doin' it, and even facing their mortality (while doin' it). The thing is, though, all that whoopie-making doesn't seem to be here for titillation, but rather as an expression of beauty, which is where I guess the art-house vibe comes in. The entire feature feels a lot like an experimental dream, like a the final project of a film school student. It wasn't really, though, and it should be noted that the director was no noob. Bernard Hirschenson started all the way back in 1962 as the cinematographer of a movie called Satan in High Heels, so he had been around. Then again, maybe this is the film school project he always wanted to make.

Here's the crazy part, though: all this psychedelia and exploration actually makes some sense and seems to be really well thought out. The writer, John Winter (this is his only credit) actually succeeds at peeling back the layers of these kids and showing us what's inside. For me, this is valuable because it A) provides us with a compelling first-hand existential look into the mind of the hippie generation, and B) doesn't do so through a lens of blind idealism, but rather through actual character study, albeit unconventional. While these characters might be avatars for an audience who wants to turn on, tune in, and drop out, the movie actually--maybe even by accident--gives us a logical look at the motivations behind these characters, offering three dimensions when simply one dimension would have sufficed to please a drive-in or grindhouse crowd. I don't know that anyone was going to see this movie for a deep look into the mind of a counter-culture flower child, but that's what they got. You show up for the spectacle and you get some deeper meaning. Far out, man.
A movie like this lives and dies based on its style, and Pick-Up has style to spare. There are the standard shots of nature and nudity (because we're all one with nature, brother) shot through a hazy filter, but there are other, more interesting stylistic choices. Inter-cutting that nature footage with the interior of a church, or of a woman being seduced by a clergy member, offer some gravity to what could feel like mindless psychedelic nonsense. The director balances a cute scene with a baby raccoon earlier in the film with the slaughter of a wild boar later in the movie. The whole thing feels like an exercise in harmony and contrast. There's even a slight mystical or supernatural element of the film, leading to a surprise ending that I won't tip here. Similarly, Pick-Up has some really great music on offering. With ultra-low-budget fare like this, you usually get one song repeated through the entire movie, but this one has several, and they're all really good. Solid, mid-seventies grindhouse tunes that really add to the style and atmosphere that Hirschenson was going for. So that's another feather in this movie's cap: it's got a real sense of style. I frequently like to compare movies to time machines because they offer us the ability to go back to different points and see life as it was. Pick-Up really makes me want to visit the 1975 of this film.

In doing research for this film after watching it, I've seen it praised (by DVD Drive-In) as being in the same vein as Easy Rider and the work of Dennis Hopper, and I've seen it dismissed ( by most everyone else) as nothing more than visuals to take drugs to. I'm more inclined to agree with those who see this movie as a successor to the Easy Rider. You know, back in the day, the establishment wanted to dismiss Easy Rider too, saying that it was nothing but a pro-drug road to nowhere, but time eventually set everyone straight. While Pick-Up is certainly no Easy Rider, its heart seems to be in the same place. Despite the trippy hippie visuals, these movies have things on their mind.
Most of the films I've watched so far from the "Drive-In Cult Classics" set are in anamorphic widescreen, which is a welcome surprise. Some of these movies were issued in their proper ratios a decade or so ago by BCI Eclipse, a company I will forever love for bringing He-Man and the Masters of the Universe to DVD in gorgeous special edition packages loaded with extras. When BCI Eclipse was closed in 2008, these films went out of print and were unavailable until Mill Creek stepped up and bought the rights to the entire Crown International library in 2012, making these some of the prettiest "bad" films in the Mill Creek catalog. Pick-Up looks really good, all things considered, and really does a service to the stylish visuals.

In closing, I need to make it clear that this movie will not be for everyone, even some low-budget genre movie fans. It's slow and meandering and sometimes it feels like it's not going anywhere, but I suggest that there is a bigger picture here. Then again, I'm a fan of the counter-culture movement and the ensuing "lost generation." Here's a little bit of context for the world in which this movie takes place: after Woodstock, the hippies spent years in the wilderness, slowly coming to terms with the fact that their ideals and hopes for a more peaceful, communal future didn't lead the way to a new utopia. I think this movie was made at a very interesting and pivotal time, with 1975 being, essentially, the end of the line for the hippie generation. Many of their heroes were either dead or had become millionaires, and therefore hypocrites in the eyes of the hippies. In 1975, the Vietnam War finally ended, and so did the draft, meaning there were no more reasons to run. The counter culture was quickly morphing into something angrier and a lot less peaceful (example: the punk band The Sex Pistols formed in 1975), and Pick-Up captures these final days of dreamy wanderlust, when the spirit of America still seemed within grasp. For all the drug-addled nudity and surrealism, it's a very sweet, innocent film with just a touch of darkness lying underneath. If you ask me, I think that actually sums up the hippie movement pretty well.
You can check out Pick-Up and 31 other Crown International flicks here. This 32-movie version is out of print, but not hard to find, and the individual volumes are all still available.

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