Thursday 29 November 2012

We don't like your kind around here

By most measures the 1950s were a pretty appalling decade. The world was haunted by the spectre of nuclear annihilation. Women weren't allowed to open a bank account or get a job without their husbands' permission. In West Germany, where I'm from, upstanding citizens decided we'd all best move on and not talk about the recent unpleasantness, and so Nazi civil servants carried on in their jobs. In the US, Jim Crow laws enforced white supremacy. Meanwhile, Western empires fought rearguard actions that left millions of people dead from Algeria to Malaya, Kenya to Viet Nam.

It's really no wonder conservatives love the fifties.

Snark aside, it's much easier to criticise the decade for those of us who don't have positive personal memories of it. To my grandparents, who'd lived through the war, it was a time of peace in which previously unimaginable luxuries - cars, televisions, washing machines - were suddenly available to a far wider share of society than ever before. From the vantage point of the rebellious and crisis-ridden later sixties and seventies, fond reminiscing was all too natural. Hell, I came to pop-culture consciousness in the late nineties and early 2000s, a demonstrably awful age that is nevertheless getting the nostalgia treatment now.*

That's a really long-winded way of explaining the fertile ground for the nostalgia craze that swept Hollywood during the seventies and much of the eighties, when films like American Graffiti (1973) and Grease (1978) celebrated the youth culture of a bygone age. Macon County Line (1974), though, doesn't do that. In fact director Richard Compton, latterly of a lot of TV series, pretty much sticks up two fingers to nostalgia as he goes out of his way to show the racism, moralism and general ugliness that was in danger of being forgotten (by middle-class white people, anyway). At the same time, there's more empathy and intelligent critique here than we'd expect of an exploitation cheapie. It's really sort of brilliant, even if it's not a very good film.

First, though, there's the gimmick: Macon County Line claims to be a true story In reality, the filmmakers are following the seventies trend of selling an entirely fictional story as real, popular in low-budget shockers like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), that reached its apotheosis with 1980's Cannibal Holocaust. But Macon County Line is more grounded than most of those films, and is careful to include a text crawl at the end informing us of the surviving characters' entirely made-up fate.

In 1954, Chicagoans Chris and Wade Dixon (Alan and Jesse Vint, real-life brothers) drive through the South in search of wine, women and song before enlisting in the army. In Louisiana, they pick up pretty hitchhiker Jenny (Cheryl Waters), but when their car grinds to a halt with a broken fuel pump they have to make camp in the countryside, unable to comply with the instructions of Deputy Sheriff Reed Morgan (Max Baer) to leave the county post-haste. Morgan, a practitioner of the busted-taillight school of law enforcement who nevertheless loves his family, is shocked when he finds his wife murdered the same evening. Believing the Dixons responsible, Morgan takes his son Luke (Leif Garrett) along to hunt the culprits down.

On paper that sounds pretty exciting, but in reality Macon County Line spends about four fifths of its running time treading water as we're introduced to a bunch of characters, some of which turn out to be largely irrelevant, like slow-witted comic relief Hamp (Geoffrey Lewis). It's not that Chris, Wade and Jenny are obnoxious, they're just not interesting enough to justify all the time we watch them doing very little indeed; and that goes twice for plot points that are raised but left unresolved, like Jenny's shady past. The film's final fifteen minutes, after Deputy Morgan snaps and goes on his vendetta, are taut and suspenseful, but they could be twice as long without losing steam.

Reed Morgan, though, is a fantastic character, and that holds the film together despite its ungainly shape. As portrayed brilliantly by Baer, who also produced and wrote the screenplay, Morgan is obviously in love with his wife and immensely proud of his son. Yet he's also the sort of Southern lawman that held the racist order in place, and the film brings that to the fore in a scene in which Morgan tells his son, as kindly as he knows how, to stay away from the black friends he's made. That people who commit evil acts tend to think of themselves as good citizens is a banal point, but it's more subtlety than exploitation cinema tends to muster, so I was pleasantly surprised.

Macon County Line is neither a horror nor a countryside-revenge film in the mould of Deliverance (1972), but it incorporates elements of both. An emphasis on children's potential for evil is shared with Halloween (1978) while the final showdown in a riverside cabin finds visual echoes in Friday the 13th, Part 2 (1981). That vicious and suspenseful climax has Compton going into horror filmmaking that seems far ahead of its time; the sound of somebody repeatedly pulling the handle on a pump-action shotgun in a futile attempt to chamber another shell is absolutely harrowing. The film's closing redeems much earlier boredom, but ultimately Macon County Line is interesting less for what it is than what it prefigures.

*Ironic appreciation of a bygone age of irony is more meta than I can handle.

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