Pit Stop is probably Jack Hill’s most serious film; in interviews and commentary he often refers to it as his “art film.” It is a racing movie, and has a lot of racing footage (especially of figure 8 races, which Hill thought of as a particularly insane piece of Americana.) But other than that, it’s not very exploitive at all — there’s not a whole lot of gratuitous sex or nudity, for example, and the violence is also pretty minimal. It’s sober and dark, and it seems to be Hill’s favorites of his own work.
It’s not necessarily mine. Hill wanted the film to be about a driver who wins the big race, but loses his soul. The problem is that the driver in question, Rick, never seems to have had much of a soul to begin with. Right from the beginning of the movie, he’s a prickly, emotionally inaccessible ass, driven by ambition and ego. He does become marginally more remote as the movie goes on, but there’s never a moment where we see him being, say, generous, or loving, or funny (the closest is after a race when he gets drunk and tries to convince his love interest to sleep with him.) So the movie doesn’t end up being about a moral choice or a moral failure — it just ends up being about this guy who’s a dick. And since he’s never really likable, I, at least, was never was that invested in him, or in the picture.
Which isn’t to dismiss the movie altogether. As I said, it’s very well made — outside of Spider-Baby, it probably has the best ensemble acting of any of Hill’s movies I’ve seen. The actor who plays Rick mostly stands around looking soulful and repressed, but he does a good job of that; Beverly Washburn as a pixieish hippie chick named Jolene is believably vulnerable and sexy. Sid Haig as a rival racer named Hawk is (as usual) spectacular — he starts out completely over-the-top, happy-go-lucky and nuts, but over the course of the movie we get to see that this overlay is mostly schtick, and that underneath it is an insecure but intelligent man, who badly wants to win but isn’t always sure about the price.
The movie’s also interesting in that it is the only Hill movie I’ve seen so far which is definitively a male genre picture. A car chase movie is largely meant for guys, and — as is the case with male genres — Rick’s most intense relationships in the movie are with his men: first, an intense rivalry with Hawk, then a rivalry with an older, more experienced racer named Ed, and finally, and foremost, with an untrustworthy father-figure promoter played with dry, business-like malice by Brian Donleavy. As the movie progresses, in fact, it becomes clear that Rick’s damnation is specifically linked to his inability to form attachments with women; with an emotional sterility sprining from his intense focus on men. Rick first appears to become interested in Jolene because she is hanging around with Hawk, and seems to be her girl; later he sleeps with Ed’s frustrated wife. Rick at one point accuses Jolene of only wanting him because he’s a winner, but in fact it seems to be Rick who wants a winner — or, more accurately, Rick wants women who are attached to his current rival/crush-object. At the end of the movie, Rick wins the big race by forcing Ed to crash — inadvertently killing him. In the final scene in the hospital, Rick emotionally detaches himself from both Jolene and Ed’s wife, refusing to comfort either. Instead, he leaves with father-figure Donleavy to prepare for the next race, choosing the fraught, repressed world of masculine bonding over a more straight-forwardly loving relationship. In other words, Hill has made a picture in which the conventions of the male genre are themselves the tragedy.
In contrast, one of Hill’s least acclaimed efforts — The Swinging Cheerleaders — may be my absolute favorite of his movies. Cheerleaders seems like it, too, should be a guy movie; an Animal House, frat house romp, with lots of T&A and fart jokes. In fact, though, though there is a certain amount of T&A, this is really a chick flick. The main character is a college feminist named Katewho goes undercover as a cheerleader to write a stinging exposé of the exploitation the pom-pom girls experience. Instead, she falls for Buck, the star quarterback — and, perhaps more importantly, for the cheerleaders themselves, with whom she quickly becomes close friends. The story, in any case, focuses much more on the girls than the guys, and there’s very little pure male bonding. The two main football players are total sweethearts; the quarterback explicitly turns down a chance to participate in a gang bang, and the receiver is head-over-heels (and no wonder) for the absolutely glowing Rainbeaux Smith…so much so that he waits for a good long time before pressuring her for sex. (Admittedly, avoiding gang-bangs and waiting a short while for sex is a pretty low bar — but for a picture like this (and, alas, often outside of fiction as well) that’s like practically branding the letters SNAG into your forehead.)
In his book At a Theater or A Drive in Near You, Randall Clark claims that Swinging Cheerleaders is a conservative film, and that opinion seems echoed in various other places I’ve looked. I don’t buy it, though. Yes, it’s true that the campus radical is a bad guy. But he’s a bad guy mostly because he’s a sexist, who’s jealous of Kate’s career and of her other friends. To point out that the counterculture was sexist isn’t conservative. It’s not liberal either. It’s just true, and has been discussed by lots of feminists, from Andrea Dworkin on down. Moreover, this equation (bad guys = sexist) is true throughout the film; the good guys (like the football players) treat the women with respect and love; the bad guys (like the alumni association president who hits his daughter, or the lascivious coach) don’t. And the morally ambiguous treat women…somewhere in the middle. The math professor who helps rig the football games but eventually sees the light, for example, is having an affair with his student — one of the cheerleaders. He does seem to care for her, but the age gap is kind of icky, and, of course, he’s cheating on his wife. The wife herself gets to tell her side of the story, in an amazing scene which seems to have strolled in from one of Hill’s blaxploitation features. The cheerleader eventually breaks up with the professor, partly it seems, because she got the wife’s point, and partly because she realizes he’s kind of creepy — a decision and a characterization that he rather ruefully accepts.
I think people also tend to see the movie as conservative because Kate doesn’t follow through on her cheerleader expose, and she even eventually strongly condemns her own project. But, again, she basically condemns it because she starts to perceive it as anti-feminist; it’s not very sisterly to write an article in which you condemn your friends as brainless victims of false-consciousness. Again, this isn’t exactly an unfeminist insight; third-wave feminism is ready to defend sex-workers these days on similar grounds, much less cheerleaders. And it isn’t like Kate abandons her writing or her feminism; on the contrary, towards the end of the movie we see her getting ready to write an expose about the gambling ring. Nor is her relationship with Buck subservient in any way; in fact, when he’s in trouble, he calls her for help, and, at the climax, she organizes the posse which rescues him.
One of the movie’s most striking scenes, and one which I think may also be misinterpreted, involves Rainbeaux Smith’s character and the campus radical. Smith has been having trouble losing her virginity with her football boyfriend — she just can’t quite go through with it. Kate helpfully suggests that she should just fuck some random guy to take the pressure off — guys, Kate points out, use girls like that all the time. So Smith decides to screw the first guy who offers, and that turns out to be the campus radical. So they do the deed and afterwards Smith declares that she wants to try everything (“let’s do something you’ve never done before” I think she says). The radical looks a bit harried as Smith bounces around the couch. But he gamely gets the phone, calls a friend, and asks said friend to call together a bunch of guys to “gang bang a cheerleader.” Smith looks on with winsome, slightly nervous eagerness…and in the next scene we see her being carried into her apartment by her football boyfriend, bruised and apparently completely out of it. Her boyfriend, to defend her honor, goes and beats up the campus radical. End of parable.
So what’s happened here? When I first saw it, I thought Smith had been gang-raped, and that the movie was treating it with shocking casualness — Kate and the other cheerleaders eagerly quiz her about her experience in a girly “you have to tell us!” which seems entirely inappropriate. But viewing it a second time, and hearing Hill’s commentary, I don’t think that’s what happened at all. Smith isn’t tied down when the radical calls his buddies; she hears what he says, and she’s not restrained. When her friends quiz her later, she tells them, “I don’t think I can possibly talk about it,” but her tone is both shy and over-dramatic, and a minute later she seems about to tell all. I don’t think there’s any way to read it except that she was into the gang bang, agreed to the gang bang, enjoyed the gang bang, and then just kind of let her boyfriend think she didn’t.
On the one hand, this could be seen as really problematic — the whole, “she really wanted to be raped” thing. But usually in that narrative the girl pretends she was raped to get back at the guy, or to get the guy; its vengeance or spite or whatever. Here, though, Smith’s character doesn’t care about the guy at all; she’s just using him for sexual experience, basically, and as a good story to tell her friends. She’s acting the way guys do, and moreover, she’s getting away with it — she gets to be the bad girl while keeping both her reputation and the (good) guy. And even the radical doesn’t come off too badly; he just gets knocked around a little, and then he’s back spreading mischief, with, presumably, some happy memories to offset the cuts and bruises.
Cheerleaders is about female bonding just as Pit Stop is about male bonding. The difference, though is that in Cheerleaders, female bonding makes the women stronger — by supporting each other, they’re more able to enter into good relationships with men, while, in Pit Stop, the bonding between men makes loving women impossible. Part of the trouble for men is, it seems to me, homosexual panic — the specter of gayness turns love between men into violence and emotional frigidity. There are lesbian overtones in Cheerleaders of course — one scene in which Kate and another cheerleader encourage a topless and enormously breasted Rainbeaux Smith (who was pregnant at the time) to go braless for her upcoming date certainly seems suggestive, at least. But lesbianism just isn’t as threatening, for a whole host of reasons — sisterhood, even when it borders on the physical, simply doesn’t call into question ones femininity the way male bonding does. Though even male bonding isn’t always a disaster — in fact, the two star football players in Cheerleaders actually seem to like and support each other without a whole lot of fuss. Maybe men can love each other as long as they’re participating in team sports? In any case, Cheerleaders really does seem like one of the more hopeful, happier takes on gender relations I’ve seen on the screen