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Three Takes #2: James William Guercio’s "Electra Glide In Blue"

In this week's column dedicated to short-form criticism, three writers tackle a counter-culture classic.

Three Takes is a new column dedicated to the art of short-form criticism. Each week, three writers—Calum Marsh, Fernando F. Croce, and Joseph Jon Lanthier—offer stylized capsules which engage, in brief, with classic and contemporary films.


JAMES WILLIAM GUERICO'S
ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE (1973)

The prologue’s interplay of fetishistic close-ups (shells loaded into shotguns, faded stars and stripes, gleaming buckles and zippers) and spacious vistas (a dissolve to the highway stretching into the distance, the frame divided between asphalt and majestic rocky formations) suggests the unlikely alliance of Kenneth Anger and John Ford. Electra Glide in Blue is, appropriately, the work of a rock ‘n’ roll alchemist with a fondness for Westerns, the only film directed by James William Guercio, an ambitious music industry impresario luxuriating in the possibilities of New Hollywood. People seem extra small in the wide open spaces of Arizona’s Monument Valley, and nobody seems smaller than Robert Blake’s motorcycle patrolman Wintergreen. A runty Vietnam War vet with enough earnestness and humor to charm a girl a full head taller than him with Alan Ladd trivia, he zips around the landscape with plenty of moral codes yet zero police authority. Pining for a promotion and “four wheels under me instead of two,” he gets his chance when a hermit turns up dead and he tags along with a top-dog detective (Mitchell Ryan) for the investigation. As befits the era of American self-inquiry—and a film suspended between the countercultural impulses of Easy Rider (1969) and the policier weariness of Serpico (1973), Electra is less interested in solving the crime at its center than in contemplating the dreams and disillusions within its dusty, shifting expanses. Guercio loves rhapsodic bits of business (a whole set-piece is dedicated to Blake savoring a cigar, a Stetson and a doo-wop song by himself), but this is first and foremost an existential canvas—his screen is a cavernous one, flooded only with the bravura loneliness and desperation of babbling desert rats and shopworn barmaids. Its blend of widescreen monumentality and low-key rumination is perfectly embodied by the final six-minute reverse tracking shot, the ideal closing vision for a road movie about immobility. Fernando F. Croce

A freewheeling hippie’s bike bursts into bright red flames, careening pavement-bound like some burning counter-culture meteorite, tires and attitude blasted coolly away by the cops in hot pursuit. In 1973, just four years after Peter Fonda was sent off motor ablaze in the closing seconds of Easy Rider, this must have seemed less like winking citation than direct-quote cultural commentary. Because while Easy Rider, romantic perhaps to a fault, set its heroes in stark relief against a backdrop of hard-assed rednecks and a host of other endlessly oppressive squares, Electra Glide in Blue adopts the considerably thornier perspective of a well-meaning cog in one seriously infernal machine—a principled patrolman working without the luxury of clout or stature. Bill Blick, writing in Senses of Cinema, calls it “a kind of anti-Easy Rider,” but though the film is explicitly framed in relation to Hopper’s milestone its tenor is more of response than retort. Electra Glide grapples with that same pervasive spirit of dissent but articulates it as emerging from within the very institution that incited it: the good cop’s traditional conservatism slowly curdles before catalogues of malfeasance, his sympathies drifting ever-more toward the radical left. “Incompetence,” his commanding officer intones, “is the worst form of corruption,” sage advice he soon proves in practice; and in so doing the film suggests that cops aren’t so much bad people as bad cops, which may actually be worse. The badge begets ruthlessness. Guercio’s vision of contemporary America seems a kind of Wild West redux, the law that governs the land merely a useful pretense excusing state-sanctioned beatings and the personal power-trips of an unruly police force. When a detective, working his case with an air of deep resignation, buries his fist in the chest of an innocent beatnik, he does so, in his own words, “in the interest of community relations.” He means it quite literally. —Calum Marsh

Diminutive, low-ranking motorcycle cop John Wintergreen gets lorded over by practically everything in Nowhere Zen Arizona: lankier law enforcers, overgrown cacti, and even local waitresses who are nevertheless impressed by his three-times-in-one-morning virility. But maybe Wintergreen is less a miniature man than a medium man. With the horrors of 'nam crowding his past and career ambitions he can't actualize looming over his future, he's less defined by incompleteness than by in-betweenness—which isn't always a handicap. Standing beside his fellow highway patrolmen, Wintergreen marks the halfway point between the highest domed head and the flat, black road; and indeed, his comparatively superior ethical “grounding” allows him to empathize both with the indolent cops who flip through Pogo while on duty and with the vaguely menacing hippies on which his co-workers plant bags of pot. Wintergreen's vertical efficiency furthermore keeps most of his body visible in the film's preponderance of tight yet Cinemascope-wide shots that would have readily decapitated anyone taller.

Wintergreen's spiritual intermediacy occasionally manifests itself as naivety; uncomfortable with abusing his authority, he idealistically seeks merit-based opportunities for the vocational advancement he desires. (During a short-lived promotion into the realm of homicide investigation, he tries desperately to win the respect of a pompous detective.) But the morally porous middle ground upon which Wintergreen stands ultimately proves more resilient than any of the narrow-minded certainty surrounding him. Only he refuses to commit to either ruthless law enforcement or hippie Johnny laissez-faire-itude, and only he understands that relationships engender more vulnerability than stability. The film's denouement is in fact facilitated by the self-destruction of several curiously close, if unsteady, male partnerships; it's as though the squishy individualism of the 60s has crusted over into crude survivalism, leaving dyads no longer durable. The xeric landscape now belongs only to the man who can slip between and placate the communities at war within it while remaining true to himself—in other words, as the ending suggests, to no man at all. —Joseph Jon Lanthier

Marsh feels like he’s really hit the mood of the piece on it’s head (especially in contrast to the pervasive Easy Rider), and further gives inspired weight to Fincher’s intertextual references at the beginning of Se7en (which further inspires a double-feature for me). Thanks, it’s nice to see this film is still relevantly thought about!

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