Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Fighting Mad (1976)

The older I get, the more things get under my skin. Blaring music that is not issuing from my car or stereo irritates me no end. People who drive like I do piss me off when they do the things I would do but when I'm not doing them. The whole "pants around the knees" thing I just don't get, and even when I did wear baggy pants, they rarely drooped lower than waist level (and no, they weren't "Hammer Pants"). I think going out in public wearing your pajamas (even if it's just the bottoms, and "pajama jeans" count) shows a lack of respect not only for yourself but for society in general. Needless to say (that is, if you agree in the slightest with any of this), we cannot control these things individually. But the one thing that has really started to cheese me off is something which somehow must be my own fault and, ergo, controllable (right?). For some inexplicable reason (probably mental, what a shock), I seem to be waking up only a few short minutes from when my alarm is set lately. Now, maybe I would be able to go back to sleep and take advantage of those last few minutes of "Me Time" except for the fact that this is also about the same moment my bladder decides it's ready to explode. By that point, you may as well get your day started. You may not consider this a big deal, but I think it's enough to piss off the Pope.

Tom Hunter (Peter Fonda) and son, Dylan (Gino Franco), return to Tom's rural home town to work the farm with his father, Jeff (John Doucette) and brother, Charlie (Scott Glenn, billed here as Scott Glen). Meanwhile, corporate bigwig, Pierce Crabtree (Philip Carey), means to have the land the Hunters' farm is on by hook or by crook so he can develop the land and build malls, golf courses, and so on. Tom reignites his romance with old flame, Lorene (Lynn Lowry), but even she may not be strong enough to rein in Tom's fury when Crabtree and associates cross the line.

Fighting Mad was Jonathan Demme's third film with Roger Corman (I have not had the opportunity to watch their second pairing, Crazy Mama, but it's on my bucket list), and like their first collaboration, Caged Heat, the film is more than a collection of exploitable elements edited together. There is a definite craft and sense of style to Demme's (early) filmmaking, even under the restraints of a low budget. During an early scene, he uses crosscutting (and more interestingly, cutting away to a scene of camaraderie and peace), Dutch angles, and shortened shot durations to accentuate an attack by Crabtree's men. Later, Demme creates an uncharacteristically melancholic feel in a night action scene through music, extensive use of aerial shots, and the movement of truck lights on a sea of virtual darkness. The sound of explosions from land development in the distance substitutes for the sounds of thunder (the oncoming storm) and mirror the pent up ferocity bubbling in Tom's head. Clearly, the director was honing his nascent skills with every choice that he made, and the stamp of a young filmmaker is definitely on the film (not everything comes off as smoothly or perfectly as a more refined filmmaker might be able to achieve). But the talent on display behind the camera is evident.

The basic conflict of the film's narrative deals with the idea of the intrusion of technology and corporate sterility against a common desire for simplicity. This dilemma is nothing new. In fact, this type of film is virtually a subgenre unto itself. The man of the land just wants to work, feed his family, and go about his business. The corporate villain cannot stand the thought of untrammeled nature and has to have everything cleaned up, made symmetrical and regimented. The beauty of nature's natural architecture is anathema to the big businessman. Plus, nature represents potential money not being made (and most importantly, not being made by him). It's the simple man's stubbornness in not giving the businessman what he desires that drives the businessman to behave violently. Naturally, this violence will be met with violence in turn.

Normally in a film of this type, you expect the hero to be a quiet man. Maybe he has something boiling under the surface, but he keeps it under wraps. That is, up until he is "pushed too far" and has to finally retaliate against his oppressors. Tom Hunter (related to Dinah Hunter of Jackson County Jail, perhaps?) is not like that. He is a quiet man at first blush, but within the opening scenes of the film, it's made abundantly clear he is not a man who will "grin and bear it." After some of Crabtree's men act like absolute vermin, Tom removes his glasses (kind of like Clark Kent becoming Superman but also a symbol for him dropping the thin veneer of a civilized man) and opens up a can of whoop-ass. This, then, is how Tom is defined in the film. He is a man looking for a fight, yet when he gets one, he doesn't change, he charges in. To Tom, violence can solve all problems, and he is inevitably proved right by film's end. This extends to his somewhat antagonistic and dismissive treatment of not only Lorene but also Dylan. He regularly tells his son to shut up and won't allow Dylan to sleep in Tom's bedroom. Tom also lets his short fuse cripple his emotional involvement with Lorene. He is atypical of what we know to be the norm from the setup and a nice subversion of audience expectations.

This same subversion underscores the theme of justice versus pacifism that the film puts forth. The people who won't (or can't) put up their fists are the ones taken advantage of the most. Authority, in the form of Sheriff Skerritt (Harry Northup), is petty and allows justice to be perverted rather than upholding the laws, at first. Still, Skerritt is a decent man at his core, and he will only allow Crabtree to go so far before turning back to a more righteous path. The crux of the argument, then, is you can be a pacifist and nonviolent and give up what's yours, or you can be violent and fight for the justice you've been denied so long. In other words, die on your feet or live on your knees. And while the film appears to come down on the side of the former half of that statement, it also (on a far more subtle level) says that, to quote (and I'm sure bastardize) Shakespeare's The Merchant Of Venice, "Though justice be thy plea, consider this, that in the course of justice none of us should see salvation."

MVT: Mr. Demme exhibits a sure hand behind the scenes. He also gives us little hints of his future heights through his solid storytelling skills. And all on a budget of less than a million dollars. As a matter of fact (and completely tangential to the point), I don't think you could get craft services today on this film's entire budget.

Make Or Break: The scene with Tom quietly drinking and fuming as we hear the dynamite exploding in the distance illustrates his character beautifully as well as epitomizing Demme's nuanced artistry.

Score: 7/10

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