Wednesday, September 18, 2013


If you're in the NYC area next week (Sep 25/6/7/8), the first annual Motorcycle Film Festival kicks off with a CineMeccanica screening of a personal favorite, Kathryn Bigelow's ‘The Loveless' (Wed. Sep 25th).  Here's my review of a film I've seen perhaps 25 times, mostly at an age when style icons like Willem Dafoe's 'Vance' left a deep impact.

The Loveless remains much as its title suggests – unloved and unknown outside a core few who consider it an amazing motorcycle film.  The first-time feature for Kathryn Bigelow, who went on to earn two directing Oscars for her meditations on US/Middle East relations (The Hurt Locker and Zero DarkThirty), The Loveless bombed at theaters when released in 1981, but showcased Bigelow’s genius twenty years before the Academy realized who they were dealing with.
Willem Dafoe on a c.1955 Harley Panhead 'Hydra Glide'
Ms Bigelow, who co-directed with Monty Montgomery, had clearly studied Kenneth Anger shorts during her film school days, as The Loveless is a visual homage to Anger’s uncanny eye; he understood better than anyone at time - and schooled generations of filmmakers and ad men – that the cine-camera has the power to transform any object into an Icon.  While Scorpio Rising brewed up a mind-altered gay/Satanic/biker bacchanal (fueled by the first explicit use of powdered amphetamine in a biker film), Anger’s raw honesty (these were his gay biker buddies in real life) is locked and loaded in Bigelow’s hands for a shotgun blast at Happy Days (the #1 TV show at that time) and Reagan-era lobotonostalgia. 
The Gang: Lawrence Matarese as LeVille, Danny Rosen as Ricky, and composer Philip Kimbrough as Hurley
The storyline is a Southern highway collision of Easy Rider with the Wild One, upping the ante on both films with talk of jailhouse ‘joybangs’, and Faulknerian family drama.  The film opens with WillemDafoe as Vance, in his first big screen role (after being fired from Heaven’s Gate!), an intimidating, greasy, and ultrasexy biker sleeping like Satan in the wilderness, right beside his Panhead.  
The late NYC novelist Tina L'Hotsky as Sportster Debbie: 'Do I look affected?'
I wasn’t going to be no man’s friend today’, the movie begins, and he shortly proves his point when encountering the mythic Thunderbird from American Graffiti  - with, appropriately, a flat tire – complete with a round-heeled beauty waiting for a Real Man to rescue her.  Vance is a real man all right, and sees through George Lucas’ cliché-laden script, taking his payment from the Thunderbird goddess in a way we don't see coming.
Prison habits die hard; Willem Dafoe (Vance) and Marin Kanter (Telena) get to know each other in the Notell Motel
Vance’s gang soon appears, complaining that a primary chain has snapped; they need to make repairs, so are stuck in a no-name truck-stop town in Florida, en route to Daytona for the bike races. We learn the gang is recently sprung from prison, and tension quickly builds with the locals, echoed by Robert Gordon’s smokin’ Rockabilly soundtrack, as he plays himself, sort of, as Davis, well amped on ‘vitamins’ poured – in a quote from Scorpio Rising – from a salt shaker.  The dialogue is as curt and as stylized as the art direction, loaded with Americana and period quotations; yes, you’re in 1962 America … where lynch-mobs cool off with a Coke and a smile.
A Coke, but no smile?  Iconic American symbols saturate the film, and rockabilly legend Robert Gordon provides much of the soundtrack
Vance is soon distracted by a sexy little vixen in a red Corvette, the seriously underage Telena (Marin Kanter, next seen in The Fabulous Stains), who reveals the car as a guilt-gift from her father (J.Don Fergurson as the deliriously despicable Tarver). When Vance meets Telena, the film explodes with shotgun blasts, incest, boys with pink underpants, murder, drag races, strippers, and suicide.
Robert Gordon goes ape shit as Davis

Somehow, Bigelow managed to keep these B-movie Bikesploitation plot points firmly steered towards the Art House, while the whole wicked machine flew right over the heads of critics and unsuspecting viewers alike.  It still does. The Loveless is triple-clever, deserving multiple viewings to savor the spare dialogue, gorgeous visuals, amazingly hot Willem Dafoe, and superb soundtrack.  Watching it, you’ll feel just like Sportster Debbie after a drunk trucker goes down on her – unwashed and nasty, but knowing it was good.
Veteran character actor J.Don Ferguson as Tarver: 'We all got to get some on us, sometime'


James J Ward said...


Although your and my tastes in biker films are usually synonymous (The Wild One, Scorpio Rising, The Leather Boys, etc.), I have to part company with you on The Loveless. I watched it years ago, having thought much of Kathryn Bigelow's other work, but was somewhat less than impressed. Even Willem Dafoe's performance didn't work for me--and this was after having met and talked with him, entirely by chance, in the Berlin restaurant Salle e Tabaci in 1997 or 1998--and thinking the world of his film oeuvre, starting with Billy Friedkins's To Live and Die in LA. Maybe, years later, I'm missing something, but I don't see it. Don Sharps's Psychomania (aka The Death Wheelers) from 1963 does a better job, even with the freak-out motorcycle zombie plot. I admire Kathryn Bigelow's (later) work, and I can't think of anywhere where Willem Dafoe went wrong; but The Loveless just doesn't make it in my book.

In any case, best wishes for a rip-roaring success at the Film Festival. Any chance to see Robert Gordon on screen...well, that's like seeing Nick Cave do a cameo in Johnny Suede.



Anonymous said...

I'm with Paul; the "Loveless" is an excellent film. I own two VHS and watch it at least once a year. It's a film you can repeatedly watch and still find fresh and entertaining. Kathryn Bigelow's direction and pace reflect an era where not much new was happening; the camera work is like a William Hopper painting. Robert Gordon's decision to use obscure Jack Scott tunes as the main music instead of the usual teen drivel of the era shows both courage and imagination. I've shown the film to people who don't ride, and some of whom English was a second language, and they all loved the film and its one liner dialogue. Watching the "Loveless" is almost as enjoyable as riding a stock Panhead. I repeat: almost.

The Vintagent said...

Jim, I appreciate your opinion, but my response to the film is different; I love the one-liner dialogue, the art direction, the music, and especially, Willem Dafoe's acting, where his innate mix of sexiness/menace shines through as Vance. I's a vastly under-rated film.

We screened The Loveless at a pre-party for the Motorcycle Film Festival to a packed house; I was shocked how few present, even 'old bikers' who like movies, but everyone really enjoyed watching it on the big screen. It was, in fact, my first time seeing it projected! You miss a lot on a TV screen...