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Joe
(1970)

Director: John G. Avildsen
Cast:
Dennis Patrick, Peter Boyle, Susan Sarandon


A long time ago, I came across a scathing opinion about the younger generation from someone who was much older than the youths he was criticizing. He said, "The young people of today love luxury. They have bad manners, they scoff at authority and lack respect for their elders. Children nowadays are really tyrants, they no longer stand up when their elders come into the room where they are sitting, they contradict their parents, chat together in the presence of adults, eat gluttonously and tyrannize their teachers....What kind of awful creatures will they be when they grow up?" You are probably thinking that that person is a part of your generation if you are one of this site's many readers who are seasoned adults, but you would be wrong. That quote was actually made by the Greek philosopher Socrates more than two thousand years ago. As you can see from that ancient quote, there has been a large generation gap between young people and their elders ever since there has been a thing called mankind. There has been just as much bemoaning from one side as there has been from the other, though it's probably easier for practically all readers of this web site to understand the elders' side than the side of the youths. Having lived a lot more, elders know a lot more than most youths, and elders are better with their words. An example of this can be seen in one quote I once heard from a member of a younger generation speaking of the generation gap between him and his father: "Every generation blames the one before, and all of their frustrations come beating on your door." While that may not sound so bad, it actually came from one of the sappiest-sounding songs of the 1980s.

I have to admit that in my case, I kind of find it hard to understand a generation gap. When I was young, most adults that I encountered seemed to me to have a lot more knowledge and experience than I did, so I was more often than not prone to listen to what they had to say and observe how they did their various actions. And most of the time, I managed to find common ground between myself and my parents. For example, for a long time I really wanted my parents to buy a VCR so I would be able to rent trash movies and record off of late night television. I was sure to let my parents know this. Eventually, my parents did buy a VCR, so I was able to indulge in all the viewing and recording that I wanted... though my parents expected me to program the VCR whenever a program came up that they wanted to later watch, since they were unable to figure out how to program the VCR themselves. That seemed like an acceptable agreement to me, so both my parents and I got what we wanted. Anyway, while I generally got along with my parents and elders, at the same time I was often confused by various reports of generation gaps I came across as a youth. One of these gaps was during the period from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, when the gap seemed to be at an all time large width. This was mostly observed by me through reading back issues of MAD Magazine. I could never understand why youths of that era seemed obsessed with not bathing or keeping up personal grooming, indulging in various chemicals that seemed to make them stupider than normal, or protest just one side of a war when the other side of the war was proving to make just as many crimes against humanity as the side they were protesting.

I guess that my revulsion all those years ago towards the youth of that era may in part come from being higher in intelligence than most of my fellow youths, and the fact that I didn't have many friends growing up; I had to form my own opinions on my own. Anyway, I have to admit that even Joethough I am no longer a youth, and haven't been a youth for quite some time, the whole Summer Of Love generation continues to befuddle me. I have always kept an eye open for any source of information that might give me insight. Recently, I found a movie in a dollar store - Joe - that promised to give a look into both generations of that era. But that was not the only thing interesting about the movie. Some research of mine uncovered that this early Cannon film (pre-Golan and Globus) was a big hit when it was first released, enough to even get parodied in MAD Magazine. However, it has all but been forgotten today. Was it a lost treasure? I decided to give it a look. Before we meet the "Joe" of the title, the movie introduces us to the movie's other main player, a New York businessman named Bill (Patrick, House Of Dark Shadows). Bill and his wife Joan (Audrey Caire) are the parents of a daughter named Melissa (Sarandon, Dead Man Walking), who is a hippie that lives with her drug-dealing boyfriend, something that upsets Bill very much. When Melissa barely survives a drug overdose, Bill is enraged and eventually ends up confronting Melissa's boyfriend. The confrontation turns violent, and Bill ends up killing the young man. Trying to recover from what he has just done, Bill goes to a local bar, where a man named Joe (Boyle, Steelyard Blues) happens to be at the time. Bill unintentionally lets it slip to the overhearing Joe as to what he has just done, but almost immediately afterwards attempts to cover it up by claiming he was just kidding. But in the following days, Joe finds out about the murder from the news, and he promptly contacts Bill. Though you may think Joe attempts a blackmail scheme, that's not really what happens. Instead, Joe tells Bill how delighted he is with what Bill did, since Joe is an extreme rightwinger who hates hippies, among many other kinds of people he finds undesirable. Joe instead seems to desire a friendship of sorts with the seemingly similar-thinking Bill. Bill, fearing that Joe could tell the police what he did, reluctantly allows Joe into his life. What follows is an unusual friendship, to say the least.

It doesn't take a lot of thought to realize that with just a little rewriting, Joe's plotline could easily be filmed in a modern day perspective. Though there are no more hippies, there are still plenty of young adults involved in drugs and other activities that upset their parents and society in general. And while we are living in more politically correct times, there are still plenty of bigots out there. But as I made clear, Joe was made in the 1970s. The question comes up as to if the movie's forty plus year old perspective will have interest to a modern audience. I think that most modern day viewers will have an interest in this movie's viewpoint. For starters, the movie gives viewers a taste of New York City and the surrounding area of the era, decades before it was cleaned up and beautified. The movie takes viewers on a fairly extensive tour of the cold, crumbling, and dirty city, from local watering holes to the homes of the working class. This unique (and now largely gone in this day and age) backdrop definitely has color and interest for modern day viewers, though I do wish that director John G. Avildsen (Rocky) would have stepped back more often showcasing these places; more often than not the camera is jammed up so close that we don't get a wide view of what we're seeing. Another interesting part of Joe's perspective of 1970 is how it views the American youth of the era. To put it kindly, it's quite a pessimistic view. There is not one youth in the movie who comes across in a positve manner. The character of Melissa is a youth who, despite coming from a family of privilege and opportunity, chooses to live in squalor and take drugs. Her boyfriend, probably in a way to control her, freely encourages Melissa to take drugs and discourages her from seeing her parents. The lack of respect youths have even towards other youths goes beyond this. For example, Melissa's boyfriend is not only a drug dealer, he sometimes switches his drugs with vitamin pills to his junkie youth customers. The other youths seen during the course of the movie are seemingly obsessed with drugs and sex, and will freely stick it to the establishment whether it's begging for money from them or simply robbing them blind.

All that negative portrayal of American youth of the time is probably expected, but what may come as a surprise to some viewers is that the other side - the "establishment" - doesn't come across as much better. This can be best seen with the two principle characters in the movie, Bill and Joe. Bill is a murderer, even if his comitting of the act was unintentional, and he tries to cover up the act afterwards. (His wife later learns of Bill's act, and doesn't seem particularly upset.) Joe, on the other hand, may not have broken any laws when he and Bill meet, but he is a pretty despicable figure all the same, with his extreme prejudice against minorities and other groups he considers anti-American. However, while both of these characters are loathsome to some degree, when they are paired together there is some undeniable interest. Despite the fact that both men come from very different backgrounds (Bill is an office executive, Joe works at a factory), and there is some undeniable awkwardness in their first meetings (like the interesting scene when Joe invites Bill and his wife to his house for dinner), the two men eventually find enough common ground. Though Joe may have extreme hatred towards others, we can see that he is initially all talk and has never done any serious action towards those he hates. When Joe discovers that Bill has killed someone he considers an undesirable, he is delighted. We can see that Joe wants to know someone agrees with his politics, and maybe also teach him how to get rid of undesirables and get away with it. For that matter, it eventually becomes clear that Bill starts to value Joe as well. Though he initially lets Joe into his life because he is afraid of possible blackmail, eventually he does see Joe as a kind of supportive figure. This unusual relationship is the heart of Joe, and it's fascinating to watch as it progresses and solidifies. While I certainly didn't care for Bill or Joe, it's credit to screenwriter Norman Wexler (and director Avildsen) that they made these two characters so interesting despite their many shortcomings. Though you eventually won't hope (or believe) either Bill or Joe could be reformed, you'll wonder just far down they will descend with their beliefs or actions.

Credit must also go to the two actors playing Bill and Joe, Dennis Patrick and Peter Boyle. Patrick is admittedly overshadowed by his co-star, but he does have some moments that do stand out, like when his character expresses both subtle and all-out frustration when in his daughter's apartment. Boyle, on the other hand, is given a lot more to do, and he makes the best of all of his scenes. Incredibly, he was only thirty-five years old during filming, and his character is supposed to be old enough to have fought in Okinawa during World War II. Despite that fact, Boyle is utterly convincing, expertly handling his character's change during the course of the movie from mere barking to one that bites. It's easy to see why Joe's two (offscreen) sons never are home, but there is the question as to why his wife Mary Lou (K Callan, Meet The Browns) tolerates this hate-spewing guy. Something must have initially attracted her to Joe, but we never find out why she is after so many years still playing the loving wife to this bigot. There are a few other minor problems to be found with the story. For example, after Melissa goes to the hospital, she is forgotten about for a long time before she shows up again, and when she does, we don't get to see her initial reaction to news of her boyfriend's death. Actually, while one may normally blame director Avildsen or screenwriter Wexler for plot holes and missing information like these examples, I did learn during my research of the movie that the movie originally ran a lot longer than its present one hundred and seven minute length, but was severely cut down in the editing room. We may never know what Avildsen's and Wexler's original vision was like, but as it is right now, despite some notable gaps in its narrative, Joe for the most part is an interesting get-to-know look at people you normally wouldn't want to get to know in real life.

(Posted April 30, 2019)

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See also: Breezy, The Hippie Revolt, My First Mister

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