' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Loveless (1981)

Friday, April 02, 2021

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Loveless (1981)

“What do you do?” 
“What do you mean?” 
“I mean, like zero.”

Vance (Willem Dafoe), the biker at the heart of “The Loveless” (1981) might be on his way to Daytona for a race, but co-directors Kathryn Bigelow and Monty Montgomery are in no hurry. Though a modern audience might think of Bigelow as a kinetic stylist, here her style gloriously languid instead, slowed down and chilled out, favoring long takes and wide shots, giving her actors, especially Dafoe, room to stretch out their syllables. This languid vibe might explain the omnipresent pop songs of the era on the soundtrack, like it’s the jukebox a small town youth would employ to stave off boredom. That might sound odd given the movie turns on a motorcycle gang rolling into a small town, a la “The Wild One”, seeming to suggest some looming violent showdown. And that showdown is there, sort of, though just as “The Loveless” mostly remains indifferent to plot, the bikers remain indifferent to the town, not so much protagonists as passersby, main characters in a story that isn’t theirs.

“The Loveless” opens with Vance being ogled by the camera, tilting up slowly, an immediate signifier that Bigelow and Montgomery have no presumptions about fetishizing their subjects, not to mention their leather. That it takes a couple kicks to get his motorcycle off and running only reinforces that “The Loveless” is in no hurry and, for a few moments, is content just to watch him roll along the highway. When he meets up with his greaser pals in a small Georgia town, they pay to take over a garage so they can fix one of their broken down bikes, though the repairs concern Bigelow and Montgomery less than simply watching them these greasers at work and at leisure: drinking, flirting, verbally jousting, while the locals stand back and watch, like these unconventional out-of-towners are animals at the zoo. One townie isn’t quite sure whether he hates them or envies them, a question hanging over the whole movie like a looming Georgia thunderstorm, a gradual gathering of violence, physical and sexual, hinted at in the scene where Vance stops to change a stranded woman’s tire and forcibly kisses her as he leaves, stopping short of doing more, but seeming to suggest he could.

This was the movie that broke, more or less, Willem Dafoe and it’s easy to see why even if you wish you could mystically see it fresh, without knowing who he was. When he enters the town’s diner, Bigelow and Montgomery place the camera high, to take in the emptiness of the bright white space, yes, underlining the town’s rural desolation, but also to demonstrate how Dafoe’s presence can fill it up. If nearly 30 years later in “The Florida Project” he moved with a kind of desperation and exhaustion, an aging man in a dying economy who knows he still has to work, here in “The Loveless” he moves not so much without a care in the world, suggesting contentment with surroundings, as a kind of cool disregard for it. Dafoe has always excelled at oozing his lines but here he oozes across the screen, aware of and comfortable in his power. He’s so good, in fact, that he blows the other greasers, some of them non-actors with no hope of keeping up, off the screen.

In Vance’s opening voiceover he talks of going to hell in a breadbasket, but there are intimations that he might be this town’s savior, walking right into a black-owned liquor shop to get a few cases of beer. On the other hand, he takes the teenage Telena (Marin Kanter) to bed, essentially undressing the town’s ostensible innocence, and when her abusive father Tarver (J. Don Ferguson) shotgun blasts his way into the room to violently take her away, Vance just stands there, not cowardly but indifferently. Why should he care? Tarver is sort of installed as the self-appointed head of the town and tries to convince others they need to shoo away these leather-clad invaders, who are occasionally deemed “commies” if for no other reason than, like our current environment, “commies” is just sort of a catch-all for anyone you don’t like, the political implications beside the point. In the end, a nighttime confrontation brews at the town watering hole, though the problems and deep-seated desires run much deeper than these greasers, evoked in the diner waitress who performs a striptease for the local men. Indeed, though Tarver provokes war with the bikers, it is his daughter who does him in, as Vance just sort of stands back and watches, the kindling that finally ignites a fire. 

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