Monday, August 22, 2016

Citizen's Band

As a large segment of the American public were obsessed with CB radio at the time, 1977's CITIZEN'S BAND (aka HANDLE WITH CARE) was predicted by its filmmakers to be a breakout hit.  It's funny what catches on and what doesn't.  For SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, director John Badham recalled his doubts about taking on the project as "disco was dying" when the film was released. But Paramount had not only a box office smash, but a cultural phenomenon.  Unfortunately the same studio did not have the same success with Jonathan Demme's slice of Americana.

In a fairly recent interview with Demme and his lead actor Paul Le Mat, both recall that they learned how CB users were too busy playing around with their radios at home or on the road to go see a movie.  That was the culture.

So why was the same year's SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT, with CB radios so integral to its plot, a runaway hit? With the changing Hollywood paradigms - small, quirky character dramas were out and loud "event" movies were in - a film like CITIZEN'S BAND would either go unnoticed or met with apathy.  Since there were no car chases and such.  It makes me wonder if the film would've had an audience in 1971, when a large sampling of film goers appreciated a movie that cared more about the complexities of relationships than physical mayhem.

Demme also described his attraction to Paul Brickman's observant script, and it's a gem.   A multi-character mosiac that nonetheless spends enough time with and nicely fleshes out each of its frustrated subjects to (at least this) viewer satisfaction.   Many are identified in the credits by their citizen's band handle:

"Spider" (Le Mat) - a good natured CB repairman who tirelessly volunteers for Emergency Channel 9, the Radio Emergency Associated Communication Teams,  rescuing those in distress, including a stranded trucker called...

"Chrome Angel" (Charles Napier) - a bigamist married to "Portland Angel" (Marcia Rodd) and "Dallas Angel" (Ann Wedgeworth), who meet and learn the awful truth on a bus ride to meet their husband in common.  How this story line progresses and resolves is a tribute to both homespun and absurdist humor.

"Electra" (Candy Clark) - Spider's ex-fiancee who still has feelings for the guy despite her current relationship with....

"Blood" (Bruce McGill), Spider's brother and the local high school basketball coach.

"Papa Thermodyne" (Robert Blossom), former truck driver and the father of Spider and Blood.

There's also a homely prostitute called "Hot Coffee" (Alix Elias) who discovers that purchasing a mobile home will solve her dwindling clientele dilemma.  Also, a teen who reads pornography over the airwaves and a ranting and raving neo-Nazi called "The Red Baron".  Both will get their due when Spider sneaks to their houses and cuts their wires and rips down their antennas.  Part of his volunteer duties is to make sure no one is abusing air time, you see.

Today's viewers will likely note the similarities between CB culture and the online community, with its multitudes of cloaked and anonymous posters, creating personas they may be too timid (or flat out unable) to assume in real life.  I'm not old enough to recall if the Citizen's Band obsessives were so hot to "have their ears on" as to not put down the mic occasionally and actually have a cup of coffee with someone. 

Jordan Cronenweth, with whom Demme would later collaborate on STOP MAKING SENSE, again does some choice cinematography, especially in the scene where he bathes overhead light over Spider and Electra during a locker room kiss.  It's a moment as heavenly as you're likely to see in a movie, and nicely prefaces some of the work Cronenweth contributed to BLADE RUNNER.

Seek out CITIZEN'S BAND.  Some will take the trouble simply out of curiosity to see Demme's first non-exploitation pic and future RISKY BUSINESS writer/director Brickman's early effort.  It's an enjoyable quirky, folksy comedy for those who enjoy social portraits that respect their subjects while maybe poking a little fun at them. A sitcom premise that cuts a bit deeper.  Films like SMILE, A WEDDING, etc.  The '70s had many of 'em.

My only carp with the movie is its finale, which brings all of the characters together for a yahoo feel good rally.  It feels like an outtake from yes, SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT.  A studio/test audience mandated sell-out.  If that was the case, it did not translate to big ticket sales. 

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