Tuesday, September 21, 2010

After the Beats: The Evil Hipster

By the beginning of the 1960s, the concept of the beatnik had become safely mainstream. You could even “rent” a beatnik in New York City to attend your parties, playing bongos and spouting bad poetry. A few years later, the hippies would become fodder for filmmakers, but there was another kind of rebel hipster that occupied the space between these two movements. This person was never tagged with a cute moniker because he wasn’t cute. He—or she, for this person wasn’t always a man—was as mean as a snake, bored with conventional mores, and he spoke in a jivey lingo that took the rhythms of the beatniks and moved them into a darker realm. Like the beats, these characters sometimes spouted philosophy, but only when it suited their purposes. They were nihilistic and interested only in that which made their lives more fun. They were a direct extension of the juvenile delinquents of the fifties, only now they are a little older and even less sympathetic.

We saw the beginnings of this character in the nasty sociopaths of Lady in a Cage and The Thrill Killers, but it is in Kitten With a Whip that the evil hipster really takes off. In Kitten With a Whip, Jody Dvorak, a hot young hedonist, played by Ann-Margret, and her boyfriend Ron (Peter Brown) hold that classic representative of the middle-class, John Forsyth, hostage. Jody is more valley girl than beat. Her language in this film is not that different from that in Bye Bye Birdie. It is Peter Brown’s Ron who is the evil hipster and who delivers the best lines in the film, causing John Forsyth’s character to remark at one point, “You mean there’s a pattern to that gibberish?” Ron’s response says it all: “Gibberish? Oh, no. Those are the meanings of the meaningless, the exactitudes of the inexact. Man, don’t you dig the desire not to communicate?” And perhaps that was what America feared most of all about this new breed of outcasts—their desire not to communicate.

In 1965, we saw two more films of this ilk: The Defilers—a  low-budget shocker from the minds of Lee Frost (Love Camp 7) and David Friedman (Blood Feast)—and Russ Meyer’s classic, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! In The Defilers, a couple hipsters decide to kidnap a young woman and force her to be their sex slave. They are cut from the same cloth as Ron in Kitten With a Whip, but far nastier. In Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! the hipsters are go-go dancers looking for ways to release their pent-up anger after a week of dancing for men. Like all of Russ Meyer’s films, the women are larger than life—figuratively and, in some respects, literally. The leader of this group is Varla, played by that force of nature, Tura Satana, but the hipster in the group is Billie, played by Lori Williams. Her dialog verges on jazz at times: “Oh, you're cute! Like a velvet glove cast in iron; like the gas chamber: a real fun gal!”

That same year saw the release of Catch Us If You Can (aka Having a Wild Weekend), which introduced the world to a new kind of rebel: the hippie. But this was 1965, and the concept was still inchoate. This little tribe had as much in common with Charles Manson as it did with peace and love. Dave Clark and his girlfriend, while out on a lark, stumble across a band of long-haired vagabonds living in what appear to be abandoned army barracks. They are led by a nearly inarticulate man who starts to recite “Nansen Cuts the Cat in Two,” one of the more shocking kōans from The Gateless Gate. We never hear the end of the story as it is interrupted by the British army out on field manoeuvres. The hippies in Catch Us If You Can are not nearly as evil as the characters in The Defilers, or Kitten With a Whip, but they are not exactly welcoming either. They react to Dave Clark and his girlfriend with hostility and suspicion. But like the beatniks before them, the hippies were never quite nasty enough. All that talk of peace and love tainted the waters of evil and made them hard to take seriously. Most of the time, hippies were relegated to silly comedies like I Love You Alice B. Toklas, or The President’s Analyst. The main gripe against the hippies was their love of LSD, which was explored—and cautioned against—in several movies (The Trip, The Big Cube, The Weird World of LSD). It wouldn’t be until after the Manson family murders that the concept of the evil hippie would fully take hold.

In fact, the Manson family murders informed all the movies that came after them. Compare the antics of the trio in Lady in a Cage with the behavior of virtually the same archetypes in Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left. If there were ever any limits to the evils that men do, they were gone forever.

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