The Wild Ride brings out the “Get off my lawn, you crazy kids” side of my personality, which mainly comes when I am bored by adolescent angst. Every generation thinks they invented it, and every generation is wrong. The rebellion here is tepid and unfocused. The kids aren’t that bad. They drink beer, sure, but in general they just jitterbug and make out. Stop the presses immediately. However, they also want to be cool. And none of them actually are. Brando was cool, Dean in his red leather jacket was cool, these kids are dorks who are play-acting at being “bad”. I respect rebellion, I cherish it. All good art comes out of some kind of rebellion. But brats who want to be cool? Get off my lawn, please.
The Wild Ride was made in 1960, not 1968 or 1969, a huge difference in American culture. The 1950s hover over The Wild Ride, with its conformity and dreams of domesticity. It’s in how the love scenes are filmed, where you know it’s a good girl because the music goes soft and lovey-dovey, and the boy chases the girl around a big tree, as the two of them giggle with puppy love. On the other side of town, kids loll on the beach and go to hot-rod races. Guess which side of town I’d like to be on. There is something to be said for the Rebel Without a Cause, but at least there we had the henpecked father in an apron, the absent parent, the unfeeling authority figures. Here, the kids thumb their noses at authority just ’cause, but without the iconic danger of Marlon Brando in The Wild One, who answers the question, “What are you rebelling against, Johnny”, with “Whaddya got?” In The Wild Ride, the kids are just bored. No need to have a panic attack. At least it doesn’t have an overwrought message to impart (ie: Too Soon to Love, with the heroine literally on her knees praying out loud, “Dear God, if you get me out of this situation, I promise to never again have sex with a boy before I’m married.”) The Wild Ride seems to admire its rebels, although they must be “punished” in the end. While the entire enterprise is ludicrous here, with laughably random camera angles that come out of nowhere, I liked the lack of judgment, I liked the lack of hysteria, which you see in many other movies about bad kids. There’s no hand-wringing here. But the acting is pretty terrible, and the group-dialogue atrocious, the director clearly telling his actors to “say whatever you want in the group scenes”, and so naturally what comes out is the most cliched dialogue possible.
The Wild Ride is a movie where people say things like, “That chick is too far out, man, you dig?” with no irony whatsoever. They speak a hep cat language, as though everyone is trying to be Jack Kerouac, which indeed at that time they were. “Do you sound me?” they say to each other. “Sound” means “understand” or “hear”. “Are you sounding me?” Yes, yes, I’m sounding you already. Get off my lawn.
Jack Nicholson, fresh off Too Soon To Love where he had a couple of scenes as a really bad guy, plays Johnny Varron, the leader of a group of kids. He is obviously modeled on Johnny Strabler, Brando’s character in The Wild One, and to make sure we get it, one kid looks at Nicholson in his car and says, “Hey, it’s just like The Wild One with Marlon Brando!” Johnny Varron is a petty tyrant who seems strangely invested in being “Top Dog”, terrorizing his group of friends (all the men, anyway) with power-trips and mind-games. When he shows up at the jitterbug joint, everyone stops and stares at him, waiting, excited to see what he will do next. Meanwhile, he’s quite a bore. He races hot-rods, which is his claim to fame, and has been screwing an older married woman with acne scars whom he unceremoniously dumps, in a cruel scene on the beach. He sneers at her in a slow lazy drawl, “Listen, honey, you’re old. I want a tender young kitten, you dig?” We’re starting to get into a recognizable Nicholson persona here, only without the humor and subtlety. He’s slim, and narrow, but he doesn’t need brawn to dominate everyone in the vicinity. He does it by … well, how does he do it exactly? It is not clear at all what is the draw about this guy. He is universally unpleasant to everyone. He “doesn’t care”, which gives him a swagger, I suppose, that could be seen as attractive to dull people who don’t want to think for themselves. He does chicken races with the cops who chase him and then puts up with their questioning with a lazy-eyed insolence.
He appears to be parent-less. Everyone does what he says and quivers in fear at the thought of bucking his authority. The worst thing, apparently, in The Wild Ride is to be called a “chicken”. It is a never-ending refrain, starting with the first scene: Nicholson is seen racing with a cop on a motorcycle, and when the cop finally careens off to the side and crashes, Nicholson looks back over his shoulder (in, again, one of those attention-getting camera angles that seem to be leading somewhere, but then don’t), grins, and says, “Chicken.”
Them’s fightin’ words, Varron. Huge balletic fist fights break out because one guy calls another guy a “chicken”. It is the insult to end all insults. I find it tiresome. Especially because they aren’t REALLY “daring” so what exactly does being a “chicken” mean if you aren’t really risking anything? Buying beer with a fake ID seems daring when you’re 16, but … well. Get off my lawn. But look out. Call someone a “chicken” and watch his head explode! TOTAL dealbreaker. Many a nice beach picnic is ruined by some jagoff calling another jagoff a “chicken”. There’s a bit of homosexual panic in all of this. They’re all so concerned with being big macho men that I couldn’t help but wonder what the hell they all were so afraid of. As they were fighting each other, bare-chested on the beach, because so-and-so called so-and-so a “chicken”, I thought to myself, “If you guys just sucked each other’s dicks and got it out of the way, I think you’d be much happier.” They are barely interested in women. They treat them all like whores and accessories and nuisances. But there’s no real affection between the guys either.
The main conflict in The Wild Ride is between Jimmy Varron and Dave (played by Robert Bean), supposedly best friends but with some tension because Dave has started to date a girl and Jimmy does not approve of the girl. She’s too square. Nicholson says, “She’s got you all mixed. That chick has got to go, are you sounding me?” Dave starts to show alarming signs of being a “chicken”. He swerves away from an oncoming truck, for example, and this clues Jimmy in to the fact that Dave may be going “soft”. Meanwhile, all Dave wants to do is run through the shady glen chasing his square girl around a big tree trunk, as young lovers apparently did in the 1950s. But that shit will not fly with Jimmy Varron. “Next thing you know, you’ll be sitting on a sofa, watching TV, and then, Dave, it’ll be OVER.” Well, I have to agree with him there.
Despite the silliness, The Wild Ride is a cool glimpse (at times) into a certain subset of Los Angeles culture that was going on at that time, a time when Los Angeles was about to go through some growing pains in terms of development and demographics. The 2008 documentary The Cool School (my review here) is a great history of the development of the modern art scene in Los Angeles right around this time, late 50s, early 60s. It was hard to get galleries to pay attention to you, if you were a local artist. It was Nowheresville. There was a macho aesthetic, which translated into the art: lots of gleam and chrome, reflecting the car culture these artists lived in. Muscle men, surfers, car junkies … Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell, Venice Beach, Beatnik poetry slams, and cars cars cars. This is the world of The Wild Ride. Granted, it’s all very silly, but watch how the director Harvey Berman (this was his only movie) lingers on the cars: the gleaming grilles, the revealed engines, the detailing, the giant chrome fins …. He seems to prefer filming cars over people. It’s all a part of his time and place. There’s a big hot-rod race halfway through the film, with Jimmy Varron competing, of course, and unlike the stilted scenes of dialogue with the camera looking up people’s noses for no apparent reason, here, Berman knows what he’s doing. The race happens in clouds of dust, the camera on the track with the cars, specific observations of mechanics and owners, and the referee, and the crowd … This is a world that I would bet Berman knew well. It’s the only scene in the movie that has life to it.
There are funny stories about directors trying to get Nicholson to talk faster. But he just plain can’t. He talks slow, and that’s all there is to it. He uses that natural laziness here, which helps him avoid looking ridiculous. He takes his time. He strolls. He looks people up and down. He chews the hep cat dialogue. He says: “The scene was too lame.” “She doesn’t dig our way. We’re swingin’, man.” “That broad is never gonna mix up a Top Stud again.” I mean, John Gielgud would have a hard time with dialogue like that. Nicholson doesn’t look awkward, for the most part. He takes his time. He is not embarrassed. It saves him. There is no deeper content here, there is no societal critique, there is no deep expression of existential angst. Jimmy Varron does not become iconic, and perhaps he is not meant to. The script does have pretensions in that direction, however, but it doesn’t resonate. Jimmy Varron is too much of a, well, a JERK, to warrant audience identification. Nicholson doesn’t try too hard. The couple of times when he has to get upset fall flat, because it’s not his milieu, it’s not natural to him. What is natural is the sneer, the grin, the dead-eyed stare of “why don’t you MAKE me?”
The friendship that is the linchpin of the entire movie is clearly based on fear and self-loathing, so I can’t invest in it. Jimmy Varron decides to show Dave who is Top Stud, because he needs to constantly assert his authority, and poor Dave moons about by the phone trying to get in touch with his square girlfriend. Jimmy sneers at this, and you get the sense that Jimmy is headed for a big fall, but again, with a Jerk like that it seems like he’s just getting what’s coming to him.
Low-budget car-focused movies like this are hugely influential to this day, and you can see Quentin Tarantino’s love for such films in almost everything he does (Death Proof being the most obvious example). It’s gritty footage, made by people who had no money, and there’s a raw energy to it all that is captivating despite its faults. The strange camera angles made me think that Francis Ford Coppola had to have seen this movie (or others like it), judging from the angular counterintuitive point-of-view he took with his camera in Rumble Fish (I wrote about that here). There are times when it makes no sense, and it seems as though the cinematographer placed the camera unaware of the strangely-unbalancing effect it would have (although it may have been conscious, I don’t know). This is not kitchen-sink realism, it’s filmed in a heightened manner that doesn’t completely work (the story doesn’t warrant it), yet it gives it some interest. It looks weird.
Choices are being made every step of the way: where to put the camera, how to frame the characters, and the strange from-below or from-above angles are awkward, unmotivated, yet interesting nonetheless.
There are moments here that predict Nicholson’s greater work from a later period. When he is allowed to let his essence through, you would think you were looking at a “Jack” from last year.
Classic. And there is one moment in particular, right before the race, where I couldn’t help but flash-forward to one of his famous moments soon to come, a moment that perhaps helped make him into a star.
“Oh, I’ve got a helmet!”
One of the things that sets Nicholson apart is his humor, which is very individual, instantly recognizable. Jimmy Varron is a humorless bore, which is part of the problem here: Nicholson doesn’t fit in a role that doesn’t allow him his sense of humor. The other thing that doesn’t work here is the concern with the group that his character has. His character wouldn’t know who he was without the validation of the Group. If I had to characterize Nicholson in his best parts, I would say that this is a man totally comfortable with standing apart from the group. He is not a joiner. He may be a leader (as we see come to fruition in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), but even there, we sense that that is the character’s individual needs being met, his own sense of the unfairness, and his understanding of human dignity, something he needs to assert for himself. He’s not a loner. Nicholson is a social animal, but his best roles let him stand apart from groups, where he belongs. He is his own man. Perhaps there is always a bit of thumbing-his-nose at authority with Nicholson, but it is utilized best when he seems to be doing it either for the fun of it, or because individually he needs to assert that Man Is Not a Sheep. Man has dignity.
These are not roles that are easy to come by, obviously, and it would take imaginative filmmakers in the late 60s and 70s to tap into that anti-authoritarian yet humorous careless streak of Nicholson’s that would become his signature.
In The Wild Ride, Nicholson is not there yet. The material hasn’t caught up to him. But it’s worth the price of admission to hear him deliver lines such as, “Are you sounding me, man? This scene is lame.” It sure is, Jack. Lame is the right word for most of The Wild Ride. But rest assured: better things are coming, you sound me?