Saturday, December 03, 2016
WINTER OF DISCONTENT: Big Bad Mama
Let us consider the hick shitkicker film as an exemplar of anti-narrative. Or at least semi-narrative. Or, perhaps more accurately, narrative as something that the script writer was vaguely aware of but without actually harnessing the concept during the bourbon-addled oh-fuck-the-deadline-is-tomorrow bout of typewriter abuse that constituted the writing process.
We can take any number of films as case studies: Beverly and Ferd Sebastian’s ‘Gator Bait’, Michael Pressman’s ‘The Great Texas Dynamite Chase’, Gus Trikonis’s ‘Moonshine County Express’ (all, now I come to think of it, starring Claudia Jennings and all worth revisiting for that reason alone). In all of these films, narrative is not so much an overarching structure in which linearity, character development and thematic exegesis are contained. No siree, Bob; in these films, narrative is a matter of “this happened and then this happened and then car chase and then shoot-out with the sheriff and hoo-wheee that gal dun got her boobies out”.
In Steve Carver’s ‘Big Bad Mama’ – which doesn’t feature the voluptuous Ms Jennings but is graced with a leading role for the equally curvaceous Angie Dickinson – the script by William Norton and Frances Doel takes the following approach to narrative:
Fast-talking and attitudinous Wilma McClatchie (Dickinson) leaves her dirt-poor farm, bundling her squabbling daughters Billy-Jean (Susan Sennet – she of ‘Candy Snatchers’ fame) and Polly (Robbie Lee) into a beat up old car and they drive to the church where Polly is due to marry … well, some white trash loser whose name I didn’t catch and who’s barely in the movie anyway since Wilma decides that said white trash loser ain’t nowhere near good enough for her daughter and starts a fight right there in the church that’s played as comedy, complete with twangy guitar music. Barney (Noble Willingham) helps Wilma and her offspring escape the melee, but as they drive away they get into a chase/gunfight with a couple of Feds and Barney is mortally wounded – …
Now, wait a cotton-picking minute, I hear you expostulate, following up said expostulation with an expectorated stream of tobacco juice; just who in the name of jumpin’ Jehovah is Barney? Well, dear reader, I’ll do you more favours than the script ever does and speculate that Wilma and Barney (yes: they went there) once had a relationship and that Barney is still sweet on her, as evidenced by Billy-Jean’s observation just prior to the abortive ceremony: “Hey, Uncle Barney, were you feelin’ up my momma’s titty?”
Gol-darn it, I hear you ejaculate, thumping a meaty fist on a bar scratched with the initials of people who can’t spell; fondled titties don’t tell me nuthin’ ’bout this Barney fella. To which I can only reply: dagnabbit, boy, wain’t me as wrote the durn script. Then after we slug each other repeatedly out front of the saloon, we go back inside and have a couple of shots of Wild Turkey (well, actually I take a couple of shots of Talisker since Wild Turkey tastes like coyote piss while Talisker is the king of single malt whisky, motherfucker) and finish discussing the film without resorting to further violence.
Barney, it transpires, was a bootlegger and following his car-chase/bullet-from-a-Fed’s-gun demise, Wilma decides to take over his bootlegging business. Thanks to the simple-minded Polly’s dalliance with the local sheriff’s son, Wilma comes to the attention of the law and is coerced into forking over her earnings to keep Polly out of jail. Appropriately incensed, Wilma considers other money-making schemes.
There’s your plot synopsis, right there: “Wilma considers other money-making schemes.” Without ever bothering with a narrative through-line, let alone even acknowledging the meaning of the word “context”, ‘Big Bad Mama’ races through the various iterations of Wilma’s criminal career. Here’s Wilma as bank robber. Here’s Wilma fleecing the bookies at race track. Here’s Wilma in a sedan, cutting loose with a tommy gun. Here’s Wilma pulling a wages heist. Here’s Wilma robbing some high society folks. Here’s Wilma orchestrating a kidnapping.
Virtually all of Wilma’s transgressions could have fuelled a stand-alone movie, with proper attention paid to context, plot, characterisation, consequence, aftermath and, y’know, all the other things you generally get in a movie. Instead, ‘Big Bad Mama’ is 85 minutes of car chases, yee-haw, twangy guitar music, shoot-outs and casual nudity. Character interrelationships are basically a delivery system for the latter. In short order, Wilma encounters former Dillinger associate Fred Diller (Tom Skerrit) and appoints him as partner in crime and priapic stud muffin; then casually tosses him aside – while still requiring his participation in her nefarious schemes – in favour of cash-strapped social climber William J. Baxter (William Shatner), who brings less than fuck all to the table in terms of the gang’s criminal activity but seems to enjoy the fringe benefits (i.e. playing hide the salami with Wilma).
Meanwhile, sexually frustrated Billy-Jean exploits Diller’s rejection to her own lascivious ends and generously shares him with Polly when the latter gets the blues on account of not being offered any sanctuary-dependent salami. Polly falls pregnant which pisses Wilma off royally. When Diller offers to do the decent thing and marry Polly, the latter berates him thusly: “I don’t wanna marry a man who’s sleepin’ with my sister.”
At this juncture, let’s note that Sennet and Lee both engage in kit-offery, neither look like they’re more than 14, but both were in their twenties and the time of filming. Sometimes you clutch onto the reediest of straws as the river of exploitation hurtles you towards the rapids of moral compromise.
Anyway. Like I was saying. ‘Big Bad Mama’ (a Roger Corman production, don’t you know) consists solely of Wilma doing reprehensible things in the name of making a quick buck. Actually, that’s not entirely true. It also consists of Ford Model Ts overturning during chases and being driven into bales of hay. The point remains, though: there’s no attempt to chart Wilma’s progression through the various stages of her criminal career; it’s more a case of “aw, hell, we’ve done the bank robbin’ thing, let’s get her to kidnap some stuck-up rich girl”. There’s no attempt to map an even remotely realistic dynamic between Wilma, Billy-Jean and Polly, let alone properly investigate the tangle of conflicting emotions resulting from introducing not just Diller but Baxter into the equation. And there’s only the barest concession to irony in that the more money Wilma makes by robbing rich folk, the more her own behaviours manifest as class-conscious.
But why should Carver even bother trying to tackle these considerations? ‘Big Bad Mama’ isn’t concerned with subtext, development, theme or any of that malarkey. ‘Big Bad Mama’ is concerned with moonshine, tommy guns, fast cars, faster women and twangy guitar music. What it don’t got in narrative coherence, it has in spades in terms of entertainment value. It’s the kind of thing that gives exploitation movies a good name.