Monday, December 11, 2017
WINTER OF DISCONTENT: Truck Stop Women
Writing about Steve Carver’s ‘Big Bad Mama’ for last year’s Winter of Discontent, I opened my review with this homily:
“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 …”
If the enquiring academic were of a mind to seek out a control subject against which to benchmark the above catch-all, they could do a lot worse than Mark L Lester’s ‘Truck Stop Women’. It is most definitely a hick shitkicker film. How so? Let us count the ways. It has the words “truck stop” and “women” in its title – hell, the words “truck stop” and “women” are the motherlovin’ whole of its title. Its soundtrack is entirely country & western. And it stars Claudia Jennings, whose appearances in ‘Gator Bait’, ‘The Great Texas Dynamite Chase’ and ‘Moonshine County Express’ pretty much made her the poster girl for the hick shitkicker film in the same way that Edwige Fenech became the poster girl for the giallo, Shannon Whirry for late-night pay-per-view and Greta Gerwig for self-conscious indie noodlings.
So, having established its credentials, let’s move right on to the matter of ‘Truck Stop Women’ and its embrace (or otherwise) of narrative tropes. What did I say about the academic approach? I’m laying down words like “tropes”, motherhumpers.
‘Truck Stop Women’ starts in media res with a gentleman being gunned down while taking a bath. He’s taking a bath with a buxom and significantly younger women, and a swifter “hoooey, this is my lucky day” to “oh shit, my luck is fucked” transition it’s difficult to imagine. The young lady gets an equally bad deal since the two gunmen demonstrate a marked disinclination to leaving witnesses.
This twosome – Smith (John Martino) and Rusty (Speed Stearns) – are then seen reporting to Mr Big (Nicky Blair) who castigates them for a messy job and for leaving their target comatose rather than deceased. The way this was edited makes it seem like an ambulance was summoned for their victim (by whom, since his consort is also plugged, is left unhinted at), hospitalisation occurred, his vital signs were stabilised, and his bang-up-to-date medical notes purloined and delivered to Mr Big in the exact same time it took for Smith and Rusty to drive to Mr Big’s crib.
So, yeah, Mr Big tears Smith and Rusty a new one for being total fuck-ups and then inexplicably gives them control of a whole new territory, presumably in New Mexico since that’s where the movie was shot. His last words before they strut their way out of his office is to warn them that some chick named Anna who owns a truck stop already has dibs on said territory.
Narrative wise, we’re definitely in the arena of the crime/thriller genre and the production is certainly wearing its exploitation heart on its sleeve. But we’re still only three minutes in and the next scene – which segues into the opening credits sequence – offers up a different perspective. Here we have two curvaceous young ladies in hot pants – Rose (Jennings) and Tina (Jennifer Burton) lookin’ all helpless by the side of the highway, the hood of their station wagon popped and no idea as to the automotive diagnosis. An obliging (and self-evidently lecherous) trucker offers to take a look. For his pains, he gets a monkey wrench applied to the back of the neck and his HGV stolen. Rose and Tina pick up a hitchhiker in the purloined vehicle and Tina entertains him in the sleeper cab, after which he’s unceremoniously kicked out and they complete the journey to their destination.
We’re still only about six minutes in at this point, and for the sake of not developing RSI on the review of a Mark L Lester film, I’ll throw this here plot synopsis into overdrive.
Said destination is the truck stop owned by Anna (Lieux Dressler), a blowsy crime matron who is both the ruthless competition Mr Big warned Smith and Rusty about, and Rose’s mother. That ‘Truck Stop Women’ swiftly develops into a story about a turf war – Anna and her hick crew vs slick besuited Syndicate types – is obvious from the outset, but the narrative peregrinations by which it gets there are frankly bonkers.
Initially, it comes on as broad comedy and salacious thrilleramics, as if ‘Convoy’, ‘The Cannonball Run’ and that episode of ‘The Sweeney’ about lorry hijackers had got dumped into a blender with the edited highlights of ‘The Benny Hill Show’ and a Christina Lindberg skin flick. Lester – co-scripting as well as calling “action” – throws an immediate narrative curveball by having the disaffected Rose throw in her lot with Smith (a curious name for a character who is written and played as Italian-American) before establishing all manner of character dynamics within Anna’s hick shitkicker crew, suggesting epic quantities of backstory, but never developing any of it.
The middle section morphs into a weird-ass kind of Greek drama (if, that is, the classics of Euripides and Sophocles had been written with a soundtrack in mind that included ‘Hello, I’m A Truck’* and ‘The Bullshifters’) that basically deals with the battle for Rose’s soul. Anna, every inch the bad-ass matriarch willing to take on the big boys and show them who’s boss, nevertheless can’t entertain that Rose might just be a scheming and self-interested harridan and tries at every twist and turn to get her back. This back and forth achieves its most jaw-dropping moment when Anna and one of her crew drive out to a rival truck stop; Anna discovers Rose playing pool while wearing a bikini, slugs her, and carries her unconscious form back out to the forecourt, slings her in the back of a truck then goes tearing off hellbent for leather, pursued by Smith’s goons.
Granted, when my Dad was running a haulage business in the 70s, the cultural touchstones in the UK were very different from the States – lorry parks (i.e. an acre or so of hardstanding where drivers could park up for the night) were our equivalent of truck stops and they were devoid of amenities – but I’m having a hard time imagining that nubile women in bikinis hung around truck stops playing pool. Playing something else for cold hard cash in sleeper cabs, maybe. But even then dressed in something than would allow for the secretion of a money belt.
Ahem. Anyway. Back to the review. It hardly needs pointing out that Anna’s inability to cut Rose loose is her Achilles’ heel. Just as Hamlet’s procrastination is his. And here we segue from Greek to Shakespearean tragedy, though the touchstone, come the rushed and tonally discordant final act, is more Lear than Hamlet. But that, evidently, is how Lester wants to play it. And what has, for more than an hour of its 88 minute running time, been an entertainingly stupid if needlessly over-plotted slab of drive-in fodder, suddenly and obstreperously lurches off in pursuit of a poignant and emotionally shattering finale. That it doesn’t earn said denouement is like saying that ‘Smokey and the Bandit’, with five minutes of running time left, passionately and whole-heartedly decides it wants to be ‘Andrei Rublev’ then gets all upset that it’s not being hailed as an art-house classic.
*The film is so enamoured of this particular ditty that it basically stops, somewhere around the midway point, and becomes a de facto music video.