[EDITOR’S NOTE: Contributor Robert Nishimura’s video series Three Reasons continues with James William Guercio’s Electra Glide In Blue. He feels this cult film is a perfect candidate for restoration and release on the Criterion label.]
Cult films have always remained one of the more enigmatic areas in Cinema Studies. There doesn’t seem to be a distinct aesthetic that all cult films follow. Films that have been deemed cult-worthy come from any genre, country or time period. They are not limited to the independent or the underground, either. More often than not, cult films come from Hollywood’s fly-by-night flops that end up in the bargain bin only to be fished out by eager or unsuspecting viewers. Since most cult films evade any common elements, any critical investigation on the subject quickly falls apart. The only definitive thread in this phenomenon is the fanatical devotion of its audience. Like any cult, the uncompromising worship among their marginal fan bases are what set these films apart from the rest.
Cult Cinema Studies really began with the advent of home-viewing technologies. Danny Peary’s landmark book, Cult Movies (1981), was the first to make that classification, collecting all the obscure films and the extreme effects they have on their audiences. For the first time, fans could cull their resources to satiate their limitless appetites for that obscure film of their desire. Tape trading, bootlegging, midnight screenings and fan conventions became an immediate subculture that progressed so quickly that we have already reached the point where you would be hard-pressed to find someone who WASN’T a cultist in some regard. Social media sites and apps seem to be tailor-made for the cultist, allowing instant access and confirmation. Thirty years later the inmates are already running the asylum.
The most important component that entices the cult film fan is the film’s relative obscurity – the exclusivity that comes from finding a rare cinematic gem, being a part of the privileged few who know about it, obsess over it, and quote from it incessantly. Prime examples for cultist celebration are films that had a limited run or never saw a proper release. Usually this was due to poor initial reviews or controversy involving the production or subject matter. The most popular examples of the cult film are those which, by mainstream standards, are “bad” movies. The argument that “it’s so bad, it’s good” is one that allows fans to have an ironic distance from the films, and is the major pitfall in the cultist ethos. The pinnacle of this would be the riffing maestros who ran Mystery Science Theatre 3000, their constant comedic commentary even overshadowing a few “good” movies. Another unfortunate aspect of the cult film is that once a film is given that status, it rarely, if at all, is allowed to transcend that distinction. The kitsch label is impossible to shake.
Such is the case with James William Guercio and his sole directorial effort, Electra Glide in Blue. Loathed and lambasted by critics upon its release, it came and went with nary a second thought until the cultists got their hands on it. It was too easily regarded as a Republican response to Easy Rider, which is probably why it was labeled “fascist” by critics and the hippie movement of which the film takes aim. But Electra Glide in Blue offers much more in its politics, style and genre than any film to emerge from the ‘70s counterculture. Easy Rider, in addition to kick-starting the New Hollywood movement, was the touchstone of a generation. It has become the quintessential document of the ‘60s counterculture movement, the transformation of the American Dream and the rise and fall of the hippie movement. Electra Glide in Blue offers much of the same thing, only from the pig’s point of view. That is not to say it justifies the actions of the conservative right; it is a condemnation of both sides, and its moral ambiguity would mark the beginning of a new era in film history. If Easy Rider should be the film that encapsulates the decade of the ‘60s, Electra Glide in Blue deserves that distinction for the decade that followed.
Robert Blake gives an amazingly humane performance as John Wintergreen, an Arizona motorcycle cop whose moral code is so steadfast that it stands in opposition to both the left and the right. Wintergreen ritualizes his preparation for work, donning his uniform, determined to uphold the letter of the law in the protection of the innocent. Wintergreen only wants to get away from “the white elephant” they make him ride and become a detective, where he would be paid to think and not merely pass out speeding tickets. When he stumbles upon an apparent suicide in this sleepy little town, only Wintergreen can recognize it as a homicide, and is finally given an opportunity to show his skills as a detective. Under the inept tutelage of a senior detective, Wintergreen quickly realizes that corruption and ignorance is beset on both sides of the law. The opposing forces of the right and left leave Wintergreen little space to stand his own ground as a humanist.
At the time of its release, the knee jerk reaction by critics to classify the film as fascist was to be expected. The Vietnam War was still raging, the counterculture movement stood in such a stark contrast to the conservative right that there was no room for a neutral middle ground – certainly not from a motorcycle cop. Everyone in the film except Wintergreen is a caricature, from the long-haired pig-farming hippies to the racist, fascist rednecks who torment them. Both sides are ludicrous representations, but each are guilty of have the same narrow viewpoint. Electra Glide in Blue doesn’t take sides; it only portrays the shortcomings of a two-sided argument. Never more applicable than today, a humanist without affiliation will only be drowned out by the clash of the right and left, Democrats and Republicans, Pepsi and Coke. The cultist phenomenon mirrors this same ambiguity in regard to viewer ownership and appreciation. The cultist can position films by Jean-Luc Godard and sexploitationist Doris Wishman on the same pedestal. The political message of each film(maker) is irrelevant to the cultist, only it’s entertainment value.
Just as its politics were easily misconstrued, Electra Glide in Blue takes on various styles which makes it difficult to define. Rarely do we find a more confident directorial debut that runs the gamut from experimentalism to classic traditionalism. James William Guercio began his career as the producer of The Chicago Transit Authority (better known as just Chicago), and his roots in music production shine through. The film has elements of a concert film and frequent moments of musical montage. On the surface it seems like a typical murder mystery, but as in its Easy Rider counterpart, the plot has little consequence on how the story unfolds. Guercio was set to make a modern western parable and hired veteran cinematographer Conrad L. Hall, who had just won the Oscar for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Setting the film in Arizona’s Monument Valley, Guercio allows Wintergreen (and the viewer) to soak up the landscape. At several points in the film, usually at Wintergreen’s introspective moments, Hall’s beautiful cinematography lingers on the surroundings, evoking the same spirit of John Ford’s western classics. Similarly, Guercio’s Wintergreen acts as the lone lawman, supervising the desolate expanse of lawlessness. By the end of the film, Guercio accentuates this theme by having what may be one of the longest single-take tracking shots in film history. The long and winding road on which Wintergreen has served and protected will be his final resting place. For those who have already seen Electra Glide in Blue, it’s easy to see why it has been given the cult film seal of approval. The cultist can recognize the value in this rarely seen film. But the cult film usually stands outside the canon of widely accepted films. On the surface, the film could be associated with the countless exploitation flicks that flooded the market after the Easy Rider/Biker Film craze had its heyday. Or it could be Robert Blake’s current infamy that keeps the film within the cultist realm. Electra Glide in Blue isn’t a lost or forgotten film, it’s just been unjustly ignored as socially relevant. We have already reached the point where all information is readily available. Cultural memes and viral videos are continually introduced at a breakneck speed, so the very idea of cult status has become redundant and irrelevant. Forgotten films are no longer inaccessible for those outside the cult. All things are available for public evaluation, and Electra Glide in Blue deserves to be reevaluated by mainstream audiences. It is a film ahead of its time, in form, politics and it’s compassion for humankind.
Robert Nishimura is a Japan-based filmmaker, artist, and freelance designer. His designs can be found at Primolandia Productions. His non-commercial video work is at For Criterion Consideration. You can follow him on Twitter here. To watch other videos in his “Three Reasons” series, click here.