Turning 40 with the Help of THE ROCKFORD FILES

Turning 40 with the Help of THE ROCKFORD FILES


This
is Jim Rockford. At the tone, leave your name and message. I’ll get back to you
.

The
party plans had been elaborate: my wife had invited all of my friends,
including several from out of town who bought airplane tickets for the
occasion, to surprise me at a steakhouse in Chicago’s South Loop. The party was
to have an eighteenth-century “Clubb” theme, inspired by my love of James Boswell’s
Life of Johnson and his journals, and
by the elaborate dinners often enjoyed by Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin of
the Royal Navy, as depicted in Patrick O’Brian’s series of novels. There would
be costumes; there would be wigs; there would be speeches and heroic couplets
and all the prime steak and good Scotch we could swallow. But: two or three
days before I turned forty, I came down with a fever. The fever became severe
and the glands in my neck swelled to the size of golf balls. The doctors
concluded that I had a particularly virulent strain of strep throat, or maybe
it was mono. I could barely speak or swallow, and the pain in my neck,
shoulder, and especially my sinuses was excruciating: it felt as if a sadistic
clown were inflating a giant party balloon inside my skull. The party, which
was going to be a surprise party, was canceled, and Emily tearfully narrated
all the details of it to me so that I could imagine it, almost taste it. Then I
retreated upstairs to our bedroom, scarcely to emerge for the next two weeks, while
Emily played the unfamiliar roles of nurse and single mom, and my colleagues in
the English Department scrambled to cover my missed classes. The antibiotics
weren’t helping and neither were fistfuls of ibuprofen. I was too dazed to
read. I was forty years old. I had one comfort: my iPad, Netflix, and James
Garner in The Rockford Files.

Who
is Jim Rockford? The opening credits show him practicing his vocation as
private eye: tailing people, asking questions on the street, arguing with cops,
covering his face with an enormous bug-eyed pair of binoculars in one still.
But we also see him on dates, breaking into a grin as he gets a laugh out of the
woman he’s with. We see him in his trailer, cigarette on his lip, hanging up
the phone, pulling a jacket on, heading purposefully out the door. We see him
nonplussed in the frozen food aisle of a supermarket, recalling, at least for
me, Allen Ginsberg: “In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into
the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!” Ginsberg is talking
about Walt Whitman, but he could just as easily be talking about the six
seasons and 123 episodes of Rockford,
not to mention the eight TV movies released in the 1990s. I saw you, Jim Rockford, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among
the meats in the refrigerator

But Jim’s
loneliness is not as essential to his character as it is for other fictional
PIs, and this is affirmed most resonantly by the last images in the credits,
which show Jim fishing with his dad Rocky. Played by Noah Beery, Jr. during the
show’s regular run (another actor played him in the pilot), Rocky is the show’s
secret weapon, its emotional anchor, the tip of the iceberg of Rockford’s
bottomless likability. Jim has a dad, and they care for and squabble with and
go fishing with each other: that simple emotional fact roots Rockford’s heroics
in something more human than the chilly abstract chivalry of a Philip Marlowe.
It helps too that Rockford, though perennially unattached, doesn’t have a
misogynistic bone in his body: here is a man who genuinely loves and
appreciates women, whose body in no way shrinks or tightens in the presence of
the opposite sex, who has the enviable gift of becoming larger and more like
himself when he talks to a woman and makes her laugh. The Rockford Files was often a vehicle for an un-showy 70s
feminism, embodied most frequently in Gretchen Corbett’s Beth Davenport. Beth
is Rockford’s attorney and sometime love interest, whose mental toughness and
sharp comebacks to preening judges and leering small-town cops mark her as Jim’s
equal. Her sometimes brittle vulnerability makes her a good match for Rockford,
who is averse to physical violence and rarely resorts to carrying the small
revolver that he keeps tucked into a cookie jar in his kitchen.

There’s not much
else to Rockford’s back story: we know that he did time in prison for a robbery
that he didn’t commit, that he was pardoned for the crime but maintains a
network of contacts from those shady days that help and more often hinder him
in his work. Most memorably there’s Stuart Margolin’s Angel: squirmy, febrile,
cowardly, honest about nothing except his own brazen self-interest, the venal
Pancho to Rockford’s wearily forgiving Quixote. But Jim has a never-ending
series of friends from the old days always coming out of the woodwork to
provide plots and motivations deeper than the two hundred bucks a day (“plus
expenses”) that he routinely demands and very rarely receives from his clients.
More often than not, he gets emotionally invested in his cases, and he follows
them through to the end, invariably outwitting the bad guys without ever lining
his wallet in the process.

Jim’s capacity for
friendship is emblematic of the most enduring of the old pre-cable network
shows, before HBO turned scripted television dramas into serialized
nineteenth-century novels, fundamentally literary in their storytelling
resources and techniques. Don’t get me wrong, I like many of those shows: The Sopranos, Deadwood, and The Wire form for me, as for many
others, a profane trinity of high-quality storytelling, not least for their
remarkable feel for language. And no one will ever compare The Rockford Files to Shakespeare or Dickens, as routinely happens
with the three shows mentioned (though it’s worth noting that Sopranos creator David Chase cut his
teeth as a scriptwriter on Rockford).
But those shows’ unfolding intricacies of darkly thwarted patriarchies and institutions—the
moral bleakness, the frustration of aspirations that inevitably spirals into
gruesome violence—had little appeal for me during the sickness that knocked me
down on my birthday. I lay in bed and watched episode after episode, becoming
quietly addicted to the theme music (especially the bluesy harmonica bridge)
and the square aspect ratio that fits an iPad perfectly. The Rockford Files is ghostly and homeless on a modern widescreen
TV, with two black bars running down either side of it, as if parodying the
horizontal letterboxed bars signifying that one is worshipping at the shrine of
the dead god Cinema. That squareness extends to the show’s worldview: in spite
of its veneer of post-Watergate cynicism, in spite of Jim’s willingness to bend
and break the rules (most often by posing as some sort of businessman or
official, usually with the help of business cards that he cranks out using a
little printing press he keeps in the trunk of his iconic Pontiac Firebird), the
arc of The Rockford Files bends
always toward justice.

When I watch the
show, I am comfortably enclosed in a decade that eerily resembles ours, with
its breakdown in trust in public institutions, its vague guilty consciousness
of environmental degradation, its retreat from political life into narcissism and navel-gazing. That feeling
of regression is amplified by the show’s imagery, which recalls my 1970s
childhood: the hairstyles, the clothes, the fragments of outdated slang, the
gigantic boat-like cars that chase or are chased by Jim’s Firebird in seemingly
endless, frankly boring sequences that serve now as tours of a seemingly
pre-capitalist semi-urban landscape, devoid of product placement or corporate
brand-names, long shots of empty sun-flooded boulevards and parking lots
through which the essential dead desert of Los Angeles makes itself visible in
winks and flashes. The desert of the present: sweating into pillows, the day
and its business passing out of reach, my wife’s tightening face or my
three-year-old daughter’s voice from downstairs asking how much longer Daddy will
be sick. Steady on: here’s Jim tracking down missing girls, breaking a corrupt
ring of truckers and unraveling insurance scams, and tracking down more missing
girls, without ever losing his sense of humor. This isn’t the same as never
losing his cool, because Jim Rockford is not cool, even in sunglasses: he lives
in a trailer and drives a car the color of a polished turd and wears shapeless
sportcoats and lives on tacos with extra hot sauce. Jim is warm: the character
exudes compassion, cracks jokes at his own expense, bleeds when he gets
punched, and has a capacity for enjoying life on and off the case that is so infectious
that to me, ebbing on the bed, it felt like an almost adequate substitute for
life itself.

Nostalgia encased
me and buffered me from the ravages of my infection, and protected me for a
while from something even more irresistible: the reality of aging. I never
watched The Rockford Files when it
was originally on the air: my parents only let me and my sister watch a little
PBS, though when I was a little older I snuck episodes of Knight Rider and Airwolf and
the Tom Baker Doctor Who whenever I
could. I guess I’ve always been susceptible to stories of lone investigators
and solitary knights (though they rarely lack female company). There was an odd
purity to my nostalgia in watching the show, then, since nostalgia is always a
longing for something fundamentally imaginary. The show had formed no part of
my real experience. And yet lying there watching it through my haze of
antibiotics and prescription painkillers was
a real experience: there was a halo, a boundary, surrounding the washed-out
colors flickering across the screen, and I was all too conscious of what that
boundary was keeping out. In my vulnerable state I feared the future as I never
had before: it was not just my own aging that worried me, but what seemed to be
the rapid aging of the world: the ever-accelerating Rube Goldberg machine of
climate change was often on my mind, and in my fever dreams I could see the
desert of Jim Rockford’s Los Angeles growing and spreading and rippling outward
to cover the earth. To a hallucinatory synthesized bluesy beat, the gold
Firebird wove its way through the empty, sunbaked streets as if it were tracing
a mandala, past poker-faced houses and burnt umber hills, a vast landscape made
tiny and inconsequential. Then Jim’s face again, that grin. Action: a fist to
the jaw, a hail of harmless bullets. Another case closed. Another fit of banter
between Jim and his companions, his friends, of whom I was one.

 That’s what a certain kind of television can
do at its best: scripted series television, not reality shows or intricately
plotted season-long plots or funny cat videos on YouTube. The Rockford Files, Taxi, Barney Miller: the old shows
characterized by their smallness of scale, their putting plot in the service of
characters or a mood. These shows weren’t Seinfeld;
they weren’t “about nothing,” not exactly. They function, strangely, like
poetry. In its very inconsequence, its mere being, The Rockford Files makes nothing happen:

                                                            it
survives

In the valley of
its making where executives

Would never want to
tamper, flows on south

From ranches of isolation
and the busy griefs,

Raw towns that we
believe and die in; it survives,

A way of
happening, a mouth.

                                                (W.H.
Auden, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”)

It survives, a way
of happening, in the face of James Garner in the years 1974—1979, a man in
his forties rueful, grinning, scolding, surprised, sly, smiling. Perpetually
unattached to any woman, perpetually childless, yet saved always by his
relationships: with his father and with Beth and with Angel and with Sergeant
Dennis Becker, the irascible but upright policeman who is Jim’s only friend on
the force. Wise to the ways of the world, yet capable of being shocked: Jim’s
fundamental innocence (he is, remember, that rara avis, an innocent jailbird)
is the show’s hallmark: the hallmark of a decade whose pervasive cynicism is rendered
moot by the simple fact of its being encased impregnably in a past that looks
less fundamentally damaged, more reparable, and more fun than our present. The
Seventies has become a small town, populated by familiar faces, an object of
nostalgia, a homeland that never was. MeTV, indeed.

Yet Rockford’s unglamorous
Los Angeles is also a raw town, and in every episode he encounters the desolate
inhabitants of “ranches of isolation” with their “busy griefs.” There’s real
darkness on the edges of some of the early episodes. Season One’s “Slight of
Hand” presents us with a tale of Jim’s disappeared girlfriend, who vanishes
from his car after a trip up the coast with the woman’s daughter, who
hauntingly murmurs the phrase, “Mommy didn’t come home with us last night.” Jim
solves the case but it leaves him bruised, bitter, and as close to noir as The Rockford Files ever comes. In Season
Three’s “The Family Hour,” Jim and Rocky get mixed up with a twelve-year-old
girl who has seemingly been abandoned by her father, played by the ubiquitous
Burt Young (the sweaty cuckolded husband in Chinatown;
the sweaty brother-in-law of the title character in the Rocky movies, the sweaty trucker Pig Pen in Convoy, etc., etc.). In a wrenching confrontation late in the
episode, Young’s desperate father challenges a drug-dealing federal agent to
kill both him and his daughter, who’s standing right there. The bad guy
flinches and the day is saved, but the raw anguish on the father’s face stayed
with me long after the smirky or sentimental freeze-frame that ends every
episode and which, by freezing on a single image, usually of Jim’s grin, separates
this universe from the universe of future episodes.

These fragments of
real terror, real feeling, are hermetically sealed off from each other, and so
we are shielded from the full impact of the sunlit noir that may be the
decade’s most enduring contribution to pop culture. The Conversation, Night Moves, The Long Goodbye, The Parallax View,
Chinatown
: the great neo-noirs of the Seventies always end in the
corruption, if not the outright destruction, of the hero, whose personal code
proves to be no match for the systemic pervasiveness of the evil that he
confronts. Jim is saved in part by not having a code: only warm responsiveness,
and wisecracks, and a network of relationships that never really let him down:
even Angel is reliable in his venal unreliability. But what really preserves
him is the show’s illusory continuity, fundamental to the form of episodic television.
There are recurring characters and very occasional references to past events,
but it’s as if the show and its characters were created anew each time the
credits roll. That’s the nature of nostalgia: we never play, we re-play. And
I’ve seen enough episodes of The Rockford
Files
to feel like each new one I see is something I’ve seen before. The
déjà vu is built in.

I got over my
infection and got over turning forty, but I never did get over Jim Rockford.
He’s still out there, somehow, waiting for the call of imaginary friendship.
When you’re finished watching you may feel the chill of the twenty-first
century, of real relationships rendered somehow intangible by social media or
distraction or sheer carelessness. You might remember the news, or Mad Men, or the weirdness of the
weather, and be impelled back toward—or father away—from what we’ve agreed to
call reality. But if you’re like me you’ll also remember friendship: how
fragile it is, how necessary. Nostalgia can be self-indulgent and escapist, yes.
It’s also a form of friendship with the self. So the next time you’re feeling
low, defenses down, the world too much with you, spend an hour with Jim
Rockford. You’ll be glad you did.

Joshua Corey has two books forthcoming in 2014: Beautiful Soul, a novel (Spuyten Duyvil); and The
Barons and Other Poems (Omnidawn Publishing). Author of the poetry
collections
Severance Songs (Tupelo Press, 2011), Fourier Series
(Spineless Books, 2005), and Selah (Barrow Street Press, 2003). With
G.C. Waldrep he edited
The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern
Pastoral (Ahsahta Press, 2012). He is Co-Director of Lake Forest College
Press / &NOW Books and lives in Evanston, Illinois. He tweets
here and blogs here.

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Comments

Tamara

I love this. I’ve been watching The Rockford Files lately on Netflix to escape the bizarre world we live in. Nostalgia seems absolutely necessary these days.

Bob Davis

I always watched the Rockford Files and am loving watching it again on Netflix! I’ll be sad when they’re over. I look forward to hopefully seeing the made for tv movies from the 1990’s.

demophilus

A lovely paean to a beloved cultural touchstone, Joshua. Kudos and thanks.

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