Reflections on Max Wright’s Passing

Here’s a fact: Max Wright hated being alive.

Can I say that with confidence? Yes. Do it mean it unilaterally? No; of course I don’t. But at some point, early in the production of ALF, he stopped enjoying what he did for a living. He had a few roles after the show, but nothing major. He stopped doing interviews. He stopped acting in general. He retreated from public life, living most of his final years alone, behind a door that rarely opened. He stopped talking to his friends and family.

I shouldn’t have the right to say “he stopped talking to his friends and family” and mean it, and yet, I do. For the past few years, people claiming to know him, to miss him, to want messages passed on to him, seeking assurance that he was still alive and hadn’t died in his apartment without anyone knowing, reached out to me. I won’t provide any names — or their relationships to him, which would just as easily give them away — but please take a moment to consider something with me:

Max Wright was so difficult to get a hold of, so impossible to reach even by those who loved and cared about him personally, for decades, that these people reached out to me for help.

Me.

The asshole who chronicled the worst experiences of Max Wright’s life and made a crack joke every few sentences. I refuse to believe any of them reached out to me because they expected I knew him. I do believe they reached out to me because they’d tried everything else and were desperate.

Here’s another fact: I never met the guy. I never spoke with him, or corresponded with him in any way. Now I never will. He passed away last week. Whenever his old friends and estranged family members wrote to me, I replied politely. I let them know that I meant no offense by my jokes, and that I wished them luck in finding him.

I’d be surprised if any of them did manage to get in touch. He made a conscious effort to be left alone. In 2015 the National Enquirer located and tried to speak with him. He refused to open the door and provided only a two-word quote: “Please leave.”

If he knew it was the National Enquirer, I have to say I can’t blame him. They were the ones in 2001 who ran the photos of Max Wright at a gay hobo crack orgy.

Here’s a fact: The words hobo, crack, and orgy are funny.

Here’s another fact: On April 18, someone (anonymous aside from the letter J.) left a comment on this blog saying, “Max Wright’s crack addiction is not funny,” and J. is right.

Addiction isn’t funny. I grew up with an alcoholic father who was distant, abusive, and cruel. The fact that I struggle with mental health issues is unlikely to be his fault. The fact that I feel guilty about them and have had so much trouble addressing them in healthy ways is almost certainly his fault.

In terms of drug addiction, I’ve seen it ruin — and sometimes take — the lives of many people I cared about. Classmates. Friends. Colleagues. My brother.

Joking about a topic or enjoying jokes about a topic doesn’t necessarily mean you find that topic funny. You find the joke funny. Perhaps it’s well told. Perhaps it’s just shocking. Perhaps it’s sarcastic or knowingly inaccurate.

I’ve laughed at jokes about many terrible topics. It’s one way of coping with them. With processing them. Depending on the context, people getting shot, robbed, stabbed, falling off of buildings, and getting eaten by monsters have all made me chuckle.

Because they’re jokes. And laughing at one doesn’t imply in any way that you’d find the same thing happening in real life funny at all.

If you were to ask me how many times I’ve laughed at addiction — real, actual addiction, in the real world — I could answer with an honest zero.

Or can I? Because I’ve laughed at Max Wright.

Here’s a fact: Max Wright had crack-fueled gay sex with homeless people, on video.

Here’s a related fact: True or not, that always felt so far detached from reality that humor was the only way I could even vaguely understand it.

I didn’t know the guy. I didn’t watch his life fall apart. I wasn’t there with his wife, fretting through the night that he wasn’t coming home. I wasn’t one of his kids coping with the rumors. I wasn’t a friend trying to hold him together, encouraging him to get help, praying that he would be okay.

For them, it wasn’t detached from reality. They understood it in ways that humor would never have possibly entered into.

For me, Max Wright was the stupid dad from ALF.

The stupid dad from ALF smoked crack and gathered homeless people for orgies.

I’m not going to say there’s something wrong with you if you don’t find that inherently absurd. But I will say that that’s the only way it ever registered to me.

Me. A nobody on the internet, who liked to say bad words about a puppet show he used to love.

Here’s another fact: I was always worried that Max Wright would die while I was writing my ALF reviews, and I wouldn’t be able to make jokes about him anymore.

Because when someone dies, things get more real.

He’s not the stupid dad from ALF. He’s an old man who died without anyone who wanted to help being able to reach him. It’s too late now. He’s dead. It’s too late, whatever you wanted to do. It’s too late for everything now. His life is over.

Here’s a fact: Max Wright has never read my reviews. I know some of ALF‘s writers have. I know Anne Schedeen at least knows about it, because a few months ago she started following me on Facebook. (Here’s a fact: My heart flutters just thinking about that.) I have been given reason to believe two other people associated with the show have read it.

But Max Wright never read my reviews, and he never will. He had no interest in speaking about ALF. He had very little interest in speaking about it even when he was on the show, with the most significant interview I ever found taking place over the course of a few minutes during a smoke break.

He hated the show. He never made any secret of that, and we don’t need interviews to come to that conclusion. Whether he was beating the shit out of the ALF puppet in front of guest star Dean Cameron or getting in his car the moment his final scene for “Consider Me Gone” ended, without even saying goodbye or sticking around for any necessary reshoots, it was obvious.

Max Wright hated his job.

After the National Enquirer story broke, he hated his life.

After dealing with the fallout, he hated that his friends and family were reaching out to him, and he stopped letting them do that. Max Wright hated the world enough that he did exactly what I do and what you do when we hate something: He took active steps to stay away from it whenever possible.

Here’s a fact I don’t think I ever mentioned in my reviews. I meant to mention it in my farewell post, but I didn’t. If you ever wondered why that post is so short, that’s why. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Because of this related fact: It still really fucking hurts.

Years ago, I entered into a relationship that turned toxic quickly. I expected it could get better if I worked hard at it, so I did. It never got better. I felt trapped and inadequate. I tried everything. As hard as I worked at keeping it together, she worked at tearing me down.

Thanks to my upbringing, I didn’t know what love was supposed to feel like. Also, I was fully prepared to accept any shortcomings as my own. Things were my fault. Why wouldn’t they be? They always had been in the past.

She bled me dry, emotionally and financially. She spent my money quickly and eagerly enough that — deliberately or not — I wasn’t able to get away. Genuinely. I had nowhere I could go. I could move out, but I’d have nowhere to stay. Now I know I had many friends who would have taken me in, but then, at the time, in the situation, I could not see that. In fact, the one friend I would have turned to is the one she singled out, telling me that she’d spoken to that friend, and that that friend was appalled with me and didn’t want to hear from me.

I believed her. Why wouldn’t I? I was a terrible person who deserved to be treated like that and shut off from contact with my friends.

She never spoke to that friend. At all. It wasn’t an exaggeration, it wasn’t misleading, and it wasn’t a misinterpretation. It was a complete and total lie. She made it up so that I would feel trapped. So that I would have nowhere to go. And it worked.

At one point, finally, I left. I’d love to say I was strong enough to do so in that moment, and maybe I was, but I felt like I was at my weakest. I had nothing to my name. I found a cheap room to rent with someone who was — thankfully — a sweet and understanding human being who became a dear friend and helped me get back on my feet.

But I’m jumping ahead there. I was alone in a room on an air mattress. I had nothing. I had no money. Every single day I thought about suicide, not because I was in despair, but because…well, why not? What was I hanging around for, exactly? Why was this life, this particular life, worth living?

I needed a distraction, and, historically, I had always found that distraction in writing. But writing about anything that had happened to me — or that I was going through — did not seem appealing. I didn’t want to relive any of it. Shit, I still don’t, and it’s hard enough just glossing over it here.

But I needed to write. I knew that. That was my therapy.

And I decided to write about ALF. I could take out my frustrations. I could focus on something thoroughly worthless. I could act like an idiot and tell stupid jokes and give myself a god-damned reason to get the fuck out of bed.

I’d forgotten that the mom on ALF was named Kate. That was my ex’s name.

If I’d remembered that, I wouldn’t have committed to reviewing ALF. Kate was not a name I wanted to hear. In fact, those first few episodes were rough going for me.

But the Kate on ALF was…great, actually. She was funny. She was by leaps and bounds the best actor. She was the most stable and reliable character in the entire thing. I quickly came to dissociate the name from what I had learned it meant.

The writing helped me. The readers and their laughter helped me. And Kate — this Kate — helped me, because she took the most traumatic experience of my life and let me see that it was over, and I could find new things and make new associations now.

Here’s a fact: I was having fun. I was doing something I enjoyed. If you read my reviews now and hear misery and disdain and agony, it’s an act. It’s a lie. I loved every fucking minute of it. Of watching the show, of writing about the show, of reading your comments.

It was everything I needed to get back on my feet again. To be myself again. To learn that I had value.

I’ve laughed at toxic relationships and jokes about them. By no means do I find toxic relationships funny. I can sure as hell promise you that. But by taking my real-life sadness and anger and frustration and playing it up for the purposes of reviewing one of the worst sitcoms in American history, I was able to cope with it. I faced it through humor. Instead of being overcome by my emotions, I chose to wear them like a costume, and I did a little dance, and I made people laugh, and then when I was done, I was able to take that costume off.

Forever.

There’s an entire story you were never told.

Here’s a fact: Max Wright gave me the most enjoyment on the show, by far.

He wasn’t the best actor and he didn’t get the best lines, but watching him was fascinating. He almost never seemed to try, but he did the bare minimum. He hated his job, but he showed up every day. He hated the show, but he never quit. He sped away from the set the moment he had nothing left to shoot in the final episode, but he showed up for work that day and did his damned job.

That’s admirable, in its own way, and also so interesting. Watching Max Wright in the show, it’s less like somebody is playing Willie and more like a ghost is loosely inhabiting him. In the strictest, most technical sense of the word, he’s acting. But mainly he’s just a presence, moving his lips and his body without having any particular interest in anything that’s happening around him.

It’s bizarre. There were times I genuinely couldn’t understand what he was saying. I still don’t know if he referred to a woman named Julie or a man named Patchouli. He called himself “Wooly Tanner” in one scene and it wasn’t reshot. It’s just part of the show. Max Wright half-assing his way through the least ambitious sci-fi comedy in history is part of what gives it its charm.

He wasn’t happy. Neither was I. But ALF gave us both a reason to get out of bed.

Here’s a fact: When the Max Wright crack hobo scandal broke, none of his previous colleagues or costars came out in support of the guy.

Nobody, at any point, said, “I know Max and that’s not Max.” Nobody said, “This is a lie made up to sell magazines.” Nobody said, “The photos may look like him, but that’s not him.”

Max Wright was tried in the court of public opinion, and nobody took his side.

But his wife stayed with him.

He had several other drug-related scandals that decade, and she stayed with him.

Here’s a fact: I’ve always wondered why.

Well, okay…it was love. The last thing I want to do to this poor dead guy is introduce the idea that his wife couldn’t have possibly loved him.

But I wondered what those conversations must have been like.

Relationships end over lies. Over infidelity. Over destructive behavior. And that’s okay. Those are understandable stopping points.

What did he have to say to her to keep their marriage together after videotaped evidence of his hobo crack orgies surfaced? What did she say to him? What kind of balance could they have possibly achieved?

We’ll never know. She died two years ago. And now he is dead, too.

By 2015, they were no longer together. They stayed married until her death, but they didn’t live together. He was alone. I don’t know if she was.

And I still wonder what those conversations must have been like. To not get divorced, but also not be together. To not split up over the scandal, but also to never see each other. To stay in each other’s lives, but to live completely separate lives in two different places.

Here’s a fact: For whatever reason, I believe she loved him. I believe she thought he could change, or get the help he needed. Maybe she was right. Maybe she was delusional. But he was the one seeking (very dangerous) sexual action on the side. And she stayed with him.

After she died, he went to Germany.

Here’s a fact: Max Wright had a happy ending.

ALF remains popular in Germany, but he still didn’t want to talk about the show. In fact, he refused to even speak of it to his new German boyfriend.

For the final few years of his life, he was in a committed relationship with a German man. Photos exist. They look happy. You can find them, if you want to. They aren’t as easy to find as the National Enquirer photos of a disheveled old man taking out his trash, but they’re out there.

And that’s a part of his life — the final part of his life — that the English-language reports omit. They’re happy to remember him as a has-been. A washed-up actor with a legacy of scandals. The stupid dad from ALF.

The German stories are where you’ll learn of his relationship. Of the positivity he found very late in his life. Of the happiness he wanted and never had before.

I don’t know what he felt or didn’t feel for his wife, but I do think it says something that she stayed married to him until the day she died, and he entered into a relationship with a man as soon as she was gone. She waited for something that never came. He left for something else the moment he could.

But he found it.

According to reports, Max Wright died in the same little apartment he’d occupied alone for so many years, out of the public eye. But I don’t know if that’s true. The details seem to all be traced back to a single TMZ story, which Max Wright’s son is said to have corroborated. TMZ is hardly a reliable primary source, and I have no clue what his son did or didn’t actually say to them.

He could have died in Germany, for all I know. He could have died happy, somewhere far from his own past, somewhere nobody he used to know would be able to find or reach him. I wouldn’t put it past TMZ to make something up, and they don’t seem to have picked up on the news of his German exploits at all. Maybe they just assumed he died in the last place they saw him.

Because that’s the lens through which they viewed him. Max Wright didn’t exist until he had a camera on him, be it ALF‘s, the orgy guy’s, or the National Enquirer‘s. We see him from a distance, welcome or not. We draw our conclusions. We move along to the next thing. We’ll come back if anything else embarrassing happens to the guy, because that fits our idea of who he is, was, and must be.

They weren’t there for the conversations with his wife. They weren’t there for the talks with his kids. They didn’t experience the desperation of his friends and family who tried to reach him and tried to help.

His isn’t a redemption story. He’s the stupid dad from ALF. We know how that one is supposed to end. It’s a joke, so it ends with a punchline.

I’ve done my part cementing Max Wright as a washed-up nobody, best known for smoking crack in his underpants in an abandoned warehouse. I did it with this blog, these reviews, right here, with all of you.

So here’s the fact I’ll leave you with: He found love with a man who cared about him. That’s evidence that his failures weren’t all he was. That’s not all he had. That’s not where he ended up.

There’s an entire story we were never told.

Probably because we wouldn’t have listened.

Rest in peace, Max.

New video, new show, new house

I announced it on the Facebook page — be sure to follow that if you don’t already for quick updates that don’t warrant a full post — but I wanted to wait until I had something specific to show you before I announced it here:

I have officially joined the Triple Jump team as a writer. You can watch the first video I’ve scripted — posted this very day — here:

So, a few notes on this. Firstly, Every X Ranked Worst to Best is a brand-new show on the channel, and so far I’m the only one writing for it! That doesn’t mean it’s my show in any way — in fact, please allow me to make clear that it is not — but it does mean I get to help it find a voice and an audience, which is immensely flattering to me.

Secondly, you may have come across Ben and Peter at either WhatCulture or Vidiots before. Triple Jump is their personal venture, and I certainly encourage everyone to like and subscribe to their channel. They don’t just make some of the funniest video-game stuff on the internet, but they’re great people as well, and by doing something as simple as subscribing you’re helping them do what they love. (And, y’know, helping me as well.)

If you don’t know Ben and Peter, I’d strongly encourage you to watch their Worst Games Ever series, which has followed them between channels. It’s fantastic.

Also, if you subscribe, you’ll get to watch a bunch of stuff I’m writing, which is evidence that I really am writing, guys!

Yes, I know it’s been quiet here, but I do have a lot of things in the works. One of which is TripleJump, which is a lot of very fun work that I already enjoy immensely, so please do support it by subscribing. Another of which is another draft of The Book I Can’t Quite Talk About Yet, incorporating a third round of very helpful feedback. It’s coming together great, I’m happy with it, and at some point I hope to talk about it before I die.

And the other big thing I’ve been doing is…buying a home. This is a huge thing for me, especially as it was made very clear to me that if I chose writing as a career path I was basically signing up to be a hobo.

Instead, well…I’ve done alright for myself, but I’ve also spent my entire adult life renting. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there are certain things I’ve always wanted with a place of my own that I couldn’t easily (or perhaps even wisely) have in a rental, such as a library area, or a freestanding arcade cabinet. Now I get to actually create the home I’ve always wanted, and that feels really great.

So stay tuned. More is coming. Much more is coming. And I appreciate your patience as so much comes together. It takes a while sometimes to get where you’re going, but as long as you’re moving, I think you’re doing okay.

Small Particles

O my countrymen!–be nice;–be cautious of your language;–and never, O! never let it be forgotten upon what small particles your eloquence and your fame depend.

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

Before we begin, this is your fair warning that this post contains plot spoilers for Far Cry: New Dawn. I can’t quite decide if I’d call them minor spoilers, so if you plan on playing it and believe any story-related spoilers would interfere with your enjoyment, bail now.

Okay.

I finished Far Cry: New Dawn recently, and I enjoyed it very much. It retained just about all of the best things about Far Cry 5 and cut huge amounts of fat. The result is a tight, focused experience that allows for plenty of freedom but also never loses sight of itself for the sake of providing more content.

I wasn’t quite sure going in whether or not I would encounter a sincere ethical dilemma at any point in the story. I hoped I would — as those are almost always my favorite parts of apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic games — but I was also fully aware that Far Cry, as a series, is about moment-to-moment action and bombastic thrill.

I did finally get my ethical dilemma toward the end of the game. It was a good one, but it was complicated in a way I didn’t expect and which I still don’t know how to process.

If you regret ignoring my first spoiler warning, consider this to be your last one.

In Far Cry: New Dawn, you play as a different character from the one you played in Far Cry 5, but it’s a direct sequel — set around 20 years later — and you encounter a few of the same characters, including that game’s central villain, Joseph Seed.

In Far Cry 5, Eden’s Gate — his doomsday cult in rural Montana — is a genuinely dangerous force that commits atrocities against the residents of Hope County, which Joseph and his followers have seized.

Throughout the game you liberate the county inch by inch as you fight your way toward Joseph. When you finally do confront him, the distant explosion of a nuclear bomb vindicates his prophecy — though certainly not his methods. Doomsday was coming, and now it’s here.

In Far Cry 5, Joseph is very clearly a villain. You can argue that he’s charismatic. You can, ultimately, argue that he’s correct. But as a human being, the most slack you could possibly cut him is a willingness to believe that he’s a slave to severe mental illness.

He is not sympathetic, and any sympathy you could possibly feel for him is stripped away every time you see his followers gassing innocents, peeling their skin off, or executing them on the roadside.

That’s okay. There’s enough going on that Joseph Seed doesn’t seem one-dimensional, even if the game doesn’t complicate his role as villain.

In Far Cry: New Dawn, the game complicates his role as villain.

Here, the villain title — within both the game and its marketing materials — is usurped by Mickey and Lou, the twin leaders of a massive group of raiders called The Highwaymen.

Being as Joseph survived the events of Far Cry 5, the twins taking over as villains suggested two possibilities to me. Either Joseph is now reformed, or the twins are so terrible, his behavior seems tame in comparison.

Both of these things are true.

While Joseph and his followers behaved horrendously and absolutely did need to be stopped — in the face of a looming apocalypse or not — they operated by a kind of logic. Cruel, reprehensible logic, but as you take down his three “Heralds” who each control their regions, their individual motives and methods are clear. There is a kind of law — a clear system of transgressions and punishments — at work. The whip comes down for reasons you were explicitly told the whip would come down.

The twins, in sharp contrast, are wildcards. They behave every bit as terribly as Joseph and Eden’s Gate did, but they do so for the hell of it. There’s a bit of loose logic behind their actions (so loose it would only muddy the discussion to get into it here), but they are ultimately creatures of selfish impulse.

Talk back to them and they might smack you. Or kill you. Or kill your friend. Or kidnap your family. Or burn your settlement to the ground. They’re capricious. They’re unpredictable. And so while someone could — in theory at least — carve out a life for themselves within the strict and unforgiving doctrine of Eden’s Gate, nobody, at any point, could possibly be safe from the twins, because there are no rules. There is no system by which one can avoid punishment. When The Highwaymen drive by, you can do nothing other than hope that they keep driving.

So, yes, the twins are worse on a day-to-day basis than Joseph was.

And Joseph has also reformed.

He is no longer violent. He has abdicated his seat at the head of Eden’s Gate, and lives a life of simple, isolated humility. (Well…comparative humility.) The settlement he founded is the most successful one in post-blast Hope County. It’s self-sustaining, quiet, and peaceful. His followers have traded guns and fatigues for bows and cloaks. Unlike the Eden’s Gate of the previous game, which worked to actively conquer the land, the group now coexists with it. It lives in easy harmony with nature, far from the gunfire and explosions and chaos that dominate the map.

Before I even encountered Joseph in New Dawn, the game did a great job of making me consider my feelings toward him.

For starters, I had information my character didn’t. I saw Joseph in Far Cry 5, and I saw the atrocities committed in his name. My character in New Dawn, however, did not. My character sees the fruits of Joseph’s labor and not the blood with which they were fertilized. Enough people in Hope County survived the apocalypse that word of Joseph’s unforgivable ways still floats around, but damned if my character can see any evidence of them. In fact, at one point we turn to Eden’s Gate for help and…we get it. At great cost to their community, they help us defend ours against those who seek to harm us. Because I’ve seen both sides of that coin now, my feelings are complicated.

And so I eventually face the dilemma I should have expected.

I won’t get into the complete events of Far Cry: New Dawn because I don’t want to spoil things unnecessarily, but it’s enough to say that things don’t go so well. (It’s the post-apocalypse, for crying out loud.)

Joseph, alone in a remote cabin, frets for his soul. As certain of himself as he was in the previous game, he’s uncertain now. He isn’t sure he was ever a prophet. His faith in God doesn’t seem to waver, but his faith in himself sure as hell does. Almost two decades of reflection have him questioning whether the ends justified his means.

Far Cry: New Dawn expects us to have experience of Far Cry 5. Our character does not, and this contrite, damaged, tormented Joseph is all they know. But we know more.

So when we are given the prompt to kill Joseph, we recognize it as a bookend to the prompt that opened Far Cry 5 telling us to arrest him.

We didn’t actually have to arrest him. We had a choice. We could silently refuse. And we have that same choice now.

Do we kill Joseph?

What a great ethical question. Has he atoned for his crimes? He certainly seems sincere. Moreso than he’s ever seemed. He’s lost everything and asks for nothing. Could that be enough? Can we (and should we) leave an old man alone in the wilderness? Or should we remember that he was once a young man who did terrible things? Technically the same man and yet…they genuinely could not be more different now.

Isn’t capital punishment intended to remove from society someone who poses a significant threat to others? If Joseph no longer poses that threat, is it right to punish him that way? Perhaps his crimes should not go unpunished, but what about all the good he’s done in the past 20-ish years? He founded the only successful settlement, and he founded it on peace. Does that count for enough on the karmic scorecard?

All of this and more went through my mind when I realized I had the choice to kill him or to let him live.

But then it was complicated. And it was complicated by one word.

Here’s what the game’s subtitles told me he said:

My soul has become a cancer. I am a monster. And I only spread suffering and death in the name of God.

Here’s what actually came out of his mouth:

My soul has become a cancer. I am a monster. And I have only spread suffering and death in the name of God.

Note the word “have.”

I’ve seen plenty of discrepancies between what a voice actor says and what a subtitle tells me they are saying. It happens. Sometimes they skip a word without realizing it. Sometimes they smooth a sentence out because what looks fine in print doesn’t always sound right when spoken aloud. Sometimes they find a certain quirk or vocal tic in the character that affects how they say things in a way that isn’t actually reflected in the script.

And all of that is fine. Actors across all media — and even singers with their own songs — change the words a bit, deliberately or not, when it comes time to perform.

But that one word — Tristram Shandy’s small particle — completely changes the meaning of Joseph’s confession.

If I were only reading the subtitles, I’d conclude that Joseph is upset because he continues to be a rolling source of disaster. If I were only listening to his voice, I’d conclude that he’s upset because he has caused so much disaster in the past.

One of those things might deserve mercy. One of those things might not. One of those things abandons responsibility to a cosmic absolute. One of those things accepts responsibility.

And, in a case like this, I’m still not sure — several days after I made my decision — quite how to handle that self-negating information.

Was the subtitle an error in transcription? Was the voice actor wrong and nobody caught it? We could, in theory, turn to the original script to find out, but does it even matter what’s in the script if it doesn’t reflect what the character actually said?

We’ve all misspoken, and while our intentions undoubtedly matter, are we not still responsible for the things that actually come out of our mouths? Don’t our actual words — whatever we meant to have said — shape the way others see us and respond to us? And…shouldn’t they?

There’s no chance Far Cry: New Dawn did this deliberately (if this were Nier: Automata, for instance, I wouldn’t be so sure), but in this moment, we get both versions of Joseph Seed, coexisting.

In one voice, it’s the old Joseph, the fount of continuous destruction. In another voice, at the exact same time, it’s the new Joseph, distanced from who he used to be.

I have very different feelings for each of these Josephs. I imagine I can’t be alone in that. And what was either a four-character omission by someone at a keyboard or an actor’s slip of the tongue that went unnoticed holds a character’s life — and his future, and the future of Hope County — in the balance.

The reason I love ethical quandaries in games is that they force me to think about them, to process them, to react to them, to learn more about who I am based on how I respond to unclear moralities. They make me more aware of what I think.

This one I ended up loving because it reminded me, unintentionally, to be more aware of what I say.

Rule of Three: Purple People Eater (1988)

Though my Rule of Three theme this year has been films based on novelty songs, I haven’t actually talked about how these films use their own source material.

I don’t mean that I haven’t talked about how they adapted their source material — I won’t fuckin’ shut up about that — but rather how these films use the actual songs upon which they were based.

In Harper Valley PTA, for instance, the Jeannie C. Riley version of the song plays in its entirety during both the opening and closing credits, bookending the movie…which itself contains scenes and characters so true to the song that lyrics are lifted entirely.

It’s the “tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em; then tell ’em; then tell ’em what you told ’em” approach, and I actually kind of like it. The original song brings us into the world of the movie and then out of it again, with the closing credits giving us a chance to reflect on how the film expanded on the germs of characterization the song gave us.

That’s not all, though; throughout the movie, various instrumental arrangements of “Harper Valley PTA” play as diegetic background music. We hear different versions everywhere from Alice’s beauty parlor to the merry-go-round Stella rides with Willis. It’s a really nice and creative touch that winks at the audience without being unbearably cutesy.

In Convoy, the original song is both a recurring presence and completely absent.

During certain establishing shots and scene transitions, “Convoy” kicks in like an omniscient narrator, only we don’t hear the original lyrics. I’m almost certain it is C.W. McCall who performs the rewritten verses, which lends the rewrite an air of legitimacy, but I can’t be sure. (McCall is obviously credited for the song in the film, but whether or not that extends to the new verses, I don’t know.)

The film-specific verses aren’t great, but until I listened to the song again in comparison I wasn’t sure they were film-specific. They feel very true to the sound, mood, and quality of the original song, and each reader is welcome to take that observation in whatever spirit they please.

We never hear the original “Convoy” at all, and we don’t get any kind of chorus. Perhaps they cut it because the “rockin’ through the night” part would have reminded people that they forgot to include a scene in which any such thing happens. Instead, this version of the song describes which characters are where at any point in time, which seems unnecessary considering the film also uses subtitles to establish that information, but what do I know.

So Harper Valley PTA included the original song and some instrumental variants and Convoy rewrote the lyrics to better fit the action on screen. Two interestingly different approaches.

Now we have Purple People Eater, which treats its original song like suppressed scripture. It is an incantation so powerful that it at first summons and later banishes a horrifying demon.

I somehow doubt that was the movie’s actual intention but, well, here we are, kids.

Purple People Eater was written and directed by Linda Shayne, who I think it’s safe to say wouldn’t recognize narrative if it fell from space and moved into her garage.

Shayne has been in a number of films as an actress, but as a director she might be most famous for the notorious Flyin’ Ryan, perhaps the only magic-shoes movie that has no interest in letting its character use the magic shoes. She’s also done two other films (Little Ghost and The Undercover Kid), so I think it’s likely we’ll get a Linda Shayne retrospective for some future Rule of Three.

Purple People Eater represents Shayne at the absolute peek of her abilities. It’s more coherent, more creative, and more charming than any of her other works. Also, it is not coherent, creative, or charming at all.

Still, though, it’s worth remembering as you experience Purple People Eater that it was somehow all down hill from here.

The movie stars a young Neil Patrick Harris, in the role for which he will certainly be remembered. He plays Billy, a boy we’re constantly told has no friends despite the fact that…you know…we meet some of them. He also brings home lots of animals — which seems like the kind of thing you’d only establish if it were going to come into play at any point, but I’m no Linda Shayne — and has talent in art and music.

Our story begins with Billy’s mother, father, and older sister all leaving immediately and forever, because they have nothing to do with the movie we’re watching. I guess it’s nice that we’re not keeping a bunch of characters around for no reason, but why introduce them in the first place? The film would play out exactly the same if these three characters had been dead for years by the time the story began.

Billy and his little sister Molly are left in the care of Grandpa Ned Beatty, in the role for which he will certainly be remembered. Beatty, in a decision that makes us pity grandpa by proxy, takes the film seriously. It’s probably an overstatement to say he gives the performance his all, but he certainly does try to find and occupy a space in grandpa’s mind that makes any kind of sense. Purple People Eater genuinely did not deserve the effort.

When I refer to a space in the character’s mind that makes any kind of sense, I’m referring to the fact that we’re supposed to simultaneously accept that grandpa believes the undisguised space alien living with him is just some kid from Billy’s school and that grandpa is not intellectually disabled.

And Beatty…actually kind of strikes that balance. Not always, and not especially well, but that’s more the fault of the film than his performance. Beatty manages to be just doddering enough that you buy his confusion and lovable enough that you excuse the (many) moments during which you can’t buy it. He also plays grandpa as a goofy enough figure — I mean this in a good way — that he might not care that the kid is actually an alien; grandpa is having fun and that’s what matters.

The reason grandpa is having fun is that he’s connecting with Billy. We’re explicitly told that grandpa doesn’t live far from Billy’s family — it seems to be a quick couple of minutes by car — so I’m not sure why they never connected before. Neither of them seem reluctant to start a relationship; it’s more like they just waited for a film crew to show up before they bothered.

Overcome by his proximity to youth, grandpa decides to live life to the fullest by…painting his walls.

Billy helps him do this — you might think the movie temporarily forgot Molly exists, but there’s a major scene later centered around the fact that nobody supervises her at any point — and grandpa invites the boy to check out his old records.

Billy becomes the only child in 1988 to rapturously read the names Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and Chubby Checker off a bunch of records. Seriously, this movie seems like it should take place decades earlier, when a child might actually know these musicians, or have heard their songs anywhere outside of commercials for The Sizzler.

He puts on “Good Golly, Miss Molly” and dances around. Kid fucking loves “Good Golly, Miss Molly.”

You would be forgiven for wondering what any of this has to do with the fucking Purple People Eater. Seriously, we’re about a quarter of the way through this movie about a puppet monster from space before the puppet monster from space shows up.

It finally happens when Billy plays Sheb Wooley’s “Purple People Eater” on the record player. Grandpa probably would have seem him come to Earth, too, if he hadn’t passed out from the unventilated paint fumes hours ago.

Within the universe of this film, Wooley was less some guy who sang a monumentally shitty novelty song and more a divine prophet issuing clear and detailed warnings of things to come.

At least, that’s how Shayne seems to treat the song. It is a holy text from which she shall not deviate. Everything Wooley sang 30 years ago must come to pass this night.

Verily, the Purple People Eater comes out of the sky, as Wooley foretold. He lands in a tree, because that’s what the lyrics say he did. He hops down to the ground and plays “a crazy ditty with a swingin’ tune” through the horn on his head, just as we were promised in the song. He comes to Earth to “get a job in a rock and roll band,” again, as Wooley so immaculately predicted.

And, yeah, Billy does start a band later but you’d think maybe the Purple People Eater would have visited The Rolling Stones or something instead, since they’ve already got their operation up and running, but whatever.

Shayne has every right to adhere to or deviate from the lyrics as she sees fit, but if “Purple People Eater” the song exists within the universe of the film, it has to be a prophecy, right? It can’t just be coincidence. This thing isn’t sort of like what we hear in the song; it’s line for line doing and saying the things the song said he would.

And, of course, there’s the description of the beast. He has one eye and one horn. He has wings to fly. He’s purple. Musical notes float out of his horn when he plays music so you know he isn’t hiding a kazoo in his asshole.

But there’s one detail that’s notably excluded. Have you spotted it? I’ll give you a hint: it takes up two thirds of the film’s own title.

The Purple People Eater — for that’s what this is, what the song is about, what the film is called, and what the creature is constantly referred to as being — doesn’t fuckin’ eat people.

So, okay. It’s a kids’ movie. I don’t expect the Purple People Eater to spend the film picking bits of Neil Patrick Harris from between his teeth. But Purple People Eater never even addresses this.

There are a thousand ways you could resolve this discrepancy and still remain family friendly. You could have the Purple People Eater try to eat a person and get told that that’s not appropriate on Earth. You could have him say that he usually eats people but he’s currently on a diet. You could reveal that the word “people” refers to something different on his planet. Fruit, say.

But you have to explain it. You can’t call a movie The Flying Bus if the bus doesn’t fly. You can’t call a movie Digging a Hole if no actual or metaphorical hole is dug. And you can’t call a movie Purple People Eater if the purple thing isn’t eating people.

The movie even seems to give itself a reason to acknowledge this, one way or the other, as Billy and his grandpa are both covered in purple paint when the thing arrives. And later in the movie the Purple People Eater quotes the “eatin’ purple people and it sure is fine” bit from the song. So whether you think the Purple People Eater is a purple thing that eats people or a thing that eats purple people, you’re going to come away disappointed.

Anyway, the kid has an alien friend now, and grandpa is immediately convinced it’s a child in a costume. Which is fair enough at first.

But then the child moves in with Billy. And never goes home. And never takes the costume off. And plays music without an instrument. And sleeps hanging upside down. And can’t seem to say much aside from “Billeeeeee” and Sheb Wooley lyrics.

Everybody just seems to go along with it. They meet the Purple People Eater — neither he nor Billy come up with a better Earth name for it than “Purple” — assume it’s a kid in a costume, and never question any part of it.

Well, actually, the nosey neighbors the Orfuses do question it, but only so they can be ignored. The rest of the town is perfectly fine assuming this is just some kid whose parents never ask about him or want him back. Also he walks like a full diaper is an integral part of the costume they think he’s wearing, so they should at least offer to change the kid.

Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter what Shayne has to do to get the Purple People Eater into Billy’s life. What matters is that he’s there and together they can have all kinds of exciting, silly adventures.

Or the alien can play gin rummy with old ladies. Whatever. I give up.

Yes, the plot is that a very old woman named Rita, played by Shelley Winters in the role for which she will certainly be remembered, is going to lose her home to the evil landlord Mr. Noodle.

In fact, Mr. Noodle is so evil and such a landlord that a lot of old people are going to lose their homes. I think you will agree this is a job only Doogie Howser and a store-brand Cookie Monster can handle.

To the relative credit of Purple People Eater, Mr. Noodle is indeed a bad hombre. Harper Valley PTA and Convoy both had villains who lagged far behind the heroes in acts of villainy, but here Mr. Noodle is clearly the dick of the piece, putting profit ahead of the happiness and safety of the elders who rent apartments from him. He even shows up to Rita’s birthday party just to let her know she’s old and poor and will shortly be homeless.

Rita, anxious / scared / depressed, collapses upon hearing the same news she’s heard several times before in this film, and the paramedics show up.

Grandpa asks one of them if she’ll be okay, and the paramedic’s tone is clearly negative. “The most important thing right now is that she want to live,” says the paramedic, which is one hell of an out for him. If a patient dies he can just say, “He didn’t want to live, I guess. I thought maybe he did but now we see he didn’t.”

The unwashed alien crawling with space diseases visits Rita in the hospital with a card that says I LOVE YOU. Rita says she loves him, too.

Purple People Eater is the only space-puppet movie in which the extraterrestrial travels millions of light years to fall in love with Shelley Winters.

For a movie about a boy and his blob, there’s precious little alien content. Billy bonds with his grandfather, which does not require an alien. Billy starts a band with his friends, which does not require an alien. Billy helps some old people die where they are instead of somewhere else, which does not require an alien.

The only real “alien” thing the Purple People Eater does is go fucking berserk in Chuck E. Cheese.

It would be impossible to figure out what’s going on here if the film didn’t outright tell us. It’s just the Purple People Eater making noise while a whole bunch of shit flies around. Thankfully, Shayne has the kids explain that the Purple People Eater ate some chili peppers and now is hiccuping.

So add “leveling a restaurant full of children because he ate something hot” to the list of things he does without anyone doubting that he’s a kid in a costume.

And that’s…pretty much it for alien hijinx. He does use his alien powers to rescue Molly, which is good because everyone else forgot she was in this movie.

Honestly, for reasons that have nothing to do with the Hiccuping Pepper Eater, this ends up being far and away the best scene.

Molly is played by a tiny little Thora Birch, in the role for which she will certainly be remembered. I have a very low tolerance for child actors, not because they’re terrible (though they are uniformly terrible) but because I never think they’re as cute as the directors want me to think they are.

If a kid stumbles over his line reading, I don’t care. He’s a kid. He’s dumb. Move along. But if the camera lingers on him or a scene drags on too long because I’m supposed to be charmed by some little idiot who probably doesn’t even realize he’s in a movie, I get sick of him fast.

A child being a less-than-stellar actor is an understandable real-world limitation in film. But a child meant to charm the hell out of an audience is a director’s conscious decision.

All of which is to say tiny little Thora Birch is genuinely charming and adorable, probably because Shayne just lets her be an actual kid.

The rescue scene is the perfect example. In it, Longfellow the dachshund wanders out onto Billy’s second-floor balcony. Molly calls after him, but he doesn’t come. She crawls into view wearing a dinosaur hat and Jesus Christ if only every child in movies were actually this cute.

I have no idea why she’s wearing it. It’s never explained or even mentioned. And that’s perfect. Was she terrorizing Longfellow? Was she just wearing a dinosaur head because she’s a kid and has nothing better to do? I almost wonder if tiny little Thora Birch just wanted to wear a dinosaur head and Shayne let her.

Don’t let that sound dismissive, because “Shayne just let her” is a massive compliment, as we’ll see.

Everyone gathers around and panics because Molly is about to fall to her death, so the Purple People Eater flies up next to her and…that solves everything somehow. Fuck that.

The good part is that Ned Beatty and Thora Birch have a little exchange afterward. And I’m referring to them by their real names for a reason.

THORA: The dog wanted to go on the balcony.
NED: That’s a bad doggie, Longfellow.
THORA: Longfellow?
NED: Bad doggie.
THORA: I like him.

And holy hell does my cold heart melt.

See, that wasn’t in the script. I don’t say this with any knowledge, but I do say it with complete confidence.

I say it because it’s too real. We hear Thora Birch slur her way through lines like any other child actor elsewhere in the film. Here, she’s just talking to a kindly old man, a kindly old man who happens to be really good with children himself.

Ned Beatty is being a silly grandpa figure to a little girl who, for that moment at least, really does see him as one.

All of that is to Shayne’s genuine credit, and I wish we got more of this here and in her other films. Because kids are cute, but only if they’re given the chance to be actual kids. The moment you give them a script and direction, they’re no longer being themselves. That should be obvious. They’re suddenly acting…something they don’t actually know how to do.

But get Ned Beatty to riff with a child, and let that child be a child, and you get a perfect little adorable moment like that one. Purple People Eater is one of the worst films I’ve watched for this (or any) series, but it also brought me what might be my favorite moment.

It’s also deeply amusing to me that tiny little Thora Birch has such a lovable, perfect moment with Ned Beatty and not with the giant alien puppet designed specifically to appeal to children, but hey, what can you do.

Of course that’s not what the movie’s about so let’s get back to that.

Billy starts a band with all the friends we were told he doesn’t have, including Dustin Diamond, in the role for which he might actually be remembered. They’re immediately great at playing songs thirty years older than they are, and they become locally famous.

At one point in the movie someone hires them to play at his daughter’s wedding, and he ends up loving their act so much he offers them a contract because he’s a record company executive. Quite why he didn’t hire a band he represents and which he would already know would put on a good show rather than take a chance on a bunch of grade-schoolers, I don’t know. Why the contract never comes up again I know even less.

They band is called The Purple People Eaters, and their front man is the Purple People Eater, who they refer to as the Purple People Eater, but when Billy suggests they play “Purple People Eater” the Purple People Eater wigs out and tells him no; it’s not time yet.

A band named The Purple People Eaters that doesn’t play “Purple People Eater” is just marginally less stupid than a movie called Purple People Eater in which no people are eaten, but I don’t think Shayne realizes either of these things.

What does the Purple People Eater mean about it not being time to play “Purple People Eater”? I have no idea. Billy does suggest they open the set with it, so maybe his concern is that it’s too early in the show, and it would be better as an encore or something? It’s not clear. But the only time the band does play “Purple People Eater” is at the very end of the movie, when the Purple People Eater briefly becomes the Tasmanian Devil and then zips back to his own planet, which he never got around to telling anyone about and which the kids never expressed any interest in.

So maybe the idea is that playing “Purple People Eater” causes him, somehow, to leave, and that’s why he didn’t want the band playing it earlier in the film? I have no idea. Nobody has any idea.

Mr. Noodle announces to all the old people that they have to be out of their homes by Labor Day so he can turn the apartments into a puppy decapitation facility.

The Purple People Eater decides to host a Live Aid-style event called Save Our Seniors, intended to raise enough funds and awareness to keep them where they are. He schedules it for…Labor Day.

So, that would be too late, right? Fortunately for them, the movie forgets its own timeframe, and the old people are still in their homes the day of the concert. They must have some serious fucking faith in the Purple People Eater not to even box up their belongings after being evicted, but whatever.

We learn that the Purple People Eater only sleeps hanging upside down in the shed so that Mr. Noodle can kidnap him. In their struggle they bump into a jukebox, which plays “Rockin’ Robin,” a surprisingly upbeat little ditty for a scene in which a real-estate mogul beats the hot shit out of a space alien.

He takes the Purple People Eater to Hide-Out Wallies, a good choice as it’s apparently the only bar in the world that closes at night.

Then Mr. Noodle takes a massive step beyond almost every other movie villain in terms of competence by not leaving his hostage.

I mean, the sight of this guy strapping the Purple People Eater to a pool table is every bit as disturbing as you’d expect it to be, but still, massive kudos to Mr. Noodle for not going home with the assumption that everything will turn out fine.

Of course, Labor Day morning comes and the Purple People Eater gets away by untying himself and leaving, a plan it evidently took him around 12 hours to come up with.

He then punctures Mr. Noodle’s tires with his horn, which looks about as sharp as my fingertip, but it doesn’t stop Mr. Noodle; he just drives the car anyway and the flat tire has no impact whatsoever on his ability to chase the Purple People Eater around.

The Purple People Eater steals someone’s ’55 Thunderbird and turns on “Rockin’ Robin,” which I think is because Shayne ran out of licensing money but which is extra funny to me because it seems like the Purple People Eater heard “Rockin’ Robin” while he was getting curb-stomped by Mr. Noodle and thought, “Man, this song is actually really good,” making a note to check it out later.

The fact that the Purple People Eater can drive a car doesn’t bother me. Actually, it does, but I want to stop writing about the movie, so let’s take that as read. But it does remind me that we never saw his spaceship. Did he even have one? How did he get to Earth without one? And if he did have one, where the hell is it? Is it just orbiting the planet with its hazard lights on?

And actually, the box art for the movie has Ned Beatty and Shelley Winters driving a car through outer space, which I’m suddenly deeply angry doesn’t happen in the film because we needed more scenes of them sitting on couches saying, “It sure sucks dick being old.”

While all this is happening, the kids and grandpa run around town, desperately searching for the Purple People Eater, because there’s no way they can play covers of early rock music without some midget in a Grimace costume twerking.

For no conceivable reason whatsoever, the Purple People Eater drives his stolen car into an automatic car wash.

This is seriously Mr. Noodle’s lucky day; all he has to do is drive to the exit and wait for…

Oh. Mr. Noodle is a fucking moron and drives through the car wash behind him, fully aware that they will both be moving at fixed speeds and that the Purple People Eater will have a head start when they’re back on the road.

Not that that matters, because the car wash malfunctions somehow. Mr. Noodle, you complete tit.

The police arrive not to arrest Mr. Noodle for kidnapping or to arrest the Purple People Eater for stealing a car or to arrest them both for destroying an automatic car wash, but to give the fucking space monster a police escort to Barely Alive Aid.

Come to think of it, even if they’re cool with him stealing the car, aren’t they concerned that he’s driving? They think he’s a 10-year-old in a costume. Who are these cops?

Purple People Eater builds to a climactic scene in which the entire town joins the Purple People Eater and The Purple People Eaters in a rousing singalong of “Purple People Eater.”

Oddly, for a climactic scene, nobody seemed to put any effort into making it. The editing is absolutely terrible, with characters “singing” without moving their mouths, and keeping their mouths closed while lyrics somehow come out of them. There are hard edits at various points in the song that clearly jam different takes together without regard for where in the song we actually were when we made the splice.

And, perhaps most strangely, nobody seems to fucking know how the song goes. Whenever we cut to someone in the audience singing, it’s like they’re reading a sloppily written line off of a cue card.

Even Little Richard seems like he never heard this song before, completely unaware of the cadence or melody.

Oh, did I not mention Little Richard is the mayor of this town? Neither did the movie, but that’s okay, because this surprise cameo is a genuine highlight.

Quite what Little Richard has to do with “Purple People Eater” I have no idea, but he’s here, and he’s not Little Richard playing Mayor Goodheart or something; he’s just Little Richard who is also the mayor.

Little Richard is a treasure and I will hear no words against him. He’s one of those rare entertainers that has endured as a figure of coolness throughout his entire career, and the dude is nearing 90 as I write this. He’s got a perfect mix of talent, quirk, and winking ridiculousness that makes him a perfect fit for a scene like this. Parents like him because they’re in on the joke, and kids like him because he’s a massive, silly presence.

He’s fucking great is what I’m saying, and as soon as he hears Mr. Noodle wants to throw all the old people out of their apartments, Mayor Little Richard takes a vote of all the concert attendees and declares it illegal for old people to be relocated ever, anywhere, for any reason, until the Earth is consumed by the sun.

It’s…not how local government works, but it’s just ridiculous enough that it’s the only scripted moment in the entire film that I enjoyed.

Actually, that’s damning with faint praise, so let me rephrase that: I enjoyed it so much that I genuinely wish every movie would end with Little Richard showing up and declaring that the film’s conflict is over.

The fact that Mayor Little Richard shuts Mr. Noodle’s shit down the moment he hears about it does sort of mean Save Our Seniors was thoroughly unnecessary and Billy or grandpa or Shelley Winters or Longfellow could have placed exactly one call to city hall and been done with this weeks ago, but there’s no time to think about that because the Purple People Eater is leaving forever.

Billy learned to believe in himself, I guess, and grandpa learned to…paint his house? And…

I don’t know. Nothing happened. The fucking puppet hiccuping was the most exciting thing in the movie.

But at the same time, it was kind of great.

There are a lot of bad films out there. You know that. I know that. Years ago we’d just have to walk along any given aisle in a Blockbuster Video, and today we only need to scroll through any given category in Netflix or Hulu to find hundreds of them.

They’re awful. They’re cash-ins. They’re complete wastes of time.

Until you find one that’s magical in its awfulness. One that makes you laugh harder than any comedy you’ve ever seen. One so monumentally incompetent you don’t tell your friends, “It sucked; don’t bother,” but rather plead with them to watch it because they wouldn’t believe how gloriously awful it is unless they saw it with their own eyes.

That’s what Purple People Eater turned out to be.

Harper Valley PTA was misjudged. Convoy was forgettable. Purple People Eater is a golden turd.

Almost nothing in this movie works, but everything fails in perfect harmony, creating a filmwide sort of anti-logic that manages to hold together in the strangest ways.

Characters appear and disappear. Plot threads are raised and abandoned. Non-issues are treated as calamities and serious concerns are brushed aside. The movie stops dead for several minutes so Chubby Checker, in what seems to be a fantasy sequence completely disconnected from anyone fantasizing, can lip sync to “Twist it Up.”

And it’s all just god-damned perfect.

I was interested this year in finding out whether or not a novelty song could be successfully adapted into a full-length feature film. Harper Valley PTA right out of the gate proved it could, at least hypothetically. But Purple People Eater proved it’s often much more fun to ride a moronic concept directly into the ground.

We are impressed when we see complex machines running smoothly, but damned if we aren’t far more fascinated by the one that explodes in brilliant flames.

This is a movie that is thoroughly enjoyable to watch fall to pieces.

I love you, too, Purple People Eater.

Rule of Three: Convoy (1978)

While I’m not entirely convinced “Harper Valley PTA” needed to be turned into a film, it at least contained elements we are used to seeing on the big screen. Characters, conflict, social commentary…whatever the quality of the final product, I can understand at least how someone might listen to that song and think, “I could film that.”

“Convoy,” though? I can’t understand how anybody could wring a plot from that thing.

Let’s be absolutely honest with each other up front and admit to ourselves that “Convoy” is a deeply terrible song. Here, I’ll prove it. “Harper Valley PTA” is listenable, if not especially inventive.

“Convoy,” in significant contrast, is embarrassing. For all of its vague celebration of the American long-haul trucker, I doubt any actual truckers would listen to this willingly, any more than sailors in the Navy would sit around listening to “On the Good Ship Lollipop.”

It’s a strangely wimpy song for what — as near as I can tell — spins a tale of interstate badassery, with its chorus sounding more like a Mike Curb Congregation soundcheck than the modern cowboy spirit it’s trying to tap into. It genuinely doesn’t realize how much it sucks.

Like so many other terrible songs, though, “Convoy” was a hit, and someone, somewhere, remembered they liked money and would enjoy making some of it.

…but what the hell do you do with “Convoy”? It has characters in the sense that some CB handles are used in the song. It has conflict in the sense that the singer mentions the police a few times and it’s safe to assume he would prefer not to be arrested. But…that’s about it.

What happens in “Convoy”?

Well, there’s a convoy. That’s even the chorus. There’s a convoy. That’s all you need to know. A convoy exists. Honk honk.

We could scrape the loosest possible narrative together from the cities mentioned in the song (representing a cross-country trip) and the inflating size of the convoy each time we reach the chorus (from little to great big to mighty).

But is that a story? No. A convoy getting bigger as it rolls along some highways is not a story, whether or not it’s rockin’ through the night.

Could it be a story? Of course. And Convoy, unlike Harper Valley PTA, can do what it damned well pleases. It doesn’t have to include or tip its hat to specific people and character traits and motivations that fans expect. As long as some fucking trucks drive around, Convoy can be anything it pleases.

Sadly, it’s this.

Convoy is, at least, a competent film, and it has notable talent behind it. It’s directed by Sam Peckinpah. Its leads are Kris Kristofferson and Ali MacGraw. Ernest Borgnine is the villain. Character actors including Burt Young and Seymour Cassel play major roles. With the original “Convoy” being almost completely hollow, ready to be filled with whatever a creative team might come up with, all anyone needed was some inspiration.

“Convoy” was so uninspired it sucked the inspiration out of its own film adaptation.

The implied crux of the film is fine; some truckers are just trying to make an honest living, but the law won’t stop harassing them. The truckers push back and are soon enough joined by more and more in protest of…eh, we’ll come back to that.

The point is, that’s okay. The downtrodden start fighting back and discover they have more power than they’d realized. It’s a solid backbone for a narrative, however it ends and wherever it leads.

But there’s a reason I had to say it’s an implied crux: these guys aren’t just trying to make an honest living. In fact, they’re assholes.

A hard-working group of American boys gaining a following is one kind of story. A bunch of criminals gaining a following is obviously another. Convoy shows us the latter but relentlessly insists we see it as the former.

We’re introduced to our hero Rubber Duck — a name I’m sure Peckinpah was thrilled to inherit — as he demonstrates aggressive driving that endangers the life of an attractive young lady in a sports car.

As you might expect, it’s not presented that way, but it’s almost impossible to view it otherwise. In fact, Convoy opens like a stealth remake of Duel in which we’re meant to sympathize with the psychotic, unshakeable truck driver.

She passes him, which can’t be an uncommon occurrence for long-haul truckers, but he refuses to let her stay ahead of him. Rubber Duck speeds up to pass her, and the two of them engage in bizarre flirtation that sees her snapping photos of him without paying attention to the road.

This is dangerous! You people aren’t charming. You could kill somebody!

Sure enough, there’s a cop up ahead, and Rubber Duck’s shenanigans run the cop off the road, endangering a third life.

He pulls Rubber Duck over, and there could be a nice observation here that would tie into the desired theme of the film. Both the trucker and the lovely young lady were driving dangerously, but the cop only cares about ticketing the trucker. That would certainly give the working man something to push back against, right?

Instead, the scene is just an excuse for some light comedy, as Rubber Duck weasels his way out of a ticket by telling the cop that the young lady had no pants on, and if you look carefully you can even see her labia flapping in the breeze.

Suddenly too horny to write a ticket, the cop leaves Rubber Duck to chase the lady and use his authority to coerce her into an undesired sexual encounter. It’s all in good fun!

So Rubber Duck has a close call and is nearly ticketed for his reckless driving. What better way to get us on his side than to engage in more of it immediately afterward with his two similarly reckless trucker friends?

One of them is Spider Mike, who is black and whose wife in Texas is about to give birth. The film treats these things as character traits — his only ones at that — so I figured I’d mention them. The other is a trucker who calls himself Love Machine, but his colleagues keep calling him Pig Pen instead.

This is…okay, actually. I like the idea that one of the truckers doesn’t like his nickname but can’t get a replacement to catch on. It isn’t hilarious or anything, but that fact alone gives Pig Pen more characterization than pretty much anyone else in the film. I also like the fact that the inside of Pig Pen’s cab is clean and impressively upholstered, while the actual cargo area of his truck is full of stinking, squealing livestock. The film doesn’t do anything beyond nodding at this, but I do like it.

Anyway, Rubber Duck’s got a little convoy with Spider Mike and Pig Pen, but contrary to the lyrics, something gets in their way!

It’s Ernest Borgnine as Dirty Lyle, a cop so awful he gives Rubber Duck a ticket for speeding right after Rubber Duck ignored a warning from another cop to slow down.

And the thing is…I dunno, guys…we have traffic laws for a reason. And even if you think enormous trucks should be allowed to barrel down highways at whatever speeds and in whatever numbers they like, it’s difficult to get angry at the cop for writing them tickets for something they were just told to stop doing.

Convoy wants to portray the cops as wrongly using their authority to persecute innocents, but it’s hard to see people as innocent when they keep breaking the law.

We’ll get to some far more dramatic examples of these bozos endangering innocent people, but for now it’s enough to say that the film handles its heroes in such a messy way that it’s essentially forced to present its villains in the most excessively evil ways to ensure we won’t sympathize with the wrong people.

At one point, late in the film, the police brutalize Spider Mike and lock him up, stopping just short of turning to the camera and saying, “We’re doing this because he’s black.”

Actually, I was trying to exaggerate for comic effect there, but we do get one cop who introduces himself by saying, “My name is Bob Bookman, sir, and I hate truckers.” If he turned his head just a few degrees he’d have been speaking directly to the audience.

Anyway, after a long morning of endangering other motorists and ignoring direct warnings from the police, the truckers three demonstrate how hard they work by stopping for a long lunch and also sex.

Rubber Duck bumps into she of the exposed pudenda and learns her name is Melissa. He offers her a ride in his truck and flirts repeatedly with her both before and immediately after having sex with a waitress, toying with two sets of emotions at once, like the hero he so clearly is.

Also, we learn Melissa only got away from the cop Rubber Duck sicced on her by promising she’d meet him at a hotel for sex.

Correctly, Peckinpah figures he should start giving the bad guys some negative qualities and fast, so he has Dirty Lyle come into the truck stop and hassle the truckers, because he hates truckers, and as far as Convoy is concerned that’s a social offense of a slightly higher degree than pissing on the American flag.

I mean, Dirty Lyle only comes into the truck stop at all because the truckers were hassling him over the radio, but let’s not dwell on that. We’ll dwell instead on Dirty Lyle reserving the lion’s share of his ire for Spider Mike.

It’s a lot of Hollywood hillbilly posturing with Borgnine calling him “boy,” and it culminates in Dirty Lyle threatening to arrest Spider Mike for vagrancy because he doesn’t have any money in his wallet. That’s…not vagrancy, but I can imagine a crooked cop spinning it that way, and the point is that Dirty Lyle is a gross racist, so fine.

Now we don’t like Lyle, and that’s good. Having Dirty Lyle push at them unprovoked, especially with overtly racist motives, puts him in recognizable villain territory.

Oddly, this is exactly where the morality of the truckers becomes irrevocably hazy.

They beat the shit out of Lyle and knock him out cold. Probably not wise, but noble from a narrative standpoint.

However, some other cops show up to find out what’s going on, and the truckers beat the shit out of them, too.

These cops had nothing to do with the racially motivated altercation. They’re just, you know, cops. But I guess once you beat up one cop you are obligated to preserve your honor by beating up every other cop on the planet as well.

I’m absolutely positive there’s an intended emotional connection between beating up Dirty Lyle and beating up the others, but it’s one the movie fails to demonstrate.

The truckers, I’m sure, see the other police officers as associates of Dirty Lyle, which is true in a professional sense, but which we’re given no indication is true in a Klan-rally sense. So however much I’m on their side for beating up a racist, I’m tempted to distance myself from their behavior once they start beating up other folks just for being cops.

And I know that’s not equivalent to racism, but “I’m going to kick your ass because you’re part of this group I hate” is an attitude shared by both the truckers and Dirty Lyle.

Here’s the thing: You can do this, and you can do it well. It’s impossible for me to type all of this out and not immediately see that this should be the point of the scene. The morality should be muddy. We should question the black-and-white heroes-and-villains mentality. Right?

But, no. It’s played instead as an action scene with light comic touches. Peckinpah gives us a long sequence of signature violence and breakaway props. There’s very, very little blood, though, and it’s the kind of fight in which a punch to the jaw knocks somebody out immediately and for hours.

I do actually like a moment in which one trucker encourages another to join the brawl, but the other trucker won’t. He replies, obviously stalling, “I’ll get him when I’m ready.” Then later he does get involved long enough to break a pool cue over a cop who doesn’t seem to feel it and just pushes him out of the way.

It’s a decently placed gag that serves as a welcome distraction from the fact that a bunch of people are beating up cops for no good reason and absolutely demolishing a truck stop for even less of a good reason.

Y’know, guys, someone owns this place. And it’s probably someone who likes truckers, so…maybe chill out a bit?

The fracas doesn’t even stop when all of the cops are out cold. The truckers — now unopposed — head out to the parking lot to smash up the police cars.

Again, you’d think this scene would be an important indication that the truckers are unhinged and should not be sympathized with, but our level-headed hero Rubber Duck has no qualms about any of this, and simply suggests they calmly drive to the state line, crossing from Arizona into New Mexico so the cops they just assaulted won’t be allowed to arrest them.

Quite how this whole “state lines” excuse works, I have no idea. I’ve seen it in dozens of films and television shows so I’m not going to hold it against Convoy, but is it true that if I beat the everloving shit out of a group of police officers, trash a truckstop, and disable police vehicles, nobody will be able to arrest me if I drive a few miles into another state?

I’m curious of the real-world answer, but I guess it works in the world of Convoy, so legally the guys are in the clear.

Here, however, is what’s probably an incomplete list of all the crimes our heroes committed in Arizona before they crossed the state line, just so we are clear about who we’re rooting for:

Reckless driving, aggressive driving, speeding, assault on several officers of the law, destruction of police property, destruction of commercial property, resisting arrest, failure to stop, failure to pull over, deliberately hindering emergency vehicles, deliberately crushing a police car between two trucks, leading police on a high-speed chase. I could also add kidnapping, as Rubber Duck refuses to let Melissa out of the vehicle however much she insists. He does it charmingly though so obviously he’s a great guy.

Oh, and these idiots drive too fast around a curve and one of the trucks tips over, causing an accident involving another motorist. They leave the scene of the accident and abandon the vehicle with all of its cargo in the middle of the road.

If you’re driving, these guys are a danger to you. If you’re near them when they’re approached by the police, these guys are a danger to you. If you’re not involved with them in any way and just trying to about your business, these guys are a danger to you.

There’s even a scene almost entirely disconnected from the rest of the film when Pig Pen and some of the other truckers break away from the convoy briefly. They drive through a tiny town where a school bus extends its little stop sign so the kids can cross the street, but these assholes aren’t paying attention (nor is there anything to distract them) and nearly hit the kids.

Don’t worry, though; Pig Pen was quick-thinking enough to smash into an Italian ice van instead, destroying it, barely missing the kids. The Italian ice man throws his ruined goods at Pig Pen’s windshield and I’m pretty sure this is supposed to be comical — or at least a light-hearted inconvenience — because Pig Pen is smiling.

Gotta love those silly truckers, mowing down school kids and causing accidents like the scamps they are!

And yes, I know, any shitty movie worth its shitty salt has some scene (or preferably many scenes) in which drivers chase each other through city streets, smashing up fruit carts and other cars, innocent people diving out of the way…but here, nobody’s chasing these people. Early in the film Dirty Lyle chases them around, and then a federal agent in a helicopter politely asks them to pull over and arrest themselves, but that’s pretty much it.

There are some attempts are roadblocks here and there, but for the vast majority of the film these assholes would lose nothing by stopping for a school bus. But I guess it’s more fun to almost kill some children instead.

So of course they are an inspiration to other truckers, and as soon as they cross over into New Mexico, a bunch more truckers who have been following their exploits on the radio decide to join their cause. Their cause being driving like assholes I guess.

In New Mexico Seymour Cassel plays a governor up for reelection, and he attempts to coast off the popularity of the great big convoy rocking through the night. Logic aside, I guess he might as well, as his constituents line the streets cheering the truckers.

Why? Well, there’s news coverage, but we have no idea what that coverage includes. Based on the throngs of adoring fans I think it’s unlikely the headlines focus on a bunch of truckers beating up policemen.

Even if they did, I think it’s unlikely that people from surrounding states know who Dirty Lyle is and that he’s a big racist who deserved to get his nose broken.

And without those things…what is there to cover? SOME TRUCKS ARE DRIVING IN A BIG LINE; FULL STORY AT 11.

Admittedly, Convoy is a movie and it needs some kind of narrative, so I understand that the swell of public support is happening out of necessity.

But with a shell as hollow as the song “Convoy,” in which characters drive from one place to another, periodically mention cops, and rock through the night, you could do anything. Why it needs to be a paean to the salt-of-the-earth blue-collar everyman is unclear. Why it had to be a terrible one is even less clear.

Have Rubber Duck and his good pals Pig Pen, Spider Mike, Pretty Boyd, Blue Louie, and Huge Lorry make a big a cross-country delivery, getting into comical scrapes at every stop, growing closer as friends, relishing the late-70s American West, and — this is non-negotiable — rocking through the night.

I am by no means suggesting this would have made for a great film, but it could easily have made for an enjoyable, enduring one. Instead of a disjointed, tonally confused, limp condemnation of institutionalized racism — which is the closest this film comes to having a point even though it’s the subject of approximately three scenes — we could have had something that, y’know, works as a movie.

Much ado is made of Rubber Duck starting some kind of movement, but he doesn’t seem to inspire any non-truckers to do anything but either a) stand on the side of the road and watch him drive past or b) shoot at him. Why would anyone care about him and his convoy? Maybe if Santa Claus were sitting on the top of one of the trucks I’d have some frame of reference for this, but when is the last time you — or anyone — jumped and cheered on the side of the road as a strange man you’ve never heard of drove past? Who clears their afternoon for that?

Admittedly, the film realizes there isn’t a clear reason for anyone to be invested in or even to follow Rubber Duck. A revolution existing is reason enough to revolt. We get a pretty good scene in which a reporter interviews a bunch of the truckers and gets varying answers about what they stand for.

That’s great. The convoy is a disorganized statement of general dissatisfaction, and everyone — participants included — are seeing in it what they want to see.

Rubber Duck is aware of this as well. When Melissa says people are following him, he replies, “No, they ain’t. I’m just in front.”

For this entire sequence, it seems like Convoy might find a point in its pointlessness. Can we believe that people would follow a nobody just for the sake of feeling included? Of course! Is it likely people would throw their support behind a cause they don’t understand? Obviously! Could a film hinge on that idea alone? Yes, and a number of great ones have!

But the concept fizzles. There’s never any doubt raised by Rubber Duck regarding the confused rebellion he’s sparked. There’s never any moment when another trucker realizes nobody knows what they fuck they’re doing. There’s never a point during which the convoy faces any kind of consequence that makes them wonder if they’ve helped anyone or just hurt a bunch of people.

Instead we see the convoy smashing through police barricades, speeding through weigh stations, knowingly endangering a news crew, ignoring federal orders, and resisting federal arrest. Oh, right, I should mention the feds are flying around in a helicopter, powerless to stop the great big convoy.

At one point Rubber Duck reveals that he’s hauling a load of volatile chemicals, and if they succeed in shooting him or making him crash or something, the truck will explode and kill a bunch of people.

Toward the end of the film, we learn this is not a bluff, so not only is Rubber Duck driving like an asshole; he’s driving like an asshole that knows his cargo could blow a town of innocents off the face of the Earth. And why? So he can make a point about…something? Eh, he’ll figure it out later.

Dirty Lyle keeps chasing him even though they’re out of his jurisdiction, but now the New Mexico cops are involved as well. There’s a running joke about how we keep cutting back to two cops stuck behind some kind of water truck that’s driving slowly and spraying them with water.

It’s exactly as hilarious as you’d probably guess, as long as you — like these cops, apparently — don’t know that vehicles have the ability to pass each other or that police cars have emergency lights, sirens, and the authority to make others pull over.

Every so often we drift into broad comedy as we do here, and it never quite fits the overall tone of the film, especially the scenes that try to shine a light on the black experience in rural America, such as when Spider Mike is arrested and savagely beaten in a jail cell.

Anyway, let’s see what those wacky cops are up to now!

Ah, will they never learn? Anyway, kids, don’t be racist.

Finally, at this point in their journey, darkness falls, and the great big convoy rocks through the night. It’s a really awesome sequence in which…

…oh.

They don’t rock through the night at all. They pull over and take showers and go to sleep.

For fuck’s sake, the “rockin’ through the night” thing is the only part of the song anybody remembers!

I still expected to see it happen, as the governor, the police, and the press all promise the convoy nobody will hassle them. So, obviously, I expected that to be a trap — or maybe for some hot-shot cop to break rank and go after them anyway — and the convoy to take off and rock through the night at last.

But no. Everyone keeps their promises. There’s no honor among thieves, but a lot of honor between Dirty Lyle and a bunch of asshole truckers, I guess.

Spider Mike breaks from the pack, though, because it’s time for his wife to give birth, a fact that is revealed to him through trucker ESP. He goes to Texas, where no such truce between the truckers and the police who have promised not to arrest them for their many crimes exists, and he’s taken into custody and beaten up for being black.

Not for, you know, any of the illegal stuff he did.

This must all happen pretty quickly, because Rubber Duck meets with the governor and it isn’t far into their conversation before the news reaches him.

The scene with the governor is the film’s strongest, probably because it’s the most we see of Seymour Cassel. I’m absolutely positive the governor is meant to be an opportunistic, inauthentic schemer, and we get enough of that from Cassel to believe it, but the character has an easy charm that makes it clear why he’d have the public’s trust when he doesn’t deserve it.

What I like about the scene is that the governor wants to ride the surge of convoy support to reelection, which doesn’t exactly thrill Rubber Duck. There’s a great moment when the insincerity pierces through as he offers Rubber Duck support for his “cause or causes.” It’s a brilliant line reading by Cassel, who really is the film’s MVP.

But when the Spider Mike news breaks, the governor offers genuine help at the same time he reminds them that he can’t just pluck criminals out of jail. I get the sense that the governor would have done what he could (funny how the “across state lines” thing doesn’t come up here), but he’s being realistic in the sense that he can’t snap his fingers and make Spider Mike reappear.

Bad news for the governor, though, because he’s in Convoy, and bein’ realistic ain’t welcome ’round these parts.

Rubber Duck and the boys head to Texas, our third and final state, so it’s really not the “We’re gonna roll this truckin’ convoy across the USA” promised by the song, but that’s about to be the least of the film’s problems.

The mighty convoy that showered, napped, and held quiet conversations through the night is ready to demolish an entire Texas town to free their buddy.

The convoy smashes homes, businesses, and, of course, the police station itself. There are people in at least some of these buildings, right? Surely someone lives and/or works in this town?

The convoy doesn’t care. The convoy just smashes up irrelevant buildings because it looks good on film. What a bunch of American heroes.

If they did intend to drive through the police station to break Spider Mike out of jail or accidentally kill him (they don’t take any precaution to ensure the former outcome is more likely than the latter), I don’t know why they didn’t do that first instead of leveling every other building within a five-mile radius, but I’m also not a long-haul trucker and this probably some kind of adorable tradition.

They rescue Spider Mike from facing consequences for his actions, and they see that Dirty Lyle is there!

Don’t worry, though; Spider Mike says Dirty Lyle didn’t beat him up. Silly Rubber Duck, jumping to conclusions. It was a totally different racist cop who beat the tar out of your friend!

They lock Dirty Lyle in a cell, but he must get out pretty damned quickly because he’s not only in the climactic scene just around the corner; he’s there long before Rubber Duck shows up, and he’s got some heavy artillery that he’s excited to fire at a truck he knows is full of explosives.

I’m sure there’s a good reason Dirty Lyle and Rubber Duck have a calm, measured conversation in the demolished police station and a very literal firefight just a few scenes later, but I must confess I’m not privy to it.

Rubber Duck slides down underneath the dashboard and steers from below, which is a skill all truckers must demonstrate in order to earn their Class A license. He is determined to die they way he lived: not paying attention to the road.

Anyway the truck explodes and the cab falls off the side of the bridge into what seems to be about eight inches of water. Melissa looks on at the man she only met the day before, overcome with sorrow that his years of endangering other motorists have come to an end.

Nobody bothers to search for a body, though, not wanting to get their pant cuffs wet. So they all assume he died and is never coming back.

But:

The joke is on them! Rubber Duck faked his death — yet another serious crime! — and got a rad eyepatch out of the deal.

Melissa reunites with him at his own funeral, which is also some kind of political event for the governor of New Mexico, which is the state the convoy temporarily occupied because it was the most direct route between Arizona and Texas.

Then the truckers who are at the funeral all drive away and Dirty Lyle laughs because he sees Rubber Duck is alive, even though he’s literally the guy who spent all of his time trying to kill him.

It’s…a strange movie, and the reason I’ve spent so much of this review in play-by-play mode is because there’s almost nothing to it beyond what happens on the screen.

Convoy is a better-made film than Harper Valley PTA for sure, but it fails to find any interesting detours the way that film did with its mother/daughter dynamic, and though the actors in this film are more capable, they’re also a hell of a lot less fun.

“Convoy” provided a blank slate. As far as audience expectations went, “we would like to see a lot of trucks please” probably covered them. Peckinpah could have made anything, but instead he made nothing.

There’s the germ of an interesting theme in the convoy coming to symbolize a revolution that both means nothing and never happens — and it’s very tempting to see that as meta commentary on the film itself — but Convoy does nothing with it.

An audience is welcome to pick up on it and read into it, should they choose to do so, but the film keeps its mouth shut, dumb in both definitions of the word.

It’s hard to believe a film that ends with a bunch of cops and soldiers firing directly into an exploding truck is so interminably boring, but Convoy finds a way to resist being worthwhile.

Harper Valley PTA tried things. Most of what it tried I disliked, but there was clear effort there. I’d obviously argue it didn’t succeed, but one can watch the film and easily understand what it wished to be.

I don’t think Convoy knew where it wanted to go. It probably had some ideas — the politician getting involved, the racism, the truck stop fight, some ladies taking their tops off — but didn’t know how to put them together…and so it didn’t. Something happens, then something happens, then something happens, then it stops.

Convoy wants to have heroes, but doesn’t know how to make sure we’ll see them as heroic. It wants to have villains, but almost never lets them cross the line into villainy. It wants to arrive somewhere, but isn’t willing to plan the trip.

It’s a less impressive film than “Convoy” was a song, and that, I guess, ends up being impressive in its own right.

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