Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Freeway (1996): A Leftist Feminist Screed...by accident?

Freeway (1996)
dir: Matthew Bright

As some personal background, I have a history with this movie. This movie came out when I was a developing teenager. I think I remember it playing for all of a week in my market. It got rave reviews from both of my local newspapers, 2 thumbs up from Siskel and Ebert, and everybody was commenting on how the movie was an overly-violent, tarted-up, foul-mouthed blackly comic modern exploitation take on the Big Bad Wolf fable.

Of course, I had to see it.

By this time, I had already been absorbing early John Waters and knew my way about some of the midnight screeds if not the 70s exploitation genre. But, still, Freeway blew me away. I rented this movie on VHS the first week it was out, and watched it twice before returning it. This was the type of balls-out black comedy that I'd been looking for.

It wasn't until recently when I really started looking at it as the ground-breaking work that it actually is. There is so much bubbling under the take-no-prisoners surface, but it gets coated in every bit of slick bleakness that it all you see is the black-as-night sugar coating, and not the radically political underbelly that Matthew Bright has concocted, inadvertently or intentionally.

Now, Matthew Bright was a person with ties to some of the Hollywood alternatives. He had been a writer and actor in Forbidden Zone, directed by Richard Elfman in part to highlight Oingo Boingo, whose leadership Richard had just passed to Danny Elfman, his brother. He had also scripted Guncrazy, the Drew Barrymore vehicle by Tamra Davis, wife of Mike D of the Beastie Boys and director of CB4.

Matthew Bright had ties. With Freeway, he made the move to also being a director, and scored an executive producer in Oliver Stone. And, with Freeway, Matthew Bright made the only movie that has any sort of quality, or at least mass appeal. It's hard to determine just how much of this movie is Matthew Bright's and how much is Oliver Stone's, especially given Bright's later works, Ted Bundy, Freeway 2, and Tiptoes. Yes, THAT Tiptoes.

Freeway is interesting in that it is possibly one of the most radically progressive scripts to ever come out of even the indie world with one of the most exploitative features even in the post-Tarantino world.

Bright took a Brothers Grimm cautionary tale of Red Riding Hood, and made it more adult. We're introduced to Vanessa Lutz, a high schooler, as she is being taught to read the sentence "The cat drinks milk." When she finally manages to figure it out, she makes out with her black fiance, Chopper, as a reward. The next scene introduces the audience to her mother prostituting herself on the street, and her stepfather smoking crack in the motel room they reside in. And, in the third scene, Vanessa is watching TV with her stepfather when the local news does a story on the I-5 Killer, who has been raping and killing teenage girls up and down the freeway.

Matthew Bright engages in one of the most effective storytelling setups ever. The main character is an illiterate Southern female criminal who is in an interracial relationship, her mother is a meth-addicted whore, her father is out of the picture, her stepfather is a crack-smoking pedophile, and there is a killer on the loose. Within minutes, her mother is pinched, the cops take away her parents, she cuffs the child welfare lady, and takes off for her grandmother's house with a basket of beer and a gun from her boyfriend who is also killed.

On the freeway, her car breaks down, and in walks Bob Wolverton, who is a school psychiatrist who probes her brain, then degrades her. He assaults her until she manages to grab the gun and take back the situation, and shoots Bob...who survives. And then they go through the court systems a bit before Bob is exposed as a pederast, and everybody ends up at her grandmother's house where Bob has killed the grandma, and is set to kill Vanessa.

Matthew Bright has created a movie with so many political issues.

First, Freeway is feminist. Sure, it's written by a man and has a male perspective. And, Matthew Bright's commentary is totally one of the most disturbing thing that has ever been put to disc, with Bright constantly perving over the bodies of the females in the movie, saying that this film is his "Ode to girls."  Which, *shudder*. I don't know if it is a joke, but he's just sounding creepy.  However, this is totally one of the feminist movies of the 1990s. Vanessa Lutz is a female who can only be a female. She is given agency, aggression, and is a victim of a system that is set up against her, but does not allow herself to be victimized. She accepts help when it is necessary, but otherwise, she's never a damsel-in-distress, nor is she a gender-neutral character. Vanessa Lutz is a street-smart girl who has a brutal sense of morality, but she does have a functioning sense of morality.

Which is more than most of the men in the movie have. Bob Wolverton is a rapist and a murderer. Both of the detectives think that she's a lying criminal because of her past of being a shoplifter, firebug, and was pinched for soliciting. Her stepfather is a lazy shit who molests her while her mother is out being a prostitute. Yet, the moral center is this strong female character who constantly looks after herself in a system that has been aimed against her.

Freeway is also progressive in sociopolitical ways as well. Much like the earlier Pink Flamingoes, whose opening song is actually used in the first scene of Freeway, Matther Bright is engaging in what most of polite society would call the dregs. This is a girl who came from a broken trailer trashy home, whose mother split from the father after she splashed chemicals on grandma's face. Her family is addicted to drugs and gets rent vouchers. These are ALL of the conservative hot button issues of how society is falling to the bottom.

Bright is also using these characters to contrast with the characters of Bob and his wife. Mrs. Wolverton is constantly shown in white and gold, which was in fashion with the yacht club elite. They live in a multi-level house in the suburbs, and own an SUV. They have a big yard, and basically have a lot of money. These are the "respectable" people, who even on television get called "heroes." Yet, Mrs. Wolverton is out for Vanessa's blood, and Bob is a serial rapist and murderer.

Freeway isn't a type of script that comes along all that much, because it is also a vital smooth black comedy which masks all of this through an over-the-top tonality that makes it feel as light as 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag, except hilarious. The last movie I can think of that had a strong female in the face of adversity and a focus on treating the poor as people of a certain morality, was the sour but great Frozen. Strong female characters are rare, especially unconditionally strong females. Movies like Gravity are being praised as Feminist because it is about a female who carries the whole damn movie, but this is a female who almost kills herself and has to conjure a male voice to give her strength. Not Vanessa. She may be troubled, but she doesn't need a man to give her strength. It is all female.

In turn, this movie may have benefited from being partically produced by Oliver Stone, whose fingerprint might actually be on this film. It is in the energetic phase of Stone's filmmaking, such as Natural Born Killers and U-Turn. The frequent jokes, visual puns (such as Freeway Entrance with a sign saying No Motorized Bikes immediately after Chopper being killed), aggressive people, moral amorality, and inversion of meaning have tones that seem to be founded in Stone's past as much as Bright's past. And, given Bright's "this is my ode to girl" commentary, one is left to wonder if it is more of Stone's movie.

But, in any case, Freeway is an amazing one-of-a-kind bullet of sexy violent leftism. It's almost a progressive screed saying "think of the children." It's fast, hilarious, smart, and brutal. Bright would never create a film of such nerve again.

Postscript: keep your eye on the jewelry, as that's almost a story unto itself. Vanessa starts off with a necklace that says "Foxy Lady" while also having stuffed teddy bear earrings. Meanwhile, Mrs. Wolverton is introduced with these earrings that look like a tchotchke cabinet of maybe religious symbolism puked on her ears. They're seriously the single-most ridiculous pair of earrings I think I have seen in a movie. Everything tones down a bit by the end, but man...those earrings.

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