“Shit has its own integrity,” Gore Vidal recalls a wise old hack telling him during his Hollywood screenwriting days. Indeed, even in cinematic claptrap we can find interest and inspiration along with our guilty pleasure. This is, I hope, the first in a series of pieces on people in films and other media who, despite their shortcomings, offer alternatives for discussions of men’s style beyond the Astaire-Grant-Coop hegemony of taste on which Will relies. So to his snark-free, thoughtful exegeses à la David Denby, I offer to play Joe Bob Briggs, gleefully panning for gold in the muck at the bottom of our cinematic barrel. Today, 1974’s Truck Turner.
Three years after Shaft, Isaac Hayes starred in and did the score for this amazingly over-the-top film about a man who’s so badass he can cutoff Sweet Sweetback’s song and make Dolemite look alike Jerry Maguire, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka look like any other Wayans brothers movie and Michael Jai White’s Black Dynamite take his call while he’s “doing his Kung Fu.” Hayes, at his most incredibly imposing and brutally physical, plays football star turned bounty hunter and all-around tough guy Mack “Truck” Turner, because Brick “Shithouse” Turner would have been too subtle. Turner isn’t out to stick it to The Man, but like his namesake it’s just how he rolls, and you better get out of the way. He’s a man so complicated not even his woman understands him, so he gets her put in the LA County Jail for 30 days to keep her safe, which from personal experience is pretty hardcore.
Yaphet Kotto plays a gentleman entrepreneur of the evening named Harvard Blue, whose incongruous name and career are supposed to indicate a character equal parts prep and pimp, sober and flamboyant, intelligent and brutal, in contrast to his competitors’ cowardice, tastelessness and venality. Dressier than Hayes’ Turner and more sober than the rest of his rogues’ gallery, Kotto’s Harvard Blue strides a line of stylishness that seems surprisingly timely today. That was my thought, anyway. In going back through clips and stills from the movie to find his definitive look, an exotically colored cashmere rollneck Kotto carries off with as much panache as Marvin Gaye on an episode of Hef’s 1960s variety show Playboy After Dark, most of the outfits I saw him in were Pimp Lite. I finally found the sweater scene, a gorgeous fuchsia paired with tartan trousers. By the standards of the 1970s blaxploitation genre, positively restrained, particularly in comparison to the double-breasted ¾-length fur-trimmed topcoats, orange or deep blue shirts with prominent collars and white sports jackets Kotto sports in other scenes. On reflection, those help make Harvard Blue‘s wardrobe so relevant, since Tom Ford has been laying the foundation for this about-face in menswear since 2006. Ford’s bold shoulders and exaggerated lapels, tie widths and use of color and pattern are as over-the-top, ur-masculine and self-consciously camp as his signature chest-hair-peeking-through-unbuttoned-shirt-and-male-pattern-baldness-sexyface look. Over-the-top and boldly, perhaps transgressively, sexual. It’s not too long a shot to draw a comparison between this aspect of the contemporary fashion undertow (it’s not yet fully apparent, but boy will it get you) and the transgressive sexuality of these genre film characters, both in the color of their skin as sexually powerful characters for a racially mixed audience and in their actions as antiheroes and criminals – no one in this movie is a model minority, and you wouldn’t dare guess Truck Turner is kicking in your door to come to dinner. Perhaps less controversially, Harvard Blue transgresses sartorial norms held by a certain number of men with pretensions to caring about style. The colors and details of his clothing also appropriate and transform class symbols – like that of the name “Harvard” itself and all it evokes. His turtleneck would have been WASPy riding or country wear, but never in the color he wears. Yet for the appreciable percentage of us who would only have appeared in Lawrence Fellows’ Apparel Arts images as train porters, bartenders or natives, these proscribed colors work. And even to this role as a suave thug, Kotto brought the poise and dignity that makes him the finest Jewish Cameroonian prince currently working in Hollywood.
Kotto starred in this movie right after appearing in the Bondsploitation film Live and Let Die, in which 007 battles his most frightening foe to date, black people. As Kotto mentioned in commentary to that film, after appearing in a Bond film he wanted to be Bond, in real life, with the wardrobe, the drinks, the obligatory seamless arrival from first class cabin to waiting limousine to a suite at the best hotel in the city: all the seductive luxury of what he later recognized to be a self-destructive dream. None of us can do any better.
Other reasons to watch the film: Star Trek’s Uhura, Nichelle Nichols, as a foul-mouthed madam, and every cliché of the blaxploitation movie rendered so vividly it enters self-parody, from a ludicrous pimp funeral procession to a knock-down, drag-out final shootout in a hospital. Also, and I repeat: Isaac Hayes kicking butt.
Returning to my subject, our choices for inspiration aren’t just between hero and villain, nor do I intend to imply that pimps are role models for any segment of the population or the population at large. Sometimes, though, we can find an example in a trashy movie instructively flamboyant. In the end, and notwithstanding po-faced internet solipsists, it is clothing, not ideology. As Truck Turner literally shows, there is more than one way to skin a cat.
Monday, December 12, 2011
-Réginald-Jérôme de Mans