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Tuesday 30 July 2013

Burl reviews Van Nuys Blvd.! (1979)

Hi, ha ha, it’s Burl! Would you like a taste of determined and consequence-free grooviness? Simply pop Van Nuys Blvd. into the old VCR machine, and you will be confronted with the very welcome sight of the Crown International logo, immediately followed by the even more welcome sight of a vintage Chevy boogie van booting down the road with Bill "The Pom Pom Girls" Adler at the wheel! Adler here turns out not to be playing the sullen loser or half-hearted bully he essays in the other C. I. releases that feature his high-pated greaser’s mug, no! Instead he sits proudly atop the cast list and serves as our representative naïf on a journey into the anachronistic fleshpot of Van Nuys Boulevard itself!
Adler plays Bobby (of course!), a car mechanic living in a small town somewhere in the American southwest! He’s got the fastest van in town, a good job, and a naked girlfriend waiting for him in his trailer; but he yearns for something bigger, flashier and more exciting, though as yet obscure in his dim imagination! A television news broadcast about the San Fernando Valley’s famed cruise strip, Van Nuys Boulevard, brings his dream into sharp relief! Here is what he has been waiting for: a community full of people as aimless as he, and moreover devoted to externalizing their aimlessness every Wednesday night by driving pointlessly up and down the same stretch of road, hooting, hollering, and revving their engines at random! The appearance of a ball-busting, cruise-hating cop in the broadcast does nothing to stifle Bobby’s enchantment: he takes off for Van Nuys there and then, leaving his gorgeous girlfriend, his trailer, and most of a beer behind! The disco theme song carries us through Bobby’s journey: “I got my wheels in motion… my love machine… Van Nuys!” As this gruelling number finally ebbs, Bobby stops his van, apparently to observe a beautiful sunset; but no, he’s reached the rim of the Valley already and is staring downward at the glittering, blithesome crosshatches, eyes wide, grooving on the pulsebeat of humanity that is spread out before him like an invitation card from God Himself! Ha ha, Van Nuys!

This being an updated, smaller-scale and less ambitious reworking of American Graffiti, as so many of these films are, there are more characters to meet, seemingly chosen at random! The film’s Fonz figure is “The Chooch,” the ponkiest guy ever, who drives a souped-up old hot rod and shares both the Fonz’s mercurial personality and tendency to refer to himself in the third person! Meanwhile, elsewhere down the strip, helping put the Van in Van Nuys Boulevard, Moon and Camille are driving around in their mean blue boogie machine, looking for action; and Greg, a ginger-haired suburban jerk with a maniacal laugh (a close cousin to grinning Bobby from The Van), is cruising around with his disposable buddy, looking for a beautiful girl he’d dreamed about three nights running! Hanging above them all, just as in Malibu Beach, is a big neon sign reading “Pleasure!”
Eventually, after being tossed into the same jail cell by Officer Al Zass, all of these characters form a kind of fun-gang! They ride roller coasters, disco dance, pair up, argue, kiss and make up, and they laze on the beach as a pig breaks loose and charges frantically up and down the sand! There are plenty of shenanigans, and then, after a surprising character shift by The Chooch – he scraps his denim vest, sells his hot rod, dons a pink flowered shirt and re-christens himself Leon – matters come to a head in the form of a drag race between Bobby and Moon! They’ve fallen in love, but also have fostered a fierce van rivalry that only a race can settle; and preferably a race that ends with a van rolling in slow motion down a steep, rocky hill!
Van Nuys Blvd. is a strange animal, predicated as it is on the notion that a person can be drawn to Los Angeles without any grand ambitions of movie stardom, but simply from a need to drive up and down a particular one of its streets! It’s a movie about the need for community, as are so many of these pictures; but this one is more up front about it than most! The ensemble cast hearkens back to its 1974 Lucasfilm template, and, like that picture, Van Nuys Blvd. doesn’t forget that “ensemble” is French for “together!” There’s great comfort in watching disparate strangers drifting together into an unit, opposing, as it does, the expansive, outward drift of just about everything else in nature, from the continents to the universe itself! Even if the alliance is as shaky as the one in Van Nuys Blvd., the natural impulse is to hope it holds together, and to feel gratified when it does!
The sport of cruising, too, is given more play here than I’d seen in any film since the George Lucas hit, and some of the reasoning behind this gas-wasting activity presented itself! At the tail end of a fuel crisis, with the emergence of such fearsome overseas bogeymen as OPEC into the public consciousness, the practice of expending fuel to go nowhere must have felt like a joyful booting of sand into the face of these obscure threats to the SoCal lifestyle! It was natural, if reflexive, to make movies celebrating this, and to drive your car to the drive-in to watch them: fuel consumption and exhaust fumes be darned! They didn’t know then what we know now, of course, and these days, even in Los Angeles, cruising is probably frowned upon as a filthy, needless and destructive activity! So documents like Van Nuys Blvd. have greater archival value as every year goes by, and, if they’re as aggressively inconsequential as that film is, they’ll always be fun to watch! I give this marvelous peccadillo three cases of lockjaw!

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