“You’ll be surrounded by a constantly revolving inventory.
I am constantly annoyed by…well, a lot of things really. Chief among these this week is the fact that Kurt Russell has yet to be canonized in the Geek Hall of Fame (which, considering I just now made it up, isn’t actually too hard to understand). Besides starring in two of the greatest sci-fi and horror pictures of the 1980s (“Escape From New York” and “The Thing,” respectively), he has nevertheless managed to rise above the tar pit of B-movie ignominy in which many genre actors find themselves trapped. He accomplished this by starring in critically and commercially successful films like “Silkwood” (the movie that gave rise to my favorite conspiracy theory related verb, namely, “to have the brake lines on your car ‘Silkwooded’”), “The Mean Season,” and “Executive Decision.”
“Decision” is actually more notable for top billing Steven Seagal and killing him off in the first twenty minutes, not coincidentally making it the Pony Tailed One’s finest picture to date.
Of course, there have been dogs along the way (3000 Miles to Graceland, “Escape From L.A.”), but Russell’s résumé is as concrete as those of most of his contemporaries. Hell, the very fact that he was in one of my favorite movies of all time (Big Trouble in Little China) more or less lets him off the hook for anything he’s made with longtime partner Goldie Hawn.
That Russell started as a child actor at Disney gives lie to the future arc of his career, and after leaving Walt’s fold he was well on his way to playing baseball the rest of his life, if not for an unfortunate shoulder injury. Even upon Russell’s return to the small screen in a widely lauded role as The King in John Carpenter’s “Elvis” TV-movie, few would have guessed his first big screen Hollywood starring turn, as Rudy Russo in “Used Cars,” would end up being the cinematic prototype for sleazy and ingratiating salesman from that point forward.
“What are you, a f*****g parrot?”
Released in 1980, “Used Cars” surprised many people, few of whom suspected Russell – he who had played Dexter Riley in so many of the House of Mouse’s features – was really capable of portraying so unctuous a character. Capable salesman that he is, Russo’s only goal is to scrape together enough cash to buy a nomination to the state Senate, whereupon he’s confident he can achieve both respectability and a life of comfort, thanks to an unending stream of kickbacks and graft.
To this end, Russo works at the New Deal Used Car Lot. The lot is owned by Luke Fuchs (Jack Warden), an affable old codger with a bum heart who disapproves of Rudy’s underhanded methods to attract customers. He is especially displeased about those lured over from the car lot across the road, which happens to be owned by Luke’s brother Roy (also Jack Warden). (I should note that Rudy’s use of a fishing rod and a ten-dollar bill to “bait” customers from his competitors predates any similar gags – especially those on a certain reviled MTV show – by a good twenty years.) In spite of all this, Luke feels a certain amount of paternal affection towards Rudy, and he finally agrees to give Rudy the remaining $10,000 he needs to secure his nomination.
Unfortunately Roy L., clearly the evil component of the brotherly dyad, engineers Luke’s demise through the judicious use of a ’61 Cadillac and a former demolition derby driver. The way is now clear for Roy to snap up Luke’s lot which, thanks to a proposed onramp project, will soon have the best freeway access in the state. But alas for Roy, his sinister machinations are thwarted by the quick thinking of Rudy, Rudy’s fellow salesman Jeff (Gerrit Graham), and post-traumatic stress disordered mechanic Jim (Frank McRae), who bury Luke’s body and concoct a story about him taking off to Miami Beach.
Much like Hitler upon von Hindenburg’s death (but more because I needed a handy historical analogy), Rudy is now free from any constraints upon his behavior. Out the promised ten grand, he proceeds to pull out all the stops and institutes a number of outrageous cash-making schemes in an effort to round up the remaining funds needed for his ill-gotten senate nomination.
“You killed my dog, mister!”
Our senatorial hopeful’s plans are eventually complicated by the arrival of Luke’s long-lost daughter, Barbara (Deborah Foreman). The two hit it off at first, until she discovers that Rudy has, in fact, buried her father under the used car lot and lied to her about it. Barbara takes control of the lot and attempts to make a go of the used car business, but it soon becomes apparent she lacks the killer instinct to do so effectively. When Roy and his co-conspirator Sam Slaton (“SCTV’s” Joe Flaherty) use primitive film editing technology to make it appear as if Barbara is guilty of false advertising, it’s up to Rudy (suddenly not the unrepentant scumbag we’ve come to believe he is) to save her from the dreaded “Hanging” Judge Harrison (Al “Grandpa Munster” Lewis). He does so with the help of Jeff, Jim, a high school driver’s ed class, 250 cars, and a climactic automotive odyssey that is truly a relic of a bygone age.
Rudy’s promotional efforts, which include showcasing strippers and cutting into live television broadcasts to air commercials, probably came across as ridiculously over the top in 1980. In today’s advertising saturated world they honestly seem pretty tame. Real-life giveaways showcased in films like “Hands on a Hard Body,” prime time program-length advertisements for Victoria’s Secret lingerie, and stunts pulled in present-day reality shows have many antecedents in “Used Cars.” And while the horribly inept commercial Russo and company insert into a live football broadcast depicts the public as breast-obsessed troglodytes, what does it say about contemporary viewers that one of today’s most popular television ads depicts two women with enhanced mammaries ripping each others clothes off as they duke it out in a fountain? I’ll grant you that football game advertisements, in general, aim more for the groin (even by television standards), but slick, prurient advertising is nothing new in the Age of Unreason. From prescription drugs (where a voice warns us somberly of “side effects” like diarrhea and kidney failure) to aphrodisiac shampoo to our own politicians, everything has become a sales pitch. And a sordid one at that.
Cynicism in America, as in American cinema, was really hitting its stride in 1980. Not even five years removed from the fall of Saigon, the collective ego of the United States was dealt another blow by our impotence during the hostage crisis in Iran. Gas prices were spiking, as was inflation, and the likes of Spielberg and Lucas were worrying at the corpses of the independent-minded films of the ‘70s. “Used Cars,” while certainly an opus of excess and almost irredeemable greed, is far too broad to properly qualify as a satire. Those too thick to make the connection between used car salesmen and politicians may not watch enough cutting edge late night comedy (such as the biting commentary of Jay Leno), but even they have to recognize that as tired as the metaphor is today, it was “Used Cars” that introduced it: ushering in the now commonplace skepticism of sales folk and suspicion of politicians that we tend to take for granted.
Get the rest of the story in part two of FOOTAGE FETISHES: “USED CARS”>>>