I am grateful to the editors of JUMP CUT and to Rudy Eiland for their help in developing this article.
1. Animal House, Caddyshack, and Porky’s are all “lovable loser” stories and Airplane! is a classic gag comedy. The structure of Honky Tonk Freeway is determined neither by the gag nor the exploits of any misfit group. As will be shown, it has a more comprehensive and riskier aim, especially for a British-born director. Another comedy of the period with which Schlesinger’s film bears a superficial resemblance is Kentucky Fried Movie (1977). [return to text]
Whereas the latter is made up of a series of largely disconnected sketches, Honky Tonk Freeway weaves together through seamless camera movement the stories of its characters until the climactic scene when they converge. The artists and technicians who worked with Schlesinger often emphasize his “complete unity of purpose” in bringing together all the elements of a film, as cinematographer Billy Williams put it (Schaefer274). John Bailey, who directed the cinematography for Honky Tonk Freeway stresses Schlesinger’s masterful sense of coordination:
“Honky Tonk Freeway was restrained chaos in the sense that it could have been a mishmash of unrelated incidents. But Schlesinger had a strong sense of how it should all weave together and how the sequences should dance….It’s so easy, in films of that scope, to be visually all over the place. But Honky Tonk Freeway is a very disciplined film…” (Schaefer 71-72).
2. Another film that made far less profit than anticipated in this period was Steven Spielberg’s 1941 (1979), a comedy about a panic in LA after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The film gained popularity later when an expanded version aired on ABC.
3. For background on the film industry in the early eighties see the discussion of Universal Pictures in Prince’s “The Industry at the Dawn of the Decade” (A New Pot of Gold 11-12).
4. In his Introduction to American Cinema of the 1980s, Stephen Prince points out that while the myths about U.S. films of this period include the conviction that “Hollywood film mirrored the politics of the Reagan period,” this proposition is only “partially true” (American 1). Prince does not discuss Honky Tonk Freeway but he gives Schlesinger’s The Falcon and the Snowman (1985) as an example of a film that did not endorse “the claims of Washington’s cold warriors” (American 12), as films such as Rambo: First Blood II (1985) and Rambo III (1988) obviously had. It’s possible that the spirit of Honky Tonk Freeway may have arisen in part out of what Frank P. Tomasulo refers to as the “bifurcated American zeitgeist” of the seventies. (In “Movies and Cultural Contradiction” Tomasulo cites Frederic Jameson’s ideas on “the nation’s split-sensibility to itself and to the rest of the world” [Tomasulo 160]). In addition to reflecting the American zeitgeist, however, Schlesinger experienced another kind of bifurcation in being British. Also, like many British artists, he uses irony as a method of comprehending opposing ideas and feelings about national character and allegiance. See my essay on Schlesinger’s grasp of problems of national identity in this period, “An Eye for an I: Identity and Nation in the Films of John Schlesinger.”
5. The popularity of the HBO series Little Britain USA (2008), which provides an ironic take on U.S. mores, is further evidence of the development of taste in the United States for irony directed at U.S. society.
6. In casting D’Angelo as the lustful Carmen, Schlesinger made use of the echo provided by her recent performance in Hair (1979). Directed by Milos Forman, Hair was adapted from a Broadway musical about a Vietnam War draftee who is later killed in the war. D’Angelo plays his debutante-turned-hippie lover and the film ends with an anti-war protest outside the White House. In both films, D’Angelo plays a mourner.
7. One reason for the success of the revival of Spielberg’s 1941, referred to in note #2,may have been owing to the widespread familiarity of its comic actors—for example, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd.
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