Car Wash (1977 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, February 1977 (Vol. 44, No. 517). This is a movie I clearly went overboard about, even though I still might be inclined to defend it today, and I suspect now that I simply missed the boat by ignoring the screenwriter, Joel Schumacher — who, on the evidence of the subsequent D.C. Cab, surely qualified more as the auteur here than Michael Schultz. — J.R.

U.S.A., 1976
Director: Michael Schultz

Los Angeles. Lonnie arrives to open the gates of the Dee-Luxe Car Wash. Other workers turn up, including fancy dresser T.C. (“Fly”), who has a crush on Mona, a waitress at the restaurant across the street; Scruggs, who has just spent the night with another woman and is afraid to call his wife Charlene; Lindy, a flamboyant homosexual; and Hippo, Justin, Chuko and Goody. After Duane, an angry militant worker, arrives later, the white owner Mr. B drives up with his hippy son Irwin. A hooker escapes from a cab without paying her fare and hides in the ladies’ room. Irwin is ridiculed for hIs Maoist pretensions when he insists on joining the workers, and Calvin, a kid on a skateboard, turns up to pester everyone. A hysterical woman arrives to have her Mercedes washed after her son has vomited on it, but he vomits again after they drive away. Spurned by Mona, T.C. tries – unsuccessfully — to win concert tickets in a radio contest by naming a tune. The evangelistic, capitalistic Daddy Rich and his acolytes pull up in a gold limousine, to the delight of all the workers except Duane, who calls him a pimp. Chuck borrows Goody’s mouse-ear hat to frighten Marsha, Mr. B’s cashier; she takes revenge on Goody, who later retaliates by putting tabasco in Chuko’s sandwich. Loretta, Justin’s fiancée, arrives and argues that he should return to college, breaking off their engagement when he refuses. The hooker has sex with Hippo in exchange for his transistor radio. After several radio reports of a mad bomber, T.C. and Hippo chase a suspicious customer who proves to be carrying only a urine sample. After Mr. B flirts with Marsha, a handsome stranger makes a date with her. Lonnie is visited first by his parole officer, and later by his children. After Mr. B. fires Duane for coming to work irregularly, Lonnie tries unsuccessfully to intervene on his behalf and to secure a raise for himself. T.C. wins the radio contest and eventually convinces Mona to go out with him. Loretta returns, and she and Justin are reconciled; Charlene arrives in a pick-up truck and throws Scruggs’ suitcase out to him. While Lonnie is closing up, Duane tries to hold up the car wash with a gun; Lonnie persuades him to give up the gun and comforts him after he breaks down in tears.

At a time when many of the old-style forms of community-minded entertainment have virtually vanished from American cinema –- a demise unwittingly heightened by such Bogdanovich séances as At Long Last Love and Nickelodeon -– the special euphoria of Car Wash carries a particularly welcome charge. Harking back to the spirited flavor of some Thirties musicals, it remains specifically ‘local’ in its form of address, shaped by the contours of Afro-American culture and thus not always exportable in some of its nuances. The comedy of a barking dog in one of the customers’ cars, for instance, refers to the recent practice of whites training dogs for ‘protection’ against blacks, while the sharp satire of the Daddy Rich episode — directed conversely against the religiosity and middle-class values of the black community, with portraits of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King subtly integrated as relevant emblems –- alludes to too many indigenous institutions and attitudes to be fully intelligible in an alien context. More generally, the proliferation of scatotogical gags, undoubtedly as ‘vulgar’ as the breaking of comparable taboos inNuméro Deux, along with the parodicstereotyping of white characters, supply potential obstacles of another kind; and it must be admitted that, as isolated units, the script and music of Car Wash are in the main unexceptional. Yet thanks to the overall brilliance of the direction and performances, these factors operate more as challenges successfully met than as obtrusive obstacles. The exhilarating synchronizing of car-washing, dancing, editing and mise en scène to the title tune; the inspired delivery of insultsand comebacks (“Ain’t nothin’ lower than fly shit, man — not camel shit . . . not chicken shit”, or Lindy’s gay riposte to Duane: “Honey, I’m more man than you’ll ever be and more woman thanyou’ll ever get”); the graceful handling of slow-motion and fragmented editing to chart the descent of a bottle of urine (in the generally sophomoric Mad Bomber episode) and Calvin’s skateboard trajectories; the sly introduction of ‘white’ music to accompany and affectionately kid Marsha’s romantic yearnings; the ingenious Altman-esque use throughout of surrealist disc jockey patter – all testify to the emergence of Michael Schultz as an uncommonly assured and gifted director. Proceeding nimbly through an open narrative form of recurring and developing gags, the film falters only when certain running themes and details begin to acquire the status of obligatory and non-comic mini-plots, as in the two perfunctory scenes allotted to Justin and Loretta. Even here, however, the banality of the dialogue (“No college, no marriage”) assumes a song-like aspect which crops up elsewhere — for example, in exchanges between Mona and T.C. (“What’ll it be?” “You and me”), enhancing the musical feel of the film throughout. If the resolution of various dramatic conflicts involves a deliberate postponement of certain issues — Justin promises to discuss leaving work with Loretta “next week”. Just as Mr. B promises to consider Lonnie’s request for a raise “tomorrow” –- the gradual exposition of the crucial roles of Lonnie and Duane suggests a development of focus and emphasis that is less evasive. Initially shown as silent and sinister, and subsequently revealed as an ex-con, the former takes on an entirely different aspect when his children arrive, and by the end of the film, in his confrontation with Duane, clearly becomes the film’s central father figure, a positive contrast to the pathos of the exasperated Mr. B. Duane, who has been typed from the start as the movie’s only black militant, emerges more ambiguously — but no less decisively — as the most sensitive and traumatized character, in a comparable contrast to the ludicrous parody of Maoism represented by Irwin. Initially a figure of ridicule, he gradually becomes the film’s only spokesman for protest and despair -– his denouncing of Daddy Rich, shown in ambivalent terms, is the pivotal point so that a subsequent scene in which he plays his saxophone reveals a side of him that culminates in his final tears, at which point he becomes, after Lonnie, the movie’s most sympathetic figure. On the one hand, this conclusion seems simplistic and superficial, a last-minute shift of gears from farce to drama. Yet at the same time, given the wealth of social insight that has gone before, it is a powerful summation as well. Thanks to the expertise of Schultz and his vast, various characters and incidents — the loudmouthed cab-driver and his hilarious liberal pretensions; the hysterical Mercedes driver with Vuitton bag and vomiting son; the grand arrival of Daddy Rich in a long gold limousine out of Tex Avery; the ecstatic encounters of T.C. with Disco Dan, Mona and his own glorified self-image; the “Quittin’ time” gag quoted from Gone with the Wind; the wonderful image of big Hippo on his little motorbike — the film creates a dense and coherent world supporting this conclusion. “It’s all fallin’ apart, man”, Duane says, sobbing in Lonnie’s arms; “We’ll work it out together”, Lonnie replies. Conceivably the most sophisticated and accomplished ‘black exploitation’ film made to date, Car Wash expresses and embodies some of the complex truth of both sentiments, and for most of its running time is marvelously funny and inventive into the bargain.

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