Observe the shining, digitally foreshortened head of fifth-billed star Danny DeVito, who has seven minutes in this 1977 movie. The film's fame waned as DeVito's rose. No matter how tasty imitation cheese is in Superbad, doing its best to recapture the horn-dogginess of movies about wacky guys driving around aimlessly trying to score a chick, it's never quite as rank as the real thing. Sometimes, you have to get in time machine and set the controls for the heart of those more innocent times (more innocent to those who weren't alive during them, let me add).
I've been saving The Van for a long long time. The weather's good and I'm particularly craving some drive-in cinema, but in my neighborhood sitting in around in a car means either you're planning a drive-by shooting, or you're about to be drive-by shot. So I slapped this in, trying to pretend the sofa was the fake-fur covered padded seat of a van, front wheels raised on an asphalt berm, tilted at a 15 degree angle. As we can see from the Big Sky in the Wisconsin Dells, Shankweiler's (America's oldest!) in Pennsylvania or the noble old Skyview in Santa Cruz, Ca. the drive-in refuses to die. Likewise, this chunk of fragrant vintage idiocy somehow never ended up in the landfill. And it preserves so much DNA of the Stinky Seventies: chest-hair, porn 'staches, bell-bottoms, French-Cut t-shirts, man-perms, dirt beer, CB radios: it's all right here waiting for you. The red-headed, freckle-faced star Stuart Getz aka Goetz must have been hired since he reminded someone of Ron Howard in American Graffiti. He has drifted out of acting and into a long career as a hard-working sound editor; he's worked on a number of TV shows including Jack and Bobby, which is odd since in The Van he's playing a guy named Bobby who is friends with a guy named Jack (Harry Moses). That is what I call irony. Unfortunately, the director Sam Grossman broke the cardinal rule that the star and his best friend shouldn't look too much alike or else no one can tell 'em apart. At the beginning, the two very similar stars cruise around, newly graduated from high school. Things are going well between Jack and his girlfriend Sue (Marcie Barkin), but she always has her friend Tina (Deborah White) hanging around, and there's not much hope for double-dating since Tina thinks Bobby is a ween.
Bobby heads for work at a car wash, where his boss Andy (Danny DeVito) is too busy playing the ponies to take care of what's going on. Mucho gusty low comedy as Bobby gets caught in the machinery, trying to put the roof up on a convertible before it goes under the hoses. His jumpsuit gets ripped off. which is as close to nudity as we get in the much cut-up versions formerly available on cable TV. As payback, Bobby gives them all beers dosed with Castor oil, like Mussolini's thugs did in Amacord.
Happily, Bobby's brand new yellow Dodge Van, "The Straight Arrow" whisks him away to a beachfront pizza restaurant where so very much of this movie takes place. He's a big man with a van ("Look but don't touch! I haven't broken it in yet, if you know what I mean!") Unfortunately, the pizza joint is the haunt of a tattooed bully called Dugan (Steve Oliver) who is constantly challenging all vansters to drag races. (You may remember Oliver from such films as A Mission to Kill, Assignment: Survive!, The Kill Machine and Werewolves on Wheels, the last recently saluted here.) Maybe more interesting, or perhaps not, is something that Gilbert Gottfried pointed out when he was hosting USA Channel screening of this sucker some 15 years ago: that Oliver recreates the role of Dugan in Malibu Beach. No wonder the bully keeps referring to himself in the second person: "No one calls Dugan a turd!"
Actually, Bobby deserves a pummeling. With his new van, he hits up on the women. He beds a fat chick who hemorrhages his circular water-bed. He also gets it on with Dugan's neglected girlfriend (a fatigued blond in Daisy Dukes who decided to check right out of the b-movie business right after this movie). Fantasy sequences have Tina, glowing in gauzy soft-focus, walking up the red carpet to Bobby's amazing van, as if she were his special lady. The real clinches with Tina are a little uglier, and more like date rape. ("I'm not pawing you, I'm lovin' you!") Let's suppose that, as an actress, White smelled what was cooking. Instead of playing the stereotypical uptight virgin of the 1970s drive-in movie, she acts almost as ornery as Lili Taylor. Until they finally mend their differences, Bobby fools the world about his and Tina's relationship by broadcasting an 8-track tape of a couple making passionate love, whilst shaking the van vigorously from the inside.
A good deal of this movie is about somebody driving aimlessly around Moorpark in Southern California, the camera zooming in on the spinning mag wheels of the "Straight Arrow" as Sammy Johns supplies a painfully literal soundtrack, spun off of his 1975 hit "Chevy Van". Johns apparently had a career, despite some of the songs here ("Hummingbird, followin' his nose...") Photographer Irv Goodnoff brings in so many of the favorite surface details of 1970s film, pre-flashed beachscapes, solar flare on the lens, smoggy sunsets.
Near the last half hour, The Van offers up concentrated a dose of funk. It's a beach side rally of customized vans, some tricked out by a credited George "The King of Kustomizers" Barris; Barris was the designer of the real Batmobile, as opposed to the many four-wheeled poseurs that have rolled up the decades. They're all parked side by side: heart shaped port windows, chain-link steering wheels, exteriors airbrushed with sunsets, Indians on horses and cryptic mottoes ("Half Breed", "The Stow Away"). Inside: all the amenities, upholstered with fake fur that looks like the pelts of Dr. Seuss animals. You can see why a character would exclaim: "Hey, you're a stud! You've got a van!" How Grossman lured all these vans to that one spot may be explained; we see a picnic table with a sign reading "Beer 35 cents." Many beauty shots of cans of Lucky Lager would suggest that part of the film's budget was product placement.
Crown International, purveyors of psychotronic films, has a website of sorts. Its list of releases puts The Van in context with its other drive-in offerings; they were honestly crass, but some of them had a little style. Expect some old-schoolers to complain about the lack of innocence in Superbad compared to roots material like The Van, I won't, because Superbad made me laugh. But there's more of a female perspective in this 1977 story then Greg Mottola, Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen managed to get in Superbad. Think of Fast Times At Ridgemont High, the Cadillac version of the high school sex comedy: how it dwelt on what the girls were up to while the men (or rather boys) were working up their moves. Superbad is a step back from that kind of male-female evenness, and that's one thing that old movies had that the new ones don't.