There's a biblical verse from Ecclesiastes that I always mangle, about the house of mirth and the house of mourning; Edith Wharton used it for the title of one of her novels. This verse, to me, speaks to the fact that the concept of a guilty pleasure goes back eons: There was a time when all pleasures were guilty, and decades after the creation of film institutes and archives and repertory houses, the idea of cinema causing brain-rot still won't go away.  I want to get past the concept of guilty pleasures, and the idea that a film serving up car crashes and only the most gratuitous topless scenes can't possibly have any merit. It's all part of the critics' job of finding what's good about the popular, and popular about the good. Thus Used Cars. Despite its often screaming vulgarity, I'll never call it a guilty pleasure; if you look through the language and the craziness, you can find a dibolically smart critique of the two party system.

Kurt Russell, Disney juvenile turned rotter, plays Rudy, the sharky salesman at a decrepit Phoenix used car lot. Used Cars' title theme is the Sousa' march "The Stars and Stripes Forever"; cued up by Rudy, busily turning back the odometer on one old heap as he whistles "Hail to the Chief." Audiences of the day got the joke immediately. There used to be a famous poster of Richard Nixon, smiling enigmatically, over the caption "Would you buy a used car from this man?"

Just as Nixon was born to fool the world, Rudy was born to sell defective automobiles. Director Robert Zemeckis craftily weaves the camera through Luke Fuchs' New Deal Used Car's lot as Rudy starts his morning grip 'n' grin session with the multi-ethnic customers. Shaking hands with the right, Rudy uses his left to salvage the ancient cars around him -- in one case wadding bubblegum up to hitch up a sagging fender. Toby, the lot's adorable pet dog (who is in on the car lot's scams) gets the marks oohing and aahing.
categories Columns, Cinematical