"Eat My Dust, which opened yesterday at neighborhood theaters, is an exuberantly idiotic movie... The cast, directed by Charles Griffith, who wrote the screenplay, acts as though Eat My Dust matters. It doesn't." - New York Times
Hoover (played by the director of A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man) has a "going nowhere" job refilling hand towel and toilet paper dispensers. He still knows what he wants out of life though, and that's Darlene, the prettiest girl in all of Puckerbush County. But unfortunately for Hoover, Darlene has one condition before she'll go out with him; she wants a ride in a fast car. In particular she wants a ride in the 700hp Camaro that just won the race at the local track. So Hoover does what any sane man would; he walks into the pit and "borrows" the car in front of God and everybody, including his own father, the county sheriff. Joined by as many teens as can squeeze into the back of a Camaro (a surprisingly large number), Hoover and Darlene tear through the countryside causing thousands in property damage while mysteriously never harming a living thing. (This was years before the A-Team turned this into an art form.) The authorities give chase.
"The heroine... likes fast young men and even faster cars... Fun stuff, concentrating on action, not social or psychological problems." That quote, from Britain's Channel 4 review of 1957's Dragstrip Girl, pretty much sums up the philosophy behind many of the hot rod movies aimed directly at the teenage drive-in crowd of the 1950s. And Eat My Dust starts out as the same kind of pure teenage fantasy as it's rockin-n-rollin chicken-racing predecessors. In the jejune universe of Eat My Dust every adult is an utter moron ("Hey, Roy, I'm looking for a kid in a blue jacket and Civil War cap, much like the one sitting four feet directly behind you in that conspicuous horse drawn wagon that I somehow mysteriously don't notice. Have you seen him?"), underage kids can get beer with no hassle (Hoover himself actually refuses to drink while driving, which is probably for the best considering the devastation he causes while stone sober.), and the destruction of private property doesn't matter as long as everyone walks away alive (Not necessarily uninjured, mind you, just alive.). If you need confirmation that this movie is told entirely from the kids' point of view, look no further than the brief segment preceeding the final chase where the Camaro runs out of gas. While Hoover drives a buckboard (apparently not uncommon in Puckerbush County) to the store in order to con some free fuel, Darlene breaks into a friend's house to shower, borrow some fresh clothes, and make a call to one of her girlfriends while polishing her nails. The background soundtrack to all of this is not music, but rather the frothing tirade of the sheriff (Hoover's dad, remember) which is being broadcast over the local airwaves demanding that the couple turn themselves in. Every single kid shown has their radio on, but not one of them ever hears a word that's being said. (Every parent reading this just bowed their heads in despondent solidarity.)
Had Eat My Dust been made in the 50s, that's probably all there would have been to it. Fifteen minutes of exposition, seventy-five minutes of car chases and hijinks, the end, date over, hope she at least kisses me before she goes inside. But Eat My Dust was released in 1976, just seven short years after Easy Rider had ushered in a very different kind of road movie, artful car-centered films like Vanishing Point, Two-Lane Blacktop, and the anti-Easy Rider masterpiece Electra Glide In Blue (get thee to a video store and rent that one right away). These films were anything but fun and games. Comparing some of those movies, author and critic Danny Peary wrote, "All these characters are not heroes to admire - they are miserable case studies. The sad aspect of [Two-Lane] Blacktop is that while these two young men take their endless trip to nowhere in their cubicle on wheels, they pass stationary cubicles - houses owned by people of all economic classes - where lights go on to signal that there are people inside who are just as withdrawn and isolated from the problems/horrors of the world." During the early seventies, filmmakers no longer saw the American highway as a simplistic playground for youthful rebellion, but rather a stage for existentialist explorations of alienation and aimlessness. While referenced subtly (okay, blatantly ignored sometimes for a cheap laugh), the influence of these weightier less-than-fun films can still be seen and felt in Eat My Dust.
The odd thing, however, is that the detached attitude from those earlier 70s films is expressed in Eat My Dust, not through the main character of Hoover, but rather through Darlene. She's the one who relentlessly chants faster, faster, faster even when the speedometer begins to creep up into dangerous territory. Faced with the inevitable point-of-no-return decision, Darlene's the one who just wants to keep driving, even after the duo has admitted to themselves that they really have no place to go. When the gas runs out, Darlene is the one who insists that the car somehow be refilled and made ready to hit the road again before she'll finally give Hoover his promised reward. And at the end of the movie, when the ride is over and the car has been returned (see, Hoover really did just borrow it after all), it's Darlene who rejects any notion of a real relationship between the two. "It was never about me, was it?" shouts Hoover, to which Darlene just shrugs and walks off into the night wistfully considering where the next day's escape from reality might come from.
If Eat My Dust had ended right there, it could easily be dismissed as an enjoyable, but mostly forgettable, teenage fantasy romp with a bittersweet ending. And really, as a stand-alone film, it still can. (This thing is a looong way from being a masterpiece.) But there's one final scene which, when considered in the context of the meta-narrative of American road movies, gives Eat My Dust a much more important status than one would think it actually deserves. It's a simple scene, really. After Darlene fades away into the dark, the owner of the car emerges from the stands and offers Hoover a job as his new driver in the races. Hoover accepts and the credits roll. That's it. Again, taken alone, it's no big deal. But if you know your early 70s car movies, then you recognize that something has changed. In the wake of Easy Rider, movie characters traveling the roadways had become so disillusioned and so detached from society, that they saw no options left other than to keep driving until they went mad or died or both. Hoover just gets a job.
I know it sounds crazy, but I think what we have here in this little Roger Corman produced no-budget quickie from 1976 is nothing more than the first signs of a paradigm shift in the American conscious. (Okay, once you've picked your jaw up off the floor where it dropped in disbelief, we'll continue.) If critics like the aforementioned Mr. Peary are correct, and the road movies of the early 70s reflected an undercurrent of feelings of alienation and helplessness over Vietnam and Watergate, then Eat My Dust reflects an emerging attitude of getting through it and getting back to work. If you think I'm overreaching here then consider the fact that Smokey and The Bandit was released just one year later. In that movie, Burt Reynolds accepts a cross-continental delivery job, makes a bet he can do it in record time, and along the way becomes a folk hero. Folks, that's the EXACT same plot as Vanishing Point. But whereas the earlier film ends in fiery death, Smokey ends with Burt winning the bet and... accepting another job. Hah! Ridicule me all you want, but I believe that in the sub-genre of car movies, Eat My Dust represents the first shot fired against the spiritual malaise of the early 70s. (And the New York Times said it didn't matter.)
Of course, I'm saying this with 30 years of hindsight and a stack of film magazines next to me. It's highly unlikely that the makers of Eat My Dust had any such thing in mind while they were in production. (Ron Howard himself once dismissed the movie as nothing more than the one where Opie gets laid.) But knowingly or not, the battle against the prevailing mindset of the early 70s was going on in the arts. When Walker Percy, author of The Moviegoer (my kind of book title) and Love in the Ruins: The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World, was asked what worried him most about America's future, he answered, "Probably the fear of seeing America, with all its great strength and beauty and freedom... gradually subside into decay through default and be defeated, not by the communist movement... but from within by weariness, boredom, cynicism, greed, and in the end helplessness before its great problems." St. Gregory The Great had a term for this kind of life-robbing dreariness. He called it "acedia". These days we recognize it by its more familiar name of Sloth. That's right, Sloth, the red-headed step child of the seven deadly sins. (There goes my Irish readership.) Sloth gets little respect these days because whenever most people hear the word they usually think of simple laziness. (Or that guy tied to the bed in the movie Seven, but we're not going there.) But you have to think there's more to Sloth than just the basic lack of desire to work, otherwise why would the Catechism list it as one of the capital sins of man?
Capital sins, as the Catechism explains, are called such because they engender other sins, other vices. How does this work with Sloth? Father Paul A. Duffner, O.P. puts it this way. "Friendship with God has its obligations, and those obligations can in time come to be seen as burdens, as joy-killers rather than sources of joy; and can give rise to a sadness that stands in the way of fulfilling those obligations. This peculiar sadness, comments Fr. F. Cunningham, O.P., which leads to a neglect of the spiritual duties that flow from sharing in God’s friendship is called sloth... a kind of spiritual paralysis that leads to the neglect of our duties." Father Duffner goes on to add, "The sin of sloth causes one to shun many things because of the sorrow or unpleasantness involved, and to seek many unlawful things as a means of escape from his depressing state; and because of this it begets many other sins." This is exactly the state of mind the protagonists of the early 70s car movies find themselves in. Overwhelmed by the state of the world and the effort required to do something about it, they instead withdraw into the isolation of their car interiors, fall into reckless unlawfulness, and eventually lose their souls. Even Hoover, goaded by Darlene, seems to be on this route throughout most of Eat My Dust. But at the end of the day, when confronted with the harshness of reality, rather than follow Darlene into hopeless escapism, Hoover just gets a job.
And that's what we as Christians have to do sometimes when spiritual apathy begins to creep in. Father Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. advises that "to recover the spirit of faith, enthusiasm and generosity in the love of God, we must daily courageously impose little sacrifices on ourself in those matters in which we are weakest... The first steps are costly, but after a bit the task becomes easier... even when sensible joy is lacking." This is the exact point which dozens of better written, more intelligent blogs have made when addressing the recent Time Magazine article regarding Mother Teresa and her decades long struggle with feelings of spiritual loneliness. She didn't withdraw into herself and succumb to Sloth, she did the job, and tens of thousands of Indians are glad she did. Whether being fueled by joy or something even deeper, the Christian spirit can be pretty hard to stop once it gains momentum. Like Hoover said, it would take running into a wall or something. We just have to keep in mind that in Christianity the wall we most often run into is ourselves.
(I just linked Mother Teresa to Eat My Dust. This is either one of my proudest moments or deepest shames.)
Hey, if you think I over-analyzed a simple carsploitation movie, then you might want to avoid the DOCUMENT OF THE PONTIFICAL COUNCIL FOR THE PASTORAL CARE OF MIGRANTS AND ITINERANT PEOPLE: GUIDELINES FOR THE PASTORAL CARE OF THE ROAD issued by the Vatican on June 19, 2007. (Note to The Holy See: Please consider reassigning whatever bishop is in charge of coming up with document titles.) The study included sections on "The Pastoral Ministry for the Liberation of Street Women", "The Pastoral Care of Street Children", and "The Pastoral Care of the Homeless (Tramps)". But the only section that really got any press at all (other than a few indignant yelps over the use of the word Tramps) was "The Pastoral Care of Road Users" due to a small sub-section which stated, "We have drawn up a special “decalogue” for road users, in analogy with the Lord’s Ten Commandments." Yep, the Vatican issued a Ten Commandments for Road Users. (Fortunately, most of the jokes which followed were fairly good-natured.) Here they are.
- You shall not kill.
- The road shall be for you a means of communion between people and not of mortal harm.
- Courtesy, uprightness and prudence will help you deal with unforeseen events.
- Be charitable and help your neighbour in need, especially victims of accidents.
- Cars shall not be for you an expression of power and domination, and an occasion of sin.
- Charitably convince the young and not so young not to drive when they are not in a fitting condition to do so.
- Support the families of accident victims.
- Bring guilty motorists and their victims together, at the appropriate time, so that they can undergo the liberating experience of forgiveness.
- On the road, protect the more vulnerable party.
- Feel responsible towards others.