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The Sixties' Most Unforgiving Film Joe: the Sequel

The Sixties’ Most Unforgiving Film

by RON JACOBS

Of all the movies to represent the Sixties in the U.S., the John G. Avildsen-directed Joe has got to be the most unforgiving. For those unfamiliar with the plot, it goes like this. Joe, a loudmouthed working man played by Peter Boyle meets Bill Thompson, a Madison Avenue Brooks Brothers-suited executive, in one of the many neighborhood bars that Manhattan features. Thompson goes to the bar to calm his rattled nerves; nerves rattled because he has just killed his daughter’s junkie boyfriend in a fit of rage. As the beer glasses empty, it becomes clear to Joe (who has been railing against the counterculture, anti war protestors and blacks while Thompson quietly drinks) that Thompson has done something Joe only talks about. Thompson has actually killed a hippie. From this moment, an alliance as seemingly unlikely as it is unholy is formed. The story unfolds, with Joe and Thompson entering into each other’s lives-lives separated by class, but (as it becomes increasingly obvious) not by politics.

The final scene is bloody, emotionally explosive, and apocalyptic. This is when Joe and Thompson enter the rural hippie commune where Thompson’s daughter lives firing their weaponry. Their killing spree ends only when Thompson does the unthinkable: he murders his daughter in cold blood. Underneath his 300 dollar suit lies a heart as murderous as that of a Nazi storm trooper.

Besides being the most unforgiving of all the Sixties movies, Joe also serves as a metaphor for the political and cultural reality of that period’s wake. If Joe represents an American working class driven to bigotry and hatred due to their fear of the changes wrought by the Sixties movements, than Thompson just as surely represents the establishment culture that felt as under siege as Joe and his compatriots must have felt, albeit for somewhat different reasons. Of course, Joe feared the changes because he felt he would be left behind, while Thompson opposed them because he feared a loss of status and income. When placed in the larger societal context, the uneasy friendship between the two men in the film easily becomes the political strategy devised by the GOP in 1968 that married the Republican elitist leadership with poor and working class whites-a strategy that has helped the GOP win almost every national election in the US since then. The suited executive has cynically manipulated the working class individual’s fears of change (change driven by the economics from which the executive profits) towards reaction, bigotry and, ultimately, murder.

In today’s Washington, Donald Rumsfeld, with his urbanity and degrees, is the resurrected ghost of Bill Thompson who, when he has to, can cater to the Joes who make up much of the current US military’s front lines. Just like the executive Bill Thompson (as in William Thompson advertising agency) felt his class interests were being threatened by the upheavals of the Sixties and needed a working class Joe to bring out his murderous rage at those threats, so does Rumsfeld channel his murderous rage from and through those working class men and women under his command.

Although he has not actually pulled the trigger, he might as well have. After all, it was Rumsfeld who not only rejected intelligence that told his department that war against Iraq was unnecessary and foolish, but who also lied about that intelligence to the US public and the men and women who are risking their lives in this war. So, for all practical purposes, Rumsfeld loaded the gun and pulled the trigger. He didn’t kill his daughter, either, but he certainly has killed lots of other people’s children.

But what about the working class bigot who operates out of fear? Does s/he support Rumsfeld’s (and company’s) mass murder? Or has he learned to fear the class Rumsfeld represents more than the new and unknown as represented by the counterculture/antiwar movement in the film and the Muslim/Arab world today? Is s/he still willing to sacrifice her/his child at the altar of war-war that only enriches the god of mammon? Will the alliance made in the barroom of racism and capital continue to win out over the US working individual’s actual interests or will a more natural alliance made up of working individuals of all skin tones finally coalesce and take the country back from the reactionaries who have run it for decades?

Stay tuned for the sequel.

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground.

He can be reached at: rjacobs@zoo.uvm.edu