The lure of the impulse buy is a hard one for the film geek to resist. We’ve all fallen prey to those cheap box sets filled with forgotten Spaghetti Westerns, Kung Fu Films, Horror or whatever 35mm print someone found in their garage and was able to license for 3.97. Most of the time these films sit unviewed on the shelf still in their shrink wrap. Cheap License Theater is a weekly trip dedicated to exploring these cinematic backwaters of the not-quite-public-domain.
Worth Watching? Lets take a moment to talk about 42nd Street Forever. In many ways Synapse’s five volume set of the finest exploitation trailers known to man is the inspiration for this column. Each volume is packed with two hours of jaw dropping grindhouse goodness. They are mini film festivals curated with care that give an exploitation fan the best possible bang for their buck, which naturally leads the viewer to seek out some of the films featured.
Normally this is a mistake; the old maxim of the trailer being better than the main feature is doubly true in the annals of exploitation cinema. Too many of these films end up wasting their fun premises and trashy natures, and wearing out their welcome between the isolated lively moments that you already saw in the trailer. Every exploitation film fan knows the sensation of slumping back as the credits roll realizing that you have just wasted your time (Wicked, Wicked I’m looking at you).
But of course no matter how many times you slam your finger in the door, you don’t always learn your lesson. There are films that look so unlikely you just have to witness them. Van Nuys Blvd. is one of those films.
This may not seem like the most irresistible of films but the thing is I’ve actually driven down Van Nuys Boulevard in full and take it from me, there is nothing there but some particularly disheartening sprawl; an endless pattern of courthouses, jails, bail bondsmen, tire stores, fast food joints and vacant strip malls. Someone portraying that parade of human sadness as a kind of happy go lucky paradise filled me with perverse curiosity and glee.
Van Nuys Blvd. opens with the lead, shaking the dust of small town life off his feet and breaking up with his girlfriend with some startling dickishness. You see, he has just witnessed Officer Stuffy Old Dean Who Needs To Be Taken Down A Peg Or Two announce that he’s going to single handedly shut down the non stop party on Van Nuys Blvd.. Incensed that he may soon have no place to show off his sweet ass van (Rarely has such a car centric movie featured such unbelievably shitty cars.) he heads out to promised land of Van Nuys Boulevard. Right in the heart of The San Fernando Valley, AKA where you go in LA when your soul has died and you need a place to wait around while your body catches up.
The obvious inspiration for the film is American Graffiti, when everyone and their uncle was ripping off Star Wars it is almost comforting that someone thought to copy his other films. Of course it’s scavenging off Lucas’s leavings five years after the fact. Which is doubly ironic given that Graffiti was above all else a paean to nostalgia. Meaning that Van Nuys Blvd. is trying to convince you that a subculture that was fifteen years dead when it was being eulogized, was miraculously alive and thriving five years later.
Of course Lucas’s film was also a poetic nostalgia fueled daydream. A melancholy and wistful look at lost innocence and a humane, funny slice of life that had remarkable empathy for its entire cast. I’ve always said that the worst thing about Star Wars is that it derailed the career of the man who made his first two films. It should surprise no one to note that Van Nuys Blvd. is exactly none of these things.
It is however, is kind of fun, in its own very special way. Van Nuys Blvd. is an exceedingly good natured film, its good will matched only by its incredible dopiness. It’s filled with hijinks and enough T&A to make Bob Clark blink. This film beats out Heavy Metal Parking Lot in The Guinness Book of World Records for number of scenes of people having sex in the back of vans.
There is a certain early Larry Cohen interest to some of the film the obvious guerilla style catching a Los Angeles that doesn’t exist anymore. It’s fair to say there’s a more interesting film happening in the background of the frame than in the foreground. Though laughably the filmmakers seem to have come to the same conclusions I did about Van Nuys Blvd. (i.e. “Who the fuck would want to watch a movie set in that shit hole?”) and placed much of the action elsewhere, Malibu, Magic Mountain, basically anywhere that isn’t Van Nuys Blvd..
I can’t make any great claims for Van Nuys Blvd. as great cinema, but it’s good natured and I had a fun time watching it, even if I’m not exactly passionate about the prospect of a revisit. On Cheap License Theater that’s just about breaking even.