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Lolly-Madonna XXX
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Lolly-Madonna XXX

Rarely if ever has a regional genre of movie (or fiction) basked in the heat of its own rampant seediness as wantonly as Southern Gothic. It's a subgenre completely contingent on exploiting an entire subculture's historical penchant for vice and stupid self-destruction, and as such it's always exuded as much bad-boy allure as cheesy perversity. Even when written by masters armed with Nobels and Pulitzers, it's a lowdown paradigm fixated on sin and scandal, brewed and fermented in a humid landscape exponentially less lawful, educated and civilized than the rest of the nation. In the 1970s, it enjoyed two varietals: the Depression-era nostalgia trip so phenomenally popular then, and the far nastier contemporary hillbilly saga that more or less began with John Boorman's Deliverance (1972). As genre obsessions go, it's one of those cases in which it's difficult to fathom, from today's standpoint, what American pop culture was thinking-why it was suddenly besotted with dentally-challenged Ozarkians. (The success itself of Deliverance-as troubling, traumatizing and unsoothing a Hollywood film as there has ever been-is puzzle enough.) The mechanics of pop-cult fads and interests can be mysterious, but what we got in the end was the fateful marriage between on-location '70s grit and Southern Gothic landscapes. The wild mythopoeia of the kudzu states had met reality.

Richard Sarafian's Lolly-Madonna XXX (1973) is a paradigmatic example, and one not commonly seen (or released on video). Here is a slice of backwoods Tennessee (filmed in the Appalachians), which, although a pre-credit montage of photographs plainly tells us the timeframe is the '70s, looks as though it hasn't changed a wit since the Hoover administration. Isolation away from things like who's President or what's happening in the world is part of the weedy terrain, which at first looks conscientiously un-art-directed. Adapted from Sue Grafton's book (her second, and the last before her abecedarian mystery run began with A Is for Alibi), the film never detours away from a single plot of land-a chunk of unfarmed, overgrown acreage amidst a web of dirt roads under dispute between two warring tribes, the Feathers and the Gutshalls. The cast & character itinerary is one of the film's most seductive points, with a murderers' row of actors eating the scenery and/or trying out their chops as youngsters. On the Feathers side, you get brooding psycho-dad Rod Steiger, take-no-guff ma Catherine Squire, and five sons: sociopath Scott Wilson, goofy criminal Ed Lauter, dimwit Randy Quaid, reasonably civilized Timothy Scott, and upstart Jeff Bridges, whose dead young wife is also an unhealed family wound.

The Gutshall line-up has timid pa Robert Ryan, weather-it all ma Teresa Hughes, and offspring Gary Busey (dumb but not insane), Paul Koslo (permanently nine years old), Kiel Martin (a hair-trigger troublemaker), and Joan Goodfellow (a virginal wild child and the clans' only daughter). Life with these slopeheads is all collapsing porches, pointless family spats, unwashed hair, and distrustful gripes. The trouble over whose land is whose has boiled down to one set of feral boys pranking another, until one prank-a postcard about a fictional visiting bride-to-be, named Lolly Madonna-inspires the Feathers to abduct a girl from the local bus stop.

The girl, played by Season Hubley in a sporty bob, was just passing through, but they don't believer her, and the situation goes from cold war to hot once the Gutshalls decide they should rescue her. An impromptu rape of Goodfellow's clueless tomboy by the worst of the Feathers (not Bridges' wholesome scion, with whom Hubley's aimless hippie girl forms a bond) simply kicks the tension into overdrive, and an all-out shooting war erupts between the families.

The movie does not suffer for lack of acting brio or regional texture--Sarafian, a busy TV director who suddenly became something of a generational voice with Vanishing Point and Man in the Wilderness, both 1971, exploits the dead-real poverty-haunted locations for all their worth, in a way that feels distinctly early-'70s. (This was when filmmakers from Dennis Hopper on 1969's Easy Rider and Boorman on Deliverance would just go to a hayseed backwater and use what and whomever they found there.) It's a deliberately old school, almost classical-mythic story structurally, ending as it does with a tragic two-way massacre that would've felt familiar to Aeschylus and Shakespeare. As the reviewer in Variety pointed out in 1973, you don't have to look far to see Lolly-Madonna XXX as a parable for what was happening then in global politics-meaning, we can presume, the cross-border warmaking in Southeast Asia. That's a pretty simplistic reading of the Vietnam War, if not of Sarafian's film, and anyway, the real glory of the film is its thorough American-ness, in its very-'70s devotion to specific provincial life.

Of course, the traditional postwar character-actor fireworks (Steiger, sweating) is its own spectacle; Hollywood acting always had a difficult time convincingly portraying very stupid people, but that never kept anyone from trying. The end product is earnestly doomladen, and inescapably an artifact of its era, a time when movies were freshly subject to a grungy grain-alcohol cocktail of social protest, youth culture empowerment, international cinephilia, low-culture realism, and prole restlessness. Which is to say, Lolly-Madonna XXX, as with so many films of the Nixon-'Nam days, could never be made today, and would also be an unlikely candidate for streaming today. Yes, American movies were once like this, all the time - fascinated with reality, hopped up on flyover-state cultures, and unafraid of unhappy endings.

By Michael Atkinson

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