This week, Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal looks at a movie he recommends you check out on DVD.
It’s 1972, and the watch words around America are acid, amnesty, and abortion. Kids across the nation have already turned on, tuned in, and dropped out, leaving the country with a surfeit of stoned street musicians. They’re still trying to find the meaning of life and their place in the universe, however – and that’s what this peripatetic road movie is all about.
Enter Gary (Michael Burns), a winsome, rather innocent middle-class lad slumming it on the highways and by-ways of the good ol’ U. S. of A. He’s determined to experience life to its fullest and face every challenge squarely – and there are challenges aplenty (albeit mostly formulaic ones) in the 90-plus minutes of Thumb Tripping.
The story commences on a fog-bound central California beach near Big Sur as the local fuzz round up a batch of hippies for deportation to friendlier climes. Amongst the tribe are sleepy-eyed Shay (Meg Foster), a stereotypical hippie chick with a serious case of wanderlust, and the aforementioned Gary, a Connecticut refugee whose clean-shaven face belies an innate curiosity and questioning personality.
The two aren’t acquainted, but after casting knowing looks at each other in the back of the Black Maria, bingo – they’re traveling partners and lovers. An idyllic five-finger lunch in the sleepy seaside resort of Carmel finds love blooming and beachside soup boiling over as the twosome share a sparse meal of bread and broth with two fellow travelers biking their way up the coast.
Morning comes, however, and brings with it the first fly in the ointment for our protagonists. As they trudge north along the highway, destination anywhere, a speeding car nearly runs them over, and Gary loudly lambastes the driver with some choice language. That’s a big mistake, as the man behind the wheel is a complete loony named, appropriately, Simp (Larry Hankin). Even worse, knife-wielding hippie-hater Smitty, played to full tilt perfection by cinematic wild man Bruce Dern, is riding shotgun.
Incredibly, the four make a tenuous peace and Smitty and Simp offer a ride as recompense for their hazardous driving – but some rides are more expensive than others, even when there’s no money exchanged, and Gary and Shay soon regret accepting their hospitality. After a scary admonition from Smitty accompanied by some threatening gestures from his trusty blade, our clueless couple is once again looking for new transport.
They find it in the form of a woman (Joyce Van Patten) whose bitter curiosity about the hippie lifestyle stems from the loss of a runaway daughter. Matters aren’t helped by the additional presence in the car of the woman’s two incredibly bratty children, and after enduring a few maternal lectures there’s a mutual parting of the ways at the foot of a cliff. Luckily for Shay and Gary, however, friendly truck driver Diesel (Michael Conrad) takes a bathroom break above them, and after peeing all over the pair kindly offers them a warm and dry place in the cab of his big rig.
Alas, Gary’s faith in mankind is tested once again when Shay and Diesel engage in a little consensual hanky-panky at the next truck stop. Turns out free love is for HIPPIES, not bald working class guys, and jealous Gary breaks up the party and almost breaks up with Shay. But the two have one more adventure in store before the final fadeout: they meet Jack and Lynn, a grumpy married couple from Santa Rosa with a penchant for classic Chevy convertibles and open liquor containers. After a beer-drenched skinny-dipping and necking party and a drunken sojourn in a local bar, Gary has finally had enough and leaves Shay somewhere near the Russian River. He’s no closer to the meaning of life than when the film started, and he probably has a nasty set of blisters to boot.
Stoic Michael Burns got his acting start as an adolescent on television. He appeared in everything from Alfred Hitchcock Presents to Love American Style and Wagon Train before retiring from screens large and small in favor of academia. Thumb Tripping was Meg Foster’s springboard to success, and she’s had a long and moderately successful stage and screen career: her credits include Laurence Harvey’s notorious Welcome to Arrow Beach, 1980’s excellent sideshow drama Carny, and (ahem) Masters of the Universe.
Buxom Marianna Hill (Lynn), meanwhile, appeared in a pair of Elvis features as well as Medium Cool and The Last Porno Flick (which wasn’t). Michael Conrad’s eclectic resume includes roles in the bizarre war fable Castle Keep, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Un Flic, and a three year stint on Hill Street Blues, whilst Bruce Dern remains one of Hollywood’s finest character actors and Joyce Van Patten remains the sister of unctuous and ubiquitous TV actor Dick.
If you ever thumbed your way across the good ol’ U.S. of A. back in the heady days of the hippie era, you’ll love this film’s blend of clueless characters, gauzy cinematography, mellow pop-rock, and crazy outfits. If Thumb Tripping’s current owner did a cheap and easy digital transfer from Charter Entertainment’s out of print VHS tape they could probably shift a few thousand copies on the strength of Dern and Foster’s presence alone. The film’s extensive song-track and related music clearance issues may be contributing to its absence on disc, but this is a film that could easily hitchhike its way into your heart—and into your home video library.
John Seal writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.