The Loveless remains much as its title suggests – unloved and unknown outside a core few who consider it an amazing motorcycle film.  The first-time feature for Kathryn Bigelow, who went on to earn two directing Oscars for her meditations on US/Middle East relations (The Hurt Locker and Zero DarkThirty), The Loveless bombed at theaters when released in 1981, but showcased Bigelow’s genius twenty years before the Academy realized who they were dealing with.

Willem Dafoe in his first feature film role, as Vance, the ultracool leader of a motorcycle group traveling from Detroit to Daytona in 1959. [The Loveless]
Ms Bigelow, who co-directed with Monty Montgomery, had clearly studied Kenneth Anger shorts during her film school days, as The Loveless is a visual homage to Anger’s uncanny eye; he understood better than anyone at time – and schooled generations of filmmakers and ad men – that the cine-camera has the power to transform any object into an Icon.  While Scorpio Rising brewed up a mind-altered gay/Satanic/biker bacchanal (fueled by the first explicit use of powdered amphetamine in a biker film), Anger’s raw honesty (these were his gay biker buddies in real life) is locked and loaded in Bigelow’s hands for a shotgun blast at Happy Days (the #1 TV show at that time) and Reagan-era lobotonostalgia.

Willem Dafoe on a c.1955 Harley Panhead ‘Hydra Glide’. [The Loveless]
The storyline is a Southern highway collision of Easy Rider with the Wild One, upping the ante on both films with talk of jailhouse ‘joybangs’, and Faulknerian family drama.  The film opens with WillemDafoe as Vance, in his first big screen role (after being fired from Heaven’s Gate!), an intimidating, greasy, and ultrasexy biker sleeping like Satan in the wilderness, right beside his Panhead.

Pals from prison: Lawrence Matarese as LeVille, Danny Rosen as Ricky, and composer Philip Kimbrough as Hurley. [Jeannette Montgomery Barron]
I wasn’t going to be no man’s friend today’, the movie begins, and he shortly proves his point when encountering the mythic Thunderbird from American Graffiti  – with, appropriately, a flat tire – complete with a round-heeled beauty waiting for a Real Man to rescue her.  Vance is a real man all right, and sees through George Lucas’ cliché-laden script, taking his payment from the Thunderbird goddess in a way we don’t see coming.

The late NYC novelist Tina L’Hotsky as Sportster Debbie: ‘Do I look affected?’ [Jeannette Montgomery Barron]
Vance’s gang soon appears, complaining that a primary chain has snapped; they need to make repairs, so are stuck in a no-name truck-stop town in Florida, en route to Daytona for the bike races. We learn the gang is recently sprung from prison, and tension quickly builds with the locals, echoed by Robert Gordon’s smokin’ Rockabilly soundtrack, as he plays himself, sort of, as Davis, well amped on ‘vitamins’ poured – in a quote from Scorpio Rising – from a salt shaker.  The dialogue is as curt and as stylized as the art direction, loaded with Americana and period quotations; yes, you’re in 1962 America … where lynch-mobs cool off with a Coke and a smile.

Prison habits die hard; Willem Dafoe (Vance) and the underage Marin Kanter (Telena) get to know each other in the Notell Motel. [The Loveless]
Vance is soon distracted by a sexy little vixen in a red Corvette, the seriously underage Telena (Marin Kanter, next seen in The Fabulous Stains), who reveals the car as a guilt-gift from her father (J.Don Fergurson as the deliriously despicable Tarver). When Vance meets Telena, the film explodes with shotgun blasts, incest, boys with pink underpants, murder, drag races, strippers, and suicide.

A Coke, but no smile? Iconic American symbols saturate the film, and rockabilly legend Robert Gordon provides much of the soundtrack. [Jeannette Montgomery Barron]
Somehow, Bigelow and Montgomery managed to keep these B-movie Bikesploitation plot points firmly steered towards the Art House, while the whole wicked machine flew right over the heads of critics and unsuspecting viewers alike. It still does. The Loveless is triple-clever, deserving multiple viewings to savor the spare dialogue, gorgeous visuals, amazingly hot Willem Dafoe, and superb soundtrack. Watching it, you’ll feel just like Sportster Debbie after a drunk trucker goes down on her – unwashed and nasty, but knowing it was good.

Veteran character actor J.Don Ferguson as Tarver: ‘We all got to get some on us, sometime’. [The Loveless]
Robert Gordon goes ape shit in a critical scene, but not is all as it appears to be in this small Southern town… [The Loveless]
 

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