PATTI ROCKS (1987) ***
Mid-thirtyish Billy works on the river in Minneapolis-St. Paul. He is as sex-obsessed a macho compulsive as has ever ungraced the screen, and then some. The expression "working-class stiff" takes on a new meaning in his case. At Christmas time,his latest girlfriend (who lives far away) informs him on the phone that she is pregnant. He panics, wants to tell her that he is married, with two kids, but he lacks the necessary guts. He calls up his former best friend Eddie (Jenkins) who is older and a garage supervisor. They had not met ever since Eddie had fired Billy. Billy talks his reluctant pal into driving with him to the city where Patti (Landry,Mulkey's wife at the time of filming) lives and somehow help him break the news to her and talk her into an abortion.
The drive through a bleak Midwestern landscape takes up much of the movie. The two men are skillfully photographed and recorded in a moving car as they talk and talk and talk, exclusively about sex. The car becomes like a barracks plus a locker-room on wheels as Billy, guzzling beer and tossing the empty cans on the back seat, delivers a non-stop commentary on his urges, accomplishments, and nauseating notions about women. His exploits may be in part fantasies, but the language is very real. Even by low-life standards, it breaks records for grossness, foulness, scatology, pathological male chauvinism and misogyny. Eddie shares the drinking and supplies the amen-type reactions. But he laughs so much and so loudly that we suspect he is unconvinced by his friend's notions,lifestyle and verbal excesses. Indeed,Eddie, a rather gentle and sad-looking man whose wife left him, has his own problems. At one point he refuses to stay on the trip.
The long ride is interrupted by an encounter with a skunk. This forces Billy to throw away his pants and undershorts and to borrow Eddie's shorts, which he will wear, trouserless in the snow (mercifully the winter is mild) to the end of the film. There's also a very crude -- and funny -- encounter with a faded prostitute who challenges Billy to prove his phallic boasts.
Up to now, much of what's happening may seem pointless. In fact, the first meeting between the two men made me think that there was a homosexual subplot somewhere, an impression reinforced by Eddie's looks and manner. When this turned out to be a wrong lead,"Patti Rocks" felt like a movie trying to get out of a non-plot. Yet when the two men reach Patti's place, you realize that the film had already emerged, that what seemed to be a protracted overture was actually Part One of Two.
Patti turns out to be a surprise, a human being and not, as advertised by Billy, merely a piece of you-know-what. Neither a floozy nor a romantic heroine, she is sensible, self-controlled, natural, and in her simple way, likable. She may be a sucker for Billy as a bedmate, but she has realism, allies resilience with compassion and a kind of proletarian generosity. She has decided to have the child, and laughs at Billy's menace of suing her "for theft of semen." When Eddie, urged on by his friend, goes into her bedroom to tell her about Billy being married -- which Patti calmly suspected all along -- a bond of sympathy born of newly revealed sensibilities is formed between those two. It leads to some sweet, pathetic love-making, then to a temporary outburst by Billy, followed by a friendly breakfast "a trois," where Billy gets maudlin with the photos of his kids. It also leads to Patti's friendly dismissal of Billy. Eddie, long womanless and affectionless, may have started a new relationship.
As both men ride back to the Twin Cities, the unreconstructed Billy, always seeing himself as God's gift to women, explains that the ideal would be pay-as-you-go sex. Without complications or commitments, he can get the flesh he needs the way you shop for beef in a supermarket.
It goes without saying that "Patti Rocks" is not for all audiences, or even for most. Billy's disgusting language and "philosophy" ("it's a man's world, baby" is the mildest thing he says) make it a turn-off. But if an amply forewarned viewer does watch this film and does not walk out prematurely, a great deal of truth surfaces: about men, women and male-female relations; about loneliness, incommunicability; above all the violent reaction of men scared by women as equals.
Truth is not beauty here. Billy seems aberrant, even by extreme standards, yet a nagging suspicion remains that behind the exaggerations the characters essentially represent attitudes that are far from unusual.
This is a maverick movie that cannot be judged by ordinary screen standards. Interestingly, this work where women get so very demeaned and verbally mauled, ends up as an oddly feminist film.
Most of the time the acting is very convincing, as if the players were behaving rather than performing, and we were observing them voyeuristically with a hidden camera. In fact, the three actors and the director built this film on improvisations. Filmically there is a questionable area though, as Billy is too much of a dumb jerk to make his relationship with either Eddie or Patti really credible.
Director Morris is the Minneapolis independent who made "Loose Ends" in 1975. "Patti Rocks" is a sequel. This explains the "12 Years Later" mention at the film's start. "Loose Ends" starred the same men as "Patti." It was written by Victoria Wozniak, who became, then unbecame, Morris's wife. By "Patti"'s release, everyone was on a second or third marriage. This somehow adds to the film a lot of veracity -- and not much hope.
"Patti" was made for only $350,000, a pittance, but one that's just right for the subject. The problem was with the original rating, an X given for its piled-up verbal obscenities. Upon appeal it was changed to an R, a very strong R no doubt, yet one that goes naturally with a picture that should perhaps be placed in a time-capsule, so that beings of the future can find out how a certain segment of our population sounded and behaved in the late 1980s, if not also before and after.