Often, it can seem as if the only b-movies that get made are throwaway attempts at a quick payday, à la something produced by George Weiss or Roger Corman. Occasionally, a shitty movie will have artistic pretensions. It will a be a filmmaker’s magnum opus or a collaborative stab at something meaningful — an earnest attempt at telling a story or making a statement. Earnestness is no sure sign of success, as today’s film would attest, but it’s also not something that can be dismissed out of hand.
Pick-up, the 1975 film from screenwriter John R. Winter and director Bernard Hirschenson (both also produced), is a road trip flick from the end of the hippie era. It’s contemplative, more interesting than it has any right to be, and also drive-in sleaze. That’s quite a combination. Winter’s script is as thin as onion skin, but versatile enough that it could have been used in a contemporary adult film, the b-movie that did use it, or something that makes the rounds at film festivals. The final outcome was down to the resources available and the people involved.
The film stars Jill Senter and Gini Eastwood as best friends Carol and Maureen. The two are hitchhiking through Florida when they are picked up by Chuck (Alan Long), a young man who has been hired to transport a mobile home that is needed in Tallahassee. Chuck has the whole bus to himself, and doesn’t seem all that concerned with reaching his destination by his deadline. All three characters being free spirits, they seem more concerned with smoking pot and reading tarot cards than anything else. Storefront occultism and mysticism become something of a theme in this film, enough so that there is an astrological advisor listed in the credits.
Shortly after the characters are introduced, Chuck gets lost and the motor home ends up mired in some swampy mud in the middle of nowhere. And that is where the rest of the film takes place. The only exceptions being short flashbacks where viewers get a glimpse of the trio’s separate backstories. In these, Maureen was abused by a priest, Carol was a teenaged slut, and Chuck’s mother was weird.
While lost and stuck in a swamp, miles from civilization, they aren’t concerned at their plight. Carol and Chuck treat it as if it’s a day trip to the woods, running around like naked pixies and fucking each other’s brains out. Meanwhile, Maureen is plain nuts. She has constant hallucinations, some of marbled, Greek-like religious altars (as much as the production could afford). Mythical beings speak to her and offer clues to greater truth and understanding, and the longer the stay in the swamp, the more these visions distress Maureen. All of this builds to an inevitable climax lifted from Easy Rider or any number of similar works. It’s the journey towards this climax that matters to the viewer, as it’s a bit of an endurance test.
For a second, I’d like the reader to put themselves into the mind of the drive-in moviegoer of the mid-1970s. Picture someone young, possibly in high school. There’s not a lot of cash in hand but not that many places to spend it in their small city or town. It’s a Friday night and the best place to spend time with boyfriend or girlfriend is at the drive-in. It doesn’t matter what’s playing, really, since so much of the time will be spent sucking face. This movie, with its dreamy and meaningless middle section, is perfect for this, especially with all the gratuitous nudity thrown in. All the artistic crap is just that...crap. It’s filler to give this movie a respectable running time, while the tits make sure it has a decent run.
At the same time, this is obviously a project that everyone involved believed in. It’s a stunning contrast.
None of the principals involved had any feature filmmaking experience, with the exception of Hirschenson (whose experience was limited), and it shows. Most of them have this one film as their only credited work on IMDb. It’s expected that they would make trash, and they did. If it isn’t clear by now, though, this film is always more than just one thing.
Does that make it pretentious schlock? Well, it’s schlock. But it’s also a good thing that Hirschenson and company reached for something higher than that of which they were capable. It may be bad art, but it’s still art. Pick-up just misses making it into the top half of the Watchability Index, punching above its weight at #167 and displacing The Eye. If one is sick of the same old bad sci-fi or cheesy action flicks but still wants to see some shit, Pick-up is a decent choice.