The Pink Angels (1971)
Directed by Lawrence Brown
From Drive-In Cult Classics: Volume 3
Navarre Corporation, 2008
Very little has been written about The Pink Angels (Lawrence Brown, 1971), mostly due to its limited distribution. Thanks to a release on the Drive-In Cult Classics: Volume 3 DVD box set, fans can now discover a film that has been relegated to a footnote in studies of the bikesploitation film genre. The Pink Angels is an example of the outlaw biker film’s decent into parody and crosspollination with other genres, in this case “gaysploitation.” While this is true, explaining The Pink Angels only in terms of genre does not capture how bizarre and unique this film is as a cultural document of the early 1970s. Watching The Pink Angels is a confounding experience, as the film continually thwarts its own themes and ideology. While some scenes contain a stark and minimalist realism, other scenes revel in lowbrow humor and blatant stereotypes. This makes it a particularly difficult text to master, since it contains contradictory information throughout.
The Pink Angels follows the episodic road movie structure as six bikers journey across the Southwest towards Los Angeles. The twist is that they are all gay drag queens whose final destination is a drag ball. The gang picks up a hitchhiker who eventually realizes the persuasion of the gang during a limp-wristed food fight. They then encounter police, who are too shocked by the discovery of their drag attire to arrest them. Their journey intertwines with that of a straight biker gang (including a pre-Grizzly Adams Dan Haggerty) with whom they party and eventually prank, applying make-up to the straight bikers while they are passed-out. This non-consensual makeover enrages the straight biker gang who follow the Angels to seek revenge. When the Pink Angels reach Los Angeles, they shop for new clothes and change into drag. The straight gang encounters the “ladies” in a bar and unbelievably do not recognize them. They decide to go out on a date and proceed towards a private party, a doomed decision that leads to one of the most shocking endings in this genre’s history.
Intercut throughout the film are scenes of a military general in a mansion/compound, discussing plans with his secretary. The film’s final scene reveals that the party is at the general’s mansion and is a set-up by the military to infiltrate subversive biker gangs. One of the bikers reveals his true gender, which, as expected, upsets the general. In the last shot of the film, every member of both biker gangs is hanged from a tree in front of the general’s mansion--a gloomy end to an otherwise playful film.
The ending is simultaneously unexpected yet predictable. Within the logic of the plot, the conclusion is a complete surprise, as there is no plausible connection between the military and the bikers. Furthermore, why the military would be interested is entirely far-fetched, since domestic crime would be a matter for the FBI. Yet, within the biker genre, it makes perfect sense that the protagonists would meet an unfortunate end thanks to the fatalistic precedent set by Easy Rider. Although the causality is suspect, it also connects with the cliché of the tragic homosexual that was the norm for gay characters at the time. On the most pragmatic level, the film needed an ending, and murdering all the protagonists certainly creates closure.
The close of The Pink Angels is indicative of the inconsistencies throughout the film that teeter between spontaneity and carelessness. Some of the scenes, especially out in rural areas, are quite nicely arranged. Early on, the gang travels past sections of concrete tubing, stored out in the desert. The film takes time to create dramatic use of the cylinders in the composition. Yet many of the scenes of the bikers riding through the stark desert landscape of Southern California are marred by the use of voice-over. This is particularly evident with the lame, comedic voice-over added during the police chase, which plays on every “cop versus biker” stereotype one can imagine. This contrast also occurs during the party between the two groups of bikers. Most of the scene is shot with a handheld camera that effectively involves viewers in the reverie. It cuts away to a love scene, with a biker, previously believed to be gay, saying to a female companion, “Would you like ten pounds of dangling fury?” The voice is clearly not that of the same actor and the confusion between pounds and inches means the scene devolves into inept nonsense.
Perhaps this stylistic inconsistency is reflective of the meshing of two relatively new subcultures whose only parallel is a refusal to conform. Yet, the film does not seem to understand either culture at all and certainly does a poor job of blending gay and biker iconography. They are named the Pink Angels only in the film title and, within the film, do not seem to function as a proper motorcycle club. Besides using motorcycles—each having a sidecar in order to pair the gang’s three couples—and the wearing of insignia-embossed denim, there is no attempt to expand upon the outlaw or outsider identity of the biker. Why someone chooses to take up a nomadic life on two wheels is never addressed. The Pink Angels has even less understanding of homosexuality or transgender issues. The biker genre was well established by 1971. However, openly gay characters were only beginning to emerge from the cinematic shadows. Perhaps because of the novelty of gay and cross-dressing characters, the film confuses gender and sexuality into a truly baffling mess. The most perplexing moment occurs during the party between the two biker gangs. One of the Angels goes to get several local prostitutes that they had met earlier in the film. Upon returning, some of the “gay” bikers engage in fornication with these ladies. The film does not attempt to reconcile this interaction, leaving audiences to ponder what to make of their sexuality.
It is unfortunate that The Pink Angels has received so little critical analysis, because its beguiling nature is the reason that the film is of interest. Trash cinema often treads that thin line between eccentric style and inept malfunction and much of the genre criticism is devoted to delineating that distinction. A film like The Pink Angels is illuminating because of its muddled presentation of gay bikers and its cinematic aesthetic. Sometimes the only conclusion is that a film can be simultaneously inspired and terrible.
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