Citizens’ Band (1977)

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Citizens’ Band
Dir. Jonathan Demme
Premiered September 29, 1977

For Jonathan Demme: 1944-2017

1977 has not been that fun for me. Except for the release of Star Wars and a handful of debut features from major directors, there’s not much to the year. I’m mostly reviewing movies that everybody knows, and that have been analyzed to death, and I can’t provide much context for them because I wasn’t born yet. So it’s hard to write, and I really wasn’t in the mood to do extra research, but I just had to find out what the deal was with CB radios.

We’ve dealt with the CB radio craze before, in Smokey and the Bandit. But whereas that movie treats the idea of every character using CB as a far-fetched joke, Citizens’ Band, a romantic dramedy of sorts, treats it as a fact of life. In 1975, the federal government lowered the speed limit on interstate highways from 75mph to 55. Intended to save fuel and prevent accidents, the law had an adverse impact on America’s truckers, who were (and still are) subject to dangerous and arguably illegal work quotas. Around this time, those truckers began using the citizens’ band radio spectrum, which was virtually unregulated, as a way to conspire against the authorities. Like many things in the 1970s, the practice has not aged well, but it was a ridiculously popular craze at the time, to the point that First Lady Betty Ford had her own CB callsign, “First Mama.”

This all goes a long way to explaining why, in Jonathan Demme’s Citizens’ Band, the people of Union, USA can’t get enough of their $20 radios. As you might expect, they’re the catalyst for everything we see.

The story begins when trucker Harold (Charles Napier) is injured on the road while listening to a local couple have radio phone sex. The injury prompts the arrival of his wife (Marcia Rodd) from Portland…and his other wife (Ann Wedgeworth) from Dallas. Despite the realization that Harold is a genuine “traveling man,” the two get along quite well.

But for the most part, this is not their story. Citizens’ Band’s hero is young radio repairman Spider (Paul Le Mat), who saves Harold as well as the pilot of a downed airplane through his use of CB. His heroism comes in spite of the interference Union’s numerous misbehaving radio operators, so Spider sets out on his own vigilante crusade to police the airwaves, all the while wooing a schoolteacher (Candy Clark), feuding with his burnout brother (Bruce McGill), and attempting to bond with his depressed, senile father (Roberts Blossom).

At best, I couldn’t help but feel as if Demme was trying to make a Robert Altman movie. The two filmmakers have always shared a certain sensibility, but Demme is unable to balance his own energetic shooting style with Altman’s austere grandeur. In addition, the film is weakened substantially by badly timed editing. I kept feeling like the actors weren’t giving adequate performances, but gradually it became clear that the scenes were all either too long or too short, and everything fell flat.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
Complaints are lodged about the newfangled 55mph speed limit. The movie is a passionate argument in favor of public airwave regulation as a matter of public good. A overly talkative woman in her 80s ruminates on her upbringing in captivity by Nez Perce Indians (holy shit, 1977 was a long time ago).

How Did It Do?
Citizens’ Band (re-titled Handle With Care in several markets; why, I don’t know) was a complete hit. Earning $36 million against a $5 million budget, just short of Annie Hall, it was probably the 11th highest-grossing movie of the year, which is quite frankly baffling.

Equally baffling is the movie’s critical reception: 100% fresh on RT (albeit from a sample size of only five critics). Still, it’s worth considering that when Jonathan Demme died earlier this year, not one retrospective I read mentioned it. And that makes me feel a bit better about not liking it. When your legacy is Stop Making Sense, Swimming to Cambodia, and goddamn Silence of the Lambs, who needs some dumb little trucker movie?

Next Time: Julia

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