Sunday, February 1, 2015

Youth and Auto Theft: The 1976 Film "Joy Ride."






Subtextual themes of class and masculinity were obliquely alluded to in the 1976 educational short film Joy Ride.27 On the surface, Joy Ride replicates the structure and anti-theft, juvenile delinquency themes of earlier educational shorts. The protagonists, Val and Tim, two bored, under-motivated youths, are shown hanging around the local park watching others play baseball. Hunched over and beaten down by frustration, they gripe about how Randy, one of the older, athletic kids playing in the game, owns a car and has lots of girls. Realizing that Randy had left the keys in the ignition of his car, a late 1960s Dodge muscle car, they decide to take it for a spin. Later one would say that the pair “kinda took it.” Suddenly the two come alive and gain some confidence, although they still fear calling girls, and argue over which of the two has better success. Finally, they invite two young girls to ride with them and drive to a park where an abandoned car serves as a place to play in. As the four enjoy each others’ company, they really play more like the children they are than the adolescents they are becoming. But on returning the borrowed car, Val’s speeding attracts the attention of a highway patrolman. Unwilling to stop and ignoring the pleas of the girls to slow down, Val and one of the girls struggle for the wheel and the car runs head on into the side of a cliff. All of the stock elements are present: social neglect, premature grasping for pleasures of autonomy, and above all insecure masculinity as expressed in the car they steal. Yet also lurking beneath the surface is the suggestion that the handsome, popular, mobile, and manly Randy is more affluent, as these young boys dress in clothes that seem to be more from the racks of the Goodwill Store than from Nordstrom’s.

            In each of these films, the young joy riders were depicted as wayward, uncontrolled adolescents whose crimes were more dangerous than criminal. Emphasizing the point, much of the focus of police and insurance industry efforts to contain joy riding centered on encouraging proper precautions by vehicle owners. In effect, the underlying message centered upon the negligence of adults. The films suggest the problem of the stolen car was linked to the growing opportunity of young people to indulge in pleasures they are not yet responsible enough to undertake. But they also suggest that facilitating the problem was the failure of adult society to responsibly manage and set good examples for the young. Yet these films hint at a deeper and more psychologically disturbing possibility for the post-war adult who has accepted the car and automobility as the embodiment of autonomous liberal individual of our ideals. The act of owning and driving may be a puerile fantasy and the world surrounding it a prison. And by leaving the keys in the car, one wonders if that act is the result of a “death wish” on the part of the owner to be relieved of the car, or perhaps a fanciful belief that trust and safety are still a part of a rapidly-changing post-World War II America.






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