During the Presidential election of 2004, the cable news networks were circulating a push poll designed to help George W. Bush get back into the White House. You might remember it. One of the questions was about who you’d rather have a beer with. Even I got that one right. Who would want to have a beer with John Kerry? Another one of the poll’s questions, however, made me shudder. If your car is broken down on the side of the road, who would be more likely to stop and help you change a tire, Bush or Kerry? It would of course be Bush. John Kerry help you change a tire? He probably wouldn’t even let you use his cell phone. But the question also left out one important detail. Would you really want to be stranded on the side of the highway with a psychopathic murderer like George W. Bush?
Anybody who’s seen the ending of the independent filmmaker Jon Jost’s ultra-low-budget film from 1977, Last Chants for a Slow Dance, will probably share my anxiety.
Tom Blair is an unemployed man who lives in and around Butte Montana. He’s also an asshole. The film opens with an extended shot of asphalt, a camera focused on the highway while mounted on a speeding pickup truck. We hear the beginning of a monologue, Blair subjecting a hitch hiker, a younger man with long hair, to his ideas about life, the universe, and, more specifically, about why he can’t get a job. The system is rigged. You can’t get ahead. Blair is obnoxious, but not completely unsympathetic. It’s not exactly an unheard of complaint under capitalism. The man listens patiently. It’s the price you pay for being a hitch hiker.
But then something goes off the rails. On the surface it’s just misogyny and homophobia. Blair talks about his wife and two kids, then segues into a half bragging, half frustrated rant about how easy it is to meet women. “Do you smell that?” she said. “I can smell it. It’s pussy.” The hitch hiker waves him off. He’s not in the mood for macho, locker room talk. “I have a girl but I don’t think of her that way,” he says. Blair calls him a fag, a “funny,” but it’s more than just violent disagreement. Blair has now slotted the hitch hiker into a category nobody wants to be in. The hitch hiker is no longer full human. Blair is no longer interested in “enlightening” him. “You’re not only a funny,” he says. “You’re crazy.” Finally, Blair kicks him out of the truck, and continues on his way.
By the end of Last Chants for a Slow Dance we see how lucky that young man was.
Anybody observant enough to notice how the cord connecting Blair to the rest of humanity snapped, if ever so briefly, has already realized that Tom Blair is not just an asshole, a misogynist, or a homophobe, but a psychopathic killer.
Jon Jost made Last Chants for a Slow Dance for $2000. His actors, especially Tom Blair, are remarkably good for such a low budget film. Unlike Kelly Reichardt, he never managed to find an actor like the brilliant Michelle Williams, but it really doesn’t matter. As Last Chants for a Slow Dance proceeds, we observe Blair’s inner world, the sterile, desolate landscape of a country founded on slavery and genocide, the “dead end” of both a culture and a particularly good represenative of the kind of depraved individual that culture spawns. The actress who plays his wife is no Michelle Williams, but her shrill hectoring works. This is the way people really talk. Blair’s aggressive, self-pitying whining is perfectly natural. That’s the way I talk.
Tom Blair is isolated morally if not socially. Unlike Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy, he can chat people up in public, pick women up in bars. He might just make a good salesman. But Jost’s Montana landscape is not New York. It’s not a rich, complex, metropolis with hundreds of paths to go down. It’s empty space, mile after mile of nothingness punctuated by an occasional locked door or, at best, a poor kept storefront or garage. Every road leads nowhere. Every human connection is a brief collision or a possible trap. Eventually, even the barren landscape gives way to a series of images reflecting Blair’s diseased mind, grotesque post cards that depict illusions — made before Photoshop — showing nature to be monstrous, the slaughter of a rabbit, a scene that makes the squirrel skinning sequence in Winter’s Bone look tame by comparison, a series of FBI “most wanted” advertisements.
Blair’s final, despicable act — he murders a man for a few dollars — feels as inevitable as another aggressive, self-pitying rant.
The final 5 minutes of Last Chants for a Slow Dance are as terrifying as anything I’ve seen on film. There’s no need for spinning heads, projectile vomit, or tentacles that burst from a man’s stomach. Jost puts us into the mind of the murder victim. Tom Blair’s monologue, the way he talks himself into killing another human being, is so scary because it makes so much sense. His logic is impeccable. Why not kill? If a man is desperate enough, right and wrong no longer apply. Tom knows what he’s doing is wrong. He doesn’t care. I’ve read where the one call that genuinely frightens police officers is “suicide by cop.” There’s nothing more dangerous than a man with nothing to lose. Tom Blair has nothing to lose.
If there’s one criticism I would make of Last Chants for a Slow Dance it’s how Jost’s moralism and individualism aren’t sufficiently distinguished from Tom Blair’s. Kelly Reichardt, in Wendy and Lucy, puts Wendy’s economic desperation in a social context. Wendy can’t connect because society has shut her out. She’s too passive to batter down the right doors. The economy is failing.
Tom Blair isn’t passive. I have no idea what the economy around Butte was like back in the 1970s. Jost, quite persuasively, implies that Blair is desperate only because he wants to be desperate. But there’s always some doubt, especially in the days of the Great Recession of 2008. Jost’s Montana is so grim, so run down, that we wonder if maybe the reason Blair can’t find a job is a bad economy just like he says it is. As Blair drives past the mines in Butte, we remember how he told his wife that he used to work as a truck driver down in the pits. Perhaps Tom Blair isn’t a sociopath at all, just a man with limited options who’s sick of what he’s been doing. Even if jobs were available, who would really want to work down in the Butte mines? Isn’t it just a quick road to an early death from lung disease? Where else would he work? Is a man in his 30s going to get a job at the counter of a McDonald’s?
That carping aside, Last Chants for a Slow Dance doesn’t take much suspension of disbelief. Tom Blair is the very last man I’d want to have stop and help me change a tire in the middle of nowhere. Even George W. Bush would probably be an improvement.