Literature Society: Stinker Lets Loose!
While researching Stinker Lets Loose!, a process that involved a lot of looking intently at microfiche and Teen Wolf 2 style montages set to power ballads, I made a shocking and surprising discovery. I’d seen very few of the shit-kicking, Southern-fried action comedy movies and TV shows that formed the primordial stew Stinker Lets Loose emerged from, just as soon as man did most assuredly NOT emerge from no damn monkey, regardless of what some fancy-pants scientist might say. I don’t want to talk to a scientist. Those motherfuckers are lying, and getting me pissed.
I’d somehow never seen either of Clint Eastwood’s Clyde the Orangutan movies. Nor had I seen the many motion pictures Burt Reynolds made where he played hirsute, gum-smacking apogees of late-1970s uber-masculinity in tight jeans who achieved amazing feats in between the sheets and in the seats of a variety of souped-up automobiles.
I’m talking Every Which Way But Loose. And Any Which Way You Can. And Cannonballs Run and II but most assuredly the abomination known as Speed Zone. These were movies about hairy creatures both human and otherwise, about orangutans who gave people the finger and didn’t give a fuck and men who likewise gave people the finger and similarly did not give a fuck, testosterone-fueled tales of manly men in a manly world and the apes that love them and that they love in return.
How could I have avoided seeing this rich vein of American film, with its truck stops, backseat romance and montages of a man and his orangutan getting progressively drunker to the accompaniment of a sorrowful country ballad? Didn’t I profess to love movies, to be a cinephile? Yet my track record when it came to seeing movies pairing Burt Reynolds or Clint Eastwood with a sassy ape told a different story.
Reading Stinker Lets Loose, Mike Sacks’ macho fantasia on hillbilly themes, I came to realize that part of the reason I hadn’t seen Any Which Way You Can or Cannonball Run II is because these movies are supposed to be terrible. As a baby cinephile, I knew I had to see Breathless and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? Every Which Way But Loose? Not so much.
Yet reading about the adventures of Stinker, his perpetually angry, hormones-crazed chimp sidekick Rascal, and his various nemeses and allies, I also realized that I paradoxically hadn’t seen these macho movies of the Jimmy Carter era because there was no way they could live up to the wonder and majesty of what I had built up in my mind either.
The monkey! The cars! The monkeys in the cars! Not to mention the trucks! And the CB lingo! And the babes! Not to mention the beer!
Stinker Lets Loose! is being presented as the fortieth anniversary re-release of the novelization of a little-known monkey and truckersploitation movie from 1977 that played in a few undiscriminating drive-ins in the South for a few weeks before disappearing forever, leaving behind pretty much only this novelization and some very, muddled half-dreams, half-memories.
But Stinker Lets Loose! also presented as a real-live movie from Sacks’ own childhood that he saw in a movie when he was a child. In fact, it wasn’t just any viewing: it was the very first movie he’d ever seen in a theater, so it has an additional element of magic to it, imaginary of not. Movies like that loom large in our imagination. Why I’ll never forget the first movie I ever saw in a theater. Why, it must have been Welcome to Mooseport? No, that’s from 2004, so the timeline doesn’t track at all. That was probably Gene Hackman’s final film, but it most assuredly was not my first.
I have a fuzzy memory of the first maybe being the dark, violent and ragingly inappropriate Conan the Barbarian, or possibly the even darker, even more traumatizing Pinocchio or Dumbo.
Conan the Barbarian and Rascal Lets Loose! are both wildly inappropriate movies to show five year olds, which, in their own weird way, make them perfect. For what good is a movie if it doesn’t healthily traumatize some tots? That was certainly the popular thinking in the 1970s: if kids didn’t want to see swearing and violence and maybe some dudes getting killed, then they had no business going to PG-rated movies.
Stinker Lets Loose! is deliberately offensive in a deliciously late 1970s kind of way. There’s a child in it, for example, who today would be considered mentally challenged but in the world of Stinker Lets Loose! is referred to by more colorful and less culturally sensitive terms whose two defining characters, beyond his Faulkerian idiot-man-child-level intellect, are his Tourette’s-style propensity for constant profanity and his precocious alcoholism.
In his own half-assed, shitty way, our anti-hero Stinker teaches his surrogate son what it means to be a man, which here mainly involves drinking beer and, well, that’s pretty much it.
Stinker Lets Loose! isn’t supposed to be a blockbuster like Every Which Way But Loose or Cannonball Run. Instead it’s supposed to be a foggy, fuzzy knock-off made on a tight budget by people who didn’t necessarily know what they were doing, nor particularly care.
Along the same lines, our anti-hero Stinker, lady’s man is no Clint Eastwood or Burt Reynolds but rather a pastiche of the two, a faded Xerox every bit as macho and furry but nowhere near as intelligent or charming or genteel.
Not to be put too fine a point on it, but Stinker is something of a dumbass, a barely literate, pretty racist Southern Neanderthal with a pretty feeble understanding of the world. Yet he is nevertheless also a hero given the novel/film’s version of a hero’s quest in the form of a job to deliver a six-pack of Schlitz to the President of the United States despite said Commander-in-Chief being a notorious Democrat.
Along for the ride, and always happy to fight at Stinker’s side are his sidekick Boner, Gwyneth, a fancy lady from respectable society, a mathematician of all things, who is surprised and delighted to find herself living and loving a good old boy, Jumbo, an obese comic relief type always happy to sacrifice what little is left of his dignity for the sake of a lowbrow laugh, and finally Rascal, a terrifying monkey whose violent, angry personality represents a perpetual threat both to propriety and to the safety and lives of anyone unfortunate to wind up in the midst of one of her rages.
I became attracted to Stinker Lets Loose! as a tale of monkeyshines but the human-simian buddy comedy aspect of Stinker Lets Loose! only constitutes about a fifth of its intentionally overloaded plot, which piles on colorful supporting characters like Stinker’s professional nemesis and boss, with lunatic abandon.
It’s not just a movie about beer consumption and CB lingo and sub-par country songs and chimpanzees on hang-gliders. No, Stinker Lets Lose is fundamentally a book about everything, or at least everything that’s white trash, bad taste and howlingly specific to the curious epoch known as the Carter years.
So while on one level Stinker Lets Loose! is about a refreshingly non-anthropomorphized chimpanzee that makes things livelier but also poses a mortal threat to everyone around her, on another it’s about our relationship to our childhoods, and the detritus that gave us joy, and nostalgia and dreams and American masculinity.
The idea was to create something that would live up to our unrealistic childhood expectations for movies like Stinker Lets Loose! not by virtue of being good but by being aggressively, deliberately and surreally bad. After all, we don’t really want movies like these to be good, do we? Even if that were possible? No, we want them to be as bad in ways we can otherwise only dream about.
So it’s fascinating to me that in the medium of the audio book, this sub-standard hero is being played by super-human actor and human being Jon Hamm. It almost seems wrong for such a proud loser to be played by such a winner but I have faith that it is entirely within Hamm’s gifts as an actor to satisfactorily inhabit the legend of a man like Stinker. He did a pretty good job on Mad Men, after all.
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