The Habitrail Critic Killed The Radio Star

As I sit here feeling gross (thanks, Annual Spring Sinus Infection From Hell! So good to see you again!), I find myself filling my brief hours of uncomfortable consciousness with 70s cult films. Why? I have no idea. It’s probably some sort of decongestant-induced nostalgia for movies I wasn’t old enough to watch in theatres at the time.

I’m especially fascinated (in my current state of mild delirium) by the uses of media represented in some of these films. Take, for example, two of my absolute favorites: The Warriors (1979) and Vanishing Point (1971). In both films, a journey is punctuated (and to some degree narrated) by what I think of as Marconi’s Chorus — radio DJs spinning the story and the soundtrack.

In The Warriors, Lynne Thigpen (we only ever see her lips as she speaks) is the voice of the people of an alternate New York, the emcee of a surreal nighttime gang scene. She is smoothly menacing in her hip, coded facelessness. She is the voice of a shadow community that can communicate openly on the radio only because (one imagines) its language is so alien to the sensibilities of the cops and other agencies of the law. She is threatening without ever making an overt threat, obviously narrating a violent and dangerous chase without ever explicitly describing it as such.

It’s not entirely clear how the gangs are communicating with her or with each other. Some scenes indicate that they’re using the phone, but there are also obviously some other forms of communication going on. Just as the wider gang community is kept up to date by the DJ, the gangs keep themselves and each other informed in more personal and direct ways (the clipping exchange between the Warriors and the Orphans, for example).

Thigpen’s unnamed, mostly-faceless DJ, though, is really best understood as the subtle descendant of DJ Super Soul in Vanishing Point, who is really on the side of the chased and not the chaser. He becomes a kind of fantasy version of Kowalski’s voice, a lively underground cheer squad that realizes only too late the basically nihilistic nature of the race the hero is running. [Spoilers — the ending of the film follows. Don’t watch if you get all sensitive about that sort of thing.]

Kowalski himself (played by Barry Newman) doesn’t do a lot of talking in this film. He doesn’t tell people his story or his motivations, really (although the audience sees it in flashback). He’s hopped up on speed (the drug) and speed (the phenomenon), he’s got nothing whatsoever to lose, and he’s got no real reason either to go on or to stop. Kowalski is a void in a MOPAR. He is driving. That is all.

Cleavon Little‘s DJ Super Soul, however, sees meaning in Kowalski’s journey where Kowalski himself does not (or at least appears not to). Super Soul’s broadcast voice is deliberately subversive and anti-authority.  He finds in Kowalski a symbol for resistance and real freedom — and it is, for him, both personally and symbolically tragic that Kowalski’s notion of freedom is different from his.

The odd little question animating my rewatch of these two films at the moment (leaving aside delirium and assorted medications) is the funny thought of what either one might be like in the age of Twitter and Facebook. How would it work? Gangs texting each other, Instagramming the scene? People along the way Tweeting and sharing Kowalski’s journey, curated by Super Soul? I’m torn between thinking this would be awesome and thinking it would be a bit flat and sad. The awesomeness comes from the immediacy, the crowd-sourcing of information, the fascinating possibilities for language. The flatness and sadness comes from the loss of the voice. There’s something about Lynne Thigpen’s voice and about Cleavon Little’s in each of these cases that is more compelling than the words alone would be. There is also something important about the racial politics of their visual and vocal presence in each film, counter-cultural simply by virtue of being already defined outside of white privilege (a common trope in films of the period, ultimately explored to the fullest in socially critical Blaxsploitation flicks).

What language would the DJs use on Twitter? What would mark their resistance, their countercultural presence, their power? What would make their Chorus (dramatically speaking) work? How might a clever director visualize it? Would such an approach even require a DJ/curator? The 1997 remake of Vanishing Point didn’t dare it (and that movie sucked, to be honest). The countercultural possibilities might get swamped in the clever convenience of the medium.


Oh, look — I need to hop off the Habitrail and take another nap! Whee(ze)!


About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15+ years), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've recently finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. For now, I labor at a fairly interesting administrative job in order to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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