Shifts in national mood can emerge suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere. Four months separate Woodstock from the Altamont music festival. Yet the mood of each event is radically different. The first is characterized by flower-power anarchy, the second by a kind of jaded truculence. Where Woodstock marks the culmination of a brief halcyon optimism, Altamont shows the rise of an anti-authoritarian nihilism that culminates in murder. This darker spirit will soon express itself in punk, neo-fascism, and terrorism. By the nineties, libertarian misanthropy will find its apogee in the internet (no accident that it's in the Bay Area, where the counter-cultural optimism of the sixties will flow into the Philip Dick-esque drug-fuelled paranoia of the seventies, before finding ultimate expression in Silicon Valley). Altamont shoveled the trashed remains of sixties optimism into that glorious homemade bucket of the seventies. This happened in films too. Just as the French Connection definitively ushered in the seventies, a decade later, no films so clearly delineate the shift from seventies to eighties as the first two films in the Smokey and the Bandit franchise.


The first film, debuting in 1977, featured Burt Reynolds in light and zany form as an unrepentant Southern working-class anti-hero who wants nothing more than to increase the quotient of chaos in the world and have fun doing it. He's practically Sweet Home Alabama come to life, an unreconstructed trickster (a figure not uncommon in films of the seventies). The film is characterized by perpetual movement and irreverence for the Man, expressed in its direction, satirical tone, and stylish anarchy. It is not a deep film. It is a surface film, deliberately crafted to reflect The Bandit's devil-may-care attitude. In this, it succeeds perfectly as an example of punk-lite cinema. If the franchise had ended there, it would be just another example of seventies films that celebrated chaos. But it didn't.


Its sequel came out in 1980, and the differences illuminate the sudden and stark pivot in national mood in America. Simply put, The Man (or Empire) is striking back. The sequel rejects the freewheeling anarchy of its predecessor and tries to recuperate his anarchy into a muddle-headed higher purpose. The pointless (or, depending on your perspective, holy) objective of shifting beer from Texas to Arkansas for fun and profit is replaced by a complicated ploy to elect a Republican governor, "Big" Enos Burdette, involving transporting an elephant (get it?) to the Republican National Convention. It is a literal work of political propaganda. This is part of The Bandit's rehabilitation. And why does The Bandit need to be rehabilitated, exactly? Because he transgressed. His folk-hero glee must come at a cost. He must pay, and he thus becomes a troubled soul in the sequel. What is he paying for? Being a trickster. His incarnation of chaos. He is being punished for being a folk hero.


This focus on punishment is what makes it the perfect film to inaugurate the decade of the Man, or Empire. Or more precisely, Boomer Man. There is much to be written on this strange figure who flares into consciousness with Abbie Hoffman and flames out with Donald Trump. Along the way there will be financial catastrophes, climate catastrophes, and pointless wars. But it begins with punishment-as-rehabilitation. The sort of punishment The Bandit endures is telling: he is an alcoholic (punishment for stealing beer), alone (punishment for aiding a woman who rejects the altar), depressed (punishment for cheerful irreverence), and desiring fame (punishment for being a working-class folk hero). He literally embodies a headlong shift into moralism and the rise of the Republican Moral Majority: the Southern cross-cultural folk tale of the first film must be coopted, just as Reagan's Southern Strategy was picking up where Nixon had left off and turbocharging it with evangelical support, coopting working-class disaffection with trickle-down illusion. The Bandit's banditry, in the second film, shifts in purpose from beer to politics. From irreverence to phony purpose. In the punk seventies, he seeks enjoyment as an end in itself. In the eighties, he seeks fame. He's eager for status, hungry for relevance. His enjoyment must be in the service of power. This is the eighties in a nutshell: the sudden appearance of sanctimonious self-regard with a self-helpy dimension to make everyone feel better about it. Boomer Man was taking over the culture, the Empire was back, and the eighties is what it looked like.


No characters are immune from the shift. Smokey is still the scene-chewing, over-the-top Jackie Gleason caricature of a racist Southern patriarch, but he's no longer the antagonist: he’s simply a Commedia Dell’Arte foil, a bloated joke merchant mugging at the edge of the action. The joke is no longer on him - he's the chorus. The antagonist's role goes to his brother Gaylord Justice. It's obvious what is happening here. The joke of the Cop's self-regard is no longer sufficient because Cops are no longer funny. In fact, they are central to Boomer Man's social engineering project. The anti-Cop humor only works if it is linked to a group it is deemed acceptable to mock (the disempowered, rehabilitating a decade of gay liberation, a theme that would be repeated ad nauseum in eighties movies). Just as The Bandit's shirt in the first film is that of a Harlequin, and is gone, so Sally Field’s costumes change from folky hipster to preppy office aspirant. She gets shoulder pads. The film's style is a clue to the road it sees itself on, the road the Bandit no longer owns. The road is no longer open to America's fabled highwaymen. It now belongs to Boomer Man. To achieve this, America's anarchist anti-authoritarian impulses are co-opted into self-righteous identity capitalism. Which is to say, capitalism as identity. This is the mistake of trying to give depth to what should be surface. The horizon of roads and highways, the American nomad, is the antidote to the American Imperialist. Surface is resistance, but The Bandit drowns in the depths.


America has always had this historically uneasy tension between Bandit and the Empire. The tension will result, in the eighties, with the outlaw literally becoming the Man. This is the ultimate recuperation. Films such as Beverly Hills Cop will demonstrate this. Like The Bandit, Axel Foley is a people's hero co-opted by power and status, because in this way he is reintegrated into the system. He wears Armani. He is recuperated. Trickster becomes the Man.