Sunday, June 21, 2015

Pipe Dreams (1976)

          A bland soap opera that’s only of interest because it features the acting debut of Motown singer Gladys Knight, whose performance is inconsistent but occasionally persuasive, Pipe Dreams takes place in Alaska. Knight plays Maria Wilson, a strong-willed woman who travels from Atlanta in order to find her estranged husband, Rob Wilson (Barry Hankerson), a pilot serving the small community revolving around an oil pipeline in the frozen wilderness. Some of the movie is played for light comedy, because Maria bonds with a group of rural eccentrics including a boisterous old preacher and a delusional European who believes he’s descended from royal blood. Yet much of Pipe Dreams is absurdly melodramatic, with one of the subplots involving a long-suffering prostitute driven to suicidal depression after mistreatment by the nasty businessman who runs the pipeline operation. In fact, Pipe Dreams feels more like the pilot for a maudlin TV series than a proper feature, especially since the central love story is such a weak contrivance.
          There’s some novelty to the fact that Hankerson was married to Knight in real life at the time the movie was made; make what you will of the authenticity that Hankerson and Knight bring to scenes in which their characters argue. Nonetheless, the movie’s sexual politics feel downright retrograde, since Knight’s character spends the whole movie trying to win back the affection of a man who abandoned her, began a committed monogamous relationship with another woman, demands a divorce but still expects his orders to be followed, and affectionately calls his estranged wife “bitch.”
          The turgid plot begins with Maria arriving in Alaska, where she was promised a job as a radio operator at the local airport. Upon learning that the job is filled, she effortlessly walks into a high-paying gig as a bartender, and then just as effortlessly walks into friendships with several locals. Yes, this is one of those vapid soaps in which everyone is nice except for the male lead, a dog who needs to learn new tricks, and the villain, an irredeemable user due for a comeuppance. Calling Pipe Dreams shallow would be exaggerating. The movie feels padded, since meandering montages unfurl while Knight sings ballads and funk numbers on the soundtrack, and the myriad scenes of Hankerson and Knight bickering are repetitive. Still, Pipe Dreams is fairly inoffensive as flaccid ’70s dramas go, because the main narrative theme—however clumsily presented—is that a woman of true character can achieve anything she sets out to accomplish.

Pipe Dreams: FUNKY

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