Unquiet Americans: Hot Times, by Aaron Pinkston
Film critic and series lecturer Jonathan Rosenbaum opened his introduction to Jim McBride’s underground classic Hot Times by saying “Tonight, we’ll be watching softcore pornagraphy.” While it is true that Hot Times is exclusively interested in sex and at times is fairly graphic in its sexual descriptions and conversations, this seems too much of a generalization. Part parody, part madcap comedy, part liberated sex study, the film is a mishmash of styles and ideas. It is truly one of the most bizarre films I’ve ever seen, especially in an academic setting.
Hot Times (also known as A Hard Day for Archie) is full of strange contradictions. In the film, Archie is a high school lad whose best gal decides to take up a guru’s tantric philosophy, so she withholds sex from him on New Year’s Eve, which the film treats as some sort of sexual Valentine’s Day. Using the source to guide the script, Archie’s friend Mughead (obviously taken from Archie character Jughead) narrates through most of the film with an “oh gosh, aw shucks” attitude. Much of the film’s dialogue are crude conversations about extreme sex acts, but told as nonchalant stories. This technique allows the characters to be both naive and sultry in a ridiculous way.
The majority of the film’s plot has Archie going from one temptation to the next, narrowly missing the opportunity to fully consummate a sexual act. This is a particular trope that often comes with the teen sex comedy, though Hot Times pushes it to the extremes. Unlike the genre, this isn’t a play to hoodwink the audience into a romantic plot by the end; this is purely about sex. The modern teen sex comedy genre is mostly pretty terrible because it caters to a young audience by promising adult content. Because of this, films often have a fake audacity while they try to put over tame situations as extreme or end up putting sex on a grand pedestal.
Hot Times feels way ahead of its time as a parody of this genre, though it was intended as a critical counterpoint to the popular Archie comics series. This device mines a lot of comedic opportunities by using the straight-edged vocabulary and tones from Archie and injecting the obvious sexual undertones that could never come out normally. This practice has long been used in pornagraphy, from sexually explicit caricatures of famous cartoon characters to the new trend of XXX parodies of sitcoms or superhero movies. I don’t know how much Hot Times played a direct role in later treatments, but it was certainly creating pathways at a time when porn was emerging as an actual box office commodity.
On his adventures, Archie brushes up against every sexual more imaginable (minus beastiality, perhaps). Boundaries are pushed in disturbing and hilarious ways, with little held back. Hot Times touches on underage prostitution, incest fantasies, the porn industry, and homosexuality. Just past the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the film wears its openness like a badge. Undoubtedly, there is some shock factor it is reaching for, but the overall tone strikes as too comfortable for shock to be its main goal (again unlike most teen sex comedies). It is more focused on Archie’s maleness, but besides him, the other major characters are almost exclusively women. They are mostly Archie’s exploits, but they take control of their sexuality. Archie’s final fling takes place with a woman who has a surprising amount of sweetness to her — she should stick out negatively in a film full of mostly caricatures.
Outside of the sex comedy plot, there is a whole lot of nonsense going on here. Some of it is a strange incorrectness, like high school students going to classes on New Years Eve or a ludicrously brilliant basketball interlude where Archie’s opposition are wearing button-down shirts and khaki shorts instead of more appropriate uniforms. There are times where Hot Times legitimately feels like it doesn’t know what it’s doing. I’m willing to chock most of this up to its satirical sensibilities, but I also get the impression that McBride’s script really just didn’t care about the specifics.
In the end, I’m confused about who Hot Times is meant for. It isn’t pornographic enough to fit in with Deep Throat’s success. It’s oddball comedy, too, would certainly turn off this audience. The artistic madcap style similar to the 1970’s New Hollywood period (I strangely see a lot of Altman in it) would be way over the head of most teenagers who would be looking for a sex comedy their parents wouldn’t approve of. But it’s this inexplicable quality that makes Hot Times so weird and enjoyable. What could be a very disposable, unthoughtful film will certainly stick with me.