Tuesday, August 21, 2012

"You Don't Know Nothin', Bay-beeeeee!"

I've long been a fan of Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976).  The tragic surreal tale of Thomas Jerome Newton, who could likely have not been played by anyone but David Bowie, who comes to Earth in attempt to secure water for his drought-ridden planet.  In several sequences, Bowie absorbs the native culture via a wall of television screens, one of which plays an image that stuck with me: a tall black man in a Nehru jacket/lab coat tussles with a man in a dark room with a wooden floor. Even years later, with the aid of the internet, I was still unable to find the identity of this movie, assuming it to be one of the martial arts mixed blaxploitation movies of the late 70's.

And then I sat down to watch one of the last Terry Southern (Dr. Strangelove (1964), Easy Rider (1969)) penned scripts that I hadn't seen, an adaptation of John Barth's The End of the Road, and then there it was in color, sound, and full-blown strangeness.

The Book
I only recently became familiar with Barth's work after The Sot-Weed Factor was recommended to me during a discussion about how much I enjoyed Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon.  Now, while Sot-Weed wasn't without its charms, I would summarize it as being a colonial America version of Voltaire's Candide, and I probably would've enjoyed it better had it been a little closer to that immortal novel in length (Barth's book runs overlong at somewhere between 700-800 pages). The End of the Road was an earlier work before Barth had hit this more mature stride, and told the story of Jacob Horner, a man who suffers from "cosmopsis" or the inability to make choices from the infinite array of possibilities of any action, who meets a strange doctor who encourages him to take a teaching job at a local school where he becomes embroiled in a relationship with another teacher and his wife.  While the book might have been at the cutting edge of modern literature, Barth apparently wasn't prepared for the psychedelic treatment it would receive at the hands of Southern and director Aram Avakian.
The film
I'm not entirely sure what angle to take to relate this film to you. Was it interesting? Sure.  Did it have laughs or a message? Both. Had I seen anything like it before? Sort of.  End of the Road has the feel of a fair few late 60's anti-establishment films with its surreal elements and avant-garde tone.  The characters are less characters and more symbolic archetypes (is that redundant?) who represent any number of aspects of society.  The first half of the film where Jacob (Stacey Keach) is treated at the strange asylum of the unnamed black doctor (James Earl Jones) was far more interesting than the maudlin latter half when Jacob becomes entangled in an affair with a fellow teacher's wife.  Now, I don't have a problem with a film that's more about ideas than plots or realistic characters, but End of the Road isn't satisfying in that way either, as the style often gets in the way of the substance.  Dr. Strangelove, for instance, communicates its ideas far more clearly and with more laughs.  Or Robert Downey Sr.'s Putney Swope (1969), which is a super-stylized satirical attack on advertising that again was both more entertaining and far less muddled.

James Earl Jones munches scenery like he's been starved for days.
Oddly enough, from a writing standpoint, it seemed to be a very personal project for Southern who also produced, but was ultimately offensive to Barth, even though it was far from his favorite amongst his own novels.  I can't say that I would respond well to any production taking my own work, and introducing a "chicken-rape" scene into it for no apparent reason. (I mean that literally, one of the insane asylum inmates does...well...rape a chicken.)  And so, I'm even more confused where to fall on this one: I can't exactly recommend it, certainly not in a broad sense, but nor would I say it was without interest (It should probably be viewed if only for one of the wildest, over-the-top performances by James Earl Jones).  So I guess I'll say, save End of the Road until your 60's arthouse film journey is getting close to the end of its road.