Where some see the end of the road, Judge P.S. Colbert sees a Cul-de-Sac.
"The entire spectrum of 1960s angst and anger"
Ill advised, ill-conceived, and all but ignored at the time of its release, the cinematic translation of John Barth's novel End of the Road gets a second lease on life. Granted by fairy godfather and ubiquitous filmmaker Steven Soderbergh (Magic Mike), the DVD gives us adds a new thirty minute documentary on the making of the movie he feels represents "what independent film should feel like, what it should try to do."
Facts of the Case
Having just obtained his degree in Liberal Arts, Jacob Jack Horner (Stacy Keach, Titus) exits his graduating ceremony, where his classmates have descended into a brawling free-for-all, beating each other bloody. Arriving at a train station with no idea where to go, he wanders out on to the platform and falls into an impenetrable catatonic state, unfazed by streams of commuters, a circle of taunting children, and a Dixieland jazz band.
Horner is eventually discovered by and diagnosed by Dr. D (James Earl Jones, The Comedians), who transports the patient to his "Institute of Psychic Remobilization" for treatment. After a period of intense therapy, Horner is declared functional again. On the advice of his therapist, Horner accepts a teaching position at a small college in Maryland's Wicomico County, whereupon he meets and becomes intimately acquainted with colleague Joe Morgan (Harris Yulin, Scarface) and wife Rennie (Dorothy Tristan, Scarecrow), forging a relationship that will bring forth tragic consequences to all involved.
End of the Road starts with an extended prologue, featuring an assortment of Stacy Keach photos from early childhood on; pop art transformations of the American flag; and Movietone news footage of infamous, violent images—Nazis in action, Holocaust atrocities, atomic mushroom clouds, the King and Kennedy assassinations, Vietnam—set to Teo Macero's frantic bebop jazz underscore. This multi-media Burlesque sets the pace for the entire film (juxtaposed by its quieter, more pastoral moments), and serves notice to the viewer: prepare for assault; aural, ocular and otherwise.
The MPAA ratings board was the first to be affected, immediately slapping the film with an X rating. They were followed closely by author John Barth, who made no secret of his disdain: "The film was X-rated by the Production Code Administration for scenes nowhere to be found in the novel (man rapes chicken, etc.) and Z-rated by the muses."
Director Aram Avakian (11 Harrowhouse) does quite a juggling act between references to Dadaism, Futurism, Samuel Beckett, Slapstick, and the theatre of cruelty. This is manifested in the film's most powerful scene, a so-called "back-alley abortion," which—though neither graphic nor gratuitous—is no less harrowing today than it was in 1970. In fact, it's widely assumed this scene was the impetus for the film's X rating. Though no cuts have been made, the DVD release has been re-rated as R, but remember, you have been warned!
In Soderbergh's brilliant "An Amazing Time: A Conversation About End of the Road"—that rare extra actually deserving to be called a "bonus feature"—editor Robert Q. Lovett says Avakian's intention was to poke "not only the cultural and the political establishment, but the film establishment in the eye with a sharp stick. It was his declaration of: Here I am, I'm hot stuff and you'd better pay attention!"
Frankly, I'm torn between Soderbergh's unbridled enthusiasm and Barth's contempt towards the film, both of which are most likely attributable to the participation of producer and co-writer Terry Southern, the brilliantly irreverent novelist (Candy) who went on to great fame for injecting his brand of hipster absurdism into screenplays for such iconic 1960s films as Dr. Strangelove, Barbarella, and Easy Rider.
On one hand, the energetic and absurdist vibe of the film keeps it popping and engaging, affording its very game cast ample opportunity to flex its considerable thespian muscle. On the other hand, this sideshow approach reduces Barth's original story—of a man, constitutionally incapable of making decisions, entering into a love triangle with a married couple—to a series of blackout sketches with caricatures substituting for characters.
Believe me, I mean no disrespect nor am I being sarcastic when I say End of the Road works best in small bites. It's simply a film best appreciated by *not* screening it from start to finish without interruption. A more manageable assault, if you will.
For example, when Jacob suggests he and Rennie eavesdrop on Joe in his study "to see the human animal in his natural habitat", they don't get a glimpse of an academic working at his desk. Rather they bear witness to a one-man show that features a Hitler imitation, some expert pistol twirling, and feigned attempts at suicide and castration, culminating in "the human animal" masturbating while quoting Shakespeare ("Aye, there's the rub!"). Yulin's work is masterful; athletic, witty, horrifying, and expertly timed. And yet, outside the realm of performance art, it's a completely unbelievable scenario. Ironically, the basis for this scene comes from the novel, but only supports the theory that the book was ill-suited for filming in the first place.
Once referred to as "the American Olivier," Stacy Keach (who was subsequently hampered by unfortunate or merely unlucky film choices) demonstrates astounding range here, whether trapped in Catatonia, parading around as Caesar in a self-fashioned toga, or convincing a college hiring board that he's the all-American, earnestly devoted descriptive grammar instructor they've been waiting for. Keach's performance is an unqualified triumph, demonstrating more skill in the space of two hours than many respected film actors will exhibit in their lifetime.
Known today as the picture and voice of a dignified elder statesman, James Earl Jones reveals another side, as the menacingly freaky (and obviously quacky) Dr. D. Sadly, though, this cartoonish, shuck-and-jive portrayal does tend to grate after a while. Ironically, my favorite performance of the film is delivered by Dorothy Tristan (Avakian's wife at the time). As the lone straight player in this deck of jokers, you can imagine the difficulty of responding "normally" to such unfettered lunacy without ever seeming out of place!
Arguably the greatest gift for true cinephiles is that the film affords viewers the chance to see the feature length debut of cinematographer Gordon Willis. A graduate of television commercials, Willis apparently arrived on-set already equipped with the expert eye for screen composition that would lead to some of the cinema's finest achievements: The Godfather trilogy, Klute, Annie Hall, and my personal all-time favorite, Manhattan.
Presented in a pristine standard definition 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen print with a clear Dolby 2.0 Mono mix, Warner Bros. has given the film its just due. Subtitles are available in French, Spanish, and English SDH. The lone bonus feature is Soderbergh's aforementioned documentary.
Long on my list of cinematic white whales, I'm thrilled to see End of the Road finally available on DVD, in such great condition. Though it fails Barth's source material, the film certainly succeeds in poking a sharp stick in the eye of its targets and its audience, which is never a bad thing. Film students will find a compendium of useful knowledge, fans of the period will be in heaven, and all others have been warned.
Guilty? Not guilty? Sometimes these principles just don't apply. Case Dismissed!
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