Friday, February 17, 2017

Candy Mountain

CANDY MOUNTAIN                   A                       
Switzerland  Canada  France  (91 mi)  1988  d:  Robert Frank    co-director:  Rudy Wurlitzer

Once more before I go, out to Killarney
Once more before I go, beg me to stay
As the wind blows across my grave, I will be calling
Once more before I go, once more for ever more

—“Once More Before I Go,” by Al Silk (Tom Waits)

From the depths of the archives of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, who allegedly hold copies of Robert Frank’s entire cinematic output, comes yet another undiscovered gem, and while it was made in the late 80’s, remains one of the best films to effortlessly express the complexities and ambiguities of the 50’s and 60’s, refusing to be defined or labeled, searching through unchartered waters for that inexpressible meaning in life, whatever and wherever that may be, taking all circuitous detours on the road, living off the grid, studying everything around you, while living in the gray matter of your young and all too impressionable mind.  Perhaps what ultimately matters in this film is that Frank was a recognized artist before he became a filmmaker, so an artist’s sensibility runs throughout the picture.  Knowing the personality of the foreign-born director adds to a greater understanding of his works, as like many migrants before him, he arrived in this country filled with hope and optimism, where he was first and foremost a photographer, remaining fascinated with American culture, but his views changed, where the optimism of the 50’s led to a disparity in wealth and unmistakable realities of class and racial differences, finally viewing the country as an often bleak and lonely place.  He met key figures of the Beat Generation in the late 50’s, including Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, making his first impromptu movie with them called PULL MY DAISY (1959), which was written and narrated by Kerouac, based on a play by Kerouac and featured the beat poets Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky, as well as painter Larry Rivers and actress Delphine Seyrig, made a year after he published his most famous work, The Americans, a collection of photographs that could be described as a prototypical road movie with Kerouac writing the introductory text.  Sean O’Hagan writes from The Guardian, November 7, 2014, "Robert Frank at 90: the photographer who revealed America won't look back":

Frank was 31 in 1955 when he secured the Guggenheim Grant that financed his various road trips across America the following year with his wife and his two young children in tow.  He shot around 28,000 pictures.  When Les Americains was published by Robert Delpire in France in 1958, it consisted of just 83 black and white images, but it changed the nature of photography, what it could say and how it could say it.  Published in the United Sates as The Americans by Grove Press a year later, it remains perhaps the most influential photography book of the 20th century. […]

Frank’s America is a place of shadows, real and metaphorical.  His Americans look furtive, lonely, suspicious.  He caught what Diane Arbus called the “hollowness” at the heart of many American lives, the chasm between the American dream and the everyday reality.  With his handheld camera, Frank embraced movement and tilt and grain.  Contemporary critics reacted with a mixture of scorn and outrage, accusing him of being anti-American as well as anti-photography.  A review in Practical Photography dismissed the book’s “meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons and general sloppiness.”  The Americans portrayed a place and a people that many Americans just could not, or did not want to see: a sad, hard, divided country that seemed essentially melancholic rather than heroic.  As Jack Kerouac put it in his famous introduction, Robert Frank “sucked a sad poem out of America.”

Frank was an outsider by temperament and design.  Born and raised in Zurich, where he trained as a commercial studio photographer, he fled his solidly bourgeois family in 1947, tired of “the smallness of Switzerland.”  In New York, he landed a job at Harper’s Bazaar, where famed art director, Alexey Brodivitch, had hired the likes of Cartier-Bresson and Bill Brandt, but deadlines and the dictates of magazine work quickly wore him down and he set off for South America, shooting in the towns and villages of Bolivia and Peru and living hand to mouth.

These journeys set the tone for much of what was to follow as Frank traveled through England and Wales before embarking on his road trips across America.  Though he rejected Walker Evan’s more formal approach, he learned much from the older photographer, whom he accompanied on shorter trips after they met and became friends in New York.  Their differing attitudes to photography – and to life – were essentially generational: the impeccably well-bred Evans once asked Frank, “Why do you hang out with those people, Robert?  They have no class.”  He was referring to Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, whom Frank had recognised as fellow iconoclasts in search of another wilder America that matched their outlaw imaginations.

Their influence would seep into Frank’s later work like a virus: the freeform flow of his fly-on-the-wall short films and the uncompromising diaristic style of the infamous Cocksucker Blues, a documentary about the Rolling Stones 1972 tour of America that caught the boredom and dissolution of life on the road in a grainy verite style that was way too revealing for the group.  They sued to prevent its release and sent a sheriff to his door to confiscate his copy of the film.  Legend has it that Mick Jagger acknowledged the film’s greatness but told Frank: “If it shows in America we’ll never be allowed in the country again.”

Frank met screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer in the 1960’s, as both were living in Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, about as far from the all-consuming bright lights of Los Angeles as they could possibly get, both living in the shadows to survive, while also keeping in touch in New York’s Lower East Side, growing more inspired by his work with Monte Hellman in Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) and Sam Peckinpah’s last western, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973), initially working together on the film KEEP BUSY (1975), an absurdist glimpse at a group of artists in Cape Breton, and ENERGY AND HOW TO GET IT (1981), a near 30-minute short funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a documentary spoof about a lone engineer who believes in free energy butting heads with an Energy Czar, played by William S. Burroughs.  The best fusion of their talents, however, is this Canadian co-directed film, largely improvised and open-ended, combining Frank’s abstract, narrative free artistic vision with Wurlitzer’s cryptic dialogue in near apocalyptic road journeys to nowhere, where on the DVD commentary track of Two-Lane Blacktop, Wurlitzer is quoted as saying, “The horizon is everything that the rear-view mirror isn’t.  It’s the unknown.”  Despite its rambling style, often feeling lost and incoherent, the film is one of the better extensions of the 60’s counterculture, with plenty of autobiographical references, described by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum (The Countercultural Histories of Rudy Wurlitzer | Jonathan Rosenbaum) as “the deliberate relinquishment of power, a key aim of 60’s counterculture, (and) represents the closest thing in his work to utopia,” arguably resonating more deeply than Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969) and Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces (1970), for instance, both de-glamorizations of Hollywood culture, but considered standard-bearers and among the first counterculture films to be viewed by a mass audience, while this film, made nearly twenty years later, is nearly forgotten, sent to the trash heap, barely mentioned, if not omitted from an actor’s resumé, and only available in an obscure European Region 2 DVD format.  While it continues Wurlitzer’s meditations on the myths of the American frontier, it uses a music format to do so, not just on the eclectic soundtrack, but in the use of interesting glimpses of musical figures of the 70’s and 80’s who populate the film as actors, all of whom share an undeniable artistic integrity and creativity, each figuring prominently in the storyline, adding a special appeal, wry humor, and a hint that their appearance brings an alternative universe (and subversive meaning) into nearly every scene. With so many singers and musicians appearing in the film, who may or may not have been under contract at the time, one of the reasons the film may be so endlessly lost in a legal quagmire of limited distribution is no one has attempted to untangle the complicated rights issues involving the various artists and their music, which is heard throughout, but largely uncredited, as it’s incorporated into the overall narrative. 

While the film is, in effect, a rejection of trendy American culture, especially how musicians are literally owned by record labels and measured by capitalist dollar signs, with death only increasing their value, as we witnessed when a slew of iconic 60’s rockers (Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Keith Moon) died before their time, reduced to having their names emblazoned on marketable merchandise, lost in a land with an overriding obsession with money, where the film title is a fictional place mentioned in a depression era song, The Big Rock Candy Mountain, a hobo’s dream of paradise on earth, “where the jails are made of tin / and you can walk right out again.”   Nonetheless we begin our journey on the mean streets of New York, following the exploits of a dreamer protagonist throughout, a not so bright but idealistic and ambitious young kid who wants to be a star, Julius Book, Chicago-born Kevin J. O’Connor, who was stuck with the label of being the next James Dean and is simply brilliant throughout, the son of a Chicago cop, more recently seen in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007) and The Master (2012), and a recurring character in the TV-series Chicago P.D. (2014 to present), a stand-in for the pursuit of the American Dream, as he dreams of breaking into the music business, but thinks only of success and money.  Initially, however, after walking off his job, he can’t even get his guitar back from Mario (Joe Strummer, punk icon of the Clash) and his strange cohort, Arto Lindsay (New York no wave group DNA), who instead sends him on a non-paying gig with Keith Burns (David Johansen, aka Buster Pointdexter of the New York Dolls), appearing here with a group of musicians, including his drummer, Tony “Machine” Krasinski, but Burns ridicules his playing ability during a band rehearsal.  Instead he picks up on Burns’s obsession with Elmore Silk guitars, supposedly the finest handmade guitars on the market, each worth more than $20,000, but made by a recluse who has all but disappeared from sight, making his guitars even more valuable.  Julius gets Burns’s attention by pretending to know the man, claiming he can track him down and get him to sign an agreement to sell Burns a few of his guitars.  Julius, it turns out, lies through his teeth, claiming experiences he doesn’t have, where mostly he’s a shiftless music wannabe with coiffed hair and a black leather jacket, where he’s got the look but not the talent.  Yet with the stroke of a pen, Julius hits the road, receiving wheels and an advance of $2000, where the free-wheeling style of the film really kicks into gear, featuring the ever-widening, open expanse of Swiss cinematographer Pio Corradi, whose credits list 100 films, yet none are remotely recognizable, which only adds to the film’s charming allure. While Frank’s photographic eye captures the striking beauty of vast natural landscapes, isolated roads, and lonely characters who haunt the texts of so many American poems and songs, yet over the course of his journey, there are many who remind the aimless Julius “the road ain’t what it used to be,” turning this into a kind of anti-road movie, where Wurlitzer seems to be commenting on this generation, which has been sold a bill of goods about freedom and the mystery of “the road,” having heard about Kerouac or Easy Rider, but never reading the book or seeing the movie, where instead they’re nearly incapable of actually learning anything from the experience. 

Early on, Julius is given a sage bit of advice from a toothless truck driver (Rockets Redglare), “Life ain’t no candy mountain,” before being bilked out of money.  In an amusing series of vignettes, Julius meets Al Silks (Tom Waits), Elmore’s upscale brother, like a character out of a Buster Keaton movie, a rich man living in opulence (“There are rooms in that house that I haven’t even been in,”) whose advice to Julius, as he practices on a putting tee, is that “You should be playing golf.  You’re young.  You should be playing A LOT of golf.”  Both getting soundly drunk, Julius takes a nap to the sounds of Waits gravel-filled voice, cozied up next to a piano singing “Once More Before I Go,” Tom Waits in Candy Mountain - YouTube (7:15). Interestingly, in the same year as the film’s release, Waits released Frank’s Wild Years, the final in a trilogy of albums that included Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs, music that had absolutely nothing to do with the 80’s music scene, instead enveloping the idea of absolute freedom of creation, which lingers through the cracks as a prominent theme of the film.  When Julius wakes, Silks offers him his 60’s T-Bird for half his cash, claiming Elmore is living with his daughter, who in stark contrast, is living in a disreputable trailer park.  By the time Julius gets there, he discovers Alice (Laurie Metcalf) lives with her paraplegic husband Henry (Dr. John, who plays no music) in a wheelchair, both fighting like cats and dogs, with Henry especially incensed to learn Elmore’s guitars are so valuable and he missed out on an opportunity to make money on them, leaving him with nothing, as instead they literally drove him out, and in no time we can see why, as they are a hilarious picture of turmoil and constant dysfunction, Dr. John in Candy Mountain YouTube (6:31), but take the T-Bird off his hands for a broken down VW Van and a forwarding address in the remote hinterlands of Canada.  The VW breaks down almost immediately, with Julius trading it in, along with some cash, for a pickup truck that takes him into the snowy landscapes of Canada.  Running throughout the film is a recurring motif involving automobiles, as every time Julius arrives in a new place, he leaves in a different vehicle.  Similarly, as he discovers people from Elmore’s past, Julius is stripped of his cash and all material possessions, yet inevitably stumbles forward on his quest for fame and fortune with his same ideals intact, while remaining oblivious to his surroundings.  None more apparent than a drunken encounter that leads him into the hoosegow, as falling asleep at the wheel, he happened to veer his car into the property of an extremely pious and sanctimonious Justice of the Peace (Roberts Blossom) and his equally eccentric constable son (Leon Redbone), and is unable to pay for the damages, spending days locked up in an adjoining room of the house, Leon Redbone in Candy Mountain YouTube (10:19), but eventually his freedom is celebrated with a spirited (and drunken) father and son rendition of “On the Road to Nowhere.” 

Easily the most poignant stop along the way is his visit to Cornelia (Bulle Ogier, a French actress who’s worked with Rivette, Fassbinder, Chabrol, and Buñuel), one of Elmore’s former loves, a moving sequence filled with a haunting pathos, like a memory of a forgotten incident, where she couldn’t be more graciously tender and accommodating, even inviting him into her bed, informing him “Elmore wants to step off the edge of the map,” but Julius is hell-bent on finding him.  It’s only when he appears to be at the end of the road that the film comes together, where we’ve learned bits and pieces of information about Elmore along the way, creating a near mythical status before he ever makes an appearance.  While the film is oddly amusing throughout, it perhaps shouldn’t surprise us that when he finally discovers Elmore’s home, there’s a message written on a mirror in the living room, “You owe me one.”  When Elmore (Harris Yulin) finally does show up, located at the farthest point of Cape Breton, Julius thinks he’s hit the jackpot, clueless to what’s taking place before his eyes, as Elmore actually takes him under his wing before walking out the door, perhaps reminding him of his own carefree youth, suggesting he stick around and soak up some of the surroundings, “I say freedom doesn’t have much to do with the road, one way or the other.”  What this underlines is that there is no secret to happiness, and the farther you run away in pursuit of your authentic self, you’re no closer to finding it, as we soon learn Elmore cuts his own deal with a mysterious Asian buyer (Koko Yamamoto), and as part of the deal, destroys all his other guitars while pledging to never make another, enormously jacking up the prices of his existing works, enough for him to live on comfortably for the rest of his life, which turns out to be no problem for him at all, with Julius strangely helping him burn his remaining inventory.  In the end, perhaps stomping on earlier dreams and promises made, the last vestiges of earlier hopes abandon us as we approach our own mortality and even the best of us are prone to sell out.  While the finality of it all is a bit surreal, and somehow magical, viewers are treated to a magnificent performance by Cape Breton’s First Lady of Song, Rita MacNeil singing “Everybody,” Rita MacNeil in Candy Mountain YouTube (3:12), as authentic and big-hearted a voice as you’ll ever find, conveying in one song a lifetime of honesty and sincerity, where she may as well represent the true artistic inspiration of the film, what Julius keeps hoping to find, but once again ignores.  A celebration of marginal characters and a moving evocation of poets, vagabonds, and loners, the fleeting beauty of the brief musical interludes reminds us of their significance in our lives, where this is a rare film that on one canvas captures that rambunctious yet elusive spirit of freedom while also demonstrating a unique flair for an appreciation of beauty.  Made on a limited budget for next to nothing, this is the real thing.     

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