If you’ve never heard of South of Heaven, West of Hell, there’s an excellent reason. If you have heard of it, it’s probably because you stumbled upon the information that it marks the directorial debut of singer-actor Dwight Yoakam, who managed to sweet-talk a spectacularly quirky cast into abetting the enterprise: current girlfriend Bridget Fonda and her papa Peter; indie-world luminaries Vince Vaughn and Billy Bob Thornton (for whom Yoakam made a memorably loathsome villain in Sling Blade); character-acting stalwarts Bo Hopkins, Matt Clark, Luke Askew, and Scott Wilson; and such icons of the florid fringe as Bud Cort, Paul Reubens, and Michael Jeter. All should file for workman’s comp and alienation of audience affection because they got themselves mired in one of the dumbest, most inept, most tediously self-indulgent messes in the history of showbiz hubris.
[Originally published in Movietone News 23, May-June 1973]
Two People represents the triumph of cinematic presence and naturally lush surfaces over script and selling campaign. Well, not quite a triumph, perhaps, but TwoPeople is a much better movie—or experience to be had at the movies—than most descriptions of it have indicated, least of all its own Segal-like sell and Lelouchian outtakes. Peter Fonda, who handled his own self-directed star turn in TheHiredHand with unexpected modesty, takes a truly stellar leap toward attractiveness as a Vietnam deserter who has wearied of life in various exiles and has elected to go home and serve his time in order to get his own life back. Indeed, the whole film yearns toward taking a self-purging step beyond the puerilities of the EasyRider school of contemporary self-loathing (and amid all that film’s virtues there certainly were more than a few puerilities).
[Originally published in Movietone News 35, September 1974]
Coming away from DirtyMary CrazyLarry, an MTN colleague remarked that it had to be the most confused movie to cross our path in a long while. I disagreed, preferring to reserve the term “confused” for films that have somewhere they want to go but can’t quite decide how to get there, or others that may have more (perhaps very interesting) things to say than they can encompass. I felt that the makers of DirtyMaryCrazy Larry knew exactly what they were doing: they had nothing whatsoever to “say,” but they did have a handy file-card index of issues and ideas that other road-movie makers had addressed themselves to, and they could pull a card every five minutes and insert its text into somebody’s dialogue. Result: a quasi-intellectual zapper to occupy coequal status with the other disconnected shocks in the movie, be they the most unimaginative of scatological putdowns (any verbal exchange in excess of five lines can be handily terminated by having one party tell the other to “Kiss my ass!”), utterly unmotivated characterological turnabouts (two old buddies fall out, two sworn enemies fall in, and the three persons involved become the best of comrades, all within less than three minutes), or—who’d ever guess?!—car crashes.
Before Easy Rider there was The Wild Angels (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD), directed by Roger Corman and starring Peter Fonda as Heavenly Blues, the leader of a California chapter of Hell’s Angles. This is a gang of disaffected drop-outs and scruffy road rats who live to ride in packs and parade their colors (black leather, mostly, adorned with swastikas and Iron Crosses) as a show of defiance to the establishment.
The 1966 film branded Fonda as a counterculture icon, but his lanky aloofness and arrogant disdain for the establishment masks an alienated, empty soul flailing at every authority figure just to provoke some sort of sensation. Nancy Sinatra’s thigh-boots were made for straddling a chopper and she is all hipster attitude as Blues’ chick, Mike. Sinatra is a wooden actress but there’s a nervousness and fear of abandonment behind her vague expression which puts Fonda’s cool posturing into perspective.
They are truly rebels without a cause but Corman takes their outlaw culture into nervy, nihilistic territory. They’re not a club, they’re a tribe and they devolve into primitive savagery after the death of their beloved brother, the Loser (Bruce Dern in a swaggering performance of breezy disobedience). It’s not malevolence that makes them dangerous, but apathy and amorality. They just don’t care who gets hurt in their search for the next thrill. “We wanna be free!,” demands Blues in a rambling eulogy turned incoherent (anti-)statement of purpose. “We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man! And we wanna get loaded!”
[Originally published in Movietone News 43, September 1975]
After witnessing a satanic episode of black rites and human sacrifice in some out-of-the-way Texas campsite and then trying in vain to get some action on the matter from the local police force, Peter Fonda remarks to Warren Oates, “Frank, they’re trying to screw with our brains.” Fonda’s face is dead earnest as he delivers the line, which seems like some wildly misplaced throwaway from a grade-Z science fiction flick, invested with about as much foreboding as an order for ham and eggs. It may be significant that he doesn’t say anything like, “They’re trying to fuck with our heads,” which might be edging a little too far in the direction of counter-kultcha lingo; after all, we don’t want to alienate anybody out there who might actually be getting off on Racewith theDevil—an apt title indicating Starrett’s dual concentration on spooks and chases. Like a liberal politician, “screw with our brains” is restrained even in its most daring affectations of looseness, and its timidity is only accentuated by the ex-hip aura of Fonda, who’s getting a little older and a little safer than the free-spirited threat to conservative lifestyles Captain America represented in EasyRider.
[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]
Anyone seeking evidence that more writers should turn director ought to consider Tom McGuane in quarantine. 92 in the Shade has about as much structure and consistency, not to say appeal, as an ice cream sandwich that has lain in the sun since last weekend. There is scarcely any evidence that someone directed it, although a manneristic and absolutely pointless derivation from some better movie—e.g., a drifting LongGoodbye–like coverage of a jailhouse interview between Peter Fonda and Warren Oates—suggests occasionally that someone thought he was directing. Perhaps the shade of Robert Altman also hangs over the non-readings one strains to make sense of (though I stopped straining before very long); McGuane must have assumed that mumbled, slurred speech—preferably delivered through a mouth full of food and/or drink—has some near-mystical value in the contemporary cinema, else why would he sabotage so much of his own dialogue? But even on that level, the screenplay sounds like someone else’s idea of McGuane dialogue more often than it approaches the real thing (as, delightfully, in RanchoDeluxe).
Jonathan Demme wrote and directed Fighting Mad (1976), his third feature, for producer Roger Corman but it was actually produced for 20th Century Fox, which makes the film his studio debut. It’s not his best film by far but this mix of vigilante/revenge movie and eco-conscious stand against corruption makes for an inspired twist on a familiar genre. Peter Fonda is an easy-going Arkansas framer who stands up to the corporate criminal who has his thugs intimidate, harass and murder local landowners who refuse to sell out to his strip-mining concern. They kill his brother (Scott Glenn, gone way too soon from a film that could use his understated strength) and pregnant sister-in-law and murder an inconvenient state judge who gets in the way of their agenda and the drawling sheriff seems to be in the back pocket of the corporation as he backs their rights to plunder the land of local farmer.
The sheriff’s position is supposed to be more complicated than that, which is one of the failings of the script and the direction. Fighting Mad manages to embrace a fairly radical hero (Fonda’s response to the corporate mafia violence has echoes of radical eco-warriors) and evoke resonant conflicts over land management and natural resource exploitation without really taking a stand. Demme switches up from the overheated melodrama and B-movie energy of his first films for the small town atmosphere of rural pace of life, which he isn’t always able to wrench into action-thriller tension, and Fonda plays his part somewhere between enlightened nature boy back from the big city and counterculture idealist with survivalist skills and no compunction about putting them to use. When they almost kill his gruffly lovable father (stalwart westerns veteran John Doucette), he goes after the coal syndicate with his hunting bow and goes all Leatherstocking on the corporate baddy’s bodyguard thugs. Fonda never dredges up a palpable fury to match his righteous indignation, but he does offer a different kind of moral spine in rural culture polluted by corruption. Cult actress Lynn Lowry plays the love interest in a film that sidesteps the issue of Fonda’s marriage status (maybe separated, certainly not divorced but acting very much the single father).
Demme and Corman, colleagues, friends and old hands at teaming up for commentary tracks, are joined for this newly-recorded commentary by Lynn Lowry and, about 118 minutes in, Peter Fonda. They don’t bother to introduce themselves (and it’s easy to tell them apart), they simply launch into production stories. Demme explains that it was Corman’s idea to make a “redneck revenge picture” (in the spirit of Walking Tall and Billy Jack) and suggested building it around the issue of strip mining, a reminder that Corman that was both politically left and business savvy, and points out that Monte Hellman helped out (uncredited) in the editing of a key sequence that plays out with a documentary quality.
The double-feature disc is paired with the 1976 Moving Violation, another thriller of small town corruption, this own starring Stephen McHattie as a drifter and Kay Lenz as a waitress who go on the run after witnessing the local lawmen murder someone. Will Geer and Eddie Albert co-star and the film features commentary by director Charles S. Dubin, producer Julie Corman, executive producer Roger Corman and star Stephen McHattie.
[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]
I’ve never had the opportunity to see Allan Arkush and Joe Dante’s Hollywood Boulevard;on the other hand, I suspect that I saw a fair portion of it in Roger Corman: Hollywood’s Wild Angel,Christian Blackwood’s genial film dossier on Roger Corman, whose New World Pictures released the movie. From what we see, and from what Arkush and Dante gleefully confess to Blackwood’s camera and microphone, Hollywood Boulevardis an outrageous, pell-mell celebration/put-on of low-budget, high-energy exploitation filmmaking. A couple of wild’n’crazy kids with a movie camera rip off every cinematic opportunity in sight to produce a zany compendium of Z-movie sex’n’violence; the surrounding environment and not a few of its inhabitants get trashed in the process, but no big deal. Arkush and Dante, a pair of sweet-faced loons who would not look out of place at a freshman smoker, did the same thing in a slightly less destructive key—for instance, taking pictures of a few honeys firing submachine guns in Griffith Park, and splicing these in with borrowed Philippine footage of soldiers biting the dust—and then they showed the results to Roger Corman who said, Very funny, here’s the money for the lab costs, I’ll buy it. One always hoped things like that happened in Roger Corman’s neighborhood, and among the many pleasures of Blackwood’s 58-minute documentary is that that hope gets confirmed again and again.