Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Yob and His God: A Look at a 1970s Cult Classic

“I’m getting the hell outta here—I want to see Blood again. I want to get into a good straightforward fight with some son of a bitch over a can of beans.
I gotta get back in the dirt so I can feel clean!”

A Boy and His Dog (1975)
Directed by L.Q. Jones
Produced by Alvy Moore (yes, Hank Kimball from Green Acres!)
Screenplay by L.Q. Jones (and, uncredited, Alvy Moore and Wayne Cruseturner (creator of the TV game-show Gambit), with additional material by The Firesign Theater [Phil Austin, Phil Proctor, Peter Bergman and David Ossman]—I would not be surprised if the Firesign crew contributed all the background dialog that’s overheard, like the rovers grumbling at the movies, and the loudspeakers blasting their propagandistic inanities in underground Topeka)
Based on the novella by Harlan Ellison
Cast: Don Johnson (Vic), Tiger (Blood), Tim McIntire (Blood’s voice), Jason Robards (Lew Craddock), Susanne Benton (Quilla June Holmes),

World War IV (that’s right, “four”) has come and gone, leaving the planet a wreck. Across the burnt mudflats that used to be the US wander Vic and Blood, the titular boy and his dog—although it needs to be noted that Blood is a mutant:
he looks like a normal dog (and was “played” by the dog who played The Brady Bunch’s dog), but is as intelligent as any contemporary human—
meaning he’s smarter than the addled, sun-bleached survivors lurking about post-nuke America—and can telepathically communicate with Vic, the only one who can “hear” him.

Theirs is a Hobbesian existence of routine strife and violence, crisscrossing the land searching for food to eat or women for Vic to fuck;
only alleviated by Blood’s oft-repeated dreams of finding “Over the Hill,” a legendary radiation-free paradise, “where they grow food right out of the ground.”

A girl they “catch” gets away, and leaving a wounded Blood above ground, Vic follows her “down under” to Topeka, a giant underground complex where the last vestiges of pre-atomic war American authority are brutally maintained, and everyone must wear a happy face (really—they wear clown face make-up with painted-on smiles all the time).

The Topekans are all consumers, when first seen they’re eating and eating and eating. Yeah, it would be heavy-handed if it didn’t zoom from one mad scene to the next.

“Lack of respect, wrong attitude, failure to obey authority… The Farm,” is the ruling committee’s mantra as it sentences dissidents to death. Led by Jason Robards’ Lew, the committee seems like a non-conformist’s nightmare:
the type of fussy, easily-offended, detail-obsessed people the grade school hall monitors grew up to be. Crrrrrrreeeeeeeeeeepy!

(And having Hank Kimball on the committee increases the mindfuck factor of the Topeka sequence: overall, A Boy and His Dog’s third act tends to be a swirling crazed audio-visual montage—LOVE IT!)
It seems life underground has made all of Topeka’s males sterile, and new “juice” is needed to keep the post-holocaust underground United States breeding.
Vic thinks this is great (More chicks to screw! Oh yeah!)—
until he’s hooked up to a mechanical semen-extraction pump.

Meanwhile Quilla June, the girl that “got away,” is planning a revolt against the fascistic ruling party.
But she’s not concerned with improving civil liberties, she’s seeking a quick road to power (coup d’état!), and sees a weapon in the virile and violent Vic…

If Samuel Beckett and Sam Peckinpah collaborated on a movie,
it might be something like A Boy and His Dog:
intelligent, exciting and violent,
bleak (but not hopeless),
distrustful of authority,
and obsessed with natural below-the-belt functions (like hunger and sex),
with a variety of absurdist touches
(the eternal night/no ceiling of underground Topeka,
the fact that the origins of Blood’s unique talents are never explained,
other bits of weirdness you should discover yourself),
and a sick sense of humor to match the setting—
and here I am referring directly to the film’s conclusion—
yeah, yeah, yeah, SPOILER alert:
To save Blood’s life, Vic has to kill and cook Quilla June.

Lean and sparse, A Boy and His Dog creates a fully realized world with zero budget, but lots of imagination and talent, and is a perfect B-movie:
smart and biting, sometimes even nasty, with the prerequisite amounts of violence and nudity to keep the exploitation crowd (like me) happy.
The movie has its own style--
Purposefully disorienting at first, the flick forces you to settle into its groove. Everything will be answered in due course, let the movie unspool.

A Boy and His Dog shares themes with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and many revisionist Westerns:
that the inherently evil “civilization” (whether represented by Topeka or the “roverpaks” aboveground that Vic and Blood must compete with)
is crowding out (if not hunting down) the last of the free men.
Like other counter-cultural flicks of the period (Altman’s Brewster McCloud comes to mind),
A Boy and His Dog suggests the only way to truly “beat the system” is to pull a Yossarian and split from the scene entirely. (Although becoming a cannibal is optional…)

Meanwhile, there’s great repartee between Blood and Vic, the old soldier and the brash new guy. Blood, however, always gets the best lines:
“Oh you would stone a poor defenseless animal, would you? Yes, I can tell you would… because you’re not a nice person, Albert. Not a nice person at all.”

“Next time you play with yourself, I hope you go blind.”

“Breeding is an ugly thing.”

Which is why I think it would be more appropriate to put A Boy and His Dog on a double-feature with a flick like Thunderbolt & Lightfoot or The Man Who Would Be King instead of The Road Warrior or Logan’s Run or Death Race 2000; while it is a vision of a (very) dystopic future, A Boy and His Dog is primarily a buddy movie, with action.

(Heck, if Jack Lemmon’s Felix Unger didn’t drive me up a wall, I’d even suggest that The Odd Couple would be a good co-feature with A Boy and His Dog.)

Blood may be a misanthropic dog who has seen how stupid humans can be, but he’s also the smartest, most human creature left on the face of the earth (and down below as well, if what we’re shown in Topeka is any indication).

Blood’s very sarcastic “mouth” writes checks his ass (or “fuzzy butt,” as Vic would say) cannot cash—but really, his “mouth” (his intelligence) is Blood’s only power:
The dog isn’t a big one, nor particularly savage (Blood’s not a Doberman or Rottweiler), and he gets hurt badly during the firefight in the abandoned gymnasium.

Much of A Boy and His Dog’s success is not only owed to Tiger’s empathetic physical performance but how well it meshes with Tim McIntire’s melodious baritone:
His line readings snap and tingle with intelligence, a perfect combo of disgust, resignation and courage.
McIntire’s voice really sells this for me.

BTW, I’m referring to L.Q. Jones excellent film, not Harlan Ellison’s novella—which, while it may have won the 1969 Hugo Award back in the day, doesn’t really hold up for me. (Jones’ film went on to win the Hugo Award for Best Film in 1976, however.)

I do think the cover art for the issue of New Worlds the novella appeared in is a pretty cool graphic design (see directly above)—and one I think I prefer to the film’s mid-1980s re-release poster (the smiley-face mushroom cloud).
Honestly, I’m hardly enamored with Harlan Ellison’s work like I was 25 to 30 years ago. His writing was great for an obdurately nihilistic teenager to discover in the late-1970s/early-80s, but I haven’t been compelled to read one of his stories in years—unlike scribes like JG Ballard, PK Dick and Alfred Bester, who I all still enjoy and re-read.

And the cranky, old man stance Ellison seems to take these days frankly bores me.
(And I for one was psyched that James Ellroy managed to scoop the title Blood’s a Rover (from an A.E. Housman poem) for the conclusion of his Underworld USA trilogy before Ellison’s long-announced “final” Blood and Vic book/story/novella has come out. If it ever will come out.)

That said, in the novella and related stories, Ellison explains all about how Blood developed his intelligence and psionic abilities.
Thankfully, director Jones had no use for info-dumping on his audience, and Blood’s powers are unexplained, although assumed to be a result of post-war radiation.

And speaking of Jones, one of the greatest character actors to have graced the silver screen, A Boy and His Dog is his only directorial effort, and enters that roll call of great (and if not quite great, at least fascinating) one-offs.

Joining Night of the Hunter, One-Eyed Jacks, Maximum Overdrive, The World’s Greatest Sinner, The Seven-Ups, and Quick Change,
A Boy and His Dog is the only directorial effort by someone for whom directing wasn’t their primary career goal.

I wish Jones had helmed more movies, his directing and editing style remind me of George Romero’s films of the 1970s, combined with a good sense of using the widescreen properly.
Jones crams his frames with detail, so it is a relief that so much of the movie takes place in the great outdoors.

Not only that, A Boy and His Dog is loaded with great audio and sound collages: very helpful in creating a horrible, new world.

LQ Jones even gives himself a cameo in the movie within a movie (I don’t recognize what it could be from, and may be something shot specifically for A Boy and His Dog).

And during that scene set at the “movie theater,” check out the nerd kid running the projector at the movies: even after World War IV, horn-rimmed, taped-glasses geeks will still be running the AV club!
[Good interview with Jones about A Boy and His Dog is HERE]

The film has been criticized because Vic and Blood are unrepentant about eating Quilla June, and even make a bad pun about it---and you can certainly criticize the film for that last line; some days I hate it, some days I like it---
But regarding claims that the movie is misogynistic (because in this fucked-up future world women are a commodity to be either fucked or eaten), all I have to say is
what sort of idiot thinks equal rights (for anyone) will exist in the savage and ruthless post-apocalyptic world?
Have you read the newspaper lately? Human rights and equality don’t exist for much of the world right now.

Please tell me oh sensitive, caring, open-minded people, who will keep a maniac from gouging your eyes out and skullfucking you and your whole family after the bombs fall? The RA at your dorm? The police? Your senator? Mom?

Besides, director Jones wisely stacks the deck against Quilla June Holmes so we don’t feel too bad—
(Wisely because turgid moral quandaries do not help sell tickets for a low-budget independent B-movie actioner—Ellison can do it in his novella, it’s easier to do in literature than film—but Jones needs to keep things moving, and he has established this world as “unreal”—A Boy and His Dog isn’t a docudrama about “life after the bomb,” it’s a satirical look at that topic.)

Quilla June is presented from the get-go as a character that can never be trusted. We the audience can see it, but Vic can’t at first (raging hormones confounding his brain), then later he realizes she, like “civilization,” can’t be trusted: And what good is she going to be, really? It’s best just to kill her and eat her.
Besides, Vic and Blood are partners. They “think alike.”

ALSO, the original mid-1970s trailer for A Boy and His Dog is fantastic, a kaleidoscopic calliope of words, sounds and images—almost an avant garde art project—reminiscent (or a rip-off) of the original trailer for A Clockwork Orange.

This post is part of an A Boy and His Dog blogathon curated by Max at the fab Great Caesar’s Post! site, and you should go over there and check out the other entries and comments about this great movie!

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