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’├ętat!), 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!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Timothy Carey is “GOD”: DVD MIA The World’s Greatest Sinner

Ah, he's the world's greatest sinner.
I said, the world's greatest sinner.
As a sinner he's a winner.
Honey, he's no beginner.
He's rotten to the core,
Daddy, you can't say no more.
He's the world's greatest sinner.

The World’s Greatest Sinner (1962)
Producer/Director/Screenplay/Star: Timothy Carey
Voice of Satan: Paul Frees
Cinematography: Frank Grande, Robert Shelfow, Ray Dennis Steckler, Ove H. Sehested
Voice of Satan: Paul Frees
Music: Frank Zappa
Film Editing: Carl Mahakian, Lee Strosnider
82 minutes

I am SO HAPPY I live in a world where Timothy Carey’s film
The World’s Greatest Sinner exists.
(And it is Timothy Carey’s film completely: in an act of almost absurd auteurism, Carey wrote, directed, produced, starred and even distributed the flick all by himself!)

The film’s not easy to get a hold of, but if you are at all interested in The Cinema of Weirdness (a very broad catch-all phrase, I’ll admit),
finding a copy, and watching it all the way through is an absolute necessity—
like a Muslim’s taking the trek to Mecca.
(And I feel the same way about Otto Preminger’s Skidoo… but more
about that some other time…)

You see,
recommending The World’s Greatest Sinner is like recommending drugs--
You’re not going to say to your mom or priest, “Hey, you simply must try some of this fine Congolese hash,” are you?

About The World’s Greatest Sinner, Morlock Jeff, at the incredible Movie Morlocks site, writes,
“The film defies practically every convention of commercial filmmaking, inventing its own film language as it goes along.
Is it a Dadaist prank? (Carey was a huge fan of Salvador Dali)
Is it an allegory about American culture and society?
Is it a Beat Generation rejection of conformity?
Or is it some kind of crackpot masterpiece about self-actualization?
It’s probably all of the above and then some.”

Much in the same way you’d only recommend some psychedelic drug (“It’s made
from the sweat of Panamanian tree frogs!”)
to someone
in the know,
You can only recommend The World’s Greatest Sinner to someone already with an interest in The Cinema of Weirdness ,
especially such roughhewn flicks by folks like Alejandro Jodorowsky,
John Waters, Lucio Fulci (Cat in the Brain, I’m looking at you!), Ed Wood, Herschell Gordon Lewis (especially Just For the Hell of It), Ray Dennis Steckler (who was one of the cinematographers on The World’s Greatest Sinner--which might not be saying much), Al Adamson (Satan’s Sadists rules!), et al—
meaning that if you like non-mainstream flicks
that often show more passion (for filmmaking) than sense,
often manic fever dreams
that have ZERO budget,
you’ll dig
The World’s Greatest Sinner.
Because, really, the damned thing’s a deranged home movie!

But what sort of home movie is about a life-insurance salesman who
(under the guidance of Satan in the guise of a snake--voiced by

legendary vocal artist Paul Frees)
chucks it all away to become a preacher,
telling everyone that they can become a
“Super-Human Being!”
and live forever?

To reach a broader audience, Carey’s character, Clarence—later “God”—Hilliard starts using rock &/or roll to pack ’em in--
It’s these scenes the movie is best remembered for,
with Carey in a gold suit,
channeling demons:
As the late, great (and sorely missed)
Lux Interior
once said about Carey:

"You won't believe his performances. He just starts shaking and his
hair falls down...He must have watched Jerry Lee Lewis or something.
He starts rolling around on the stage; he's just shaking all over.
It's a live performance and he's just smashing his guitar, he's really
beating on it real loud. This is one of the greatest rockabilly
movies ever made. If you get a chance to see it, it'll just change
your life. Wow!"

But when political power beckons, God Hilliard dumps music like a hot potato, smashes his guitar, and starts his presidential run.
Meanwhile, he’s seducing grannies and jailbait alike--and Satan narrates/drives God on, maniacally cackling, “Go! Go!”
[Which of course made me think of the geezers croaking “Go, baby, GO!” from the intro to the amazing Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! (now I just gotta get around to finish watching Meyer’s Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens…)
But I digress…]

It looks like God is going to win, when an appearance of his little
moppet/brat of a daughter ruins everything by talking about
Jebus ‘n’
Whereupon, God challenges GOD to prove His existence, and…

Of The World’s Greatest Sinner’s editing, Morlock Jeff calls it
“haphazard, resulting in occasional incoherence that is closer to stream-of-consciousness musings than a conventional linear approach to narrative.”

So if you’re hung up on bourgeois filmmaking techniques,
The World’s Greatest Sinner
is almost unwatchable.
But that’s not the point.

Now here’s the thing: yes, Carey’s made God Hilliard the hero, but
Carey’s also gotta smash him down. Because that’s what Carey believes!
The film’s religious ending is not a goof, I think--Carey’s sincere,
and that is The World’s Greatest Sinner’s ultimate strength:
No matter the flaws
this film is honest
and a work from an artist’s heart. A labor of love.
And batshit crazy.
Therefore, a must-see.

Of course, it helps if you’re familiar with the film’s writer/director/producer/star Timothy Carey
(and hopefully a fan of this wild man, as well)

By the time he finished The World’s Greatest Sinner in 1962 (although by all accounts, Carey kept tinkering with the flick until his death in 1994),

Carey had already appeared in The Wild One, East of Eden, One-Eyed Jacks (in one scene, after punching out Carey, Brando growls at him, “Get up, you tub of guts!”),
The Killing and Paths of Glory, among others.

Later he was a Cassavettes semi-regular, made a cameo in Head,
did a bunch of TV that Otto Maddox (love the
Hawaii Five-O post!) would probably know about,
got stomped by
Tim McIntire in Fast-Walking (and I swear, I’ll do a write up about that movie soon!),
turned down the part of Luca Brasi in The Godfather (now that would be an alternate universe movie I want to see! Especially if it was the version where our beloved Ernest Borgnine was cast as Don Corleone—
and if Richard Jordan had been cast as Sonny? Perfection!),
was awesome in John Flynn’s excellent, underrated and
DVD-MIA The Outfit.
Then, of course, there’s
How to Stuff a Wild Bikini

If you like Carey’s slovenly, insouciant performances, moving like so much lazy lava, then The World’s Greatest Sinner is a must-see.
As Erich of the
excellent Acidemic site writes,
Carey “appears exhausted in some scenes and exhausted to the point of elation in others; the rest of the time he's... just perfect.”

So why’d Carey make this flick?
once said,
"I was tired of seeing movies that were supposedly controversial. So I
wanted to do something that was really controversial."

Controversial? The film’s almost seditious! Its themes are still charged and polarizing and it blows my mind to think of seeing this in 1962: Wow!

To find out more about Tim Carey, his works, his life, check out son
Romeo’s website
(According to the site, Romeo offers VHS tapes of The World’s Greatest Sinner for $24.95.)

Speaking of false prophets, the photo above is of the Reverend Gene Scott, a crazed televangelist from Clockwork Orange County—
(Dr. Scott broadcast out of SoCal station KDOC, where
Rebecca De Mornay’s dad, Wally George wielded his right-wing venom.)

(Jeez, dudes like Wally and Morton Downey are downright tame compared to the feral babble that passes for political discourse these days!)
(BTW, I was once in the mob of yahoos that comprised Wally George’s in-studio audience--my friends and I snuck on as “The Young Republicans Club of Pomona College,” wearing jackets and ties, and shouted and hollered and acted stupid—just like you’re supposed to when you’re on TV.)

I was introduced to Reverend Gene Scott’s crazed rantings by a trio of
dope fiends living in my freshman dorm: I’m so glad I found these
guys! In addition to the drugs, it was the crazy ideas, the anarchy they generated.

(After my first semester, two of them were kicked out--to be replaced
by another rambunctious and fired up pothead anarchist/rugby player,
as well as future
screenwriter Jim Taylor.)

The Trio had cut a hole in their wall and put a TV in there, and would
spend late nights with the Reverend Gene ranting away, screaming at his non-existent band to “Play It Again!”
This man was so incredible,
Werner Herzog even made a documentary about him.

Getting back to Sinner:
If you’re not quite sure
if you’re willing to go all the way,
Check out these two comprehensive posts
from the always stellar
Monster Movie Music site
(bookmark it and put it on your dashboard,
the site’s that good!)
Music collage and multiple frame grabs
The World’s Greatest Sinner

And now for
something completely sinful! (Thank Cthulhu for the petrochemical industry!