VHS or Bust: Candy Mountain

Gregory Hess continues his examination of forgotten flicks available ONLY on VHS–all of which are available for rent at Facets!

You wouldn’t know it from its tacky cover art, but Candy Mountain is born of some pretty remarkable pedigree, both in front of and behind the camera. Its two directors, Robert Frank and Rudy Wurlitzer, had both achieved major artistic achievements well before this film ever exposed a frame. Frank was a Swiss born immigrant who remains most well known as a still photographer. He was familiar with the road, having spent two years in the 1950’s traveling America and photographing what would eventually be published as “The Americans,” a work which now holds an historic, iconic place in the annals of post-war photography. Through a fluke he met Jack Kerouac, another fellow who’d had some acquaintance with ‘the road,’ and Kerouac offered to pen an introduction to the book. Frank continued to hang around Kerouac and the beats, and by the time “The Americans” was published in 1958 he had shot his first film, Pull My Daisy, featuring Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, with narration by Kerouac (watch it here) Frank later went on to direct the notoriously unavailable (but oft-bootlegged) Cocksucker Blues, the 1972 tour documentary on the Rolling Stones which revealed so much depravity that the Stones sued Frank to keep it from being shown in the US, fearing it would sink their careers.

Wurlitzer had come to America’s acquaintance in 1969, that marvel of years, with the publication of his first novel “Nog,” which earned itself a nice blurb from Thomas Pynchon (“The novel of bullshit is dead”) and found itself an underground, counter-culture hit of sorts. He then went on to pen the script to Two Lane Blacktop, a now-classic road movie which was released shortly after the massive success of Easy Rider, though it did not initially earn similar acclaim (or popularity). Wurlitzer was indeed born of the family which made that name famous, and I’m sure I’m not the first to remark how fitting that Wurlitzer’s name had surely been emblazoned on thousands of jukeboxes in the roadside joints he helped chronicle in his fiction and scripts.

Frank and Wurlitzer had collaborated previously on two short films, Keep Busy (1975) and Energy and How to Get It (1981), the latter starring William S. Burroughs and, improbably, Mac Rebennack, AKA New Orleans piano man Dr. John, in his first film appearance since a cameo in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Rebennack also appears in Candy Mountain, alongside a bevy of other musicians, in a film which, though not specifically about music, nonetheless concerns itself with musicians, and also with ‘the road.’

Candy Mountain kicks off in an empty New York high-rise pad, with Julius (Kevin J. O’Connor), employed in construction work of some kind, gazing listlessly out the picture window at the skyline below. Right then and there, on a whim, he quits, hitting the streets without a plan. From here, the film plays as a series of vignettes, and the various stations Julius touches down at are each improbable and colorful. One of the first is a one-night-stand playing bass in a swing band (headed by Buster Poindexter/New York Dolls front man David Johansen), during which he swindles his way into a wild goose chase for the legendary Elmore Silk, a guitar maker and recluse who has fled the scene, and whose guitars are now the stuff of legend (and insane value). Johansen bankrolls him, and before long he hits ‘the road,’ the films true subject.

Many of the encounters Julius has are, fittingly enough, musical in nature. Tom Waits, Leon Redbone and Johansen all get chances to sing along with their acting, though curiously Dr. John does not (maybe this was cut?) Joe Strummer also makes an appearance, playing guitar with a percussionist (accompanying him on a metal pipe, of all things). Why all these singers? Perhaps the logic was to populate a movie concerned with music with actual musicians in order to achieve some kind of heightened authenticity. Whatever the reason, this is likely the reason the film has not found further distribution on video; having so many singers singing in the film, who may or may not have been under contract, creates some complicated rights issues which, it seems, no video company has felt up to the task of untangling since the VHS was issued. There are some interesting moments of extra-diagetic sound in the music segments (an accordion heard when there is no accordion in the room, etc.), and songs introduced via the soundtrack are later sung in the film by characters, all of which serves to inlay a bit of dreaminess that serves the film well. Not surprisingly, the songs themselves (“Road to Nowhere,” “Once More Before I Go”) all comment rather blatantly on the scenes in which they feature.

Kevin J. O’Connor is exactly what the film requires of him: a bland, completely listless New York chump, with coiffed hair and a leather jacket. He’s sheepish, a little stupid, and a bonafide wannabe, not much different from O’Connor’s recent role in There Will Be Blood as Daniel Plainview’s possible brother Henry. Julius lies through his teeth almost from frame one; it’s doubtful he ever was in a band called “Big Trouble,” as he claims, and his vague dreams and half-baked notions of rock stardom reveal him as shallow and more than a little naive. Multiple people tell Julius that the road “ain’t what it used to be,” and the film, in a sense, becomes a kind of anti-road movie. Wurlitzer seems to be commenting on Julius’ generation, undoubtedly the kids whose parents had seen Easy Rider a dozen times, so desperate to soak up the mystery of ‘the road’ that has been sold to them, yet almost totally incapable of actually gleaning anything from the experience.

The easy comparison here is Jim Jarmusch, and I was all set to dismiss it, but it turns out that I can’t. In fact, Robert Frank knew Jarmusch, and Jarmusch actually had a part in Candy Mountain which may or may not have been filmed. Strummer and Waits had both acted previously in Jarmusch films, and Frank in fact asked for Jarmusch’s blessing on casting them. The connection with Jarmusch goes even deeper, as it has been widely confirmed that the concept for Jarmusch’s film Dead Man was outright stolen from an unproduced Wurlitzer screenplay called “Zebulon.” That being said, this film has doubtless been routinely tagged, like much of Jarmusch’s work, as a “quirky road movie,” which is about as fair as tagging Bergman films as “moody Swedish dramas.” There’s much more going on here. When Elmore Silk finally does enter the film, drunkenly crashing through the door of his home and kicking on the light switch, it isn’t so much about what he does or doesn’t do, but how he does it. Would you expect it any other way? Brooding and pensive, his last line is “Freedom don’t have much to do with the road, one way or another,” and if Candy Mountain has a thesis, that’s it.

But all this is to diminish the simple charms of this “little” film. Tom Waits in a banana-yellow cardigan, sucking on a cigar. Laurie Metcalf bashing Dr. John in the head with a box of Cheerios. The twinkle of the keys when Leon Redbone’s panama-hatted (as ever) manchild sits his butt on the piano to strum his guitar. A horrible (and very real looking) pratfall that Julius takes on his way to a cabin to “jack a deer.” Harris Yulin sucking raw eggs through the shell for his breakfast. Need I go on? There’s plenty here to enjoy, and the film is frequently hilarious. But most of the real triumphs of Candy Mountain are the simple pleasures of the locations, the locals, the rural color that Frank finds, which marries perfectly with his photography work. Frank’s camera pans slowly, savoring the landscapes on its way to a character’s face.

While Candy Mountain was in theaters, the year was 1988. Somewhere outside of the frame, Yo MTV Raps! is debuting, the cold war is winding down, and Super Mario Brothers 3 is on sale in Japan. The kind of lonesome-traveler innocence that the film is peddling was already mostly dead, but the film doesn’t seem to care. Julius goes out the same way he came in; without a plan, without an idea, and still ‘on the road.’ His final line, “I guess it always feels colder when you’re leaving someplace,” only vaguely suggests that he may have somehow gleaned some kind of perspective from this strange journey. He has seen the road, and it has not “changed his life,” but only occupied it for a while, pleasantly or not, until that next thing. Wurlitzer’s embrace with the road has borne no epiphanies, no all-reaching, Zen-like principles. A road is simply a road, nothing more. And we occupy it as we occupy any other space. The stops are the thing. The road is but an artery, a car but a vessel. It can only teach us about “freedom” if we have already made up our minds what freedom is. A sort of stream-of-consciousness road movie, Candy Mountain is a fine coda to the brash nonchalance of films like Two Lane and Easy Rider, but it’s not quite a rebuttal. ‘The road,’ much like its travelers, is a dynamic thing. And, just like a song, it begins in one place and ends in another. But, by the end, whether or not it’s actually taken you someplace is an entirely different story.

Frank and Wurlitzer, for their part, are just calling the tunes as they see ‘em.

NEXT UP IN THE SERIES:
The Music of Chance (1993). Adapted from the novel by Paul Auster. Directed by Philip Haas, starring Mandy Patinkin and James Spader.

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RECOMMENDED READING:
Conversing with Rudy Wurlitzer: ‘A Beaten-up Old Scribbler’
An in-depth interview with Wurlitzer from 2009, which touches on the pains of the production of Candy Mountain, his thoughts on the film, and his other film work.

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