Candy Mountain

May 30, 2012

“The road is gonna eat you up, man,” says the minor rock star to the slicked-back kid. That line in Candy Mountain is typical of the film’s self-conscious obsession with the road as a myth and symbol in American life and culture. This is a film that means to be something like the ultimate road movie.

And it should be, given the credentials of its creators. The writer, Rudy Wurlitzer, has practically made his career on the road, from the early hippie movie Glen and Randa to Two-Lane Blacktop. He shares the co-directing credit on Candy Mountain with Robert Frank, the renowned photographer and underground filmmaker. Frank’s most famous work may be a collection of photographs called The Americans, which captured life along the American highway. Frank also made a dizzy short movie in 1959 called Pull My Daisy, which was written by Jack Kerouac.

The restless spirit of Kerouac looms over Candy Mountain, too. It’s about a footloose musician named Julius (Kevin J. O’Connor, who played the beatnik poet in Peggy Sue Got Married), who’s trying to hustle his way into the big time. When he hears that a rock star will pay big bucks to locate a reclusive guitar maker—supposedly the Willie Mays of the instrument—Julius claims to know the man, Elmore Silk, and offers to find him and bring back the guitars.

The rest of the movie is his quest, which takes him through a series of misadventures. Each successive address for Silk leads Julius to another eccentric, and he goes farther north, up into Canada, until he runs out of continent.

The film is dotted with musicians playing small roles: David Johanson (also known these days as Buster Poindexter) as the star who wants to buy up the guitars, Tom Waits as Elmore’s middle-class brother, Joe Strummer as a punk, Dr. John as Elmore’s cranky son-in-law, Leon Redbone as one-half of a peculiar Canadian family who enjoy imprisoning passers-by.

Everywhere Julius sees the pull of the road on ordinary people, until he runs into Elmore himself (Harris Yulin), who doesn’t seem to be running anymore.

Sometimes Candy Mountain states too much, but it’s a beguiling film. O’Connor easily makes his anti-hero fundamentally likable, and Frank’s photographic eye catches the subtle gradations in light and color as Julius moves from the fall colors of New York state to the mists and fogs of Canada.

You might think that a movie directed by a still photographer would have a static, composed quality, but Frank goes the opposite way, to a raw, gritty sense of life. Life may not be a candy mountain, but Candy Mountain finds some unexpectedly sweet moments.

First published in the Herald, August 25, 1988

I will confess it’s the kind of movie I’m a sucker for. This was before O’Connor became very unusual looking, and his interesting road led to playing Igor in Van Helsing and the man who informs There Will Be Blood‘s Daniel Plainview he has a brother.

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The Moderns

January 26, 2012

Alan Rudolph continues to stake his claim as the most intriguing and original young director in America. His independently produced films (Choose Me, Trouble in Mind) are stunning, seductive movies, and even the projects he occasionally makes within the studio system (such as last year’s Made in Heaven) are more interesting than almost anything else around.

With his newest film, The Moderns, Rudolph has realized a dream project that he’s been trying to make for nearly a decade. It’s quintessential Rudolph: a deceptively drowsy look at the various intellectual and sexual configurations within a group of offbeat characters, marked by the director’s tilted sense of humor, surrounded by a superb score (by Mark Isham) and played out in a luscious setting.

That setting is Paris, 1926, where some American expatriates are devouring the city that Hemingway called “a moveable feast.” The focal point is Hart (Keith Carradine), a painter who is coerced into forging some masterpieces. But his main concern is the re-emergence of a woman (Linda Fiorentino) from his past, who is now married to a brutal businessman (John Lone, fresh from his title role in The Last Emperor).

Others include the icy (but tres chic) society dame (Geraldine Chaplin) who commissions the forgeries; a sardonic art dealer (Genevieve Bujold) who declares, “Art is only an infection. Some people get it, some people don’t”; a gossip columnist (Wallace Shawn, simply a joy); and Hemingway (Kevin J. O’Connor) who is affectionately used as Hart’s comic foil.

Rudolph and his co-screenwriter, the late Jon Bradshaw, have given these characters some stylized dialogue. You can’t quite get a handle on it; some characters speak in epigrams that may or may not be serious, and Hemingway stands in the corner saying things that are poetic and comic at the same time: “It’s easy to be hard-boiled in the daytime. But at night….” Just when you think things are getting thick, the gossip writer scuttles in and announces, “I just ran into Maurice Ravel in the men’s room. He didn’t recognize me!”

The characters inhabit a loving re-creation of the cafes, galleries, and studios of Paris (filmed, with appropriate irony, in Montreal). Rudolph and cinematographer Toyomichi Kurita don’t aim for a slavish period homage, but for a living place full of dark corners, smoky rooms, and the breath of artistic creation.

The movie is full of irony, such as the thought that Hart’s lasting contribution to art history might be the forgeries he so grudgingly creates, and that in the end the characters escape the disintegrating Paris scene for the siren song of Hollywood.

But Rudolph always brings a sweetness to his films, and The Moderns has a typically off-center happy ending. The happy ending doesn’t diminish the emotional complexity of the film and its characters. It just increases the sense that The Moderns is one of those movies one could easily live inside.

First published in the Herald, May 26, 1988

They showed this at the opening night of the Seattle International Film Festival that year, and a friend and I, full of Hemingway enthusiasm, went over to Rudolph at the party to say how much we’d gotten a kick out of the depiction of Hemingway in the movie. Whereupon Rudolph seemed to want to get away very quickly—I think he was used to people criticizing that aspect of the picture, and misunderstood our approach. Whatever. Then all those years later Woody Allen went and worked his own variation on the theme.