End of the Road (DVD Review)24 Sep, 2012 By: Mike Clark
Stars Stacy Keach, James Earl Jones, Harris Yulin, Dorothy Tristan.
The late Aram Avakian’s provocative mess (though possibly a calculated one) of John Barth’s novel has gone all but unseen since its tentative release early in 1970, when it became another of those occasional films featuring real actors to receive an ‘X’ rating. Unlike others in the club that have come to seem relatively tame with the passage of time, Road even now falls into the ‘hard R’ category — which certainly has something to do with a botched-abortion sequence late in the narrative which, while certainly grim and graphic, is not quite as unwatchable as some have said. There’s also a notorious scene where an inmate in an insane asylum performs an act of love on a chicken — which suggests that perhaps the MPAA slapped on the ‘X’ out of pity for parents who, taking their kids to an ‘R’ instead, would the have to explain why he was doing what he was doing. Such were the times.
And these times were the Vietnam ’70s amid newfound freedoms for the screen, which led to a lot of movies that would never have been made or greenlighted during any other screen era. I read the source novel maybe 45 years ago when going through my Barth period, which consisted of tackling his earlier and more accessible works before quaking in intimidation over even the prospect of taking on Giles Goat-Boy. Road was published in 1958, and despite my foggy memories of it, I’d be amazed if it were as mired in its own decade as this movie is in one of the most unstable periods in American history. In other words, Avakian’s take is almost embarrassingly dated — though, that said, it’s dated in a celluloid era (back when there was celluloid) incomparably more exiting than today’s.
Appearing without the mustache he often wore to hide his scar from cleft lip surgery, Stacy Keach plays protagonist Jacob Horner, who, not long after the film begins, comes under the unorthodox care (putting it mildly) of a “Doctor D” who’s played by James Earl Jones in one of the most remarkable performances of his career. (It is quite the contrast with his turn in the screen version of The Great White Hope, which also came out in 1970). I don’t think the characterization is to be taken too literally (though who knows?) because you’d have to think that even the most backward state legislature would close Doc D and his sanitarium down; his operation makes the joint in Val Lewton’s Bedlam look like a cookout mixer that someone throws so you meet the members and mates of your wife’s book club. The chicken incident is all in a day’s work, and it’s also the kind of place where it’s normal to see (as we do here) a character played by M. Emmet Walsh writing in catatonia on the ground.
Once cured (talk about a judgment call), Keach/Horner is hired on as an English instructor at a nearby college, where he gets involved — way too dangerously — in the toppling marriage of a fellow instructor (Harris Yulin) and his wife (Dorothy Tristan, who was married in real life to director Avakian at the time). The danger is what leads to the abortion, with the marital discord played at least a little straighter than the absolutely madcap scenes at the madhouse. There’s indication from friends and family in the DVD’s accompanying documentary that Avakian liked to be an unpeggable talent just for the hell out of it, which is why some (myself included) are willing to give this movie some slack, even though by most standards, it really doesn’t work. It’s worth noting that the one scene in Road that can be taken at face value is possibly best of the entire 110 minutes — the one where Keach pretty well vivisects a smug know-it-all in his class who advocates scuttling proper English for usage that “most people” employ.
Above and beyond content, Road was the first feature photographed by Gordon Willis (not as darkly as his later stock-in-trade achievements), with camera operator chores going to a very young Michael Chapman, who was later director of photography for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull (which will certainly do as resumé material). Both are in the documentary, as are an Avakian-Tristan daughter and the film’s four leads and (in a bizarre casting cross-reference from the following year, Keach and Yulin respectively played Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp in the Pete Hamill-Frank Perry “Doc”). You watch this bonus material thinking that someone must have gone a few extra miles in putting it together — and then the credit “Directed by Steven Soderbergh” shows up. Its greatest revelation to me, something I should have remembered but didn’t, is that Life magazine published an eight- or nine-page rave article about the film, which led to some major backlash vibes amongst the publication’s conservatively meat-and-potatoes readership. The editorial meeting post-mortems must have been really interesting.