Human Highway is a bizarre cult film from Neil Young and DEVO

When I heard about Bob Casale’s death this week, I started researching the history of the band DEVO. I’ve always been a fan – even met them once – but I was never a SUPER fan, so some of the stuff I uncovered surprised me. I never realized how popular they were in countries like Australia, for example.

But nothing surprised me more than Human Highway.

Human Highway is the “movie” directed by (and starring) musical great Neil Young, and features songs and a score (Mark Mothersbaugh’s first) from DEVO. And whatever Young was having… well, I wouldn’t mind a serving as well.

Whew, boy, Human Highway is a weird weird movie. It’s a musical… kinda. And a love story… kinda. And it ends with (spoiler) the start of World War Three as the cast climb a literal stairway to heaven.

Human Highway isn’t very good, but it has a surreal style all it’s own. A style that looks awfully familiar.

As I watched it, I had to wonder… Did David Lynch see this?

The movie features Russ Tamblyn, Dean Stockwell, and Dennis Hopper. Many of the scenes are set in a dinner. The film has a decidedly “Lynchian” tone.

And it came out four years before Blue Velvet did.

Not saying that Lynch ripped off Neil Young, here… but I can envision Lynch watching the film and going, “Man, Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell are awesome, I need to put them in something! And Russ Tamblyn, too!” And some other elements in the film could have seeped into his unconsciousness, coming forth in later work such as Twin Peaks.

(Charlotte Stewart, who was in Peaks, is also in Human Highway… though Lynch had worked with her before).

So, if you’re a Neal Young fan, Lynch nut, or a Devolutionist… seek out a copy of Human Highway. It’s out of print, but if you look hard enough on the Internet you can find it.

Here’s the trailer:

Salinger paints an interesting portrait of an enigmatic man

“Writing Holden was a mistake.” J.D. Salinger

Recently watched the documentary Salinger, about the famed reclusive writer of Catcher in the Rye J.D. Salinger. while it has received mixed reviews with critics, I found it to be an interesting work… especially when it recounted how he shunned both fame and his family. The movie tries, through interviews and reenactments, to explain this behavior but eventually fails because… well, the man never explained it himself.

I guess I don’t mind not knowing, because I’m a firm believer in the individual and his or her right to do whatever the heck he wants to do in life, as long as they do not harm another human being. Of course, Salinger DID harm other human beings – mostly family. He was never a good father, and felt more comfortable fighting his demons in front of a typewriter than confronting parenthood or love.

I can sympathize – one of my favorite quotes from the film is from a letter he wrote one of his many romances, and it explains a lot. “I’m up to my ears in unwritten words.” He had to get those words OUT, and that need was everything. His family, his lovers… they came second.

Again, as a writer… I understand.

Here’s the trailer, which will give you a taste of the approach the filmmakers took to dramatize his life. It’s available streaming on Netflix – do check it out.

Bubba Ho Tep showcases an “Elvis” we’ve never seen

You had me at “Bruce Campbell plays Elvis in a retirement home.”

Based on the short story by Joe Lansdale, Bubba Ho Tep stars Campbell as Elvis… or is he a senile Elvis Impersonator who just THINKS he’s the King? Campbell is absolutely brilliant in the film, and the sight of Campbell in his white jumpsuit – and walker – chasing after a mummy wearing cowboy boots is a joy to behold.

Oh, yeah… he fights a soul-sucking zombie. With the help of fellow retiree John Fitzgerald Kennedy… who is played by Ossie Davis. Yes, THAT Ossie Davis.

At this point, you have reached a decision point. Either you are thinking “What the hell type of stupid movie is this?” or “Holy cow, I have to see this!” If you had the first thought, you can stop reading now because clearly this is not the movie for you. If you had the second response, then you should stop reading this, fire up Netflix, and watch the movie immediately.

Still there? OK, I can discuss the movie some more… though I won’t discuss plot details, because this is a film that you need to encounter with as little spoilers as possible. Directed and written by Don Coscarelli, and the movie features many of he actors from Coscarelli’s Phantasm movies (look for some cool cameos). Campbell and Davis are great together, and Davis (in one of his last roles) plays JFK in a way only he could. The scene where they chat about Marilyn Monroe is a highlight.

Bubba Ho Tep has moments of humor, poignancy and horror. It’s a sweet, unique movie that is worth seeing. More than once.

Where the Buffalo Roams is Hunter S. Thompson as cartoon character

I love Hunter S. Thompson. And I know I shouldn’t.

He was a dysfunctional drug addict, a man who destroyed both his body and his mind. He was cruel to many. He smoked, he drank, he cursed like a sailor addicted to mescaline, and he loved shooting and blowing things up. If there is a continuum of role models, he’s on the side that you should never ever aspire to be.

And yet… His words. My God, his words.

He was a writer unparalleled, a man who was used and abused by his muse, because the words came out with a passion and a fever that makes lesser men like me stand in stunned admiration. He wrote like a demon, crafting words like bullets…stabbing at his targets with more precision than an expert marksman would envy.

While I don’t agree with any of his personal opinions and passions, I can’t help but respect the work. He fought against perceived injustices, and spat his words out at the world. If the words didn’t find an audience… well, that was the audience’s fault, not his.

A friend of mine recently expressed his admiration to me regarding my productivity. “You are so prolific, I wish I could be that way.” Me, prolific? Nope. Compared to Thompson, I’m a piker, a hobbyist.

Hunter S. Thompson wrote like a man possessed. Because, in a way, he was.

Was all of it brilliant? No, of course not. But what WAS brilliant was beyond the pale… perfect and white-hot and perceptive and TRUE… even if the details didn’t check out. Truth isn’t trivia… it’s bigger, more important than that.

I named one of my sons after Hunter S. Thompson… that’s how important he is to me as a writer, as a person. I know I’ll never be a better writer than him, and that’s fine… Some people are born with it, others have to fight get the words out and right.

But appreciating Thompson also means you have to understand his impact, how people think of him… and how the world tries to reshape him to be something that  he’s not.

The first attempt to adapt his words into something was with the movie Where the Buffalo Roam, which starred Bill Murray and Peter Boyle. It’s… interesting.

And kinda misses the whole point.

Like the better known adaptation Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, they focus on the idea of Thompson as a character… “Wow, look at all his comedy misadventures and hallucinations!” That’s far less interesting… and far safer… than how he viewed the world. Thompson’s narrative view, that “Gonzo” journalism that drives so much of his writing… it’s barely present in this film. It’s a footnote.

In Where the Buffalo Roam, he’s not a fleshed-out character… he’s a caricature. Things happen around him, he acts drunk and crazed… and we never understand WHY. At least with the Fear and Loathing movie, we get more of Thompson’s words (narrated by Johnny Depp). Here, we get paraphrases, some scraps here and there.

It’s Hunter as cartoon character. It’s… shallow.

Now, to be fair, Bill Murray does a hell of a job in the lead role. He spent an enormous amount of time with Hunter preparing for the film, and it shows. He tries to lift the material to something more than it was, and it’s a game effort. But watching it, you can totally see why they made the Fear and Loathing.. movie decade later. They missed the key part. The demons, the passions. The WORDS.

Quick, final thoughts: Peter Boyle was utterly superb as Lonzo, the semi-fictional lawyer that Hunter wrote about so frequently. The supporting cast (Bruno Kirby, RenĂ© Auberjonois) add great value to the proceedings… but again, it’s a movie looking for a point. Perhaps if it had spent more time in the head of Hunter S. Thompson instead of showing how “eccentric” he was, it may have been a better experience.

Oh, well. He still have his books and his words. It’s Hunter, unfiltered, suspended in amber… alive for us to visit and revisit forever.

Skidoo is a cult film… and a mess

I’m a reasonably smart person. I graduated college, I have a job that requires decision making and creative thought. I have, as Liam Neeson famously said, a particular set of skills. And yet…

I have no idea what is going on in the 1968 film Skidoo.

I’ll relay what I know and can understand, in bullet form.

  • Skidoo stars Jackie Gleason and Carol Channing.
  • It was directed by Otto Preminger.
  • The music was by a personal favorite of mine, Harry Nilsson.
  • Groucho Marx plays God… no, not that one, a hypochondriac gangster who is so afraid of both germs and assassins he lives in isolation on a yacht who’s named God. That “means” something… I guess.
  • At one point, Jackie Gleason’s gangster character takes LSD… Which means there is a scene where we get to see Ralph Kramden experience psychedelic visions. For eight minutes.
  • Carol Channing takes off most of her clothes in one scene.
  • So does the Green bay Packers.
  • Hippies smoke pumpkin joints in another scene.
  • Half of the villains from the Batman TV show (Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredeth, Frank Gorshin) appear in supporting roles. Too bad they couldn’t wear their costumes…
  • Richard Kiel (Jaws from the James Bond films) is in it, too. And Mickey Rooney!
  • There’s a musical number featuring dancing trash cans.
  • Nilsson sings the end credits. Yes, you read that right… he sings them. Including the copyright date (in roman numerals) and legal disclaimer.

I’ve heard that Skidoo was one of those movies that had to be seen to be believed, and now… I believe it. It is a film that attempts to be “cool” and “hip”, made by middle-age men who have never even met any real “hippies” (and would brush them away when they did). It’s tone is… well, I can’t identify what the tone is. Is it a parody? A crime film? A comedy? I don’t think anyone involved in making this movie had any clue as to what the tone or what the movie they were making was… and didn’t care.

This movie was – and is – a cult film, and frankly… the cult can have it. It’s a hot mess, an incoherent film that has no reason to exist… and shouldn’t. It’s a chore to sit through, and I regretted my commitment to do so almost immediately after the movie began. When you look at all the talent in front of and behind the camera, the fact that this movie fails so completely as an enterprise is stunning.

There is one good thing that came out of this, and it’s that I can finally say I’ve seen (and lived through) it. Also, when I argue about how hard it is to pull all the moving parts together and make a good movie, I now have the perfect case study to cite.

Skidoo!

Creator gave Peter O’Toole yet another chance to shine

“Words can be wonderful things.”

The death of Peter O’Toole this month is still something I haven’t been able to fully process. Peter O’Toole was so ALIVE in his performances… The idea of such a vibrant presence being gone from the earth just makes no sense.

Yet, he is gone, and as I look back at his body of work for this series I am happily discovering new moments of his brilliance: Little shining flashes of charm and wit that remind me of just how good he was.

My latest revisitation was an old favorite: Creator. Peter O’Toole plays Harry, an eccentric scientist who has embarked on a quixotic quest: to bring back his late wife Lucy. He’s “negotiating with God” by cultivating her cells to clone her.

A friend of mine on Twitter, commenting on O’Toole a few days back, told me he was the king of “crazy acting” and I can’t disagree… completely. Though he did play crazy quite a bit, he also acted with a lot of heart. And Creator gives him the chance to play a romantic lead, and he’s very good at it. Of course he is. He’s charming. He’s Peter O’Toole.

The supporting cast are admirable and produce good work. David Ogden Stiers (better known as Winchester from MASH) plays Harry’s rival professor and he’s perfectly cast (heck, he barely needed to change clothes). Vincent Spano plays Harry’s lab assistant Boris, who is a good match for O’Toole… though he tends to overact in many of his scenes. Virginia Masden plays the girl Boris is pining after, and she is absolutely beautiful in the role (especially during the shower scene). And Mariel Hemingway plays Meli, the “egg donor” who Harry becomes more than a little fond of.

The film, based on a novel by Jeremy Leven, is quirky and somewhat uneven… it jumps from Harry’s story to Boris, without finding much focus. But while it has some flaws, it is as aggressively charming as O’Toole is, and this charm wins the day.

 

Boris: “Harry, how did you know you were in love? I mean with you and Lucy. How’d you know it wasn’t just infatuation?”
Harry: “Scientifically, of COURSE. By using The Love Formula.”
Boris: “The what?”
Harry: “Love Formula. Add up the number of times that you think about the lady each day. Subtract from the total the number of times you think about yourself each day. If the remainder is more lady, and less yourself, then it’s love.”

This is the last Peter O’Toole movie I’ll be watching in this series, and I think that’s appropriate. Creator is a film fixated with death, and O’Toole’s character eventually decides to stop living such a life… to let go of Lucy. To move on. He’ll still have the memories, but by the end of the film he knows it’s time to mourn no more.

So I’ll do so as well. Thank you, Peter O’Toole, for all the joy you have brought me and so many others. Bravo.

Goodbye, Peter. Goodbye.