Monday, November 8, 2010

Deadhead Miles (1971)

More a series of vignettes than a story, the first original feature written by enigmatic filmmaker Terrence Malick follows an eccentric crook named Cooper as he drives a stolen big rig across the heartland, with a sardonic hitchhiker his sole companion during several peculiar misadventures. Alan Arkin, indulging his most flamboyant impulses, plays Cooper, while gangly Jeffersons costar Paul Benedict plays the hitchhiker, so the picture is infused with strange behavior, even by the permissive standards of ’70s cinema. Malick’s dialogue is equally bizarre. Consider this exchange between Cooper, popping Benzedrine to stay awake, and the hitchhiker. Cooper: “Sometimes I sit back, roll down the windows, and let Benny do the driving.” Hitchhiker: “Don’t they affect your brain?” Cooper: “I wish they would.” None of the individual episodes is especially memorable, except perhaps the random bit of Cooper trying to make time with a redneck woman until he realizes she’s chained to the furnace of her dilapidated shack, but the dialogue is flavorful throughout. “I got a good look at that feller—I see him again, I’m gonna stick ’im in the head with a fork.” Or, “I listen to the radio, and that’s how I learn about current events, most of which aren’t in the almanac.” Cooper is an inept sort of maniac, sparking loopy conversations with strangers and committing petty larceny everywhere he goes, but never accomplishing much of anything. The hitchhiker is a willing accomplice during most of the aimless journey, even though he never really gets the hang of tossing soda bottles at street signs the truck passes; Cooper’s a stone-cold pro at that. Interesting people float through the movie (watch for Charles Durning, Hector Elizondo, Loretta Swit, and cameo players Ida Lupino and George Raft), and director Vernon Zimmerman is an interesting Hollywood footnote because he made the amiable cult flick Fade to Black (1980). But the strongest appeal of this cheerfully pointless movie—which has never been released theatrically or on video—is spending 90 minutes inside a funhouse-mirror world of Malick’s creation.

Deadhead Miles: FUNKY

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