Sunday, March 4, 2007

Deadhead Miles

dir. Vernon Zimmerman

"God Almighty damn! That was fun. That's what I call fun."

March 4, 2007 - VHS

This film resurrected memories of Sally, a man I once met, who in reflection seems more like a movie character than a real person. Along with four other high-school classmates, I was taking a field trip to a student video festival, and we were all to be transported in my film teacher’s hatchback Honda. There was one seat too few, though, so the teacher—who was an oddball himself—picked up a telephone and called Sal, a friend of his. Kind of bug-eyed and unsettling, this guy showed up half an hour later in an orange pick-up truck, grinning wide as he waved hello.

Somehow it was decided that I’d ride along with him, maybe because I displayed just a glimmer of curiosity where my peers all visibly recoiled. Just as Sal and I were about to leave the school parking lot, my teacher chuckled and said something like, “Sally, maaaybe you should take the tank out of the truck bed and keep it up front where it won’t bang around so much.” I’m thinking, “What tank?” Very soon after, and without a good grip on how exactly I’d gotten into this situation, I found myself with a fire-extinguisher-sized canister of propane sitting between my legs as Sal pulled the rickety pickup onto the freeway.

From the minute we set off until we arrived, Sal spoke a stream of whacked-out consciousness; everything from episodes out of his Brooklyn youth, to probable conspiracies surrounding the minutiae of gasoline prices, to his (serious) idea for a remake of Striptease starring himself in the Demi Moore role. He didn’t seem insane, exactly, but he was definitely being beamed in from left field, and I felt extremely nervous being stuck in a moving vehicle with him behind the wheel. Sal also talked about the irrelevance of time, and that everyone in this world was much too hung up on where to go and how long it takes to get there. While no great slice of philosophy, the sincerity with which he said this (coupled with the fact that I thought I might become a human rocketship at any second) actually managed to make the sentiment stick with me, and it has sometimes served as a steadying, head-cooling thought if I ever get too worried about deadlines or schedules. Needless to say, when we finally arrived at the festival, it was half over.

Watching Deadhead Miles is like taking this wild ride again. It’s not always pleasant, it’s often irritating, but the sheer, weirdo spectacle is enough to want to hang in there with it, and by the end it manages to carve out a little hole for itself in your permanent memory. Whatever else this movie is, it isn’t one that’s easy to shake.

Alan Arkin plays a redneck
big-rig driver (complete with loud, twangy southern accent; yes, we're both thinking of the same Alan Arkin) and aspiring adventurer. He seems to live his life as a search for pure, good ol’ boy fun (he especially loves throwing full bottles of soda at road signs), and welcomes action and experience above all else, especially a clear trajectory or end goal. He’s always quick with a half-baked plan to get out of mischief, and—more often than not—these silly efforts somehow seem to work out in his favor. Other times, he’s as wide-eyed and curious as a little kid, and seems content to soak up the world around him. When a hitchhiker, who he’s already traveled many, many miles with, suddenly decides to rob him at gunpoint, Arkin responds by saying, “I didn’t know you were a bad man. That’s interesting.” He then somehow manages to disarm the hitchhiker and lock him in back of his trailer. How? God only knows. He’s lucky like that.

The “story” consists of Arkin and the hitchhiker driving fast and getting nowhere, occasionally running afoul of police officers, and always finding something to do, be it good, bad, pleasant or distasteful. Without anything to grab on to in a narrative sense, the picture earns our attention through Arkin’s crazy performance and an endless supply of sometimes obnoxious, sometimes wonderful, always delirious episodes. It all builds to a quiet tragedy, though, when Arkin ultimately seems to discover that the USA really isn’t as fun or fulfilling as he’d like it to be. Expecting innocent whimsy, he often gets sudden ugliness. In one of my favorite passages, Arkin seeks out a prostitute he (apparently) used to know, and just when he and she are about to commence with the sex, he discovers that she has an elaborate harness on her body, connected to a rope, which ties her permanently inside the room. Arkin’s reaction to this discovery is heartbreaking in its way, in that it seems to utterly crush his unassuming feeling about the way the world ought to work.

In a weird way, his aimless trip across the country parallels the one in Easy Rider; what he’s looking for isn’t really out there, or if it is, all he can find is the dark shadow of good times long gone. Add to this the fact that even though America’s never really been the land of romantic cowboys and way-down-the-trail mythology, that doesn’t stop us from wanting to think it was and still could be.

And there’s one more level working in Deadhead Miles. A person might, I think, be able to make a convincing argument that a great majority of the adventures contained in this movie are actually only playing out in Arkin’s head. There’s a constant trade-off between successes and setbacks; soon after the disturbing scene with the girl on the rope, Arkin and his hitchhiker are passed by a long car, in which a whore lies seductively in the back seat, naked, and holds up a sign that says “10 Dollars.” Arkin passes on the offer, but you can tell by his face that “this is more like it.” Same with a sequence later on: the big rig breaks down, and out of nowhere a mysterious old cowboy dressed all in black shows up and instantly fixes the engine, only to hop into his own big rig—all black—and drive off back down the road. Arkin reveals that this was, in fact, the ghost of a six-years-dead truck driver who was killed in a jackknife, and who now patrols the roads lending a friendly, ghostly hand to truckers in need. This is impossible to take literally, and seems instead to reflect Arkin’s dearest wishes about what mysteries “the road” might contain. If this theory is to be embraced, then the movie becomes even a little more profound and sad, in that we’re watching a man slowly lose a mental grip on his own dreams, both about himself and about his home country.

As to the nuts and bolts of the filmmaking, the direction is pretty limp and occasionally ridiculous; scenes have a tendency to end with loopy little “jokes” that call unnecessary attention to themselves. The script, the first ever produced by the soon-to-be-legendary Terrence Malick, feels like it rests somewhere between the spray-gun, first-draft-is-the-best-draft style of Hunter S. Thompson, and Malick’s own more ethereal future masterpieces about the American consciousness. Regardless, let it never be said that the world has no use for hare-brained films like Deadhead Miles; its faults combine with the things it does right to make it a completely unique experience, and that counts for a lot in my book.

The worst movies leave you feeling empty inside, as if you haven't gained or lost a thing. This film makes you feel like you’ve seen around a corner you never knew existed, and if you don’t necessarily want to look around that corner again, then you’re certainly better off for having peeked once. It deserves to be viewed, and to not be forgotten. And for me, it put me right back in the cab of Sally’s orange pick-up truck, where he happily told his life philosophies to me, some kid he’d never met before, while I anxiously made sure the propane canister didn’t clank too hard against the carpetless floor.

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