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Raise your hand if you've heard of this film before now. If you have, you're a keener observer of film culture than I was in 1969 and 1970, when I thought I caught up most everything of interest that came out. From all I've heard, it's possible that Aram Avakian's End of the Road received a very limited release. I can tell you that the conservative theater managers in San Bernardino California wouldn't have touched it.
Adapted (some say distorted) from a progressive book by John Barth, End of the Road has apparently been AWOL from screening availability for decades. Written in the late 1950s, Barth's intense and exploration of the academic mindset seems an intellectualized satire in a similar vein as work by Ken Kesey and Otto Heller. Screenwriters Dennis McGuire and especially Terry Southern run with Barth's theme of the absurdity of modern life and relationships. According to testimony from director (and long-time editor) Aram Avakian's collaborators, the notorious Terry Southern expanded the concept with psycho-visual shock images, situations and sensations to express the sheer madness of the times. By the late 1960s, the writer of Doctor Strangelove was considered one of the wildest film writers working. The screenwriters of 1968's Candy flattened most of Southern's dangerous ideas down to the level of tasteless bawdy comedy. End of the Road puts material on the screen that even the 'liberated' cinema of 1970 would not touch. Not ten minutes in, we know we're headed off the map, into unknown territory.
While waiting on a suburban railroad platform, recent graduate Jacob Horner (Stacy Keach) is hit by a mindstorm of horrible images of modern American terror -- war, assassinations, riots, nuclear war -- and stands for hours in a rigid state of catatonia. He's finally 'collected' by Doctor D (an incredibly thin James Earl Jones), the director of The Institute of Psychic Remobilization, otherwise known as The Farm. At a country manor house Doctor D allows his patients to run amuck, acting out psychic therapy games. Jabob is both fascinated and disturbed to see what looks like a pack of loonies engaging in free sex on the grounds. Doctor D approves of one particularly deranged patient having sex with chickens.
Jabob's own therapy sessions take place in a dark room where Doctor D bombards him with loud audio montages of gunfire and chaos, as projected images of deformed fetuses and other disturbing content are flashed on the walls. The doctor has bizarre but feasible therapeutic answers for all of Jacob's protests: "That is sick!" -- "Precisely, Horner!" Unlike the "mythotherapy" he prescribes to help the other patients work their fantasies out of their systems, Dr. D instructs Jacob to find order in his mind by memorizing a book of Fish and Game Regulations. One of the flipped-out patients, playing out a 'bad schoolboy' fantasy, is none other than actor James Coco.
Doctor D eventually helps Jacob apply to teach grammar at a private boy's school, where he has a desultory sex relationship with lonely Peggy Rankin (Grayson Hall), a fellow English teacher desperate for male companionship. Teacher and Boy Scout leader Joe Morgan (Harris Yulin, in his first film) skinny-dips with his students and appears overly interested in Jacob. Joe then seems to be encouraging Jacob to have an affair with his wife Rennie (Dorothy Tristan). Rennie and Jacob spy on Joe in his study, and observe him playing with toy guns. The unpleasant developments continue until Rennie becomes pregnant, and the game playing suddenly turns serious. Jacob cares about Rennie, and wants to do the right thing...
End of the Road isn't indescribable, but it is nearly impossible to nail down its wildly shifting tones. The film's first half is reminiscent of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in that we keep expecting the authorities to show up and carry Doctor D away in a straitjacket. We wonder if the real directors of the asylum aren't tied up in the cellar somewhere. Adherents to John Barth's book aren't happy about this section of the film, which is packed with acidic Terry Southern absurdist 'touches' suggesting utter chaos and depravity. Most every personal aberration is sexual in nature (a T. Southern theme). Identities are blurred as well: one of the doctor's nurses is also a patient called "Sniperman" ('The Real' Ray Brock), who is obsessed with political assassinations.
The work of Stacy Keach and James Earl Jones is masterful, however. Both actors exude intelligence and a caring attitude. Stacy Keach's confused Jacob does little but reacts and feels situations with a great emotional depth. It's interesting that in the midst of all the psychic quicksand, Jacob has a classroom scene in which he nails a student's complaint that good grammar is irrelevant in the modern age. Confused about most everything else, Jacob is absolutely certain of the value of grammar, and tells the kid that he needs to decide if he's going to be a literate man or a savage. Some of Keach's early filmography looks like a list of Movies Guaranteed To End An Actor's Career: The Traveling Executioner, Brewster McCloud, Doc, Fat City. Instead, the actor just kept adding to his fan base among hip viewers and industry professionals.
James Earl Jones is power itself -- his overwhelming voice and authoritarian delivery sweeps Jacob out of his catatonic state and into his hospital-asylum. Their argument/discussion/debates in the black room are little masterpieces of intimate theater. No matter what cockeyed malarkey Doctor D is preaching, Jones makes it seem credible. Southern was accused of being scattershot with his satire, but one can't say that the asylum section of doesn't make its points. We don't know what's going to happen next, especially after the appalling chicken episode. Frankly, many supposed revolutionary or counterculture movies from the late 1960s contain mostly the same male fantasy BS in 'new & improved' hipster guise. That includes Easy Rider, which Terry Southern contributed to. End of the Road's mindset may be twisted, but it is also truly liberated.
The show's second half gets deeper into the original John Barth material. Jacob re-enters the 'real' world only to find more aberrant behavior under complacent fronts. Academia may not be another asylum but the people are just as maladjusted. Joe Morgan is obsessed with his authority as a male but is also into infantile behaviors that resemble Doctor D's mythotherapy. He browbeats his wife Rennie when she contradicts him but also when she acquiesces to his petty tyranny. Even when slapped, Rennie remains passive. Her affair with Jacob may be a break from this bad treatment, but it also may be a symptom of her inability to decide anything for herself.
Dorothy Tristan's performance is the most affecting in the movie, as Rennie seems less theatrical than 'mad housewife' characters that appeared on screen in the early '70's. The fixation on a living, breathing person in need gives us a break from the film's absurdist streak while introducing a real concern with feminist issues. Rennie lives in a personal hell, quietly taking abuse from a man-child husband while raising two more male (monsters?) for him. No wonder she wants out of the pregnancy.
By 1970 movies about securing an illegal abortion were almost nostalgic (see Our Time) but when the issue arrives in End of the Road it's a terrifying turn of events. Jacob tries to get a school buddy to perform the procedure on the sly but strikes out. In what seems the modern equivalent of a return to Dracula's castle, the only M.D. Jacob can find is.... guess. We go into End of the Road's final scene in a state of dire apprehension.
Part of the reason the final scene works so well is the camera styling of Gordon Willis, working on his first feature film. Willis uses a lot of top light, just as he did in the Godfather movies. The still-valid style looked practically revolutionary back in the day. Willis was said to use low light levels and in some scenes barely recorded an image on the film. In the 'dark room' sequences, I'll bet that those projected images came from ordinary slide projectors. It all looks real.
End of the Road's direction is distinct from the styles of its time. Aram Avakian will hold shots for long periods yet doesn't draw our attention to his authorship; the unconventional editing in the montage sequences relies neither on Shock Cuts nor Lyrical effects. The focus is always on the actors. We actually see very little of "The Farm" or the boys' school, yet we never feel short-changed. Interestingly, Avakian presents his transgressive episodes in such a direct manner that we don't feel like suckers watching an exploitation movie. I didn't find the show funny while watching it alone but I'll bet that with an audience it would draw laughs as well as a few gasps of surprise or dismay. The movie doesn't have a message as much as it has a viewpoint. Avakian's montages make heavy use of American flags, but it's not a protest picture. I sat through it rather uncomfortably, but it was obvious that every scene was achieving its mission.
Warner Home Video's DVD of End of the Road is a very pleasing enhanced transfer of this absolutely unique, impossible to pigeonhole feature. Gordon Willis' stark cinematography is rendered very well, and I challenge viewers not to flinch or cringe during the final scene.
An extremely welcome extra item is a featurette interview documentary called An Amazing Time: A Conversation about End of the Road. Actors Keach, Yulin, Tristan, one of the producers and others recall the creative spirit during the shooting in 1969, and reminisce about the harmonious working relationship shared by director Avakian and writer Southern. The movie was originally released by Allied Artists, I can't see it winning many play dates or staying in theaters very long, but who knows?
Now that the Warner Archive Collection MOD program is going strong, the company releases very few vintage films on standard DVD. That makes End of the Road a real exception, as with Warners' release of the extended cut of Hal Ashby's Lookin' to Get Out from 1999. Somebody in Warner Home Video still has the ability to advance special projects like this, once in a blue moon.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
End of the Road Blu-ray rates:
1. From Edward Sullivan, 9.18.12
Hi Glenn, Your review of End of the Road reminded me of Stacy Keach's work in The Ninth Configuration and both of those led to this short and not-very-deep but still interesting interview.
I saw Keach and Diana Rigg performing A.R. Gurney's Love Letters onstage circa 1990 -- I had mostly been attracted as an Emma Peel fan, but while she seemed to be going through the (e)motions, Keach held the audience spellbound... Ed Sullivan2. From Kenneth George Godwin 9.18
Wow, Glenn, fascinating piece on Avakian's movie today. I had indeed heard of it before, as I can remember reading several reviews at the time it was released -- all savagely hostile, dismissing it as an appallingly offensive travesty (an opinion I seem to recall was shared by Barth himself). The fact that it's suddenly showing up as an official Warner release (when far more high profile titles are just getting the Archive MOD treatment) is an almost baffling turn of events.
Anyway, your comments got me really excited, so I've already ordered a copy and look forward to seeing something I'd assumed for over 40 years was a self-indulgent disaster... Cheers, George3. From Gene Schiller 9.18
Hi Savant! I saw End of the Road in 1970 at the Kapahulu Theater. In those days before cable and video, most movies could fill a theater for a week or two. I was nineteen at the time, and should have been ready for it, but I must say, it was a little too deranged for my taste; except for Dorothy Tristan, no one seemed real. But, the final scene did pack a jolt. I should probably try it again. And, in a similar vein, maybe someone should bring back Robert Altman's intriguingly weird That Cold Day in the Park.
I don't know if this information is included in the featurette, but I think Aram Avakian was originally slated to direct The Godfather. I know he was approached to take over production when Coppola went over-budget. Avakian also makes a guest appearance in End of the Road. He's the guy who lives in the automobile. -- Best regards, Gene Schiller4. From longtime correspondent "B", 9.19
Glenn: Well, after that review, I'm terrifically frustrated that I have yet to receive my disc. I haven't seen the picture since the mid-'70s, but your piece really brought it home. Incisive, thoughtful stuff.
In the '90s I was friendly with one of Barth's later editors and I was advised that this film remained a sore point for the author; I'm fairly sure he was pleased it was mostly out of circulation.
Since it isn't 1970 any more, some of your readers may be unaware that the phrase "The Real Ray Brock" refers to the fact that the actor in the film is Ray Brock, not James Broderick, who played a somewhat fictionalized version of Brock in Arthur Penn's then-recent Alice's Restaurant.
I probably could not have written about this film without mentioning the chicken. As ever, I commend you on good taste and creativity.
Incredibly, one of the houses -- the Cinema II -- listed in your reprinted forty-two year old NY newspaper ad is still around. A rare occurrence. Best, Always. -- "B".5. From Jonathan Hertzberg 9.19
It should be noted that Steven Soderbergh is a big champion of this film and was instrumental in getting it released on DVD. And, he shot the accompanying documentary.
Been looking forward to seeing this for years...I only wish they had done a Blu-ray. Best, Jonathan6. From Chris Desjardins 9.21
Hi, Glenn, RE: Your End of the Road review, thought you might enjoy this from my Facebook page earlier in week.
Another anecdote: when I was still programming at the Cinematheque circa 2006-2007, I was doing another New Hollywood series and programmed this as I could not believe my luck finding a recently struck print in the UCLA archives. At the time, rights were cloudy but I got Warners to sign off on the screening. However, no one had ever screened it, just inspected it on a light table and a half hour before our screening, our projectionist Paul Rayton informed me that the last reel had no soundtrack! Although not by any means a worthy solution, our only alternative was the good offices of screenwriter Larry Karajewszki who ran up to his home in Whitley Heights to get his old VHS copy. We ended up synching the VHS to where the final reel started and had to show that final 15 or 20 minutes from projected VHS.
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