When it comes to film, the late ‘70s were to me what the early ‘70s were in terms of pop music: the time when a developing interest turned into a lifetime project, and the place where many of my most powerful initial encounters reside. I’ve scattered this story all over the place. It was when I saw a bunch of films that led to me going into the Cinema Studies program at the University of Toronto—instead of the obvious choice, pursuing a math degree (or maybe even entering the still-nascent computer programming department; there was a guy in my residence who was enrolled in that, David Blythe, who—I checked this just now, and maybe shouldn’t have—went on to climb the ladder at Microsoft and Intel, and is clearly a multi- gazillionaire by now)—a mix of the last wave of adventurous American films from the ‘70s and my first exposure to foreign-language films. On the one side, Nashville, Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, Manhattan, An Unmarried Woman, Days of Heaven, even Looking for Mr. Goodbar, etc. (I’m limiting myself to what I saw in theatres; I’d been watching such films on TV for a few years); on the other, Persona, Belle de Jour, Amarcord, Get Out Your Handkerchiefs, and a bunch by R.W. Fassbinder (the currency of the foreign-language films was a lot more scattershot).
There were the long-gone theatres—the gargantuan University where I saw a “special screening” of Apocalypse Now, the tony Fine Arts theatre, the New Yorker (midnight screening of Taxi Driver), the Uptown Backstage (think I saw Best Boy there, my first documentary)—the experience of checking Kael in The New Yorker and Sarris in the Voice every week, guest speakers at the university (including Godard; Jesus, I saw Godard speak in an informal setting), and the sense that everything was new and interesting. I was 18 when I saw that special screening of Apocalypse Now ($10, and you had to buy your ticket in advance—unheard of); today I try to convey to grade-school students what if felt like when everything went dark and you could hear helicopter sounds move from one side of the theatre to the other.
I’m conducting a poll of road movies on the ILX message board right now—an amorphous genre whose very difficulty in defining is a perfect match for the elliptical and vague feelings it conjures up at its best. (For me—other people gravitate towards very different kinds of road films.) When compiling the nomination list, I came up against Werner Herzog’s Stroszek, a film I saw in 1979 or 1980 with my first-year roommate Tom Mayock and hadn’t seen since. I was able to download it from YouTube—fantastic quality, maybe lifted from a Criterion disc—and watch it on the big-screen TV. I remember it made a strong impression on Tom and I at the time; bleak enough for Fassbinder (an obvious and not surprising influence—haven’t seen enough early Herzog to know if that influence flowed in both directions), and also dryly and bizarrely humorous enough for David Lynch (Eraserhead had not come out yet). Like many of the road films I included on my own ballot, there’s very little time actually spent on the road—maybe three or four minutes out of Stroszek’s two-hour running time. But the road footage is stunningly photographed, there’s a journey that’s both geographical (from West Germany to a farm in Wisconsin—don’t ask) and spiritual, and, a common road-film dilemma, the place you get to ends up being as bad or worse than the one you left. Or as Lower East Side philosopher-king Eddie puts it in Stranger Than Paradise, “You know, it’s funny—you come to someplace new, and everything looks just the same.”
A couple of pieces of music worth noting (along with some nice country-ish background instrumentals by Chet Atkins): a muzaky version of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” also by Atkins, and Sonny Terry’s “Hootin’ the Blues” (or “Whoopin’ the Blues,” or “Old Lost John”—depends on what you consult). Terry plays overtop the film’s final two minutes. The symbolic value of the chicken—as it relates to Bruno S.’s title character, and as a West German’s view of America—is plain enough to render comment unnecessary.