When I told Keith that I was thinking of writing about Gus Van Sant’s movie Even Cowgirls Get The Blues for My Year Of Flops, he mentioned that he’d read almost all of Tom Robbins’ books, then realized that he didn’t particularly like him. When I asked why, he shrugged. “Eh, I was in college.”
I never went through a Tom Robbins phase, but I have my own mini-pantheon of writers I will forever associate with college. For eternally status-conscious undergraduates, the books we read—or at least litter artfully around our living spaces, in hopes that peers will notice them and be impressed—play a big role in defining ourselves. Heck, the fact that we read at all—instead of watching fucking bullshit reality television like the sheep in [insert name of dorm/frat/sorority we don’t care for]—plays a big role in how we view ourselves.
So every year, a new group of freshmen establish their individuality, disdain for conformity, and rapacious intellectual curiosity—we’re seekers, man—by reading all the books we’re supposed to. We’re looking for road maps for life, for mentors and life lessons from the sages our older brothers and sisters and parents and cool uncles followed before us, men and women with magical names like Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs and Henry Miller and Malcolm X and James Baldwin and Toni Morrison and Tom Robbins. We’re looking to them as keys that open doors to dangerous ideas and exciting new adult worlds.
We’re rebels steeped in tradition, or at least the tradition of rebellion. Accordingly, much of the literature we gravitate toward in college is synonymous with scenes, countercultures, movements, and attractive people who bathe less often than they should, and drink and smoke pot and fuck indiscriminately. There’s a grungy glamour to so much of our extracurricular freshmen reading, and it’s rooted in the cult of personality of writers like Tom Robbins.
I was a college freshman, appropriately enough, when I saw Even Cowgirls Get The Blues on videotape in 1994. It was a mind-blowing, revelatory experience. By “mind-blowing” I mean “forgettable,” and by “revelatory” I mean “tedious.” It would be a year before I lived in a co-op myself, but I was looking for a cinematic contact high from the drugs, groovy vibes, and sexual free-for-all of the era it depicted. But mainly, I hoped to see hot chicks getting it on. My high ideals were both at odds with my baser instincts, and in sync with them.
“The sur-prise of Sissy Hankshaw is that she did not grow up a neurotic disaster,” Tom Robbins drawls in the narration that opens the film, as a pint-sized incarnation of a protagonist who will grow up to be Uma Thurman blows out her birthday candles while being fêted by a trio of Eisenhower-era suburban grotesques. From the get-go, something is irrevocably off: The period detail is assaultive (dig the two different kinds of tacky wallpaper!), the performances cartoonish, and the narration self-consciously wacky.
Having Robbins deliver that narration is a rather literal way of ensuring that an author’s voice dominates a film, though listening to Robbins awkwardly reciting his words with strained folksiness, I was reminded of sound-alike Tom Bodett pitching for Motel 6, and I wondered when he was going to offer to leave the lights on for me.
The heroine of Even Cowgirls Get The Blues was born with a curious genetic abnormality: freakishly large thumbs that will someday allow her to become the world’s greatest hitchhiker. All her parents (counterculture icon Ken Kesey and Grace Zabriskie) want for their daughter is marriage and normality. But Thurman quickly becomes fixated on hitchhiking as a way of life, a ticket outta Squaresville and onto the holy open road. Thurman has transformed the act of hitchhiking into a playful dance of seduction.
After getting picked up by a sharp-dressed black man, Thurman opines on the virtues of American cheese, (“It’s the king of road food”) and talks cosmically of embodying “the spirit and heart of hitchhiking. I have the rhythms of the universe inside me. I’m in a state of grace.” She rattles on and on in language that clings to the page and stubbornly refuses to become cinematic: “You may say that my pleasure in Indianhood and my passion for car travel might be incongruous, if not mutually exclusive. But after all, the first car that ever stopped for me had been named after the great chief of the Ottawa.” (She’s talking about a Pontiac.)
In New York City, far from her spiritual home on the highways and byways of our great country, Thurman meets up with mentor The Countess, a feminine-hygiene magnate played with delirious abandon by John Hurt. Hurt first tries to get Thurman to lose her virginity to a Mohawk Indian watercolorist played by Keanu Reeves, but when that proves a bust, he tells Thurman to travel to the Rubber Rose Ranch, a “beauty farm” named after a popular line of douchebags, so Thurman can make a triumphant return to modeling in a feminine-hygiene ad costarring some legendary whooping cranes.
At the Rubber Rose Ranch, a civil war has broken out between the overly coiffed, sweet-smelling forces of repression and a group of saucy Sapphic sensualists who call themselves Cowgirls, and rebel against the narrow-minded bourgeoisie by smoking pot, taking peyote, having mind-blowing orgasms, and not washing their vaginas. Seriously. That last part figures prominently when the cowgirls decide to hit Hurt where it hurts: his olfactory system.
During a stand-off, the Cowgirls drop trou and advance threateningly toward Hurt and his pampered friends, wielding their unwashed genitalia like weapons. “Not one of these pussies have been washed in weeks,” one of them sneers defiantly. In Blues, the scatological is political; the film is obsessed with the ideological ramifications of body odor. Hurt’s obsession with purging women of their vaginal odors is representative of society denying women their sexuality, independence and autonomy. The Cowgirls, in sharp contrast, are fierce and untamed: wild, natural creatures free to explore their passions and impulses, forces of nature that can’t be controlled or conquered.
I didn’t remember much about Even Cowgirls Get The Blues from my first viewing, beyond its tragic dearth of hot lesbian action, but I do remember being mightily impressed by Rain Phoenix as Bonanza Jellybean, Thurman’s love interest and the leader of the Cowgirls. Looking back, I wonder exactly what kind of crack I was smoking in 1994, because Phoenix is fucking terrible here. Hilary Duff terrible. Malin Akerman in Watchmen terrible.
A brilliant, seasoned actor like John Hurt can barely wrap his lips around this stilted, overwritten dialogue, so you can imagine how awful the following lines sound when delivered in a Keanu Reeves-like monotone by a rank amateur of a space cadet like Phoenix:
“Cowgirls exist as an image. A fairly common one. The idea of cowgirls, especially for little girls, prevails in our culture. Therefore, it seems to me that the existence of cowgirls should prevail.”
“Every living thing is a chemical composition, and anything added to it changes that composition.”
“This here discussion is destined to become academic.”
The elaborate, almost sadistic wordiness of those phrases might have a pleasing, perverse rhythm in print, but onscreen, they groan and lumber, secretly beckoning audiences to check their watches and contemplate dinner plans. Robbins’ loopy poetry and stoner lyricism died somewhere in the fraught journey between page and screen, not unlike Poochie en route to his home planet. Whimsy has a way of becoming grotesque when rendered in the literal-minded vocabulary of film.
Ah, but back to the plot. At the Rubber Rose Ranch, Thurman falls in love with Phoenix, but her allegiances are divided between her charismatic (in theory, at least) new lover and her old mentor. Looking to get away from the craziness, Thurman makes a spiritual journey to visit a mysterious figure known only as “The Chink,” and played by Pat Morita. Morita is either a profound mystic or a horny old mountain goat. Possibly both. There’s a Chauncey Gardener-like mock-profundity to his homemade aphorisms. Or they’re complete bullshit. Or they’re simultaneously bogus and profound. Free your mind, square! Forget all those bullshit fake dichotomies!
In Blues, the spiritual, or at least the faux-spiritual, is wrapped up in the physical, which is wrapped up in the scatological, and everything is a cosmic joke propagated by a trickster god, or a mischievous author. The Chink treats the world like a perverse larf. His belief system succinctly boils down to “Ha ha, ho ho, hee hee.” Morita’s sham mystic gets Thurman high, then has sex with her. That’s life: You save yourself for Keanu Reeves, and end up losing your virginity to Arnold from Happy Days.
The Morita character reminds me a lot of the transgressive caricatures of Terry Southern, another cult writer whose novels have proven fiendishly difficult to adapt for film. Like the protagonist of Southern and Mason Hoffenberg’s Candy (which was also turned into a terrible, gauche, lumbering monstrosity of a film in 1968), Thurman’s Sissy Hankshaw is a wide-eyed naïf who sees the world and fucks it, yet maintains a fundamental innocence throughout.
Morita plays the character with an exquisitely light touch, as an amiable goof. If only the film had followed suit. Instead, Blues lumbers when it should soar, and stumbles when it should skip. Morita’s performance and k.d. lang’s swooning, dreamy, romantic score/soundtrack both seem to belong in a different version of Blues, one that doesn’t suck.
Blues goes from bad to worse when Thurman accidentally injures Hurt with her ginormous thumb. In the groan-inducing words of Bodett’s—I mean Robbins’—narration, “A sorrowful Sissy had her thumbs transport her to the one person she knew who could disarm her. Or should we say, de-thumb her.” Thurman has her glorious thumbs reduced to normal size, and loses her mojo in the process.
Meanwhile, back at the Rubber Rose Ranch, the Cowgirls have taken the whooping cranes—the beauty ranch’s pride and joy—as hostages, and are feeding them peyote to keep them from becoming pawns in Hurt’s tawdry empire of shame and repression.
By this point, my collegiate faux-rebelliousness is but a distant memory, like my hair, dignity, and self-respect. Re-watching Even Cowgirls Get The Blues, I found myself thinking, “Get a job, you fucking hippies! And would it kill you to shave once in a while? You look like a buncha goddamned yeti.” Oh dear. I fear this series is devolving into a twice-monthly progress report on my ever-increasing misanthropy, insanity, and reactionary tendencies. If, by Case File #400, I’m agitating incoherently for the re-instatement of internment camps and cutting seven freedoms from the Bill of Rights (you really only need three of them anyway—the right to bear arms and two others that escape me at the moment), you officially have permission to kill me.
In the standoff, Phoenix’s Bonanza Jellybean is killed by the feds while trying to surrender. She’s a creature too pure for a corrupt world, but as she fell, my reaction was, “Eh, whatever.” That probably isn’t what the filmmakers were going for. Looking back over this Case File, I thought, “Wow, this sounds like a really interesting movie,” followed by, “No wait, it wasn’t. It was god-awful. Unwatchable, almost.”
People sometimes complain about terrible adaptations ruining great books, to which the common and proper retort is that books will always exist as autonomous, untainted entities, no matter how badly Hollywood mistreats them. Blues proves especially resilient; no matter how badly Van Sant tries to translate Robbins’ text into cinematic form, it clings zealously to its literary roots. It simply will not become a movie, or at least a halfway-decent one. In spite of Van Sant’s voluminous talent, Even Cowgirls Get The Blues feels throughout like the world’s most elaborate, expensive staged reading.
I don’t want to dissuade anyone from reading Tom Robbins (or even Tim Robbins, or Tony Robbins). By all means, read Tom Robbins, young person, especially if you think it will help you get laid. Live. Love. Dream impractical dreams. Set out on a spiritual and intellectual journey of self-discovery with folks like Tom Robbins as your guides and gurus, even if you’ll probably wind up with a mortgage, a drinking problem, a bad back, and a lifetime of regrets. (Man, I feel like I’m delivering the world’s most depressing graduation speech here.) Don’t let sad old fuddy-duddies like myself kill your youthful idealism and curiosity. Life will do that for you soon enough.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure