Here’s how fast American cinema was changing in the late ’60s and early ’70s: In 1967, The Graduate caused a sensation with its relatively tame story of a vaguely dissatisfied young man having an affair with an older woman while trying to figure out what he wants to do with his life; just two years later, when Stacy Keach played a similarly numb college graduate in director Aram Avakian’s End Of The Road, the cause of the character’s emotional paralysis was more overt, revealed in kaleidoscopic images of student riots and 20th-century atrocities. Co-written and co-produced by “it” ’60s scribe Terry Southern—and based on an early novel by metafiction pioneer John Barth—End Of The Road was such a big deal at the time that it was the subject of a November 1969 Life magazine spread, in which writer Richard Meryman called the film “a two-hour paroxysm,” and described Avakian as “the quintessence of a newly successful breed of maverick, dropout film maker to whom Hollywood means handcuffs.” The film was rated X, in part because of a harrowing abortion scene—as well as a scene in which a man rapes a chicken, and another in which a college professor discreetly masturbates while reciting Hamlet’s soliloquy—but unlike the similarly X-rated Midnight Cowboy, End Of The Road didn’t go on to become an Oscar-winning perennial. In fact it’s been largely forgotten, except by some of the people who still cite it as an influence—including Steven Soderbergh, who directed a short documentary about the film that appears on the new DVD.
That End Of The Road hasn’t endured isn’t so surprising. Even in an era where movies were getting freakier, this one is super-freaky, featuring James Earl Jones as a radical psychotherapist who cackles like a loon, M. Emmet Walsh as an inarticulate mental patient who dresses in a pink tutu and nails himself to a cross, and Harris Yulin as Keach’s colleague, who stands around his study in his scoutmaster’s uniform and points a pistol down his pants. The story follows the catatonic Keach as Jones shakes him out of his stupor and gets him a job teaching grammar at a nearby university, where Keach has an affair with Yulin’s abused wife (Dorothy Tristan). But while Barth’s novel is largely about existentialism and academia, Avakian’s film is more expressly about madness, implying that all of society has gone ’round the bend, justifying Keach’s tendency toward inaction. It’s when the hero gets involved with other people that problems ensue.
The aggressive weirdness of End Of The Road is off-putting initially, and does make the film seem terribly dated. But the actors often find some truth in their performances, even amid all the shouting and goofing around, and the look of End Of The Road—shot by the legendary Gordon Willis, in his first feature assignment, with Michael Chapman as his camera operator—is far more striking than the usual radical proto-indies of the era. The film’s literary origins make a huge difference, in that End Of The Road feels more mature, and runs deeper than other ’60s films about campus unrest. In Soderbergh’s short documentary “An Amazing Time: A Conversation About End Of The Road,” some of the people who worked on the project admit that they never really understood it, and aren’t sure that Avakian and Southern really captured all they meant to. But they all rightly admire the film for being serious and sincere, and they admire Avakian and Southern, who weren’t exploiting the temper of the times, but responding to it as artists.
Key features: That half-hour Soderbergh doc, which includes interviews with Keach, Jones, Tristan, Yulin, Chapman, Willis, and just about every other significant member of the cast and crew (save the late Southern and Avakian).