Candy Mountain (1987)
June 10, 1988
Review/Film; Hitting the Highway
By CARYN JAMES
Published: June 10, 1988
In an 80's twist on Jack Kerouac's myth of the open road, "Candy Mountain'' presents the least self-reflective hero ever to hit the highway. Julius (Kevin O'Connor) is a sometime guitarist and a persistent con man, hired to track down a reclusive, brilliant guitar maker named Elmore Silk. The directors, Robert Frank and Rudy Wurlitzer (who also wrote the screenplay), set Julius traveling on the fringes of society, for the film asserts, in its lighthearted, unpretentious way, that the spirit of our times can be found in those margins. It turns out to be a sardonic spirit, embodied in Julius's mercenary quest for a guru who refuses to dispense wisdom.
''How can you do the road with no car?'' a toothless van driver asks Julius after his girlfriend drives off and leaves him stranded at an Esso station. He does it by pickup truck, school bus and jeep, wheedling rides, bumbling his way along Elmore's trail from New York through Canada to Nova Scotia. On the road, he encounters a series of eccentrics who never fall into total absurdity. (In a kind of subterranean joke, most are played by musicians, including Tom Waits and Leon Redbone, who give the film a bluesy-folksy score.) Elmore's wealthy brother - Mr. Waits, wearing a garish golfing outfit - leads Julius to Elmore's daughter. She lives in a trailer near Niagara Falls, locked in a perpetual shouting match with her mean-spirited, wheelchair-bound husband (played by Dr. John, the singer and pianist whose real name is Mac Rebennack). Farther north, Julius drives a pickup into a boat parked in the middle of the road, and as punishment is locked in the room of a cabin for two days.
Robert Frank made his reputation in the 50's with ''The Americans,'' a classic book of unprettified photographs, with an introduction by Kerouac, taken on Mr. Frank's own journey along the slightly off-kilter roads of the country. In 1959 his first film, ''Pull My Daisy,'' established him as a chronicler of the Beats. But the narrative of ''Candy Mountain,'' as fluidly cinematic as it can be, has more in common with Jim Jarmusch's current itinerent fringe dwellers than with Kerouac's generation. And though the film is full of bright, saturated colors - from orange leaves to Julius's lime-green sneakers - it does not contain a hint of self-conscious, artsy composition.
''Candy Mountain'' resembles Mr. Frank's most famous photographs only in the way each glimpse of a character suggests a lifetime behind the moment we see. And the film resembles Mr. Wurlitzer's previous screenplays (most recently ''Walker'') in approaching history in a minor key. Working on a multilingual set, Mr. Wurlitzer directed the actors in English, while Mr. Frank set up the camera shots speaking German to the Swiss-German crew. The result is remarkably seamless.
After Julius's meanderings, it is risky for the directors to show us Elmore, but Harris Yulin gives a perfectly understated performance. So much less than Julius expected, he is much more than the audience could have hoped for. Shrewd, remote, dissipated though still handsome, Elmore is onto Julius and to himself. And though we have just witnessed the trail of dejection and bad blood Elmore has selfishly left behind, he seems wise.
The film avoids oracular statements, so when Elmore says, ''Freedom doesn't have much to do with the road one way or another,'' it takes on the authority of simple truth. ''Candy Mountain,'' which opens today at the Quad Cinema, seems to be a small, quirky film, but it easily assumes the weight, ambition and success that many larger films aim for and miss.
WHAT NOW, VOYAGER? — CANDY MOUNTAIN, directed by Robert Frank and Rudy Wurlitzer; screenplay by Mr. Wurlitzer; director of photography, Pio Corradi; edited by Jennifer Auge; art directors, Brad Ricker and Keith Currie; produced by Ruth Waldburger; released by International Film Exchange, a Today Home Entertainment Company.
At Quad Cinema, 13th Street, between Fifth Avenue and Avenue of the Americas. Running time: 91 minutes. This film is rated R. Julius...Kevin J. O'Connor Elmore...Harris Yulin Al Silk...Tom Waits Cornelia...Bulle Ogier Archie...Roberts Blossom Huey...Leon Redbone Henry...Dr. John Winnie...Rita MacNeil Mario...Joe Strummer