Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Highway 61

Dir. - Bruce McDonald

Viewed: From the Couch

The early 90s was a bit of a renaissance for Canadian film. One of the major touchstones for that period referred to as the Canadian New Wave was Bruce McDonald and Don McKellar's Highway 61. It's the second movie to come out from this inimitable team (and their second movie, period) and the second in McDonald's road movie trilogy. The duo's debut, with McKellar as writer and McDonald as director, and the first in the trilogy was Roadkill (something we'll get into on a later date). As the title may give away, the movie is steeped in music mythology. We follow McKellar's would-be jazz trumpeter, Pokey Jones, as he travels down the historic highway from his little Canadian nest to the fabled city of New Orleans. The catch being the casket that's strapped to his roof containing the dead body that contains the stolen drugs that the femme fatale driving with stole from some rock band. Oh, and Satan himself is on their trail, trying to claim the soul that dead guy in the casket sold to him a while back in Thunder Bay for a pair of concert tickets.

I vaguely remember seeing this movie back in the mid 90s through a haze of marijuana smoke. The iconic image of McKellar and co-star Valerie Buhagiar, playing the untrustworthy roadie-on-the-run Jackie Bangs, hitchhiking with the upright coffin is something that is unforgettable. I remembered it being off-beat and funny, but prior to watching it again this weekend, I wouldn't have guessed that it would stand up this well some 15+ years later and still give righteous cause for its cult movie status. Like any lasting movie of this kind it is abundantly quotable and features a lovable loser at its center played with genuine odd-ball charisma by McKellar. His Pokey Jones tends the local barbershop in his tiny town of Piccolo Falls and dreams of riding off in his car to become a great trumpet player until he stumbles upon a frozen corpse behind the shop and Jackie Bangs strolls into town to claim it. It's understandable why Pokey would fall for Jackie -- Buhagiar does give a certain exotic mystery to her character, but she can't quite hide her novice acting skills (they get better as the movie progresses and that wig comes off her head). But in low budget cases like Highway 61 it is in no way a deal breaker and as the movie goes on small flaws simply become part of the charming scenery. Once Jackie convinces Pokey that the stiff is her brother and he's the only one who can get them to New Orleans for his burial, they hop in his sweet Galaxy 500 and the movie takes off.

On the road we encounter a suprisingly toned down but nonetheless great cameo by Jello Biafra as a border guard, a shotgun wielding dad trying to turn his three daughters into Christian pop sensations, Satan kicking ass at church bingo (perfectly edited to Jackie and Pokey having sex in the graveyard of the church), a motorcycle gang looking for a good shave, and a pair of filthy rich hard rock burnout shut-ins who sit at the tv watching their newest performance art video over and over again and hunt their own diners by setting loose chickens in the mansion and handing out revolvers to the guests. This couple, Margo and Otto, a performance artist and her rock star husband provide for one of the funniest sequences in the movie while being the dark underbelly of their journey -- a horrible what-if for Pokey and Jackie. Is this what would happen if our dreams come true? Otto, an old friend of Jackie's, asks her if she'd like to have sex. She turns him down. Come on Jackie, he pleads in a childlike way. Pokey reiterates, she said no. "You too Pokey, it's cool, I'm bisexual," is my favorite line from the movie.

Like most road movies, the plot is fairly inconsequential and we're simply focused on the character development that happens during the journey. And like other low budget entries such as Easy Rider, Vanishing Point, Two-Lane Blacktop or Stranger than Paradise, it is about capturing a bitter piece of counter-cultural disillusionment. Highway 61 nowhere near as existential as those movies but at the same time it captures its time and place in its own weird way. This doesn't have much to do with the themes that are brought up or any of the character development itself, which is all unsurprising, but more the way the scenes that unfold have such a great energy and unpredictability that you end up with a feeling that is all too rare these days. That feeling of sly amusement achieved when watching an actually funny, well produced independent movie with a unique perspective that isn't completely up its own ass. It's a feeling so rare these days as to evoke nostalgia.

It also brings to mind the recent Puffy Chair, another road movie and another great indie movie -- and that's more than just a coincidence. There's a reason the road movie works as a low budget movie and in the case of the Puffy Chair directors the Duplas Brothers, their first feature. (It should be noted here that Highway 61 was to be McDonald's first feature film until they decided to run with Roadkill, a movie that didn't require quite the budget this one did.) By choosing a road movie your locations and actors are going to be limited, in a good budget conscious way, and your given an automatic story structure that makes for a good attention grabber as well as being inherently cinematic and somewhat preventative of pretension. There's lots of pluses and attractiveness to a road movie for the filmmaker with little cash, not the least of which is the benefit that shooting on location and can give to a scene.

Of course at this point we could get into the whole discussion on what really makes an independent movie independent... that might best be saved for another day as well.

For some interesting and frequently comical insight into Highway 61 and the Canadian New Wave scene at the time check out this from one of the producers, Colin Brunton.

No comments: