Binge-Worthy #2: Candy Mountain (Robert Frank, 1987)

Binge-Worthy is a series that explores films made by iconic photographers.

In 1958, photographer Robert Frank published his groundbreaking and highly influential masterwork The Americans. A year later, he segued into filmmaking. He directed the surreal, semi-improvised Beat classic Pull My Daisy (1959), along with a brilliant and difficult-to-track-down documentary on the Rolling Stones, and a myriad of short, avant-garde films. He occasionally dabbled in other formats as well, even branching out into music videos.

Candy Mountain, a low-budget independent feature from the mid-1980s that Frank co-directed, easily ranks among his most significant filmmaking achievements. It’s a deeply personal work etched with social commentary that drives home just how much, in the wake of The Americans, Frank strove to distance himself from that career-defining body of work. It’s also his most mainstream project, and one that he ultimately deemed a failure.

The plot centers around Julius, a struggling, out-of-work musician portrayed with hangdog sweetness by Kevin J. O’Connor. Julius bluffs his way into an odd job tracking down a reclusive guitar-maker named Elmore Silk for several former associates of Silk’s in the music industry. Silk’s custom-built acoustic guitars have become high-priced collectors’ items and Julius’s employers have hatched a plan to turn a quick profit off of them. They give Julius $2000 cash for expenses and he hits the open road.

Julius sees the opportunity as a much-needed career boost, and he fantasizes about the leverage that a successful deal for the guitars will give him. (He’s too naive to recognize that he’s being taken advantage of.) The journey takes him from the high-rises of midtown Manhattan to the remote backroads of Nova Scotia–“the edge of nowhere,” as he refers to it. Along the way, he encounters a variety of fringe-dwellers, and road blocks both literal and figurative. The $2000 quickly dwindles.

Julius gets the raw end of the deal from most of the people he meets. One particularly memorable sequence ends with a small-town constable and his son coercing Julius into signing over his pickup truck. As Julius is reduced to hitchhiking, the son (played by singer-songwriter Leon Redbone) coolly strums a guitar, repeating the singsong refrain, “he’s on the road to nowhere.” In context, this is more a statement of fact than foreshadowing. (Notably, many of the characters Julius meets are portrayed by musicians such as Tom Waits, Dr. John, and Joe Strummer.)

As road movies go, Candy Mountain is a revisionist tale. (The movie’s title comes from from an old American folk song about the false promises that lure young men to the open road and the unpleasant realities that await them there.) The film depicts a culturally fragmented society where virtually every interaction is a transaction, and where individual self-interest looms large. Instead of representing freedom and discovery, the American highway is portrayed as an impersonal space in an indifferent world. “I say freedom doesn’t have much to do with the road, one way or another,” one character says, matter-of-factly. Rightly or wrongly, money is what signifies freedom for the denizens of Candy Mountain.

The film’s portrayal of the music world doubles as a satirical reflection on the New York art scene, which was experiencing an economic boom at the time. It encapsulates Frank’s bitterness towards that world, and illustrates the notion that people are more interested in the perceived value of a work than the work itself. Frank’s analogue isn’t Julius—it’s Elmore Silk, the widely revered instrument maker who arguably tried to commit career suicide. Silk made a conscious decision to turn his back on the music industry, to “step off the edge of the map,” preferring to continue his work anonymously on the farthest periphery. He did so largely as a means to avoid being used by those who viewed his work as a way to enrich themselves. Ironically, as a result, his guitars have skyrocketed in value, and his old colleagues have come calling. Other “bounty hunters” are on his trail as well.

Frank, who divided his time between New York and Nova Scotia, is navigating familiar territory. In an interview with Film Comment after the film was released, he stated, “it’s all fictional. It just has moments that I knew very well, what it meant to me, so that I could tell the actor more, how I thought about it, how I felt about it, having gone through the situation, thinking back about people from New York who want to hold on to me, who I’m a valuable property to, you know, make money from.”

The filmmakers are clearly intent on revealing larger truths about the commodification of art, the unscrupulousness of art dealers and newly-minted gallery owners, and artistic integrity versus selling out. Yet, in the end, the tale gets a little lost in the telling. While the final result may not quite measure up to the filmmakers’ overarching ambitions, it’s endlessly watchable, slyly subversive and piercingly intelligent. There are strong performances throughout, beautifully austere images, and inspired dialogue exchanges. There’s also Tom Waits, in some sort of hipster approximation of men’s golf attire, tinkering on an old upright piano and singing a scrap of Irish lullaby that made me momentarily wish there had been a soundtrack release. (For a variety of reasons, there wasn’t.)

The rough-around-the-edges visual aesthetic will no doubt be familiar to Robert Frank’s acolytes. Yet, in a departure from his usual way of working, Frank relied on the accomplished Swiss cinematographer Pio Corradi to lens the movie.

Although Frank wasn’t behind the camera, he instructed Corradi on how to film the scenes. By throwing away the rulebook, they avoided the creative inertia that can plague even the best cinematographers. To give an example, there isn’t a single over-the-shoulder shot / reverse-shot sequence when two characters are talking to each other. Instead, the camera shifts and snakes around restlessly, trying to find the best angle, just as one would when photographing on the fly with a small camera. The visuals are raw, kinetic, and fleetingly beautiful. Attention is paid to foregrounds and backgrounds. There are frames within frames. There is an intent on capturing the moment.

Aside from the movie’s depiction of the art market, there are few connections to the 1980s. The characters seem to belong to an earlier era. (Julius especially is a man out of time.) And practically every detail, from the clothes to the cars to the music, seems to evoke a previous age. Candy Mountain may be an 80s movie, technically speaking, but it is much more reminiscent of the great independent films of the 1960s and 70s.

That stands to reason, since Candy Mountain was written and co-directed by Rudy Wurlitzer, who also wrote the classic 1971 road movie Two Lane Blacktop, among others. Although I’m choosing to focus on the correlations to Frank’s life and work, this film is just as much Wurlitzer’s vision as it is Frank’s.

Sadly, the film shoot drove a wedge between Frank and Wurlitzer. As Wurlitzer phrased it in a 2009 interview with PopMatters, the two “parted company after the trauma of production.” The movie still hasn’t seen a proper DVD release here in the U.S. due to a number of factors, including a lack of motivation on the producers’ part as well as music licensing issues. Fortunately, a kind soul has uploaded it to YouTube (straight from an old VHS tape, with German subtitles, natch.)

So, thankfully, we now have the option to stream the film online. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Frank and Wurlitzer’s previous collaborations, the short films “Keep Busy“(1975) and “Energy and How to Get It,” (1981), which are more difficult to track down. (It’s worth noting that German photobook publisher Steidl included both of these in a lavish DVD box set of Frank’s films, which they released along with an in-depth guide to Frank’s film works). In addition to Candy Mountain, these films add greatly to the vast and diverse body of work that Frank left behind.

Candy Mountain (directed by Robert Frank & Rudy Wurlitzer). 91 min., Xanadu Films, 1987.

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