A few years ago, at a Goodwill deep in South Philly, I came across this VHS tape . . .
. . . which then promptly sat on a shelf. I mean, it looked like some cheap Arlington Road knock-off, even if it did come out over a decade before that underrated gem of 90s paranoid cinema. Peter Coyote and Danny Glover are two actors I generally admire, but unlike, say, Harry Dean Stanton or Warren Oates, neither of them singlehandedly guarantees a movie will be worth watching.
What finally prompted me to watch the film was haphazardly catching the phrase “absurdist road film” on the back and noticing that it was not the cheesy 90s thriller its packaging promised, but from 1982—basically the tail end of the Seventies, and I’m a sucker for 70s road-trip narratives. I remember swooning over my discovery of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance my freshman year of college (the latter being the reason I majored in Philosophy, no joke!). All that sex, metaphysics, and hitchhiking, what’s not to love! Even this novel, which I bought in a church basement book sale two decades ago and barely remember, seduces me so easily with its very cover art.
And while you’d think aging would make me wiser, nope, I even inserted the most gratuitous Two-Lane Blacktop reference in the history of scholarly publishing into the acknowledgments of my first book. As much as I rant about nostalgia as a critical foundation of modern conservatism all the goddamn time, I’m guilty as hell of indulging in fantasies of a freer, less structured and disciplined time (though materialists take note, this isn’t pure reification—absent at the time were the intensified surveillance cultures of modern technology, the neoliberal enclosure movement that had already begun but exploded in the 80s, the dismantling of the welfare state and rise of debt as a disciplinary governmentality of the self, etc.—or perhaps the romanticist doth protest too much…).
Damn you, Jack Keroauc.
Deadly Drifter is clearly not really titled Deadly Drifter—someone glommed on fake new credits that would have embarrassed a pornographer with a camcorder in 1988.
It opens on a striking note: a man and a woman sneaking around some industrial building, peeping onto a scene of a topless woman threatening a tied-up man with a knife, and then throwing a stick of dynamite into the room and running. Think early Beth B., by way of the Weather Underground.
From there, it is indeed an absurdist road movie. Peter Coyote works his way west from Greenwich Village, through a series of scenes that play as skits, ranging in tone from outright comedy to surprisingly poignant wistfulness. Not everything works, and Danny Glover isn’t really an equal costar, showing up just now and then, but the film’s wandering, meandering style coasts on sheer ambiance even when particular scenes fall flat.
The film moves through Lincoln, Kansas, Colorado Springs, Yucca Flats, Nevada, and ultimately to Venice, California. By the end, as Coyote reencounters his former cohort on the west coast, having reinvented themselves from guerrilla terrorists against the repressive bourgeois state to well-heeled New-Agers, it’s clear that we’re watching an official Allegory of the Left, but director Eli Hollander wisely inhabits an emotional space of loss and regret, and what could have played out as farce or caricature genuinely lingers. He’s great at situating bodies against landscapes, which comes through even on a crappy, fuzz-softened VHS copy. Coyote helps, of course; dude can do just about anything as far as I’m concerned, but brooding is definitely a specialty.
A quick note in praise of the great O-Lan Jones, the film’s secret weapon and unsung hero. In her varied artistic career that ranges from the stage to musical work, Jones has also appeared in numerous films, but generally in small and thankless roles (look at the number of times she’s simply billed as “waitress”). Deadly Drifter has gotta be one of her meatiest parts, and while it’s still a bit limited, she goes toe to toe with Coyote and holds her own. He’s given some cringe-inducingly sexist dialogue, and she bounces it back at him in unexpected ways. Watching this, you can’t help but wish she’d been given more, and better, film roles—I swear, I have imagined her into a bunch of 1980s L.A. postpunk movies like Border Radio and The Blue Iguana, but I guess it’s just that she should have been in them (maybe she could have made the latter one tolerable).
Trivia side note: I attended a screening of the lost counterculture comedy Brand X last night at the Anthology Film Archives, and according to the filmmaker’s wife, who was there for a Q&A, the original cut had a scene with Sam Shepard (then Jones’s husband–she’s billed here as O-Lan Shepard) naked and smeared in peanut butter, and her licking it off him. The footage was removed at the insistence of Shepard’s agent when Hollywood came calling, and is now lost. That is what the hippies called a bummer, man.
And Newark (the ostensible subject of this post)? It shows up early on, as the second chapter in the film (the chapters count down).
Coyote and Jones walk through a vaguely industrial wasteland, until they’re accosted by a gang of ruffians who ask, “don’t you know these streets aren’t safe? Where’s your pass?” Apparently there’s a curfew in effect—“because of the riots.” When our protagonists ask what riots, they’re told, “the police brutality riots.”
A skirmish ensues, and the duo flees. Exit Newark.
Deadly Drifter (a terrible title, by the way) began as Out, and Out began as a novel by Ronald Sukenick. Not nearly as remembered as the first-wave pomo heavyweight team of Barth, Barthelme, Pynchon, et al. (hell, Robert Coover is more famous), Sukenick was, nonetheless, there at the birth of the death of the novel. Out dropped in 1973, and unless I’m mistaken, doesn’t seem to have made it to paperback.
There’s a reason for this: it’s kind of a slog. Written as a formalist experiment, it comes in dense blocks of often-unpunctuated text.
Identities shift constantly: “he wonders who he is/it doesn’t matter it’s all geometry what does that mean.” Except for women–in classic New-Left-man way, they’re all just one big undifferentiated mass of fuckability. You might read this as a critique of macho sexist culture, but that’s as thin an alibi as ethics in gaming journalism. Sukenick is pretty gross, really.
This all makes one appreciate the effort Hollander must have taken to streamline this into a (relatively) narrative film, and what a formal challenge of its own that was—though one can’t help but also wonder, why bother?
As part of his structuralist style, Sukenick begins to let the words give way to blank space over time. I am not sure this artistic gamble completely pays off, but the home stretch of the novel reads a lot faster than the early sections.
By the end, discourse has unraveled completely. I dunno, Gravity’s Rainbow did it better.
Curiously, nowhere in the book does Newark appear, which means it was added for the film. Why Newark? For symbolic effect, I suppose—if we’re doing an allegory of the Sixties, “Newark” carries metonymic weight—even more so than Watts, Detroit, or the other iconic sites of urban unrest—as the marker of “riot.”
That “riot” became a racialized term in the Sixties is undeniable, and Newark’s Blackness is another of its defining features, in both demographic reality and the American imaginary (where it means two vastly separate things). Yet the gang here is mixed-race, which I read (perhaps charitably) as Hollander consciously avoiding the typical racist urban narratives of innocent whites menaced by criminals of color. He’s still trapped in a problematic metanarrative, but then, this whole thing is problematic metanarrative. Il n’y a pas dehors–texte, y’know.
It also doesn’t look anything like the actual Newark, so I emailed Hollander to ask. He generously wrote back, and it turns out the entire film was shot in the San Francisco Bay Area, with Emeryville (at the time “truly a desert of chemical factories, industrial dump sites, and the like”) playing Newark. I’m impressed—maybe with that as foreknowledge it would be obvious, but while watching, I took it for a more expansive set of locations.
Meanwhile, La Crosse, Wisconsin makes a cameo in the book, but didn’t make the film. Too bad: I was born in La Crosse, and always get excited when it pops up in cultural representations (like James Ellroy’s Cold Six Thousand—very, very briefly).
In the kind of coincidence that seems in keeping with the film/book, the horrid VHS copy I have was put out by the mysterious Platinum Disc Corporation, housed in—yep!—La Crosse, Wisconsin! I had a longstanding fascination with this company way back in the pre-Internet era, when I’d find things like this public-domain horror collection and wonder why I never knew anything about Platinum when I lived in La Crosse:
…but I’d more or less forgotten about it years ago. Turns out, there’s still not much info. Who are these people? Why are they running a public-domain video company out of La Crosse? We are left, as in Deadly Drifter, with more questions than answers.
Sadly, Hollander also removed Sukenick’s fairly extensive cats.
Deadly Drifter seems like the kind of film that could find a new audience—restored to proper presentation as Out and distributed by, say, Olive or Milestone, and recontextualized as an experimental film rather than crap-looking political thriller, I think the people who watch Shirley Clarke or Fassbinder might take interest in this.
That said, I would ever so slightly miss things like this, the bracing wave of static as a VCR works to stabilize a cheaply recorded VHS tape. It’s an image that resonates aesthetically (and thematically) with the film itself. And a good note to end on—better, really, than Sukenick’s own closing notes: