What to do while watching:
What to eat while watching:
I've learned that taken out of context, words can make anything seem interesting, well made, and sexy. The box that Highway 61 came in described it in very big letters as striking, phantasmagoric, and hip. These words, out of context, along with a description of two peoples' thumbs made me think that this would be a good watch.
Well, friends, let's just say that this road movie was a road to nowhere, and without even the dancability of The Talking Heads. The picture begins in medias res, in the middle of the action, which means that we never need to be told why any of it ever happens. All we know is that Jackie Bangs (Valerie Buhagiar) has chosen to steal drugs from a rock band and take it on the lam. Meanwhile, in a small Canadian town lives Pokey Jones, an aptly named character if there ever was one, played in a pokey way by Don McKellar. Pokey is a poor but aspiring trumpeter and a good but bored barber. He discovers a dead body in his back yard and becomes a front-page story in his tiny town.
By chance, Jackie happens to be in this town and hatches a scheme to smuggle the drugs inside the dead body to someone in Louisiana. She manipulates Pokey to shuck his small townishness and go on the road with her. Meanwhile, a very strange character who may or may not be Satan himself wants to collect the dead man whose soul had been promised to him in exchange for a bus ticket.
Jackie turns out to be a wild woman, a robber, a bad girl in all ways except in the sack. Pokey turns out to be a square and a drudge except when he finally gets some from Jackie. Neither character is particularly interesting or sympathetic. Both are acted so stoically that no moistness of personality is allowed to flow. These rigid characters go through their road trip with a stiffness and a boredom that could only be described, on the video box, as "hip."
On the up side, I found the actress to be quite attractive in a non-traditional way. Her curly red hair and unstraight teeth reminded me of a collegiate crush and I instantly liked her. The male lead had a cute haircut and a square jaw, which might be appealing in a way to the ladies in the house. But again, outside of these aspects these characters were two big "so whats."
Their encounters on the road are with depressing extremes, trumped up by screenwriter Bruce MacDonald [editor: do NOT typeset in bold face] who has no idea what life is like outside of his little bubble of reality. These characters are extreme in extremis: they are not amusing in the least. They are annoying in the main. One encounter is with a theater dad who wants his three little girls to be video stars. Another encounter is with two millionaire rock stars (Jackie had been their roadie) who spend all day being stoned, watching television, and acting self-absorbed. Dinner at the rock stars' mansion is home-hunted chicken. Yes, live chickens are released in the house and hunted down with large hand pistols. This, as we all know, is exactly the way rock stars behave when they are not on tour. Anyone fooled by these characters should contact me right away because I honestly can sell them the TransAmerica Pyramid Building for $1000.
Meanwhile, Satan provides a shabby lesson to the viewer: that people are so sunken in their souls that they'll sell their eternal spirits for such prices as $20, a bottle of whiskey, or the promise of being in a music video. Yes, Satan buys the soul of one of the little girls. Although we must put up with this cheap preach, Satan is funny to watch, especially as he explains to the little girl that she'll never be famous without his help because she is really very ugly and will probably grow to be a grotesquely fat lady.
The picaresque is a classic form for novels to take and was adapted by film-makers early on. The picaresque describes the journey of a character or characters and nearly always involves a quest, a series of encounters through which the character grows, and an arrival simultaneous with some kind of climax. The key element missing in Highway 61 is the growth through the journey. We are supposed to see that Jackie has given up her bad girl ways at the end of the movie, but her actions in giving it up are so hoaky and hysterical that they ring with complete insincerity. She'll be back to burgling within the week. Another key element missing is a character. Every portrait in this film is as flat as the Polaroids Satan collects of his "souls."
This is not a picaresque based on character or the nature of the journey. Even the sights and sounds along the way are just so much caricature, giving no real feeling of Missouri, Tennessee, Louisiana. Instead, this is the kind of picaresque that's written because a writer wakes up one day and thinks, "I have all these weird ideas that I'd like to put in a movie, but I have no way to connect them." A 30-watt bulb burns out and the writer thinks, "I've got it!" Then he stabs his nicotine-stained thumb into a coffee-stained atlas, reads the number of the highway nearest his thumb nail, and starts writing.
If you don't care for the way in which I broadstroke sub-talented screenwriters,
you also won't care much for what this sub-standard flick does with its
characters. What Siskel and Ebert were thinking, I cannot imagine, but I
have a suggestion as to where they can put their upward pointing thumbs.
©1999 by Randy Shandis Enterprises. All rights happily reserved.