Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Gold (1968)

Directed “and organized” by Bob Levis and Bill Desloge
Starring Del Close, Garry Goodrow, Caroline Parr, Sam Ridge, Orville Schell

“Any law that’s going to be broken in this community will be cleared with me first!”

According to the trailer for this late 60s hippie exploitation flick, “It’s a western! It’s a comedy! It’s a nudie! It’s a drama! It’s a musical! It’s a revolution! It’s a manifesto! It’s a movement! It’s a happening! It’s a freakout!” Like wow, man, all that in 90 minutes? The DVD cover also boasts unreleased music from the mighty MC5 (which, frankly, is what drew my attention in the first place). Good thing Gold (which is subtitled “Before Woodstock. Beyond Reality” and tagged “The Revolution Has Begun – Clothing Optional” for good measure) was rescued from whatever dusty vault hell in which it’s been trapped for 40 years, eh?

After a quick shot of a slot machine hitting the jackpot with the movie’s title, the opening credits roll. While a list of the actors’ names appear (with one Dorothy Schmidt’s name in larger type than the rest), black & white images of various 60s points of interest flash by: Viet Nam, riots, cops hassling hippies, American flags, rallies of various sorts, MLK, Gandhi, Jack, Robert and Ted Kennedy, the moon, a hippie wearing both a peace necklace and a bandolier and the Radio Caroline ship (unsurprisingly, given that Rohan O’Rahilly, the pirate station’s founder, executive produced Gold). Now that we’ve had it drilled into our heads that the film is going to deal with the changing times of the late 60s, on with the show.

We open with scruffy über-hippie Hawk (improve legend Del Close) bursting out of a coffin in the woods. Well, he doesn’t so much burst out of it as step aggressively. Anyway, he informs the audience that “This is a clean, family show, ladies & gentlemen. No geeks, no freaks and no romany.” (?) There is, of course, a nude woman in the background. He then plays an excerpt of Danse Macabre on his head with his fists. This just reminds me of why I hate improv.

We then cut to a close-up of a pretty, laughing brunette. Get used to these random shots, as they’re rife throughout. We then go back to the woods and meet the gangster-suited Jinks (Garry Goodrow), who explains that “I am here to represent the law” (Who needs symbolism when you can just come out and say it?) and warns of the breakdown of public morality. Which means, naturally, that we cut to a black & white scene of the venerable folksinger Ramblin’ Jack Elliott performing “Farther Along” with naked hippie girls at his feet and under his chair, while some mook walks into the foreground to tell a corny lesbian joke.

Back to Jinks, who approaches a dude wearing a top hat and hanging pop art posters on the side of what’s apparently a dilapidated shack in the woods. (There are almost no indoor shots in this movie. It was filmed on a ranch in the Sierra Mountains in Northern California.) This is Verbal Talkingham (Sam Ridge), usually referred to as VT, thank the gods. He’s a reformed politician (“I had 27 years in politics, and politics sucks”), but Jinks wants him to come out of retirement to help him take over a nearby town. After a vague discussion about government that I’m sure the screenwriters thought was deep, the two pull out notepads and compare and contrast the favors the two have done for each other over the years. Jinks wins this odd duel and demands that VT go along with his scheme, asserting “I never trust a man unless I have his pecker in my pocket.” VT lifts his hammer in what might be construed as a threatening manner, or not. Jinks claims he has a black belt (in what?) and waves his arms around. VT acquiesces with a sigh (“This is the last time!” – how right he is) and the two exit.

The above is intercut with scenes of Hawk on the metal roof of what I’m assuming is the same shack, apparently listening in. With the way this film likes to drop in random shots I wasn’t entirely sure. And speaking of random, the next scene shows Hawk sitting on a rock, picking up a piece of animal feces and sniffing it. Before we enter John Waters territory, we’re back to the random pretty brunette from a few minutes earlier, only this time she’s singing the line All that glitters is not (over and over, and no, they never say what all that glitters ain't) with Ramblin’ Jack. Some grizzled dude runs into the campsite at which they sit and exclaims “It’s gold!” He reaches into his pocket, but the film cuts away before we see what he has.

Next up, a comely blonde in one of the shortest dresses I’ve ever seen (plus a hole exposing her bellybutton) arrives at a rally being held by VT and Jinx. She boards the caboose on which they stand as they exhort the crowd to go get the gold in them hills – word obviously travels fast from Ramblin’ Jack’s campsite. The audience, all of whom apparently raided the stock wardrobe of the nearest western in production, boards the train with the usual whoopin’ and hollerin’. A couple of shady characters with guitar cases get on as well. They’re not at all important, which made me wonder later why the camera went out of its way to make sure we saw them. Hawk, now sporting a cast on one foot and a pair of crutches (?), attempts to board as well but doesn’t make it.

As a fat agent takes tickets and the unreleased MC5 music blares in the background (it’s called Gold Rush and, sadly, it’s nothing special), the blonde takes the seat in front of our dastardly duo and fondles VT’s knee. Jinx gets up to go hassle smokers (seriously); Blondie stands up, flashes some eye-searing, multi-hued fluorescent panties and falls in VT’s lap. This initiates a conversation we can’t hear over the 5. Guess the sound in that scene didn’t come out.

Meanwhile, Hawk has somehow made it to a water tower ahead of the train. This won’t be the only time he moves from place to place almost instantaneously. He leaps onto the train as it passes, but somehow manages to open the spout and pour water all over the cars. The train stops, Hawk falls to the ground and Jinx arrests him. The passengers piss and moan, whether over Jinx’s hard-hearted tactics or the delay is difficult to say.

Since the train isn’t going anywhere for a while, VT and the blonde slip off into the woods, and the world magically turns first green, then fluorescent. The pair strips and has athletic softcore sex while the cinematographer plays with his various colored filters and split screen effects and the Carmina Burana roars in the background. (This may be the first time I’ve ever heard that piece of music used in something that wasn’t a horror or action movie.) They’re interrupted by Hawk, who asks them where the train is. (Um, wasn’t he just arrested while lying under it?) VT and the blonde react by grabbing their clothes and hustling back to the train. (Not rushing back, mind you – it’s more of a somewhat concerned trot.) They make it back just as the train is pulling away, climbing aboard before it builds up speed. Hawk somehow makes it as well, hanging on the undercarriage. If he can teleport, why does he need the train in the first place?

The train rolls on through the beautiful California hills, passing a cadre of U.S. soldiers, who are in a huddle with Jinks. (Wait – wasn’t he on the train a minute ago? Hawk’s not the only teleporter around here.) The lawman tells the grunts “They want to act like a pig, they will be treated like a pig. We have no choice but to treat thus.” Despite being no doubt startled by Jinks’ lousy command of English grammar, the soldiers half-heartedly chase down the train. (There are gunshots on the soundtrack, but no on-screen evidence of any guns being fired.) After the train helpfully slows down so the soldiers can climb on, the passengers and the fat ticket taker exit the other side and run off into the hills.

Still in their stock western garb, everyone wanders about the fields. Jinks warns VT that he’s getting too close to the people he’s supposed to be controlling. “I don’t want to control them,” whines VT. “I just want to lead them, to represent them.” Jinks, like the viewer, is unimpressed.

Once again separated by a great distance from everyone else (does he keep falling into a wormhole or something?), Hawk hobbles along trying to catch up. He comes across Jinks wandering alone in a field strewn with clothes, hats and suitcases. Littering – now that’s an example of good, solid counter-culture values.

Hawk then finds a creek with a bunch of naked people rolling around in it. Not having sex or nothin’, mind you, just rolling around in a big ball of muddy flesh. (What was that Jinks was saying about pigs?) Hawks hails them as “People of the Mud” and uses some sort of clichéd Hollywood Indian speech to explain what’s going on so far, accompanying himself with gestures that are to sign language what stick figures are to Rembrandt. The People of the Mud metaphorically shrug their shoulders and go back to their rolling.

In another part of the forest, three young women skip (really) to the edge of a lake. The two long-haired brunettes play pattycake and then wrestle, while the short-haired blonde sits dejectedly by. Discrimination! Meanwhile, Jinks posts a notice – on a tree, no less – banning public nudity and nude bathing. Cue the three women stripping down and splashing around in the lake.

Jinks posts another notice – on another tree! – about a town meeting, in which the populace will elect a mayor and draw up a city charter. “All citizens are required to attend and vote.” What is this, Soviet Russia? Meanwhile, David McWilliams, who contributed the theme song during the opening credits, croons Look what you’ve done to Jesus/You who come here in his name. What?

Jinks finds the ladies of the lake and demands at the top of his lungs that they come out. When they respond by laughing and swimming further out, he pulls out his pistol. Jeez, overreact much? The girls comply and he leads the still-naked trio, hands on top of their heads, to his car, where he piles them in the back. “I’m taking you to jail, that’s where I’m taking ya!”

One might imagine a side trip into pornography here, but one dreams in vain. Instead, it’s time for the town meeting. This populace has no town hall, evidently, so the rally takes place at night around a picnic table. The Star-Spangled Banner is played, barbecued beast is consumed and a joint is passed to the MC, just like at any other public picnic. Jinks gives VT a ridiculously grandiose introduction, resulting in the crowd throwing verbal abuse and foodstuffs at the smirking shlub. (They must not realize that he just wants to lead and represent them, not control them.) Undeterred, VT makes a perfectly vague speech extolling the virtues of the Common Sense Party and something about a Solid Gold Society. It makes little sense, just like real political speech. This is likely the only realistic bit in the entire film.

Before he can continue, one of the brunette bathing beauties climbs onto the table and listlessly accuses the duo of lying, telling the crowd how she was arrested “in my own pond.” She then champions Roy Acorn (Orville Schell), the town lush, as the new mayor, with the following reasoning: “We’ll have the kind of politician this town needs: a man who does nothing. Because when we had nothing done, we were happy.” I have to admit, there’s a certain beauty in that quirky logic. VT manages to finish his speech (to general indifference) before Acorn takes the floor, claiming, among other things, that a vote for him is a vote against constipation. He mostly spouts inebriated gibberish, but he’s still received more warmly than VT.

Jinks comes back to the podium and announces that the votes have been tallied (when were they cast?) and that, naturally, the Common Sense Party has won. He then introduces Little Miss Gold Nugget (Caroline Parr) as an example of “what art will be like in our society.” The blonde from the train climbs onto the table and does a mostly nude go-go dance. With the crowd thus distracted, Jinks and VT pull some dude out of the crowd and beat him up. Why? Who knows? It’s neither explained nor ever referenced again – no surprise at this point, I’m sure.

The blonde then makes her way to…a room. On the train? In the shack on which VT was hanging posters earlier? In another dimension? Your guess is as good as mine. She continues her dance in front of a giant mirror, pulling off her long blonde wig to reveal the short blonde hair of the non-brunette chick from the lake scene. Jinks enters and accuses her of enjoying herself too much. “What’s wrong with me?” she asks. “As far as I’m concerned, baby, you’re a bottle with a label marked ‘poison’!” She laughs this and his other B-movie tough guy ranting off and he responds by beating her up. (Rather anemically, I must say - a four-year-old could’ve successfully defended herself.) Jinks lights a cigarette (first tapping the butt on her, um, butt) and struts off.

Hawk, who I confess I’d forgotten about, shows back up, minus both his scruffy beard and his cast. He appears at the remains of the town meeting and throws a fit, destroying the podium and kicking the picnic debris off the table. (The townspeople, barring the unconscious Acorn and one other semi-comatose citizen, have all crawled off to bed or whatever.) He then falls on his face. Take that, establishment!

We then cut to a rear (and I use that word very deliberately) shot of a lovely women walking to a campsite wearing nothing but a straw hat. The sun shines through the leaves of the trees, her shapely ass sways alluringly and, for one minute that has dick to do with the rest of Gold, all is right with the world.

But, as with all such perfect moments, it doesn’t last. Soon enough we’re back to Jinks, who drives up to a large shack in these endless woods and tells the family that lives there that their community needs their land for administrative buildings. “We have gold now!” he reasons. Really? We’ve yet to see any. The patriarch doesn’t take his word for it, either. Jinks gives him eight hours to vacate. “I’ll do it in two hours!” the old duffer snarls. Way to stand up to authority, dude.

Whilst this conversation takes place, a nude couple zooms buy, hellbent for leather. The pair turns out to be VT and the brunette who supposedly owns the pond. They caress each other with leaves, engage in nude piggy back rides, smooch from time to time but never actually have sex. Jinks spies on them from a tree anyway. When the two leave the woods, we’re treated to a shot of a pair of running horses, because the horses symbolize the freedom the couple finds in…oh, forget it.

Cut to Jinks and VT shooting the shit in a junkyard in, yes, the woods. Jinks accuses VT of being a nutjob (not without some justification, frankly – he was naked in the woods with a willing pretty girl and he didn’t have sex with her?). VT just laughs it off until, and I’m not making this up, he has a coughing fit. The two dirtbags argue over public morality, with Jinks asserting that they need stronger nudity laws. VT agrees, as long as the law allows anyone to be naked anytime s/he wants. He stands up for this belief by starting to strip, saying he’s going to run into the center of town, “stark naked, and I’m gonna run up to the first pretty girl I see, and I’m gonna hug her, and I’m gonna kiss her, and all that stuff.” Ooh…stuff! No wonder he didn’t get any action with the brunette.

“What about the law?” demands Jinks. “The law is bullshit,” VT replies. “The law sucks.” Just like politics, as you might recall.

Jinks pulls his gun to take the now naked VT into “protective custody.” VT reveals that he took the bullets from Jinks’ gun the night before. “Well, you got me this time,” sighs Jinks. VT kisses him on the forehead (?!) and literally skips off. Gunshots ring out of nowhere and VT falls in a hail of imaginary bullets, as the film flashes back and forth between him and stills of JFK, MLK and Bobby Kennedy. Just in case we don’t get the point about the Man going to any extreme to stop the Revolution. (Though what the Kennedys, ultimate symbols of the establishment, have to do with the Revolution is beyond me.)

We cut back to Jinks, who has a rifle in one hand (where did that come from?) and little Jinks in the other. (Yeecchhh.) He makes a face that I’m guessing is supposed to indicate an orgasm, but looks more like he’s about to bite the head off a bat. Hawk, who’s witnessed all this from inside a big pipe in the junkyard, flees into the woods unnoticed. He returns in a badly shot day-for-night scene to retrieve VT’s body.

Meanwhile, at what appears to be the woods’ premiere outdoor tiki bar, an old drunk in a sweater recites poetry to a hippie chick before staggering off. (What the…? Must have been a friend of the producer.) More hippies dance to some sort of organ-overload proto prog rock, played by an organ-less band. Acorn (remember him?), a grizzled hippie that I think might be Dan Hicks and a teenaged kid try to have a conversation, but are drowned out by the proto prog.

Hawk wanders through a blue filter in the woods, to no apparent end. Back at the party, the music gets louder and the dancing becomes…well, I guess it can’t get any sillier, so never mind. Jinks arrives with a coffin, explaining that the mayor has been murdered, he thinks he knows who did it, and he’d like everyone to pay their respects. He opens the lid and discovers Hawk (who apparently teleported in from the blue filter dimension). He shuts it quickly before anyone notices and asks them to file past the coffin. This scene was a complete waste of everyone’s time.

The next morning (presumably), Hawk – once again adorned by a beard and a cast on his foot - carries a cross to the junkyard as a memorial for VT. He runs into Acorn, who’s sleeping off his latest drunk. One brief, senseless conversation later, Hawk leaves, tripping and hurting himself in the process.

Then it’s off to the fair, which appears to be on the edge of an actual town, instead of in what otherwise appear to be the world’s largest woods. After close-ups of the rides and a creepy clown riding a motorized something or other, Hawk (again clean-shaven but still with a cast) wanders around before settling into a magenta filter and hallucinating about being back in the woods. He returns to the junkyard and meets the still naked and dead VT, who turns the reigns of the “Revolution of Mind” over to Hawk. (Interspersed are shots of Hawk as Che Guevara for emphasis.) Hawk returns to magenta and the *cough* real world just in time for the creepy clown to run over his foot.

Hawk (for those keeping score, this time he has his beard back but the cast is gone again) hooks up with Acorn at the junkyard to start the revolution. Hawk attempts to demonstrate the making of a Molotov cocktail, but the wasted Acorn fights him for the liquor bottle. I’m pretty sure this scene was supposed to be funny.

Jinks, meanwhile, has rounded up the town hippies into a pen with a barbed wire fence. A crony in khakis (where’d he come from?) beats up a woman dressed as a Chinese peasant. (Ooh, symbolism!) Jinks tries to lecture the hippies inside the pen (you knew the “act like a pig, get treated like a pig” speech would return, didn’t you?), but they gang up on him with their most potent weapon – folk music – and he retreats.

You might notice a certain lack of dramatic tension up to this point. (That hole is big enough to drive a hummer through, after all.) From here the directors attempt to build that tension by cutting back and forth between scenes of Jinks berating, scowling at and strutting in front of the incarcerated hippies and scenes of Hawk invoking Castro, Che and Chairman Mao to get Acorn to straighten up and fly right for the cause. One minute Jinks is watching the nude, pond-owning brunette hallucinate that VT has come back to make sweet hippie love to her, the next Hawk and Acorn are tussling because Hawk won’t shut the fuck up. Jinks yells at a couple (she topless, he fully clothed) making out in the dirt. Hawk and Acorn give themselves military training with maps in a different patch of dirt, a mysterious junkyard vehicle, a whip Hawk produces out of nowhere and homemade bombs and cannons. (Good thing the department of Homeland Security didn’t exist yet.)

By this time, Hawk is dressed as Che and Acorn as Castro. Hawk/Che poses grimly in front of a red flag/wall, before mugging shamelessly for the camera. This revolution stuff is all in fun, folks! Eventually the pair take off in their vehicle through the woods on their way to Jinks’ concentration camp, but hit a bulldozer (?!) on the way, wrecking the vehicle and killing Acorn. No big loss, if you ask me, but Hawk does the “Why god why???” bit anyway.

Hawk hops back on the bulldozer and hits the camp, mowing down the barbed wire fence and freeing the hippies. He then takes out the shack in which Jinks is hiding. The latter takes off into – you guessed it – the woods, the ‘dozer and angry hippies in pursuit. This trail of vengeance is accompanied by David McWilliams’ reflective folk rock tune Move Over Gabriel. Once the party reaches the lake, the hippies abandon the quest in favor of skinny-dipping. Except Hawk. That dude’s relentless, man.

Jinks tries to hide in an old mine shaft, but surprise! Hawk is inside waiting for him. (Bet you forgot he could teleport, didn’tcha?) After a head-spinning conversation that the filmmakers probably thought was the Love Generation version of an Abbott & Costello routine, Hawk leads Jinks into the shaft, telling him “I’m going to blow your mind!”

The shaft apparently leads to the lake, as Hawk brings Jinks to the dock. The three ladies Jinks arrested a long time ago strip him down and toss him into the lake. Apparently all it takes to redeem the average authoritarian, woman-beating murderer is public nudity. Wow, if only we’d known! Muddy, naked hippies go out of focus as sparse credits roll.

Like a lot of films that try to capture the spirit of the late 60s, Gold is an uneasy mixture of exploitation and a sincere attempt at cheering on cultural change. While Close is the only one who escapes with his dignity intact (not coincidentally because he’s the only one besides the fat train ticket taker who doesn’t lose his clothes), the film actually belongs to Goodrow, who’s fairly effective as the creepy cop who wants to impose law and order on all these dirty, naked hippies. It’s almost impossible to look away from his performance, even when he’s doing something you’d rather not see. (Cf. the murder/masturbation scene – for the love of God, erase, delete, obliterate from my poor brain.) The frequent nudity is of the usual, late 60s hippie kind – some attractive women, some floppy-dicked men, some female armpit hair. Nobody’s particularly shy, but neither are they ravishingly sexy. (Except the sun-dappled rear that parades around prior to the squatter eviction scene. Sure would like to know who that is.) The MC5 music trumpeted on the cover is pretty sparse, but early versions of what would become Future/Now and Sister Anne appear, as well as the aforementioned song Gold Rush, another, better version of which can be found under the title Gold on the 5 album Babes in Arms.

Unsurprisingly, Close and Goodrow are the only ones who had careers after Gold. Goodrow has appeared in dozens of TV shows and films, everything from critically acclaimed art like Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and The King of Marvin Gardens to B-flick fare like Amazon Women On the Moon and Linda Lovelace For President. He’s still out there. Close, while continuing to act, moved primarily into teaching improv, working with Second City and mentoring a long list of comedians, from Dan Akroyd, Bill Murray and the Belushi brothers to Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Stephen Colbert. He died in 1999, but his legacy lives on: several members of the current cast of Saturday Night Live were his students.

Either 40 years in storage kept this movie from deteriorating, or Wild Eye and MVD did a hell of a job restoring it, because, whatever its artistic (de)merits, Gold looks great. The DVD includes two commentary tracks, one from Bob Levis and Garry Goodrow and the other from Close students and Upright Citizens Brigade founders Matt Walsh and Ian Roberts. There’s also a clip from a Goodrow roast and a hour-long interview with Levis from New York public access TV.

- Michael Toland

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