The era of personal American filmmaking that immediately followed the collapse of the traditional studio system — a period generally demarcated by Easy Rider at the beginning and Jaws or Star Wars at the end — has been justly celebrated by film buffs who see the epoch of Peter Bogdanovich, William Friedkin, Francis Coppola and Bob Rafelson’s greatest work as a kind of golden age. Yet the almost fetishistic appreciation of this golden age has in many ways become calcifying, with certain key films (the aforementioned Easy Rider, The Last Picture Show, Chinatown, Nashville, etc.) now established as the pictures that get discussed and written about ad nauseum, whereas many other films equally worthy of study and appreciation fall through the cracks.
Luckily, one such film, Aram Avakian’s provocative masterpiece End of the Road, is now available for rediscovery via DVD. It is a virtually unclassifiable distillation of 1960s rage, paranoia and fear in the form of an impressionistic character study. Based on a novel by John Barth (adapted for the screen by Avakian, Terry Southern and Dennis McGuire), End of the Road follows Jacob Horner (Stacy Keach), a recent college graduate left catatonic by the weight of society’s madness in an era of assassinations, protests and war. He is seemingly cured by an unconventional therapist (James Earl Jones) and gets a teaching job at which he befriends a colleague (Harris Yulin) before embarking on an affair with the colleague’s wife (Dorothy Tristan). The fallout from this affair leads Horner to realize just how fragile his own psyche and values are, and Avakian expresses this fragility through a highly fractured narrative style that blurs reality and fantasy (most of it horrific) and argues that Horner’s insanity is emblematic of his times.
One of End of the Road’s greatest pleasures is the opportunity it affords to see the debut film of a master — Gordon Willis, ASC. Willis had been making a lucrative living shooting commercials when Avakian asked him to photograph End of the Road, an assignment the cinematographer initially resisted. What the job lacked in comfort it more than made up for in creative latitude, however, as Avakian’s experimental approach gave Willis the freedom to innovate. Watching the film now, it is remarkable how fully formed Willis’s talent already was and how many of his signature characteristics were already evident. With its heavy reliance on top lighting and fearlessness about allowing large sections of the frame to go completely dark, the movie looks forward to the classics Willis would photograph just a couple of years later — Klute and The Godfather. (Indeed, it was End of the Road that led to Willis’s legendary collaboration with Francis Coppola, who was a fan and friend of Avakian’s and asked him for personnel recommendations.)
Willis was not the only future icon behind the camera on End of the Road; Raging Bull director of photography Michael Chapman, ASC, was also on the team as camera operator, beginning a collaboration that would continue on Loving, Klute and The Godfather. Chapman and Willis are both interviewed in director Steven Soderbergh’s “An Amazing Time: A Conversation About The End of the Road,” a superb half-hour documentary included on the DVD that also includes reminiscences by Keach, Yulin, Jones and virtually every key surviving member of the cast and crew. Soderbergh, whose passion for End of the Road is largely responsible for rescuing the picture from obscurity, deserves to be more widely appreciated as a film historian and scholar — he has been creating and participating in remarkable DVD supplements for years on films ranging from Point Blank and Billy Budd to three of Mike Nichols’ most important early works, and his documentary here is a true gift.
The same can be said for the transfer, which is simply flawless. Starting with pristine source material, the good people at Warner Home Video have put great care into preserving the glory of Willis’ stark but beautiful images. The sense of detail is astonishing, particularly in the many scenes in which Willis lets the frame fall into blackness but provides slight slivers of illumination in key areas, and the grain structure is remarkably film-like. In fact, one would be hard pressed to think of a DVD release that looks this close to a 35mm print. The flesh tones in the film’s many examples of delicate portraiture look terrific, and the excellent mono sound mix is the image’s equal in terms of detail and clarity. This is an outstanding presentation of an outstanding film that no cinematography enthusiast should pass up.