Monday, July 13, 2015


At his graduate school graduation, Jacob Horner (Stacy Keach) gets his degree, then walks like a zombie through the celebrating throngs, goes to a train station, and stands on the platform in a catatonic state as train after train goes by. A big burly psychiatrist (James Earl Jones) who goes by the name Doctor D notices him and takes him to an asylum for some shock treatment, not with electricity but with startling multi-media (lights, film clips, sounds) one-on-one therapy. Soon he releases Horner who gets a job teaching grammar at a local university. He still goes catatonic at times—at one point, not even able to finish a casual phone conversation—but he slowly begins to fit in by "acting" the role of a "normal" college professor. One faculty couple, Joe and Rennie (Harris Yulin and Dorothy Tristan) takes him under their wing, but Joe turns out to be almost as damaged as Jacob, mistreating his wife and strutting around when he thinks he's alone playing with guns and acting like Hitler. Soon Jacob and Rennie are having an affair, Joe finds out, and when she becomes pregnant, only two options present themselves: Rennie's suicide or an abortion.

This film, based on a John Barth novel, is very much a piece of its time. The story it tells is (mostly) a recognizably human tale but it's told in an artificial, surreal way which keeps our emotional response a bit distant, and which ultimately makes it difficult to sympathize with anyone. Stacy Keach gives a very good performance, doing the best he can with a character we never really get to know—because he's really more a stand-in for the Alienated American of the 1960s. The frequent newsreel-footage sequences which interrupt the film, and which also appear during the Doctor's therapy sessions, make it clear that one of the movie’s theses is that insanity is a proper response to the times (see also KING OF HEARTS, ZABRISKIE POINT, M*A*S*H). But even though Keach is often in an affectless state, he has enough energy and charisma to keep us interested in his character's fate—which is left most unsatisfactorily up in the air at the end. Yulin is good as an unlikable character, and Tristan gives the most emotionally rounded, realistic performance in the movie. Jones (pictured with Keach at right) is problematic; he bravely goes balls-out as the doctor who may be crazier than his patients, but he suffers from Symbolism Syndrome worse than even Keach. Grayson Hall has a one-scene role as a teacher who briefly becomes Keach's lover, and M. Emmett Walsh and James Coco are visible as asylum patients. An interesting movie, worth seeing for Keach and Tristan. [DVD]

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