TCM Discoveries Blogathon – Slither (1973)
(Thanks to Nitrate Diva for the tremendous blogathon idea and apologies for forgetting to post my bl-g on time!)
For many moviegoers the discovery of a new favorite movie makes for an immediate, impromptu holiday-type celebration. How often can one admit a new viewing into the hallowed halls of all-time favorites – those 100 or so movies that give us the most pleasure in this crazy, mixed-up world. I’ve even documented that list on Letterboxd.com for sharing and comparing. (Go on… share yours, too!) The pursuit of that next underseen or underrated gem consumes us and drives us to watch more and odder movies. We read Underrated lists on rupertpupkinspeaks.com and share buzz on Twitter, forever adding to our rapidly growing and now unwieldy watchlists. We haphazardly scan the TCM listings for an oddity from a favorite star or a plot summary that hints at greater or perhaps at least more unusual things. DVRs clogged up with dozens of hopeful causes to celebrate if we can only watch them before they get deleted by the pending episodes of Blacklist that we also probably won’t watch, but DVR anyway because James Spader.
For decades now, Turner Classic Movies has been a tireless source of old standards (someone at TCM sure loves Now, Voyager) alongside a spare selection of late night oddities, flicks that are rarely or not at all available on home video. I don’t know what I’d do without the fine individuals in my Twitter timeline that make a point to mention when something fantastic pops up on the Turner Classic Movie schedule. So it happened when Slither aired earlier this year. I wish I could thank those responsible parties that tweeted notices about the James Caan/Peter Boyle “road-trip” movie. Sadly, however, their good deeds have been lost to the Twitter tide. I’d not once heard about the film (or director Howard Zieff at the time). I’d later learn that Zieff directed childhood favorites Private Benjamin (1980) and The Dream Team (1989) starring Michael Keaton, not to mention My Girl and My Girl 2. But I’ve no inclination to dwell on Howard Zieff’s forays into melodrama in this particular conversation. (Though how great is Anna Chlumsky on Veep?)
Slither belongs to that group of films that “could only have been made in the 1970s.” And the more of these supposed “lesser” films I watch, the more I learn that the decade begat a cynical, anomalous genre of comedy unlike anything before or since. Aimless, pedantic and boasting the forward progress of a cat chasing its tail, Slither left an indelible impression not just because it’s funny as hell, but because it completely undermines the fundamentals of traditional narrative.
A bumbling thief Dick Kanipsia (Caan) gets out of prison on parole. Though he aims to “go straight,” he goes to visit his friend Harry, a friend he knows is likely up to no good. While there, some villainous goons shoot up Harry’s house. With Harry’s dying words, he tells Dick to go find Barry Fenaka. Fenaka can tell him where to find a whole mess of cash. Dick flees and hitches a ride with free spirit/nut jub/borderline sociopath Kitty (the always welcome Sally Kellerman). As Kitty’s natural tendencies toward batshit crazy start to leak out, Caan ducks out the back door (literally) and catches a passing bus. Only when Dick finds Feneka (part-time bandleader at the VFW) does the story gain a measure of clarity. Many years ago Harry and Feneka embezzled money and then paid a guy to stash it for them until the heat disappeared. By this point in the story, it’s clear that no one involved is a criminal mastermind… or really very bright at all. Dick, Barry and Barry’s wife hop in an RV and set off in pursuit of the man named Holdebrook, the man with the key to their cash and happily ever after. Eventually Kitty catches up to Dick (she’s been tracking him, of course) and a creepy black van (maybe vans?) stalks the brain trust as they continue their march toward certain fortune.
It’s also an uneven machine that runs in three to four gears at once. It opens with violence, devolves into a lazy, comic chase and concludes on a note of existential serenity. At the time of the film’s release, Zieff was best known as the creator of Alka Seltzer (“Mamma mia! That’s a spicy meatball!”), Polaroid and Volkswagen commercials. His strength at self-contained 30-second spots carries over into this, his feature film debut. (In 1969 he sold his advertising company to Columbia Pictures in order to pursue filmmaking.) Slither‘s staccato orchestration feels like episodic quandaries all heading toward a predetermined fate. There’s an unpredictable rise and fall that keeps the viewer invested. Meanwhile Slither never wastes time explaining the gaps between. Zieff would rather move along down the road, searching for the next natural pratfall or comic caper. As a result we’re gifted a Peter Boyle MC’d event at veteran’s hall, a Bingo night gone wrong, a state-of-the-art camper demonstration, a shoot-out that obliterates a vegetable stand, and a cop giving Sally Kellerman a lecture about driving barefoot.
If you’ve seen enough of these types of films from the 1970’s, you’ll know that no one walks away from this movie happy. Slither never bothers to wrap the narrative up in a tidy little bow. In fact, Slither seems to revel in keeping the audience at a curiously callous distance. All of the characters are gregarious but unsavory in the most civil fashion. It ends as a meditation on how people can’t escape their nature. James Caan, the perpetual screw up, despite his best intentions, will only succeed at screwing up again and again. (True to form, I, perpetually five minutes late to every appointment, have posted this bl-gathon entry three days tardy. I have legitimate excuses, honestly. They’re 3 years old and 6 years old and they’re causing my brain to atrophy, one dogged day at a time.)
What’s easy to overlook is the actual craft of the film. Photographed by the late, great László Kovács (Ghostbusters, Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces), Slither, in any other decade, would have been a tossaway comedy, if it’d even been made at all. A goofy, road chase movie photographed by one of the great cinematographers of the 60’s and 70’s? That’s weird. Can you imagine Roger Deakins or Janusz Kaminski shooting Due Date?
After finding myself deliriously entertained by Slither, I’ve sought out other bleak comedies from the 1970’s. The obscure Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins starring Alan Arkin (and Sally Kellerman again) as an alcoholic driving instructor, for example, which also aired on TCM. If not for Turner Classic Movies, I wouldn’t have found either of these rare cinematic treats that have become part of the network’s extended definition of classic films. While I know this has been a taboo topic – the expanding “classic” umbrella of TCM – I welcome the opportunity to view worthwhile films from any generation.
In my opinion choosing the unreleased Nothing Last Forever (1984) to air as part of the TCM Underground schedule was one of the most important programming choices of the year. Just as “Oldies FM” progresses to include the likes of David Bowie and Queen, the definition of classic film must also expand. Without that extra decade of classic status bestowed upon the 70’s and 80’s, I wouldn’t have likely seen Slither nor would TCM have renewed the buzz around a 30-year-old film left to perish a death of anonymity. Where’s the justice in this world when a truly interesting film featuring Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Zach Galligan, Eddie Fisher and Imogene Coca remains anonymous and unwatched? Who else is out there on that wall to make sure that doesn’t happen? We as enraged, hyperbolic viewers can only do so much. Here’s to hoping that TMC continues to air quirky, fascinating and oddball films like Slither and Nothing Lasts Forever even if they don’t fall under proper “classic” status. While I do enjoy a good Bette Davis flick (…speaking of which I wonder when Now, Voyager will run again… oh good… it airs on September 30th at 10pm ET. I was worried.) like anyone else, I also love the opportunity to discover something new, something different, something that might just become a new classic if we give it a chance.