John Barth surely ranks among the least screen-adaptable modern (or, perhaps, postmodern) American novelists. His stories are about themselves; the words, their own subject. It’s not surprising that only one of his books has made it to the big screen. In fact, what’s surprising is that any of them did. On the other hand, Michael Winterbottom managed to turn the least-adaptable novel of all time, Laurence Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy,” into the terrific 2005 “Cock and Bull Story,” so I suppose nothing’s impossible.
Which brings me to “End of the Road” — never available on American video of any sort, but finally coming out on DVD this week.
Before his first full-on masterpiece, the 800-page “The Sot-weed Factor” (published in 1960, when Barth was only 30), the author wrote two other novels that were more accessible, more conventional, and, most of all, shorter than what was to follow. “The End of the Road” — some editions drop the “The” — is the story of Jacob Horner, who, fresh out of grad school, has an identity crisis — a really major-league identity crisis. He goes to a train station and — lacking the motivation for any particular action — just stands there unmoving for hour after hour. He is finally approached by a looney doctor, who — specializing in exactly such afflictions — hauls him off to his asylum, the Remobilization Farm. After some “treatment,” Horner is functional enough to take a teaching job, which sets the scene for some grim emotional melodrama.
Aram Avakian — a highly respected editor who occasionally directed — collaborated on the screenplay with his longtime friend Terry Southern, who was at the time a very hot screenwriter (“Dr. Strangelove,” “The Cincinnati Kid,” “Candy,” “The Loved One”). The cast included Stacy Keach, James Earl Jones, Harris Yulin, M. Emmet Walsh and Graham Jarvis — none of whom had been in more than one or two prior films. Just as significantly, it was the first cinematographer credit for Gordon Willis (“Manhattan,” “The Godfather”).
Avakian and his team managed to make the film even weirder and more abstract than the book, with some psychedelic effects, Godardian jump-cutting, and performances no less mannered than in “Last Year at Marienbad.” It somehow rated a nine-page spread in Life magazine, but also got an X rating from the MPAA, presumably for a horrifying abortion scene and a shot or two of a man forcing his carnal attentions on a chicken.
The new DVD is from a pristine print and the main extra is a 33-minute documentary from Steven Soderbergh, whose enthusiasm is almost certainly what induced Warner Home Video to prepare this edition. Soderbergh interviews nearly all the key surviving cast and crew members. They supply interesting recollections about the extremely unconventional shoot, though the pace sometimes slows a bit, since most of them are getting on in years.
“End of the Road” (Warner Home Video, DVD, $19.97)
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).