End of the Road Man: An Interview with Aram Avakian (Web Exclusive)
by Nile Southern
Aram Avakian (photo by Jack Wright III)
Aram Avakian Select Filmography:
11 Harrowhouse (1974)
Cops and Robbers (1973)
End of the Road (1970)
Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1959)
Honeysuckle Rose (1980)
The Next Man (1976)
You’re A Big Boy Now (1966), Francis Ford Coppola, dir.
Mickey One (1965), Arthur Penn, dir.
Lillith (1964), Robert Rossen, dir.
The Miracle Worker (1962), Arthur Penn, dir.
In 1981 Aram Avakian was interviewed in New York City by writer–filmmaker Nile Southern about End of the Road, Avakian’s signature directorial feature. The film presented a stellar New York cast (in their first starring roles), including James Earl Jones, Stacy Keach, Harris Yulin, and Avakian’s wife, Dorothy Tristan—and was also a breakthrough debut for cinematographer Gordon Willis. Nile had attempted to revive the film at that time, but it wasn’t until thirty years later, when Steven Soderbergh took an interest in Nile’s father (End of the Road coproducer and cowriter Terry Southern), that the film became a serious contender for revival. As a result, End of the Road is now in release on DVD for the first time from Warner Home Video, with a special bonus documentary directed by Soderbergh on the making of the once highly controversial film.
Scenes from End of the Road
Cineaste:How did the turbulence of the Sixties influence the production of End of the Road?
Aram Avakian: Well, this film was shot in 1968—right at the peak of what’s remembered as the social protest at that time. The original novel actually took place during the 1950s, and at some point along the line, I decided to put it in the present. A specific incident triggered all that: I woke up in sort of this black chasm with the phone ringing, I picked it up and heard Terry’s voice on the other end saying, “Turn on the TV, turn on the TV–Kennedy's been shot!” And in my half-sleep, that meant Jack Kennedy—[JFK]. I had this kind of displacement. I turned the TV on and sure enough, it was that classic shot of Bobby Kennedy, lying on the floor, with blood at his head. And that was the first moment in the context of making the film, where the first decisions were made, like who's going to play that part. And starting with Bobby Kennedy getting shot—[Martin] Luther King had already been shot.
So in that whole climate—the film starts really at that point. You have Jacob Horner, the protagonist of the film, as a person who falls into kind of a state of catatonia, and I started to think about that, and what poetically, at least, can project that. And it seemed to me that a person growing up in incredible and unexplainable violence could become immobilized.
Stacy Keach as the catatonic Jacob Horner meeting James Earl Jones as Dr. D at the train station
Cineaste: Besides the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, what other events were you responding to in the making of End of the Road?
Aram Avakian: The climax of the Chicago Democratic National Convention. The Yippies putting the play in the streets, and the TV cameras were on. [Mayor] Daly making a fool of himself in the gallery of the Convention on TV. It seemed to me that Abbie Hoffman was a great film director, playing out the great drama of our times. I responded also to the marches down South, and in Washington, but I never participated. It was obvious to me that these [social movements] were admirable and had to happen—but at the same time, I always felt that's the way the world was, on a daily basis, vis-à-vis myself and the world, so, I've never been an organized social mover of any kind.
It also seemed that what was happening with movies at that time was the residue of an audience that had been created by the European filmmakers, starting with Rossellini after WWII, up through the New Wave and the Italian filmmakers like Fellini, that the movie audiences were wide open to a full experience in a movie theater. That's one of the reasons I made the film–I made it to be a wide-open experience. I made it for an audience; I didn't make it for self-expression. I made it in the spirit and thought that I was putting something on the screen to which people would react and respond—each in their own way, and therefore, I looked for what would reach them deeply. I mean pain. There's a very heavy current through the film, and I did want the audience to feel that pain and identify with it and I did feel that that was part of what was going on at that time, which was less idyllic than demonstrating for social progress.
I also felt that people were doing awful things to each other at that time, and they are still—maybe even more in their personal relationships—and that's basically what this film is about.
Dorothy Tristan as Rennie
Cineaste: Jacob Horner does what he wants—despite his Doctor’s orders—and initiates a sexual relationship with Rennie, the married female character. It ends so tragically it seems to be a very negative comment on human relationships.
Aram Avakian: Well, that was a special circumstance. He was a young man who is catatonic, found by a doctor who’s going to straighten him out and put him on the road to functioning. That is all the doctor wanted to do in the first place, was get him to function. Part of the doctor's philosophy is to give him a role, not unlike creating a Frankenstein monster, recreating this person and superimposing this role on him. And that’s what leads Jacob Horner into playing out a role that is not him, which leads to a tragic circumstance. It was a comment on that kind of a circumstance in psychoanalysis, more than anything else. I think a lot of doctors do do that—they create people who go out and do things they wouldn’t have done otherwise.
Cineaste: That “tragic circumstance” got the film an X rating, didn’t it?
Aram Avakian: Well, X rating at that time was a different matter than it is today. X rating now is a pornographic movie, X rating at that time was usually based on frontal nudity. I did have frontal nudity in it, very brief, but it’s male frontal nudity. I deliberately only showed unclothed men, and I thought that was sort of a joke, you know, a funny thing to do. And the abortion scene, those are the two reasons it got an X rating.
A lot of people thought it was banned for political reasons. It wasn’t shown in Chicago. We couldn’t get a theater in Chicago. So it wasn’t shown in a lot of places. The only two major cities it was shown in were New York and Los Angeles. It was shown in the outskirts of Chicago, and Boston. The X rating, or that kind of social response to it, is something that wouldn’t happen today, but it happened then.
Cineaste: I always thought that JFK’s assassination was really the beginning of the disillusionment in the Sixties, but Bobby Kennedy’s shooting must have devastated the American psyche.
Aram Avakian: Well, the whole cliché pop image of it was Camelot—that you could still play a role and be president—be good-looking and have a pretty wife. Everybody could be optimistic about just anything; natural resources were cheap, rent was cheap, anybody could go to school and become anything you wanted. It was still an open-ended society. I think it’s become much less open than it’s ever been—despite the fact that young people assert themselves as they’ve never asserted themselves before. It was such an out of left field event—political assassination—if that’s indeed what it was, we’re still not sure to this day. It was the kind of event that happened someplace else—it didn’t happen here. And by the time Bobby got it, it kind of shut off a free and easy open society. You could get killed for preaching that sort of thing. So, there is a feeling of end of the road there. These were not haphazard killings in the sense that both Kennedys got it in the head. I mean their brains were blown out. Those are the acts of men who weren’t kidding around. King got it in the heart; Reagan got it in the armpit.
Cineaste: How did distributors respond to the film?
Aram Avakian: There was a lot of resentment that we just went out and made the movie: we didn't have a distributor, and yet it was on a pretty high level of production. Terry Southern was the only person who had worked in that capacity on a film before. I’d directed before, but never on that level. We all took pride in that. Then we put it up for bids and it wasn’t a horror movie, which they [would] gladly grab, or a bike movie, which in a sense is what Easy Rider was. That was recognizable. These two guys riding bikes, smoking dope, violence at the end, and a lot of popular records on the soundtrack. Thatwas a much more acceptable film than End of the Road was. I think on all those levels there was a lot of hostility to End of the Road, but at the same time they wanted each and every one of us, but on their terms.
Cineaste: What kind of reaction did End of the Road get from the critics?
Aram Avakian: All kinds of reactions. Richard Adler said that it was one of the best American films in the last ten years. It was on Joe Gelmis’s Ten Best list, it was on the ten best list of the Association of Presbyterian Ministers—a very moral group. There was a response from Pauline Kael that it was an immoral film and shouldn’t be shown. She didn't say it was “immoral,” but she thought it was terrible and disgusting and the sort of thing that shouldn't happen on the screens.
Cineaste: Did you ever talk to her about that?
Aram Avakian: Joe Gelmis, who was a critic at Newsday, liked the film a lot and invited me to the New York Film Critics’ awards and I met Pauline Kael and Judith Crist there. They hadn't seen the film yet, but there had been an eight-page article in Life magazine on the film, and so I was introduced to Pauline Kael. She wasn’t very friendly, and made a kind of snotty remark. She said, “Do you think the Life article came out too soon for the release of the film?” because the film hadn’t been released yet. I knew what she was talking about—there was already a build-up of resentment over the fact that there was an article in Life magazine. John Springer, who’s a famous show business press agent, came over to me during the course of the party and said, “I’ve been talking to Judith Crist, and she’s starting to rant and rave about that article in Life magazine,” and I said, “What did she say?” “She said she was angry, raising her voice and saying, ‘Who the hell does Life magazine think they are to tell America what movie to go see? That's our job!’” And so John Springer said to her, “I hope that won’t influence you when you see the film, because it’s a terrific film, and I’m sure you’ll like it, Judith.” And she said, “Everything influences me when I see a film.” So, there was this already built-up hostility in these two women. Pauline Kael killed us. It was almost like a personal assault in the New Yorker.
When I was introduced to Judith Crist, she knew who I was, and knew what I had done. She had quite a bit to drink, which she sometimes does, and she turned to me and said, “Have you seen Patton?” And I said, “No, I haven’t.” And she said, “You should go see it. All the young people of America should go see it, because it has the greatest performance ever put on the screen, by George Scott. And every young person in America should go see it so they realize in times of war we need a man like that.” She's looking at me dead in the eyes, so I’m saying, ‘Okay, we’re dead in New York magazine. She's gonna kill us!’
The film creates a lot of hostility, not just for those kind of political reasons within the narrow world of movie critics and moviemakers; it's meant to rouse emotions in the viewer that the viewer can’t define. I mean it’s designed to do that. That’s what I was out to do in the film, and apparently it did, but some of it bounced back at us, and at me. There was some very bad press, and there was some equally extraordinary press. People thought it was a great film, and a courageous film.
Cineaste: That’s pretty subversive for a director to make a film that arouses emotions you don’t understand, as opposed to satisfying cliché emotions. Doesn’t the film industry resist that kind of approach?
Avakian: Well it never stopped Luis Buñuel, but they never put Luis Buñuel down. It's because we [the crew and cast) are right next door. In fact, as much as anybody else, I am from Hollywood. I worked there. At the time, I was a very strongly established part of American moviemaking. Too close to home.
Nile Southern's book The Candymen won “Book of the Year” for creative nonfiction in Colorado. He is currently writing and directing a documentary film about his father, Terry Southern.