Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for Bernard Shakey Film Retrospective: Neil Young on Film opening across Canada this summer, with an exclusive engagement at The Royal, Toronto, July 23-26.
This is one weird movie. It’s not weird in a David Lynch sort of way that presents a collection of oddballs or a strange puzzle you have to work out, it’s the kind of weird that I’m sure made sense to co-writer/co-directors Neil Young (billed as Bernard Shakey) and Dean Stockwell (yes, the Dean Stockwell that is best known today for his role on Quantum Leap) but to no one else. I think it was meant as an anti-nuke parable but the way it goes about its point renders it obfuscated to the point of nonexistence.
I suppose the level of badness of Human Highway could trick some people into thinking it’s great.
The incredibly loose story has Dean Stockwell’s Otto Quartz running an inherited gas station/lunch counter that is failing due to the poor business practices of his late father. Lionel (Neil Young), the mechanic, brings his friend Fred (Russ Tamblyn) along to get him a job. Dennis Hopper shows up as Cracker the cook and the cast fills out from there with the rest of the wait staff.
There are also workers at the nearby nuclear power plant that is always leaking. They are played by the band Devo, who sing a variant of Woody Guthrie’s ‘Takes a Worried Man’ throughout the picture. These workers are glowing red due to the radiation. They don’t have much to do but load toxic waste and then drive, eventually getting to the diner where Booji Boy (Mark Mothersbaugh who after Devo broke up became a successful film composer, most notably working with Wes Anderson on many of his films) makes odd, rambling speeches through a rubber baby mask.
Not much really happens here, so when I say loose story, I mean it’s so loose it’s not even really there. Young and Stockwell co-wrote the screenplay with Tamblyn, Jeanne Field and James Beshears (who also edited). Many of the actors mug their way through their lines, and that is not excluding the two very professional and often actors Stockewell and Hopper. In some ways, they are the biggest perpetrators of over-embellishment because they know better (well, maybe Hopper didn’t…by 1982 understated was something that, for him, had gone out with the ‘50s like pomade and poodle skirts) while the other non-professional actors, especially Young, would just be doing their best with what they have. Hopper’s craziness didn’t surprise me, but Stockwell’s apathy did. Considering that he was a writer and director on the picture, he had a lot more invested in the picture than Hopper did (who likely didn’t remember even doing it) which makes his performance almost as perplexing as the film itself.
The direction by Stockwell and Young lacks, well…direction. The camera is placed haphazardly at best and the frame is always cluttered with people or unnecessary props.
The direction by Stockwell and Young lacks, well…direction. The camera is placed haphazardly at best and the frame is always cluttered with people or unnecessary props. It has the feeling of being tremendously rushed and unplanned with new things constantly being thrown in without regard for the overall film. The actors seem to have been left on their own to work out characterizations of their paper-thin characters with no notes from the directors or collaboration between them. Moreover, Young and Stockwell routinely have their actors talking over one another, which can work under certain circumstances in talented hands (like Howard Hawks, Cary Grand and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday) but here they just drown each other out and create annoyance over realism. The camera is mostly static, except when they do try to get flashy with a crane shot at the end, but that just looks like they scrounged enough money for a crane one day and decided to use it.
There are a few highlights to the film, and those come in the form of Devo and Young performing. During a hallucination by Lionel, he dreams he’s finally made it as a singer/songwriter and we get to see him play some songs (and oddly get bathed in milk only to have it sucked off with straws by the woman that doused him…it gets weird). The film may have been better if some performances had been peppered in throughout to emphasize Lionel’s desire to break free and be a singer (though maybe not, considering that’s how Bob Dylan structured his train wreck of a feature Renaldo and Clara, with brilliant Rolling Thunder era performances stuck in between non-sequitur fiction scenes that he seems to think tells a story over about 5 hours) and add a little depth to his otherwise bland portrayal of a kind of slow, socially awkward mechanic.
The true problems lay within the screenplay. The four writers don’t seem to have any sense of how to craft a story or characters, which again is surprising considering Stockwell was involved. There is an oblique theme of nuclear destruction and how it effects lives, but for the most part it’s about people you don’t care about in a diner that doesn’t matter in a pseudo-future that looks like the past. There are no characters to speak of and each scene just kind of runs into the next with very little set-up or payoff. It feels more like a random collection that has somewhat of a through line, though that line is never tightened nor does it ever actually say what it thinks it is saying.
I suppose the level of badness of Human Highway could trick some people into thinking it’s great. Sometimes a film can be intentionally bad and garner a following or it’s possible that a film is misjudged at the outset and have deep, meaningful undertones that just weren’t noticed originally. Don’t let the film fool you: it is as bad as it seems and has ultimately nothing to say, at least nothing original and doesn’t arrive at its climax in any way that makes sense. There are still some who would say that the corniness is intentional and this is in some way a precursor to Mike Judge’s Idiotocracy and I can see some shades of this film in Judge’s but really, truly and honestly I tell you: there is nothing here.
Human Highway isn’t just bad because the acting is terrible or because the direction is bad or because the script is awful it’s bad because of all those things and because it has absolutely no sense of itself. There is no purpose to this being done and is ultimately forgotten almost immediately after viewing. Except Devo singing ‘Takes a Worried Man’. That will stick with you long after the film has faded, not because it’s necessarily good (it’s okay) but because it’s repeated so much it becomes a Mobius strip in your head. Do yourself a favor and skip this one and listen to the soundtrack instead, at least then you have Young doing what he does best: singing.
Human Highway isn’t just bad because the acting is terrible or because the direction is bad or because the script is awful it’s bad because of all those things and because it has absolutely no sense of itself.