Apr 16, 2012

Slipstream (1973)

Director: David Acomba
Writer: Willam Fruet
Producer: James Margellos
Cinematography: Marc Champion
Music: Brian Ahern
Cinepix; 93 min; color

Luke Askew (Mike Mallard), Patti Oatman (Kathy), Eli Rill (Alec Braverman), Scott Hylands (Terry)

"The prairie knows nothing but the wind; it's raptured by its breeze and ridden by its storm"

Reclusive DJ Mike Mallard hosts a radio show whose on-air soundscapes of unusual music, sprinkled with poetic narration, has developed a mystique among his listeners, a young counterculture audience that is entranced enough by this mystery to seek him out in person.  The enigmatic aura is furthered with Mallard's broadcast emanating from a secluded farmhouse. This successful gimmick was dreamed up by his producer Alec Braverman to develop a following of listeners, yet the brooding disc jockey has tired of the gimmicks and continues to explore artistic purity on the airwaves, while receiving pressure from his boss to play more conventional, commercial music.

After penning the script for the Canadian classic, Goin' Down the Road, William Fruet wrote for three more pictures in the early 1970s, including Wedding in White (1972), which was his directorial debut. Of these, the least-seen, and for that matter, the least acclaimed, is Slipstream. Despite its fortune to have won Canadian Film Awards for Best Film, Best Direction and Best Sound (as mightily touted in the poster above), few kind words have been lent to this project. Robert Fulford, under his Marshall Delaney alias, cited its pretentiousness and heavy-handedness as targets for his negative review in Saturday Night magazine. Granted, Slipstream is full of that, but it is far from worthless.

Admittedly, my perspective of the film is a bit biased, as I regress towards my days of being on college radio. Few movies have been made about radio personalities- fewer still understand the erotic allure of being on-air, having one's voice literally and figuratively immersed into untold numbers of strangers' lives in the darkness. Slipstream nails that feeling, in its too-few scenes where Mallard is on the air. Amidst the buzzing of the tubes and electronic music, he surrenders his aura to the airwaves- his body and arms at once acting as conductor and willing prisoner of the sounds.

One can surmise from the synopsis that Slipstream is a classic struggle between artistic integrity (Mike Mallard- the good) and commercial interests (Alec Braverman- the bad), yet perhaps intentionally, Fruet's script skews this message. In truth, Braverman emerges as the more sensible human being, as his requests really aren't unreasonable. (When will artists learn that any creative pursuit still needs a business model?) Mallard by turn is a selfish lout who combats with everyone in his world- even his new girlfriend Kathy, one of the many interested souls who find their way to Mallard's door. Mallard in a sense has become a prisoner of his own image. Although he deplores the manufactured image of a recluse, he has however built psychological walls around himself.

On the surface, this may be about one man's search for artistic integrity while forsaking everything else in the process; yet perhaps the central theme is Mallard's rugged individualism: yearning for a frontier-age freedom in the modern age. This notion is transmitted most tellingly in the bizarre opening with Mike on horseback trying to lasso a plane! This scene recalls the classic case of a heavily symbolic script, whose literal metaphors may read well, but would look foolish in a visual medium. There is a difficult line that one straddles to present a realistic environment on film with characters that however act more figuratively than normal human behaviour dictates; few movies succeed in this balancing act. Simply, director David Acomba lacks the visual sense to make these moments any more than the thudding pretentious symbols that they appear.

This "rugged individualism" and the heavy-handed presentation thereof, culminate in the film's centrepiece, when Mallard extends his studio microphones outside to include the sounds of the prevailing prairie thunderstorm into the radio broadcast of "Layla", by Derek and the Dominoes, which is played in its entirety (I'd the use the whole song too, if I had to pay rights for it). His previous on-air poetic asides to prairie winds between songs have become literal- as if to say that the juggernaut of commercialism will never win over the forces of nature, land and freedom... the pre-destined order of the universe.

Throughout this narrative, a young journalist attempts to contact Mallard for an interview, resulting in a rather shaggy-dog climax in which he meets the legendary disk jockey at a crucial turning point in his life. It is reminiscent of another Canadian project, the rock-and-roll road movie Candy Mountain, in which a man's long-desired meeting with a legendary musician becomes anti-climactic. Slipstream also brings to mind Pump Up The Volume (directed by a Canadian, coincidentally enough), about a pirate DJ who develops a cult following within his small broadcast bandwidth, yet his appeal is for reasons different for his being.

Slipstream predates the Canadian Tax Shelter movement by a couple of years, although it shares the trend of casting a familiar face (although not a high-priced star) of American cinema for the starring role. Luke Askew is well cast in a rare lead- his imposing frame and flat face (which served him in playing villainous supporting roles) suits the bullish Mallard. (Plus, can a movie get any more Canadian in that a story about a deejay is set in the prairies?) Mike Mallard is a traditional anti-hero, who is not entirely charismatic nor sympathetic, but can still elicit empathy from the viewer who shares his beliefs. Kathy represents the only light to his dark world.  Although she is one of many wayward souls who traced his transmissions to the farm, she one of the few who manages to see the beauty beneath his rough exterior, and become a constant figure in his life. Their relationship is rocky to say the least, yet, like the other supporting characters, even she has a level of tolerance.

The film is bookended with the title track of Van Morrison's album Astral Weeks, whose lyrics "If I ventured in the slipstream / Between the viaducts of your dreams" may have inspired the movie's title. Were this film made after 1978, perhaps it would have been more appropriate to use the title track of Van the Man's album Wavelength, which was a valentine to radio, complete with concrete poetry bits of static. However, Slipstream is less about a voice on the radio, and more about one man's hard-won attempts to preserve his independence. The strings and searching vocals of "Astral Weeks" are full of isolation and unrequited desire, thus complimenting Mallard's physical and psychological isolation.

Like many Canadian films, Slipstream had a short second life on VHS, and would be sporadically shown at either 2 PM or 2 AM on television stations that dutifully honoured the Canadian Content law. It has never been issued on DVD, and since most stations today would rather air reruns of "Cash Cab" than a movie to fill the CanCon requirement, it has largely been out of the public eye for a few years. Slipstream has developed an enticingly mysterious aura, at least for an audience of one (yours truly) to seek out, just like the travellers who track down this film's mysterious protagonist. However, upon finally seeing the movie thanks to a copy from a dear friend, one's quest summarily ends in disappointment, much like that of the characters who seek out Mike Mallard. Despite its lofty symbolic leanings, this film does has a way of staying with you, long after the difficult viewing experience. The rewards from sitting through this movie are hard-won, much like the obstacles the onscreen cast must endure with Mike Mallard. Who said that unique art was easy?

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