Pump up the paisley
Update: Going Otto my head
As noted above, in his Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson wrote, “Of all the Hollywood veterans, none lost his way as completely as Preminger.” After a fruitful tenure of glossy noir and “women’s pictures” at Fox (including Laura, Fallen Angel, Forever Amber and Where the Sidewalk Ends), high-minded concepts and lowbrow ‘realism’ crept in once he flourished as his own producer: sexuality (The Moon is Blue, Bonjour Tristesse), drug addiction (The Man With the Golden Arm), black American culture (Carmen Jones, Porgy and Bess), law, religion and politics (Anatomy of a Murder, The Cardinal, Saint Joan, Advise and Consent). In many cases these appear less concerned with drama than in simply jarring the viewer, and employed A-list actors to disguise the fact that a lot it was tawdry exploitation at heart.
The detour Thomson refers to became evident in 1965 with Bunny Lake is Missing, a middling thriller which jettisons substance for hollow posturing. After Hurry Sundown and Skidoo, the 1970s were years of sharp decline: Such Good Friends, Rosebud and The Human Factor, proof positive that the studio system and all its rigid guidelines had evaporated.
Filmed at the height of psychedelia by a “suspected communist” whose interracial dalliances unhinged conservative moralists, Skidoo’s wafer-thin plot follows a hit man smuggled into prison to kill a stoolpigeon convict. But after accidentally tripping on LSD, he has an epiphany and scrubs the mission. That’s essentially the whole nut, but Preminger and screenwriter Doran William Cannon (Brewster McCloud) pad it with gimmicky characters, outrageous situations and one of the most bizarre casts ever assembled, headlined by Jackie Gleason, Groucho Marx, Frankie Avalon, Carol Channing (who, uh, sings), and the forgotten mod model Luna.
The centerpiece is its LSD trip, which takes up about a third of the movie. It’s been thirty years since I last dropped acid, but my recollections are fairly intact; and the commercial mainstream, Hollywood especially, always failed in their square attempts to render the psychedelic experience. (For the record, the most accurate cinematic recreations I’ve seen are the opening animated sequence of The Grateful Dead Movie and the bit with the pyramids in Altered States.) Skidoo is no exception, even if Otto and Groucho experimented with the drug for personal research.
At this point, the film has been written about extensively throughout the internet by scholars, hacks and buffs, so no need for me to repeat what’s already been said.