The High Life and High Times of Terry Southern

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A 1969 still from Columbia Pictures' "Easy Rider"

(4 of 5)

The two new volumes offer a good introduction to Southern, as does the official Terry Southern homepage maintained by Nile S., which offers rare writings and assorted Terry-iana, as well as info on the as-yet-unreleased Southern tribute CD (recorded by Southern and a sterling cast, including Jonathan Winters and Southern disciple "Mr. Mike" O'Donoghue, shortly before Southern died). Further exploration of his small but influential body of work in print and on film is necessary if only to discover his dazzling inventory of effects. Certain works are dispensable ("Telephone," "Randy," the wonderfully funny but "high concept" novel "Blue Movie"), others are sadly unavailable (the elegiac, touching novel "Texas Summer," the low-key experimental "End of the Road," and the grimly funny "The Loved One"), while the seminal works are waiting to be experienced (or re-discovered) at local stores or through Internet vendors.

Southern's first novel, "Flash and Filigree" (1958), was written under the influence of Henry Green, a dialogue-driven, slightly surreal British novelist of the same period. The book is constructed around three masterful set pieces: a curious encounter between a creepy doctor and his long-winded patient; the taping of a TV game show called "What's My Disease?"; and what is without a doubt the ultimate '50s seduction-in-a-drive-in scene. Southern's dialogue is priceless, as the girl implores her fevered date, "...please don't, really don't please Ralph I can't darling I love you please, oh Ralph, please, I can't Ralph you don't know please I'd rather die please God oh please God Ralph you're hurting me oh no...." Shortly thereafter: "'Oh Ralph,' she breathed, worshipfully, 'Ralph.'"

Written with poet Mason Hoffenberg, Southern's best-remembered comic novel, "Candy" (1964) had a curious history: first published in 1958 under the pseudonym "Maxwell Kenton" by the Paris-based Olympia Press (a firm that printed trite erotica and debuted groundbreaking works like "Lolita" and "Naked Lunch"), the book fell into a strange copyright limbo on these shores. In interviews, Southern quoted the book's sales at 7 million - it was a "New York Times" bestseller in its official U.S. edition, but thousands of copies were sold through bootleg printings of the book by no-name publishing houses, marketed as straight porn.

Part in-joke, part social satire and part quickie porno novel, "Candy" is pure Southern. The protagonist, Candy Christian, is one of his finest creations: an update of Voltaire's Candide, this middle-American college girl offers "charity" to every man she meets. Though written in the third person, the leering narration synchs up with the mock-erotic dialogue spoken by the characters: Candy's womanhood is described with phrases like "honey-pot," "jelly box," and "sweetening damp"; her breasts are "pert and inquisitive," and she beseeches a homeless hunchback, to whom she is being charitable, "Hurt me as they have hurt you ... Give me your hump!"

"The Magic Christian" (1959) remains the most jarring and original in Southern's slim bibliography. Entirely episodic, the book follows millionaire Guy Grand (stated goal: "making it hot for them") as he uses his untold wealth to pay for elaborate scams and pranks, some of which prove that everyone has their price (money is dumped into a heated vat filled with blood, urine, and manure - to see how many folks will dive right in), while others are carried off simply to disrupt the status quo (a shrieking pygmy is hired to run a large corporation; a man smashes crackers with a giant sledgehammer on a crowded Manhattan street corner). The book clearly tapped into the zeitgeist of the time: the pranks and scams pulled off by Grand prefigure the performance-art "happenings" of later years, the carefree antics of Ken Kesey's "Merry Pranksters," and the media-grabbing events staged by Yippies Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin.

While "Now Dig This" is an entertaining, well-assembled collection of Southern's writing, the "greatest hits" book he himself put together, "Red-Dirt Marijuana" (1967) shows the true depth of his talent, as the reader sees him adopting different styles and narrative voices, and nailing every one. The contents include Faulkner-like tales of a Texan adolescent (later reworked into "Texas Summer") , an inner-city delinquent saga, a blissed-out, Kerouac-like account of a road trip, a journey into the mind of a tormented worker in the Paris metro, and an artfully drawn portrait of a wannabe hipster who hangs around black musicians (titled "You're Too Hip, Baby," its milieu may be dated, but its message is timeless). The most significant entry is his pioneering work of new Journalism, "Twirling at Old Miss," in which ever-libidinous Ter visits a baton-twirling academy in Mississippi (where, curiously, the girls all seem to talk like Candy Christian) mere days after Faulkner's funeral. His novelist's eye colors his perceptions: "Next to the benches, and about three feet apart, are two public drinking fountains, and I notice that the one boldly marked 'For Colored' is sitting squarely in the shadow cast by the justice symbol on the courthouse fa*ade - to be entered later, of course, in my writer's notebook, under 'Imagery, sociochiaroscurian, hack.'"

As for Southern cinema, one is surprised, given the fact that his "grand guy" persona was flamboyant and larger than life, that he never became a performer (like his comrades Burroughs and Mailer); his shy demeanor was doubtless the deciding factor. He can be seen in only four films: "The Man Who Fell to Earth" (1976) (as a journalist, in the restored version), the documentaries "The Queen" (1968) (where he judges a drag contest) and "Burroughs" (1983), and the infamous Rolling Stones film-portrait "Cocksucker Blues" (1972). The last-mentioned has never been officially available (the Stones hate it - but tend to excerpt it in their authorized video compilations), but it offers the longest glimpse of Southern onscreen. Shaggy and stoned, he dallies with what appears to be a powder as he declares "Cocaine's so expensive that I don't think it's possible to develop a habit." The camera swerves away at two intervals during his sequence - filmmaker Robert Frank tended to do this when his subjects were "indulging."

As a screenwriter, Southern's best-known work is undoubtedly "Strangelove." Kubrick retained his services to turn the movie's source-material, a rather starkly serious novel, into the "nightmare comedy" that set the standard for black humor in the '60s. Southern's warped sensibility is stamped throughout the film - especially in sequences like the one where Col. "Bat" Guano ("if that is indeed your name") suspects Group Captain Mandrake of committing "preversions" in a phone booth. The other title invariably connected with Southern's name, "Easy Rider," demonstrates his mastery at delineating characters through dialogue - as in the memorable campfire scene where "straight" lawyer George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), conveys his admiration for Capt America and Billy but predicts that their liberated lifestyle is doomed.

Though other Southern-scripted movies are available on video (most prominently "Barbarella"), fans of his work are advised to first check out the film version of "Candy" (1968) which recently made its home-video and DVD debut from Anchor Bay. On a par with "Skidoo" (1968) and "Myra Breckinridge" (1970) (both sadly unavailable) in the must-be-seen-to-be-believed category, "Candy" is a 100% product of the 1960s -- lavishly budgeted, star-studded, exceptionally drug-inflected sex comedy.

A unique roster of stars-including James Coburn, Walter Matthau, and Charles Aznavour) -- enjoy the "charity" offered by Southern and Hoffenberg's nymphette, while scripter Buck Henry (dare this hardcore Southern fan say it) actually improves upon the novel in two bizarrely funny sequences: Candy's worshipful encounter with drunk Welsh poet McPhisto (Richard Burton), leading to a more-than-peculiar basement menage a quatre involving her Mexican gardener (a "Pepper"-era Ringo Starr doing an incredibly awful accent); and her "lesson" with a guru (Marlon Brando) whose accent keeps changing from East Indian to New Yawk in mid-sentence. Henry and director Christian Marquand's work on the rest of the movie isn't nearly as successful, or true to Southern's style (the gaudy trailer included on the DVD edition of the movie has the ironic tag line "Is Candy faithful? Only to the book"). Though the middle section is downright dull - that's what fast-forward buttons and chapter stops were designed for - the finale is the sort of thing that could've only been dreamt up in the 1960s: the storyline has been neatly tied up, but the movie carries on, as our heroine strolls through a field, encountering every major (male) character she met previously in the film one by one - while Dave Grusin's mesmerizing psychedelic score digs deeply into the brains of all who hear it.

Candy's psychedelic glory aside, "The Magic Christian" (1969) is, for this reviewer, the most easily rewatchable Southern adaptation. Boasting the only onscreen union of members of the Goons, the Beatles, and the Pythons, the film stands as a kind of watershed in British movie comedy. Like the novel, it is an episodic affair, with some scenes working and others missing the mark (Southern himself disliked an amusing auction sequence written by and featuring a young John Cleese). Unlike the aforementioned psychedelic comedies, the cameos here produce intentional laughter. Laurence Harvey, Christopher Lee, Yul Brynner, and Raquel Welch (as "the Priestess of the Whip") all seem to having a hell of a good time - generally a dangerous sign for a comedy ("Yellowbeard," anyone?); here, however, the audience has one too.

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