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Bound for Hell, Or Glory? David Carradine and the Feistiest Film Panel Ever

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Not since I saw Bill Irwin and Kathleen Turner go at each other in an excellent production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? a couple of years ago have I experienced a night of live theater quite as riveting as the three-way cage match between David Carradine, Haskell Wexler, and the audience that transpired at an L.A. repertory filmhouse after a screening the other night. If there's anything that wouldn't seem to scream "fireworks!," it'd be a panel discussion about the 1976 Woody Guthrie biopic Bound for Glory, yet it's just this innocuous-sounding an event, held at the American Cinematheque in Santa Monica the other night, that may go down in Hollywood feud lore. By popular request from film buffs who are kicking themselves they weren't there, I'm providing a blow-by-blow of just what a nerve-wracking, weird and wonderful night out at the fights this was. Beware: This train is bound for bedlam -- this train!

At this date, Bound for Glory probably counts as one of the less remembered works of the late, great Hal Ashby (director of Being There, Shampoo, and Coming Home). Much as I love Ashby, I'd always missed this one, and despite a readily available DVD, I have a hard time forcing myself to watch slow-moving 147-minute period pieces unless I've committed myself to a seat in front of a big screen. I knew there'd be a discussion afterward with Carradine, but my plan was to skip out on it and go from there to a late show of Watchmen in Westwood. (Two two-and-a-half-hour movies in a row, you say? Well, that's just the kind of tough guy I am.) But, imperfect as Glory is, it does a fantastic job of plunging you into the (previous) Great Depression, and it's so utterly and engagingly human that I feel like washing its taste out of my mouth with a comic-book extravaganza would be inviting eternal damnation. So I stay for the discussion, narrowly averting what might have been one of the great regrets of my life.

Even before the panel, there has already been some weirdness during the screening itself. During a scene where a radio guy reminds Guthrie that he's not allowed to sing any controversial material on his program, somebody very loudly exclaims, "I hate guys like that!" It gets a big laugh from the audience. But soon the same fellow is following up with a line of patter, which I can't make out because he's on the other side of the auditorium. Very quickly there are cineastes yelling at the rube to shut the hell up, and some kind of verbal altercation seems to ensue. Of course, as soon as the lights come up, Carradine is walking down the aisle with his acoustic guitar in hand, already caught up in a celebratory spiel, and everyone immediately realizes he was the one providing live commentary for his movie. I get a sense that formerly offended patrons are feeling embarrassed to realize that moments ago they'd been shouting The Star Of The Show down like a common heckler, although some of these sympathies are about to diminish...

The screening is part of a "Kevin Thomas' Favorite Films" series, hosted by the former L.A. Times film critic, who I knew back in my own Times days. I don't know what Kevin has been like as a moderator on the other nights, but during the ensuing 70 or 75 chaotic minutes, he seems to go into shock and utters all of about 50 words. The first nine of them being: "I understand Ronny Cox is in the audience tonight?" Indeed, Carradine's costar, Cox, has shown up just to see the film, and, thus bidden, agreeably ambles toward the stage. There, he joins another unannounced guest, Haskell Wexler, one of the half-dozen most revered living cinematographers, and recipient of one of the two Oscars the film received. Carradine and Cox warmly embrace, the leading man enthusing about how he couldn't have gotten through the shoot without his supporting actor as a partner. And the lovefest begins!

Or the monologue, actually. For the first 20 minutes or so, Carradine does 98% of the talking -- hell, maybe 99% -- and it's entertaining as all-get-out, in a rambling, had-too-many-highballs-before-dinner kind of way. The anecdotes he's telling are good ones, but he's not leaving room for anyone else to get a word in edgewise, and Cox is probably thinking he could have stayed in his cozy original seat out in the house, while Wexler keeps slinking further down in his chair, as those of us who know this particular d.p. does not suffer fools gladly wonder what kind of storm clouds might be forming in his head. Wexler actually knew Woody Guthrie, who died in the 1960s -- not that we'll hear a chance to hear anything about that tonight. He does pipe up to say how wonderful a sign of change it was that Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen got to sing the full, controversial version of "This Land is Your Land" at the White House recently, which prompts Carradine to break into that very song, with the aid of some lyrical assists from the crowd. The actor talks about how Richard Dreyfuss was originally cast as Guthrie, but a salary dispute got in the way, and he was able to talk his way into the role by convincing producers that "I am Woody Guthrie!" -- a bravado he adopted despite the fact that, by his own admission, "the only thing I knew about Woody Guthrie when I was cast was that he wrote 'Goodnight Irene.'" The kicker to this joke is supposed to be "And I was wrong," but an irritated Wexler, thinking Carradine isn't aware of the mistake, suddenly perks up and steps on the actor's punchline, half-disgustedly interrupting, "No, Leadbelly wrote it." Anyway, so far, so benign.

Then the subject of unions arises... and everything goes gonzo, never to return. Carradine says that these are different times from the 1930s and unions no longer serve the purpose they once did, or words to that effect. Almost immediately, as if coiled and ready to spring, a woman in the back starts shrieking that nothing about unions' importance has changed. Carradine reiterates his position. Cox, who has barely said a word up until now, starts shaking his head and mutters, "That doesn't sound like Woody Guthrie to me!" The woman I'll call Union Lady starts marching down the aisle, and now Carradine is shouting back, which might be okay if he wasn't yelling right into the microphone, which does not sound pretty. For about two minutes both of them are going at it at once, and she's the more obnoxious one. But because Carradine's mike makes him five times as loud, he's coming off as the bully. Some audience members are telling Union Lady to shut up; some angrily holler "Let her speak!" Two guys in my vicinity start shouting "Let's hear from Haskell Wexler!" About a dozen people get up and walk out in the midst of this -- one of them, almost unnoticed, being Ronny Cox, who manages to effect the smoothest getaway of all time.

At this point, Carradine reminds me of poor Tucker Carlson, standing in front of that conservative PAC a few weeks ago, realizing that, in defending the New York Times, he has lost the sympathies of his audience to the hecklers. A woman in the front row, who we will later learn is Cinematheque publicist Margot Gerber, stands up, turns around, and twice yells that Union Lady should be thrown out. But no, Carradine insists, dissent is great. "You're not one of the people!" shouts the lady. "I am one of the people!" Carradine shouts back, saying that he's had to cut back on the groceries he buys for his family, and because of the mistakes made by Hollywood unions, he hasn't had much work. "I AM NOT A RICH PERSON!" he growls, seemingly genuinely enraged as well as loud for the first time. He talks about how it's a problem when workers in Tennessee making Toyotas make $10 an hour while GM workers in Detroit make $60 an hour--which makes Union Lady even more outraged, naturally. Everything we know is out the window in this economy, Carradine argues, and every aspect of the bartering we do in our daily lives, be it personal or corporate, has to be up for renegotiation. These are actually lucid, reasonable points--or would be if he had any control over his tone. Someone yells "Let her have the mike!" So Carradine half-heartedly tosses the mike into the audience--bonking a woman in the front row in the head! Ironically, the woman he bonks is the Cinematheque's publicist, Gerber, who'd just been defending him moments earlier. This has to count as some seriously strange karma for her, but fortunately for Carradine, she's probably the person in the audience least likely to file an assault charge.

The head-strike was an accident, but a groan goes up from the audience, and I get the sense that some people think he deliberately intended to lash out at the crowd, as opposed to just having really shitty aim. Suddenly it strikes me that it would only take one more bit of weirdness for things to get completely out of hand. It's a holy cow, anything could happen right now kind of pregnant moment. Fortunately, there is slightly more confusion than hostility afoot, so no brawl ensues. Union Lady and her entourage finally take their leave, with Carradine calling out that he loves her, even though he knows she hates him.

There's a moment of calm. The presumptive moderator is silent, either because he's enjoying this too much to stop it or has mentally gone to a better place. So an audience member takes it upon himself to shout out a question about cinematography. Who knew this would be a more dangerous subject than unions? Wexler talks about color desaturation ("You'll notice the movie gets more colorful when we get to California") and gives some very technical details. Carradine breaks in and starts talking about crane shots. Wexler, annoyed, goes back to the specs. And this is the point at which Carradine really goes off the rails, albeit it in a more subdued, passive-aggressive kind of way. He brings out a line -- which he'll repeats at least two more times -- about how Wexler "got an Academy Award for ruining my movie." You can feel the audience holding its collective breath as Carradine goes on to say that the film "looks like it was shot through a glass of milk." When he explains what he wished the look of the film had been -- which is grittier -- again, it's a lucid point, which some critics might even agree with. But the insulting way he's making it is either tone-deaf or just evil.

Then he tells the story of how Ashby, the director, hated the look of the film, too, and had frequently expressed the wish that he could fire Wexler. Gasps go up. Carradine then says he talked Ashby out of firing Wexler, "because if you fire somebody, they just go out in the parking lot and steal your hubcaps." I'm pretty sure that's a metaphor, but the audience doesn't know what to do with this image other than to nervously titter. There will be a lot more of that--oh, yes, there will.

Naturally, Wexler is enraged by Carradine's story. Speaking at some length for the first time, he retorts: "I didn't know that I was going to be confronted with a story which I don't think is necessarily a public story. But since it is public, I have to say something. Hal Ashby sent somebody to fire me, and he said 'You're fired,' okay? And then after I heard that and got the message, I went to Hal and I said 'Hal, just take a minute and STOP SNIFFING THAT STUFF UP YOUR NOSE!' And if David will tell me there wasn't heavy duty doping on that film, and that that wasn't the comradeship he was talking about..." He lets that thought trail off, but adds: "When I showed up the next day, I went to work, and I was the UNFIRED director of photography. Now, that's the goddamned truth!"

Carradine (drolly): "Okay. I don't think that changes my story at all. Except that Haskell is a little down on people who snort cocaine." That gets a good, nervous audience laugh. He goes on to tell a story about visiting Ashby's mammoth trailer, and picking up a copy of the L.A. Times, which he hadn't seen during many weeks of location shooting. "Underneath it there were about six lines of cocaine... Hal was looking at me and I said 'Hal, do you do a lot of this stuff?' And he said 'As much as I can get.' And I said 'I'll talk to you later,' and I left the trailer. Because it's not my thing. And yes, Hal was a great user of cocaine. It does not change the fact that he was... " Carradine goes for the superlatives. "Quentin Tarantino doesn't beat Hal Ashby, and he's one of my favorite directors. Quentin is incredible. And he's a big cocaine freak, too!" Okay, you want to talk about nervous laughter... (Just for the record, I'm not sure you can tell with 100% certainty from the tape whether Carradine says the present-tense "He's a...." or, possibly, the past-tense "He was a...") The actor continues: "But Hal was a fucking genius. I don't like anybody to put him down and say the drugs got in the way or anything else, because they didn't get in the way. They got in the way of him living longer, but they did not get in the way of his movies. There is not one movie he made that you cannot say it's one of the best fucking movies that has ever been made..."

In the midst of all this, I find myself wondering if the audience is rapt because we're watching a train wreck -- to continue with the Guthrie-esque metaphors -- or because it's a wreck coming at us right of what was arguably Hollywood's last golden age, the 1970s, white lines and all. We're witnessing a rumble, but we're also in the presence of lions... very pissy lions. In 30 years, will there be a free-for-all Watchmen panel, and will anybody care if they rip each other's eyes out? But I digress...

"Hal was a fucking genius," Carradine is repeating, like a mantra. "And so is this guy," he adds, gesturing toward an ungrateful-looking Wexler. "I happen to disagree with the way he felt about Bound for Glory, about the look. And it was beautiful, but it was not what I wanted. I wasn't the boss, right? ... This guy was out there working his fucking ass off, there's no doubt about it, right? And he wasn't doing exactly what I would have asked him to do. I would have said, turn up the contrast, show the grit under the fingernails, don't make any beauty about it, make it fucking ugly! And you know what, if he'd done what I told him to do, he would probably have not gotten his Academy Award, because it wouldn't have been pretty. So maybe he was right and I was wrong... Somebody will talk to me about Haskell and I'll say 'Oh yeah, he's the guy who got an Academy Award for ruining my picture.' It's one of my favorite lines, and it gets a laugh. And then I see the picture and I just forget all that." (Arguably.) "Because the picture is just so fuckin' great. That's the thing that's amazing to me, is a collaboration between a director and a cameraman and a star who absolutely disagree with each other on almost everything, and yet they make a movie that will be a permanent fucking classic. Is that okay, Haskell?"

Long pause. Wexler finally responds: "I just want to say that after Bound for Glory I made three or four pictures with Hal Ashby."

Carradine: "And I didn't get to make one!" At last, we all agree, and can laugh together! (Even though Wexler's not laughing.) Hooray!

Even this modest moment of harmony is short-lived. Carradine talks about how the homeless camps they set up for the film were "livable" and attracted people from out of state who actually resided in the tents for a time. Wexler makes faces at the audience, suggesting that everything Carradine is saying is cuckoo. (He also made a coke-snorting motion at one point, though I can't remember when. It might have been when Carradine said that an entire day's worth of work was unusable because too much dust in the Dust Bowl scenes made the shots impenetrably murky -- a memory that Wexler clearly does not buy at all.) Setting the stage for the next battle, Carradine waxes enthusiastic over the use of a hidden "suitcase camera" that allowed the crew to get great takes of the extras in the camp scenes, unaware they were being filmed. This is when Wexler really begins to take offense again, thinking that Carradine is trying to give the camera operators credit for his work.

Carradine: "We had this incredible guy... Do you remember the name of the guy that was the handheld camera guy, that used the suitcase camera?"

Wexler (rising to righteous indignation): "Do I remember it? How do you think it got in this film, David? Who do you think planned it? Who did the shots? Look it, David, you fuckin'..."

Carradine: "I'm not talking about credit, I'm just asking for the guy's name."

"Wait a second, David..."

"What did I do? I just asked for the guy's name."

"Do they (the audience) know what a director of photography does...?" Wexler goes on to list all the collaborative relationships a cinematographer has with other crew key members. "Hearing David with his explanations about all these cameras and the suitcase camera... Where the hell did you get all this expertise?"

Carradine (drolly): "Uh, I was there. My only question was, what's the name of that guy who operated the suitcase camera?

"YOU WERE IN THE TRAILER TILL YOU GOT CALLED OUT!"

"Do you know it?"

"I didn't come here for combat," Wexler announces, deliberately, "but I also didn't come out here to be demeaned for what my contribution to that film is."

"Okay, anyway, since he doesn't know the name of the guy," Carradine goes on, getting a dig in, "he had a suitcase that had a camera in it and he could push it and make it go... " Haskell buries his face in his hands as Carradine goes on a bit more about the glories of the suddenly contentious suitcase camera, which was so brilliantly operated by whatsisname.

Wexler: "I'm gonna give up now. First of all, half the shots in [those scenes] were not from the suitcase..."

Carradine (vindicated): "Half of 'em!"

Wexler: "David, I don't know if I can take any more of this bull."

There is a very pregnant silence. Then Carradine picks up his guitar and starts into a long rendition of Bound for Glory's title song, urging the audience to join in. There is a bare minimum of singing and clapping, but the audience is a little too stunned, if not alienated, for a "Kumbaya" moment.

Carradine starts packing up his guitar, a process that mysteriously seems to go on for minutes as the actor tries to put a more gracious cap on the evening. "We never agreed -- we're sort of like enemies -- but the fact is, I know his fuckin' talent, and I know his drive and insistence on making the movie the way it was that got him his Academy Award.... I wish that I'd been able to work with you again. The fact that we don't get along has nothing to do with it, nothing whatsoever. I got along great with your kid! I'm honored to be here," Carradine proclaims, suddenly almost touchingly wistful. "And anybody else that ever wants to do an event for Bound for Glory, I'll be there."

And I'm pretty sure Wexler and Cox won't.

Just in time to send everyone home, Kevin Thomas finds his voice: "I must say, I've got some fresh insights into the collaborative effort of filmmaking." It's an arch comment, but it has some truth to it. As the audience stands to regain its collective existential bearings, Wexler turns to Carradine and says, "I knew you would not disappoint," and -- incredibly, after the passions that have just transpired -- they briefly hug.

Outside on Montana Ave., clusters of frazzled attendees form. Metaphorically, or maybe literally, we're all just trying to pat down the hair that's been standing on end for the last hour. "Between the aggressive panelists and audience and a moderator who wouldn't stop anything, it was a perfect storm," announces one guy, gratefully, I think.

One stranger I catch up with on the corner says he found the entire experience to be a deeply uncomfortable immersion in unalloyed anxiety. His friend counters that it was an exhilarating peek past the usual scrim of Hollywood bullshit. Me, I have to go with... both. Either way, I suspect the 50 or 60 of us who stuck it out, like survivors of some massive accident, will be invisibly bonded in forever hereafter experiencing reality through a slightly different, somehow more knowing prism than the untraumatized loved ones to whom we return.