Director: Peter Fonda
Screenwriter: Thomas Matthiesen
This essay is offered as part of the Allan Fish Online Film Festival 2020, a festival founded by Jamie Uhler and hosted by Wonders in the Dark, held to honor the memory of the late cineaste extraordinaire Allan Fish, considering films in the public domain and freely available online
By Roderick Heath
Peter Fonda famously left John Lennon uneasy but also creatively stirred when, as the young actor dropped LSD with the Beatle and his bandmate George Harrison, he recounted a childhood accident when he almost fatally shot himself in the stomach, reporting “I know what it’s like to be dead.” Lennon was inspired to write his song “She Said” sporting his riposte to the utterer, “It’s making me feel like I’ve never been born.” Fonda would for his part later try, when he became a film director, to articulate his enigmatic report from the fringes of existence. Fonda, son of movie legend Henry Fonda, found himself a figure strongly associated with the emerging counterculture vanguard around Los Angeles, an association that would briefly make him a major cultural figure. After making a mark in a small role as a young recruit confronted by the ugliness of life in Carl Foreman’s antiwar epic The Victors (1963), Fonda’s embrace of the hip scene in Hollywood saw his rise to conventional stardom frustrated, but he gained starring roles with Roger Corman in cheap and spurious but fascinating attempts to court a youth audience with tales of the new bohemia like The Wild Angels (1966) and The Trip (1967).
Fonda accepted a sense of mission in trying to convey a more authentic sense of the zeitgeist in working with his friend and fellow actor Dennis Hopper on a project that eventually became Easy Rider (1969). Fonda and Hopper’s divergent sensibilities were thrown into sharp contrast in making the project a reality even as they joined in fertile collaboration. Fonda’s ambitious and thoughtful approach saw him turn to satirical writer Terry Southern to co-write the film with an eye to making an epic portrait of assailed Americana, but Hopper would later claim it Fonda and Southern took too long and he finished up writing most of the film himself. Hopper was generally accepted as the film’s auteur and engine for its rugged, improvisatory, freewheeling artistry. Hopper and Fonda’s quarrel over both the credit and profits for the film would spoil their relationship for decades, but Fonda did get a crack at directing in his own right on the back of Easy Rider’s industry-jarring success, whilst Hopper rolled on towards glorious disaster with The Last Movie (1971).
Fonda eventually directed three films, starting with 1971’s The Hired Hand and ending with 1978’s Wanda Nevada, with Idaho Transfer in between, a film penned by writer Thomas Matthiesen, his one and only screenplay. All three of Fonda’s films can be described, in their fashion, as oddball twists on the folklore of the Western film his father had been so strongly associated with, and are highlighted by their dry, sauntering, deeply eccentric sense of style. Whilst Fonda’s acting career was going more commercial at the time as he appeared in a number of rubber-burning action movies, Fonda’s films as director were more resolutely eccentric and none were box office successes, although The Hired Hand, with its trancelike and fatalistic evocation of the Old West landscape as a place of brutal violence and individuals afflicted with blurred identity, has slowly gathered a potent cult following as an emblematic “Acid Western.” Wanda Nevada tried to court some of the popularity of Paper Moon (1973) in tackling the theme of a roguish man and an apt young female pupil in a period setting. Idaho Transfer, coming between, saw Fonda tackling an environmental theme close to his heart. Produced independently on a very low budget, Idaho Transfer never had a chance of gaining significant attention, as the distributor who took up his project folded just as the film was due to be released, leaving it scarcely screened. Fonda later regained the rights and let the film pass into the public domain, and shot a brief prologue in which he appeared extolling his concerns.
Idaho Transfer manages a rare trick, in seeming both a pure-sprung product of its time but also still awaiting its moment, trying to nail down an ever-elusive undercurrent of the modern psyche. Fonda’s evocative palette here was applied to a science fiction parable. At the outset two young researchers, Isa Braden (Caroline Hildebrand) and Cleve (Joe Newman), are glimpsed capturing snakes and studying them amidst the craggy, sunstruck reaches of the Craters of the Moon National Monument, a field of lava forms in rural Idaho. Isa climbs down through a metal door set in the ground, into a small chamber buried in the lava, and after stripping off most of her clothes and making adjustments to a control panel, is transposed into another, larger, brighter room: Isa has just travelled back in time to her present day. She is the daughter of scientist Dr George Braden (Ted D’Arms), who’s made an unexpected, and very secret, breakthrough in time travel whilst officially working on a government-funded project researching matter teleportation. Her father has assembled a team of intellectually advanced young scientists and assistants to travel through time, or “transfer” as they call it, to a point 56 years in the future, where for some reason all signs of functioning civilisation in the vicinity have vanished. Nearby towns are deserted and no broadcasts are detectable. The project team has inferred some cataclysmic event has occurred in the meantime.
Isa is assigned to bring her sister Karen (Kelley Bohanon) into the team, and despite her father’s instructions to tell Karen everything, she avoids explaining about the potentially debilitating health effects of transferring, which are so severe the team’s doctor Lewis (Fred Seagraves) thinks it would be fatal for anyone over twenty years old, as it causes haemorrhaging in the kidneys. Karen has just spent a spell in a mental hospital recovering from an unstated crisis, and casually tells her sister she lost her virginity when she was raped by a fellow patient. Isa first takes Karen out to the lava fields in the present, to get her familiar with the environment, and they encounter some footloose hippies heading to a music festival. Karen then takes Isa forward in a transfer whilst instructing her in how to operate the machinery. In the future Isa suffers a fall into a crevice and seems badly injured, so Karen quickly brings her back to the present, but can’t get help before Isa dies, apparently not from the fall but from transferring too many times. When the authorities discover what’s been going on at the project a short time later, they move to shut it down and round up all of the personnel, but a number of the young people follow a prearranged plan to gather supplies and equipment and transfer en masse to the future.
Despite being the son of a major movie star, Fonda’s childhood background had been anything but idyllic. His father Henry was remarkably ill-starred in his marital life, compounded by his problems with private emotional expression which Peter in particular would contend with until his father was on his deathbed. Peter and his sister Jane’s mother Frances Ford Seymour had committed suicide whilst in a psychiatric hospital after suffering from severe depression, and Peter’s near-fatal accident had occurred a year later. Peter’s recourse to both the bohemian drug culture and artistic creation might well have had an aspect of therapeutic necessity, and by and large seemed to have worked. The Hired Hand and Idaho Transfer are closely linked in their mood of blasted and alien persistence and fragmented time, and resemble an interior portrait of life as experience through a depressive lens, with the latter film engaging those aspects not just on a stylistic level but also in its storyline. “I’m hip to time,” his character Captain America famously noted in Easy Rider, and here he shows us what he meant, knowing that the passage of the ages has no substance without the limitations of human perception to know it.
The needling signs of personal relevance to Fonda are borne out in the traits Karen shares with his mother, the film an inferring study of a state of mind, portraying the space within Karen’s head in confronting a world of anxiety about what kind of future is possible in the wake of psychological collapse and assault, and avatar for a flailing youth movement confronted by a great existential brick wall: where to next, and is there any next anyway? “I used to have nightmares that looked like this,” Karen says as she surveys the lava fields in the post-apocalyptic future, “They were beautiful nightmares.” This line encapsulates the whole film and the spirit it tries to animate. Idaho Transfer is on one level an evocative, semi-abstract portrait of people in a setting, following on from Easy Rider and The Hired Hand as experiential engagements with the American landscape, and a negative space portrait of post-human witnessing as cinematographer Bruce Logan’s camera gazes upon the wastes of Idaho with an atavistic sense of locale. The schism between those who can withstand the transfer and those who can’t, along a firm boundary between the youthful and the mature, suggests at once a metaphor for generation gaps and also for the state of youth itself, able to weather certain terrible blows and recover more easily only to later realise the wearing consequences to soul as well as body.
Idaho Transfer’s low budget manifests in its Spartan production values and visuals, but Fonda nimbly makes these lacks part of the stark aesthetic, which lacks the overtly hallucinatory interludes of The Hired Hand, but maintains the same dreamlike aura and mood of punch-drunk dislocation as that film and portions of Easy Rider. The opening shots resemble a public TV documentary about field biologists, but the naturalistic approach helps bolster Fonda’s evocation of spacy dislocation infested by creeping dread. Fonda contrasts the bland institutional space of the transfer project headquarters, a warren of white walls, glaring lighting, and functional machinery, where all sign of nature has been exiled save people themselves, and the vistas of the Idaho scenery, a space where no sign of civilisation has taken hold save for the metallic oblong forms of the transfer units fixed in the lava. Both environs seem like places where people persist more as memories than beings, the young folk already living in a zone that shrugs them off in disinterest well before they reach the future. Isa and Karen’s encounter with the hippie travellers offers a brief moment of solidarity and cheer, but later after heading into the future, Karen contemplates their fate. Isa responds duly, “The hitchhikers? Try not to think of them. They don’t matter anymore.” Even before any cataclysm has occurred, the world is suddenly now full of ghosts who don’t know they’re dead.
Although lacking equivalent, fastidious technique, Fonda’s efforts here resemble at points Werner Herzog’s stringent attempts to convey a similar sensibility in films like Heart of Glass (1976) and Where The Green Ants Dream (1984) with their days-of-future-past evocations and bewildered sense of humans trapped on the Earth, and anticipate where Andrei Tarkovsky would head with Stalker (1979), to which Idaho Transfer bears a strong resemblance in both mood and motifs, evoking concepts just as large with means just as sparing. Idaho Transfer also certainly fits in amongst the sprawl of films released in the early 1970s regarding apocalyptic angst, informed by a counterculture-inspired concern for ecology and nuclear war, ranks including the likes of No Blade of Grass (1970), The Omega Man, Zero Population Growth, THX-1138 (all 1971), Silent Running (1972), and Soylent Green (1973). Idaho Transfer is however quite distinct from them except perhaps THX-1138, another, more forcefully crafted but no less idiosyncratic by-product of early New Wave Hollywood potential and effort to mate art-house aesthetics with sci-fi. Idaho Transfer avoids the usual pretext apocalyptic sci-fi narratives, to set up action-thriller stories except for brief spasms late in the movie, presenting instead a work of tensile poeticism that echoes today more in works like those of Kelly Reichardt and later Terrence Malick.
Aspects of the story have an intriguingly prototypical aspect in terms of some sci-fi ideas nonetheless. The specific details of the transferees having to remove all metal objects and much of their clothes in order to travel without risk are very similar to those detailed in The Terminator (1984) over a decade later, and like that film Idaho Transfer rejects a jaunty view of time travel in favour of one that almost conceives of it as close to a form of death and rebirth, or perhaps more like a Caesarean section, sliced out of one reality and dumped in another. The ending is offered chiefly as a lacerating metaphor, but also lays seeds for a driving idea of The Matrix (1999), that of bioenergy tapped as fuel as a cynical answer to resource shortage. Cleverly conveying reality-twisting with the absolute minimum of resources, Fonda illustrates his central sci-fi conceit with techniques that can scarcely be called special effects, the transfer process itself consisting merely of sped-up and stroboscopic footage of passengers moving between locales and time zones. The Craters of the Moon look entirely the same in the two time periods, a natural zone oblivious to the height and passing of the human civilisation that has claimed the continent around it.
Transferring has a certain likeness to taking hallucinogens as a means of escaping a purely liminal sense of existence (and also bears a certain puckish resemblance to the motorcycle riding of Easy Rider). Isa’s surprising death early in a film she seems to be the main protagonist of sees her sister confronted by the sight of her lifeless form with face pressed in a pool of her own vomit, a harsh vision of the physical cost of transferring and also a touch that suggests Fonda here is meditating on the downside of the drug culture and the impact of addiction. Much as Easy Rider revised the Western movie template as an inverted course through a succession of defeated dreams and The Hired Hand offered the usually celebrated wanderers of Western folklore as interchangeable and inept in creating true civilisation in terms of honouring their human obligations, Idaho Transfer literally portrays decolonisation. Fonda’s pantheistic surveys of the landscape invoke the power of the natural world to persist and shrug humanity off like an insect pest. Fonda sharply disturbs the placid ambience when the young team members are obliged to spring into action and execute the planned group transfer as government authorities visit the installation and it seems the political situation out in the world is deteriorating swiftly: Fonda films their hurried preparations for departure in lunging hand-held camerawork, the scramble for survival illustrated although the narrative eventually reveals it to be essentially pointless.
A couple of adults including Lewis make the transfer too despite the risks. The escapees take some comfort in knowing that despite of the crackdown they might still be able to return for a time as the power supply to the transfer machinery can’t be easily cut off, but some, like Leslie (Dale Hopkins), quickly begin feeling troubled at the thought of being marooned. When the units stop working, one team member says it’s only a temporary glitch. Karen surreptitiously returns to the past and fruitlessly tries to contact her father, and then collects supplies whilst dodging security patrols. Ronald (Kevin Hearst), one of the boys on the team, transfers back to fetch her, literally dragging her away leaving dropped toilet rolls in her wake, a deft piece of physical comedy. One aspect of Idaho Transfer it’s been much-criticised for is the acting by the mostly green and nonprofessional cast, and indeed quite a few of them are wooden. But the rough, blowsy performing style largely helps the overall air of verisimilitude, and the basic theme of people who are scarcely adults trying to negotiate a forbidding future, callow and jagged, even clumsy in their emotional expressions. Karen is inducted into a crew of bright young nerds who turn a stoically observant and scientific eye on their circumstances.
Bohanon, whilst clearly raw, nonetheless proves a striking lead, called upon to progress from a gangly and pallid survivor of troubled youth to a sturdy-looking prototype for a James Cameron action heroine in her physicality, even as her psyche matures far more spasmodically. Casting Keith Carradine, the only member of the cast to go on to a notable career, as team member Arthur signals a plain sense of personal continuity, as Fonda’s fellow progeny of Hollywood royalty, son of his father’s co-star in John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Nor does the similarity feel accidental. The early scenes of Ford’s film set amidst Dustbowl squalor and ruination wove a similar mood to what Fonda chases here, one of haunted isolation and desolated place, and in Idaho Transfer plays like Fonda’s spiritual sequel. Another aspect of Idaho Transfer’s unique texture is the score, provided by Greenwich Village folk scene stalwart and regular Bob Dylan collaborator Bruce Langhorne, who had also provided The Hired Hand’s music. The way Fonda shoots scenery with Langhorne’s music on the soundtrack establishes a wistful sensibility contrasted with the increasingly grim sense of entrapment gripping the humans at roam in that scenery, great natural beauty and lustre confronting the characters with their own doomed lot rather than elevating as in the Hudson Valley School painting tradition, that awed yet imperial sensibility in regarding the beneficence of the land, which Fonda evokes and disrupts.
The team eventually decide to try heading for Portland, Oregon, with the bulk of the party under the leadership of Cleve travelling down to and along the Snake River whilst Karen and Ronald are assigned to scout out an overland route and meet up with the rest of the party further along the river. Arthur, Leslie, and another girl who’s hurt her leg, Jennifer (Meredith Hull), are left behind to tend the base camp. As they tramp across the country, Karen prods the phlegmatic Ronald to become her lover, and though Ronald at first plays brusquely and professionally disinterested in Karen’s overtures, she eventually has her way with him. Later she confesses she thinks she’s pregnant to Arthur, news Ronald seems to take with equanimity. Karen tries to hold on to fragments of hope and delight, from the thought of having a baby to delighting in an improvised woven ring someone gives her, and begins to contemplate the gender politics of a new world: “I suppose it doesn’t matter since we have a fresh start now…Call the boys girls’ names and the girls boys’ names.” Lewis separates from the larger party as his kidneys start to haemorrhage and seeks a peaceful, solitary end. When Ronald and Karen spot a train parked and rusting on a railway line, Ronald goes to check it out, and later reports the wreck is crammed with bodies wrapped in plastic bags within, which he theorises were being taken from a coastal city to a dumping point inland when the same deadly force overwhelmed the drivers.
In this section, the narrative most clearly becomes a tragicomic lampoon of the basic proposition of the Western, the fumbling anti-pioneers tramping a path through the wilds, even encountering the dead of a massacre like many a Western hero, albeit with the enemy a negation: westward the course of empire unravels. Fonda never specifies exactly what’s caused the catastrophe, which could be nuclear conflict but seems more like biological warfare. Finally Ronald and Karen reach the river and meet up with the other team, and find they’ve brought along a girl they’ve named Anne (Kim Casper), one of a community of third-generation survivors they encountered. In a motif reminiscent of Planet of the Apes (1968), the human survivors all seem to be deaf and developmentally disabled to some degree through mutation, and yet, as one team member notes, they seem incredibly happy, and another says they’re the most compassionate people he’s ever met. Observing that, apart from hearing loss and slight motor retardation, Anne seems more or less normal, the team considers the possibility of finding an equally high-functioning male and mating them. Karen wryly suggests the men of the team should impregnate her instead for a better result, and then tells them she thinks she’s pregnant. The team drop on her a bleak fact Lewis informed them about and which Ronald didn’t have the heart to tell her: the transfer renders anyone who does it sterile, and the symptoms of pregnancy she’s experiencing are most likely psychosomatic.
Again Idaho Transfer pivots into a psychological portrait where the exterior developments are extensions of Karen’s damaged headspace, as this revelation brutally dashes not just Karen’s emotional recompense but all hope the team might form the core of a new civilisation: they too have become just more ghosts haunting the land. Ronald’s attitude had already signalled a disdain bordering on anti-natalism when he answers Karen’s comment, “I’m a woman, you know,” as she confesses broody emotions with, “That gives you the right to have a bunch of kids?” By way of comforting her, he tells her, “Perpetuation and all the crap that goes with it is just a big hoax anyway,” and advises her to simply enjoy her own existence before letting it all fade out. This attitude to life is evoked as Fonda notes his characters skimming stones across water with an almost artistic sense of technique, trying to launch further and more gracefully each time but always destined to sink into dark. Such a forlorn and astringent attitude feels of a unit with Fonda’s own efforts to be at once unsentimental and open to experience as its own meaning, if not entirely a personal statement, as he also clearly empathises with Karen as the sensate antithesis to such taciturn logic, trying to maintain against all fact some sense of a living purpose, the character who feels the essential meaning of things rather than numbing them with intellectualisms.
Karen decides to separate from the team, leaving early in the morning and hiking back the way she came to the base camp, hoping to see Arthur again and perhaps return to the past. When she does reach the base, she finds Jennifer’s rotting corpse in a crevice, whilst Arthur’s savaged body lies in one of the transfer units. Karen is launched upon by Leslie, who’s gone violently insane and tries to bash Karen’s brains out on the lava, but Karen manages to protect herself with her arm just enough. Whilst Leslie goes after Karen’s dropped knife, Karen dashes into one of the transfer units, and sits within bleeding and traumatised, listening as Leslie beats a stone on the hatch and crows that the units still aren’t working. Karen hears a buzz emitting from the machinery and tries it, successfully transferring to the past. She materialises before an utterly bewildered security guard, desperately explaining she wants to transfer back to a point earlier in time when she can stop Arthur and Jennifer’s killing, to the guard’s utter incomprehension and alarm. Karen frantically tries to reset the transfer machine whilst soldiers mass outside the chamber. Karen arrives back in the future but is soon confronted by evidence she’s gone much further than the earlier transfers, finding the transfer units in ruins and the camp debris old and corroded, the land now in bitter winter.
Fonda saves his last, bitterest, bleakest touch for the very end as Karen sees what strikes her as a sign of civilisation and salvation, a car cruising along one of the ancient roads. She gropes her way to the roadside as Fonda offers flash cuts to her experiences throughout, as if her substance is breaking down. The car’s driver (Michael Kriss) stops, picks her up, and carries her back to the vehicle. Instead of putting her inside, he opens the boot, and pushes her: as the trunk hatch closes, we hear Karen’s bloodcurdling scream. The driver gets back into the car and drives off with his wife (Erica Joeres) and young daughter (Vicki Dietrich), and their dialogue makes it plain that these can-do people of the future have started using other people as an energy source. The daughter says she doesn’t think Karen was “one of them,” although the father assures her she was. The suggestion here seems to be that these “normal” people, who resemble a cold-blooded caricature of an ideal nuclear (post-nuclear?) family have been using the mutated survivors as biofuel. The unaffected ones might be people who gained shelter during the calamity or the superior offspring the transfer team wanted to foster, or even somehow might be, depending on how much time has passed and how accurate Lewis’ diagnosis was, the progeny of the transfer team. As the daughter ponders what they’ll do for fuel once their source runs out, the father says, “They’ll figure out another way for us.” “But what if that’s too hard?” the daughter persists, “Or expensive? And what if they decide they can’t change?…We’ll use each-other then, won’t we?” And the car rolls on over the horizon.
Fonda leaves behind his relatively straight sci-fi scenario into a realm closer to fable here, illustrating his concept of civilisation coming at the cost of constantly dwindling resources and a social-Darwinian process of consumption, for a more surreal and fantastical device, although it certainly also concludes the movie’s narrative proper with an apt taste of blood in the mouth. At the same time, this is also a precise symbolic encapsulation of the psychological distress that grips Karen finally claiming her into a black pit of total nihilism. As an ending this manages to outdo the last two films Fonda had a hand in when it comes to leaving off on a dark and downbeat note, with the Idaho state motto offered, “Esto Perpetua,” or It Is Perpetual, offered as a queasy promise and threat. Even if it had gained a proper release at the time, Idaho Transfer was obviously never going to be the stuff of a popular hit even by the gritty standards of the early 1970s, and is probably still too spare, too severe, to make it as a major cult object. But if you get onto its strange wavelength it leaves an aura of blended melancholy and meditative pensiveness lingering for days. It is, in the end, as much a portrait of Fonda’s struggle with his interior world as with his worries about the outer one, but his most singular achievement in the end is to erase the difference, and the warning Fonda sounded has only grown from a dull throb of anxiety to a blaring alarm in the intervening years. Certainly Idaho Transfer represents a fascinating labour from a rarefied talent, and whilst it’s a good thing it’s available to all today, it also certainly deserves to be seen in a far more respectful state.