Bill Paxton, William Burroughs, ‘Blade Runner’ and the making of ‘Taking Tiger Mountain’

Taking Tiger Mountain is a strange film with an even stranger back story. It all began in 1974 when thirtysomething filmmaker Kent Smith saved up enough dough from making educational shorts to go off and produce his dream first feature. The folly of many first-time directors is knowing when to curb their ambitions. Smith was certainly ambitious—maybe overly so. He had an idea to make a kinda art house movie set in Tangiers—something inspired by Albert Camus’ novella The Stranger. There was no script, just a poem Smith had written on the kidnapping in 1973 of sixteen-year-old John Paul Getty—heir to the Getty oil fortune. Smith thought of his poem as the film’s framework. Add in a touch of Jean-Luc Godard and hint of Fellini and his debut feature was gonna be just peachy.

So, Smith had ambition—check. A basic storyline—check. And a nineteen-year-old actor by the name of Bill Paxton. Check.

Paxton was a hunk. A pin-up. The type of young actor who had I’m gonna be a big movie star pumping out of his pores. He had the looks, the demeanor and the talent. He was also fearless—as anyone would have to be if they were going to hook-up with Smith on a madcap movie-making adventure.

They packed their bags, leased some Arriflex Techniscope equipment and headed off to France. On arrival at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, they discovered that their equipment had been lost in transit. It was the first of several small obstacles that eventually turned the film onto a different course. When the pair were eventually reunited with their equipment, they hired a car and headed for Spain. But the roads were like parking lots—gridlocked with holidaymakers on their way south to the coast. Eventually after a long, slow, infuriating drive, they made it to the ferry terminal and waited for the first ferry to take them across the waters to Tangiers.

As Paxton told Variety in 2015:

We got to Tangiers around midnight, and all of our equipment was impounded because we hadn’t paid the baksheesh. We got out in about 48 hours, and my attitude was “What the f–k?” I remembered I knew someone in South Wales when I was a foreign exchange student, so we drove there, and that’s where we shot the film.

A young Bill Paxton as seen in the film.

Paxton and Smith traveled back up through Spain and France to England and then to Wales where things got “even crazier.”

We had purchased black-and-white short ends (film stock) from the film Lenny, and we sort of shot things as we came across them.

One guy had a Kenyan vulture, so we used that for a scene of eating my entrails. We met some girls and talked them into doing some nude scenes with us.

Basically it was a bunch of hippies running around naked. It was all silent, black-and-white footage.

They shot ten hours of footage—but what the hell to do with it all? They returned to the States. Paxton began making inroads into big screen movies, while Smith sat with his rushes wondering how to make a movie out of it.

In 1975, Smith showed the footage to a student at the University of Texas called Tom Huckabee. Nothing happened until Smith relinquished the rushes over to Huckabee in 1979. That’s when Huckabee started logging and assembling the ten hour’s worth of material together as he explained to Beatdom:

I started building scenes using the script they had which was loosely based on the J. Paul Getty kidnapping. There was no sci-fi element, no assassination, no prostitution, no feminism, or brainwashing. It was a dream film about a young American waking up on a train – with amnesia, maybe – who wanders into a Welsh town, meets a lot of people, has adventures, bad dreams, and then gets killed on the beach, or does he?

Once I had assembled all their footage into what seemed like a narrative flow, I started thinking about what the story could be. I didn’t like their story much, it was too languid for me,  disconnected, but mostly they had only shot half of it and I knew I couldn’t go back to Wales. I’d been reading Burroughs and a lot of other avant-garde, transgressive, and erotic literature. Story of the Eye was a big influence. I started reading The Job. I got the idea that he was an assassin… and maybe the idea to set it in the future.

Huckabee’s friends were all chucking in their two cents’ worth. A “mysterious guy named Ray Layton” had “the idea to make it about feminist terrorists brainwashing Billy…. and the prostitution camps.” Then Huckabee read William Burroughs’ novella Blade Runner (a movie) and the whole thing began to take shape in his mind.

I lucked into finding a backer who promised $30,000, and that’s when it got real. I remembered seeing another short film that Kent and Bill had made; a thinly veiled homoerotic portrait of Bill, called D’Artagnan. I thought it could be used to represent Billy’s brainwashing. By then I’d acquired the MKUltra transcripts and was heavily into The Job.

Huckabee approached Burroughs and obtained his permission to adapt Blade Runner into his movie. This was now the early 1980s, Ridley Scott was making a movie version of Philip K. Dick’s cult sci-fi book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Scott had also approached Burroughs to buy his title Blade Runner for his movie.

It took at least a year to write the script to conform to the footage, which by the way was 60 minutes. I knew I needed 75 min. minimum for it to be a feature. So I built five minutes of dream sequences out of outtakes, including one where I threw the film in the air and put it together as it came down – cheating a lot.

I should mention that I was fairly regularly during this time, maybe once every one or two months, on acid, mushrooms, and baby woodrose seeds… this, added with all the experimental film I was seeing, and avant-garde and erotic and left wing and feminist political literature I was reading, kept my mind open to outré thematic and formal tropes… so, say, if a scene wasn’t working I could always run it upside down and backwards… Also by then I was thoroughly versed in MKUltra brainwashing, psychic warfare, so in that respect I think I was getting a lot of that independently from Burroughs, maybe from the same source he was getting it.

Then I wrote the opening scene and shot it… and started dubbing in dialogue. I forgot to mention Woody Allen’s Tiger Lilly as an influence. First I hired a lip reader to tell me what the characters were saying and many of them were speaking Welsh.

Huckabee finished his film. Now called Taking Tiger Mountain—the title lifted from a Chinese opera—it was released in 1983. The film was described as a “unique sensory experience.” Set the near future Taking Tiger Mountain follows Paxton as:

Billy Hampton, a Texan who [has] fled from occupied America to British island in order to avoid compulsory military service. Once there, he [is] abducted by a group of sophisticated feminist terrorists, who have been opposing the oldest profession [prostitution] legalization, creating assassins by brainwashing and then setting them on the prostitution camps leaders. (They also specialize in redirecting sexual orientation and sex change operations.)

At the start of the film:

[A] quartet of middle-aged women analyze Billy and persuade him to believe that an aging major is actually a tiger sent by God to kill him. That prologue is a combination of sequences with Huckabee’s signature and those from a short film that Smith and Paxton had been working on prior to their arrival to Wales. What follows could be described as a sporadically wet psychotropic nightmare, with hypnotic soundtrack composed of gloomy drones, overdubbed dialogues, confusing monologues and omnipresent radio announcements about the war [and its] aftermath and the use of thermonuclear weapons on the United States…

More ‘Taking Tiger Mountain’ after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher
12:24 am
The DEVO-adjacent rock and roll adventures of the young Bill Paxton
12:52 pm

The actor Bill Paxton died over the weekend at the age of 61, an event that was awkwardly timed for the Oscar ceremony’s “In Memoriam” section but did assure him a special callout from the presenter of said segment, which turned out to be Jennifer Aniston.

Paxton, of course, was a fine character actor who enhanced many, many movies. I never confused him with Bill Pullman but apparently some people did. Owing to his longtime association with James Cameron, he was in an unusual number of big-budget successes, like Aliens and Titanic, but he would also pop up in diverting stuff like Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire or Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow. His finest work may have been in Carl Franklin’s excellent 1992 B-movie One False Move, in which he played a cocksure Arkansas sheriff whose easygoing facade gets tested when a pair of homicidal maniacs make their way to his small town. 

Paxton originally hailed from Texas—at the age of 8, he was prominently photographed in a crowd of people in Dallas to see President John F. Kennedy several hours before Lee Harvey Oswald abruptly ended Kennedy’s life. In the mid-1970s he made his way to Los Angeles with ambitions of becoming an actor.

Barnes & Barnes were an curious new wave duo starting in the late 1970s that consisted of Robert Haimer and Bill Mumy (who as a child had played Will Robinson on Lost in Space). Their first single, and to this day their most famous release, was the childlike 1978 song “Fish Heads,” which had the infectious, Alvin and the Chipmunks-ish refrain “Fish heads, fish heads, roly poly fish heads, fish heads, fish heads, eat them up, yum!” If you were around in the 1980s, you definitely remember this song.

Much more after the jump…

Posted by Martin Schneider
12:52 pm
Meat Babies & Fish Heads:The Music Videos of Barnes & Barnes

Art & Artie Barnes
I’ve always found it to be strange that if an artist makes you laugh, then they are automatically put in some kind of critically-disrespected box. It’s okay to make make you cry and snot up with assorted dramatics, but a chuckle? Forget about it. Perhaps that’s why Barnes & Barnes have yet to get the full respect they deserve. Best known for their Dr. Demento chestnut, “Fish Heads,” they were much more than a musical one trick pony, with the long out-of-print Rhino Records VHS release, Zabagabee being prime evidence.

Opening with super 8mm footage of our duo, Art (actor/musician Bill Mumy, best known for his work on sci-fi television shows like Lost in Space and Babylon 5) and Artie (mad genius Robert Haimer) Barnes in their early teen years. Eerie music with a somber voice over intones, “Have they always been with us? Have they never been with us?” Off screen screaming ensues and then it cuts to the first of many strange celebrity endorsements, with Oscar winner Jose Ferrer and Superman creator Jerry Seigel popping up. They are cutely quaint until the incomparable Larry “Wild Man” Fischer shows up in his first of many appearances on this tape. Hanging out in a sunny park, Larry talks about initially running away from Barnes & Barnes thinking they were trying to kill him but then adds, “They basically wouldn’t hurt a fly.” (Anyone who has seen the excellent but no fun documentary about Fischer, Derailroaded, will probably feel a tad uncomfortable with this segment.)

Fish Fez
On to the music. The first video is the best known, with the Bill Paxton (yes, THAT Bill Paxton) directed “Fish Heads.” Paxton not only helmed this bad boy but also stars in it as the stylish young man with a hankering for the company of decapitated, fly encrusted fishes. (My personal favorite is the one wearing the fez and playing the bongos, because everything is better with bongos and a fez.) There’s a Dr. Demento cameo as a enthused wino and our boys wearing trash bags and eyeball goggles. It’s music video Dada and bless all involved for creating it. Where else are you going to see Bill Paxton having a tea party with a bunch of stinky yet festive fish heads? Exactly.

Dr. Demento
Speaking of Dr. Demento, he shows up in the next testimonial and plays what sounds like a rough demo version of “Boogie Woogie Amputee,” smiling big and proclaiming “And those were the days before the accident!.” Back on the inexplicable famous artists train, noted jazz clarinetist Woody Herman pops up, right before the next video, “Love Tap.” Directed by seasoned music video director Rocky Schenk, Bill Paxton makes a return appearance, this time as the ketchup-suited man in an abusive relationship with one beautiful and ghoulishly volatile woman, played by Annerose Bucklers. (Bucklers was also in Devo’s video for “Satisfaction.”) The absolute highlight here is Barnes & Barnes, still sporting the strange goggles but now wearing wedding dresses while flanked by dangling mannequin parts.

Shirley Jones comes in afterwards with the best line ever, “I’ve known Barnes & Barnes since I was a little girl. They used to shave my uncle!” People should be building shrines to her for that line alone. Shaun Cassidy follows her, talking about how he used to keep the band locked in his closet for years. It’s alright but anything will pale in comparison to the Shirley Jones uncle-shaving-incident.

The next video is the visually incredible “Soak it Up.” This is one of the best looking videos to have emerged out of the 80’s. Forget the pap that MTV nostalgia-heads try to foist on you. This is the real deal. “Soak it Up” is ripe with great visual devices like force perspective and superimposition, all of which is exquisitely executed. Paxton and Bucklers pop back up as young lovers minus the physical abuse and plus surrealist eye candy. The band is typically great with Haimer making some especially awesome faces and dancing in front of creepy castle that I like to pretend is his stately home. Hey, a girl can dream. There’s even a nod to the Dali created sequence from Hitchcock’s Spellbound.

Spellbound Barnes & Barnes
After that brilliance, we get Mark Hamill talking about the boys’ novel She Squealed and Ran Away and how they “reek” of greatness. Wild Man Larry laughs incomprehensibly about Frank Zappa and then Rae Down Chong reveals that she’s going to have their baby. Perfect and a great segue for “Ah A.” The song that is composed of strange child noises and the intro, “Do you think we will ever truly understand love?” “Perhaps.” The visuals are comprised of women ranging from a beautiful “Gibson” type girl to Ms. Chong pulling a coy Josephine Baker manouever. There’s even a highly disturbing cameo from Bill Paxton at the very end.

Barnes & Barnes Ah A
Boojie Boy (Mark Mothersbaugh) pops up in a spartan kitchen and talks about how Barnes & Barnes literally taught him how to wax his carrot. (Note the lack of sarcastic quotation marks.) Weird Al shows up, with only Elvira missing from my triumvirate of childhood heroes. The next video, “Party in my Pants” warrants the title card, “let’s go places and eat things…” Barnes & Barnes follow a duo of lovelies, including a young and pre-fame Terri Hatcher, around in the countryside. Meanwhile, some stop motion dolls, all looking like they hail from the $.50 bin of misfit toys at your local garage sale, hang out in a pair of pants and drink beer. It’s as great as it sounds.

Bill Paxton. Waiter.
Jonathan Harris, is his finest “Dr. Smith” inflected voice, comes in and mentions Barnes & Barnes a dozen times before half of the band America, whom Mumy was a member of at one point, show up. They perform a tepid version of “Fish Heads.” But then we have Wild Man, who does his own bizarro version of “Fish Heads” and all is right in the world again. Then it’s time for the grand daddy. Sure, when you see the title “Pizza Face,” your brain enters into an awkward, hormone laced Atari fever. But nix that. This video is like a punch in your face while simultaneously giving you a kiss. Example? Vermeer’s “Girl with the Pearl Earring” painting begins the proceedings, with a marinara sauce mustache being drawn on her face. It gets even better. Barnes and Barnes, in a spooky fog-laced forest, dress like weird mimes and play instruments that are nowhere heard in the soundtrack. A skull with muscle and skin melting off of its face appears right before we see the requisite Bill Paxton cameo., this time as grinning waiter. Miguel Ferrer has the worst pizza date ever and inflatable Godzilla makes a cameo! Flea shows up, fulfilling his quota that month of inexplicable appearances in clips made in the 80’s. Then? The meat baby. That is all I’m going to say about that. Percy Shelley himself could not adequately describe the beauty and splendor of meat baby, so I will not even dare.

Meat Baby
On the weird celebrity trip, Stephen Stills and then Rosemary Clooney (!!!) show up, waxing poetic about the band. Wild Man recites his duet with Ms. Clooney, which did indeed happen in real life, called “It’s a hard business.” “You can’t escape your destiny” prologs the next and last clip, “When You Die.” Ethereal girls in white togas dance around gravestones while the band digs graves and display masks and dolls.
When you die…
Zabagabee is a perfect sample of both the wondrously weird and well crafted sides of Barnes & Barnes. For a band that is best known for singing about severed fish parts, it’s easy to forget that they could craft a good love song, like “Soak it Up” all the while without losing their unique edge. Perhaps the best thing about Barnes & Barnes is that unlike so many bands, they never became boring. Whether it was the juvenile humor from hell of “Sicks” or the more serious “Amazing Adult Fantasy,” which includes a manic cover of the Nancy Sinatra/Lee Hazelwood classic, “Bang Bang,” Barnes & Barnes were a wonderful band. Yeah.


Posted by Heather Drain
02:24 pm