THE ARCHIVIST — Volume VII — Old West Orbison

Welcome to the Archive. Following the infamous “Format Wars” (R.I.P. VHS), a multitude of films found themselves in danger of being forgotten forever due to their admittedly niche appeal. Thankfully, Warner Bros. established the Archive Collection, a Disc On Demand & Streaming service devoted to some of the more idiosyncratic pieces of cinema ever made. Being big fans of the label, we here at Cinapse thought it prudent to establish a column devoted to these unusual gems. Thus “The Archivist” was born — a biweekly look at three of the best, boldest and most batshit motion pictures the Shield has to offer. Some of these will be recent additions to the collection, while others will be titles that have been available for awhile. With over 1,500 pictures procurable on Warner Archive (and more being added every month), there’s no possible way we’ll get to all of them. But trust me when we say we’re sure going to try.

Welcome back to The Archivist! This brainchild of staff writer Jacob Knight will continue primarily under my supervision as a bi-monthly double-feature recommendation. Mr. Knight will be returning, whenever possible, perpetuating his love of niche cinema curiosities, but he has graciously handed the reins to yours truly for the time being. To more gently carry you dear readers, and myself, through this emotional transition without an excess of traumatic psychological injuries, my first iteration of The Archivist will focus on a single film. Fittingly, it involves both reins, and psychological injury.

Okay, so it has reins, at least.

In 1967, Roy Orbison was on an express elevator down from the top of the world. After a lengthy string of super-hits, managers and producers were coming and going, records ceased to sell, and tragically, his first wife died in a motorcycle accident. In a bizarre move, perhaps to counter his mourning, Orbison began work on an album that would become a soundtrack… to one of the goofiest westerns ever made. He was a man of many passions, and chief among them was a nasty case of cinephilia. Apparently, while he wasn’t buried with work as a musician, he managed to take in three movies per day. Remember, this is over a decade before home video. That means The Big O used to hang around theaters catching whatever they were showing in any given day. Badass.

What might have been a serious western, and maybe even a decent movie, quickly shifted to a humorless comedy before shooting began. Orbison plays “a singin’, shootin’, son of a gun” who leads a small band of confederate (yeah… the protagonists are fighting for the south) spies on a mission to steal gold from the Yankee army. Armed with a guitar…rifle and posing as a traveling saloon show, our man with the golden voice gets several, only semi-contrived, singing opportunities. Anytime he starts to sing, the film’s existence starts to make sense. Roy Orbison is one of the greatest singers who ever blessed popular music with real talent, and the guy loved cinema. This must have been a dream come true! As soon as any song comes to an end, however, he is totally lost, and everything continues falling apart.

Not one cast member seems to have the slightest grasp on comedy. Every joke is a beat too late, or too early. You would think these people would look pretty good acting alongside the amateur Orbison (who can’t deliver a single line with anything resembling confidence… in fact, I can recall a number of moments involving him quickly power-walking away from his co-stars after speaking… and only in his haste to escape the camera’s punishing view do I find any true conviction) but they often appear just as overwhelmed and confused as he does. Having said all of that… I kind of loved it.

If you can stomach what might be the most offensive depiction of Native Americans I have ever seen (featuring the… great(?) Iron Eyes Cody), you might find yourself arrested by this movie’s baffling discombobulation. There is something beautiful about watching our hero, sporting a Texas bouffant hair-do (eat your heart out, Bruno Mars), performing songs that sound exactly 100 years out of time with the setting, clearly forced to do children’s choreography reminiscent of Rick Astley, and doing it all with a sweet little smirk on his face. Even if he was a fish out of water, I feel vaguely assured he loved every minute of it. Even pedestrian Roy Orbison fans should be giddy watching this nonsense.

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