Expression is a rhythm, with every creator becoming their own conductor and conduit. This is one of many reasons why adapting the written word to the language of cinema is a tricky one and depending on the work and author in question, nigh an impossible one. Now if you’re a filmmaker trying to adapt the words and prose of one William S. Burroughs, then you might be foolhardy but you are most definitely carrying enough testicular fortitude to conquer continents and impregnate random villagers with a mere gaze. Welcome to Tom Huckabee and Ken Smith’s formerly lost and newly found and restored 1983 film, Taking Tiger Mountain Revisited.
Taking Tiger Mountain Revisited is a film but not necessarily in any sort of clean-cut and directly linear narrative manner. If you’ve read any Burroughs, you realize that this should be completely expected if not full on demanded. Also, it’s less of a story and more of a sensory mind-penetrative experience. It drones, it disturbs, and is wholly coiled nest-like in its dystopian universe. Much like its source inspiration, being Burroughs 1979 novella-adaptation of the 1974 Alan E. Nourse sci-fi novel, The Bladerunner, entitled Blade Runner (A Movie), you will have one out of two possible reactions to this film. (Quick note here, but neither Burroughs or Nourse’s works have anything to do with the Ridley Scott film, other than the actual phrase, “blade runner.”) The first will be admiration. You really truly dig this and get lost in the gritty-relentless grooves of the tale. The second will be a mix of wanting to claw at the meat-matter of your brain while simultaneously respecting a piece of art that makes you feel like that. (There is the optional third reaction tied to those with low patience and love for experimental cinema, which if one is in that category and still sought out a film tied to the man that gave us The Ticket That Exploded, that’s really on them. You’re welcome, Bucky.)
The film’s axis, of sorts, is the character of Billy Hampton, played by the late gift to everything he was ever in, Bill Paxton. (Director Huckabee worked with Paxton on many other projects, including being an executive producer on his 2001 directorial feature debut, Frailty. Billy is a young American (…allll night…she wants a young American) of age 19, and expat, pacifist, and a draft dodger. He’s also the focus of some gender experiments organized by a group of middle-aged, officious women who each have individually different goals. One refers to it as “simply a think tank,” another wants to restore a balance between the genders, while one rather strident woman remarks on how the object must be to “…kill Major Guthrie.”
In this early section, we’re shown footage of Billy alone in a white room, doing everything from writhing on his bed fully nude to putting on lipstick, while a voice off screen talks about the need to make him more “convivial.” Billy remarks that he “…feels used by the world.” Soon, the women discuss one Major Whitbread, an old man who has arranged human trafficking of the nearby villages’ farmers daughters to the Middle East and Africa, all in the aim of boosting the local town’s economy. His weakness is to tell stories about his exploits in India and encountering one tribe in particular that lived on top of a mountain and would never travel outside of it due to a fear of tigers. Images of Whitbread are processed to Billy, with the aim of having him react with murderous violence if he hears the story about Tiger Mountain. They even go so far to tell him that Whitbread killed his family and that the Major is a “…tiger…”
Billy’s a scrambled soul set seemingly loose upon the village where Whitbread resides. He ambles in a manner that continually puts him into the waking and non-waking state of a somnambulist through the location of Carmarthenshire, Wales. In real life, judging by photos, it looks very beautiful, lush, and quaint but in the b&w universe of Taking Tiger Mountain Revisited, it feels like rot and decay, right down to the state of the world and its inhabitants. Children barely out of toddler-hood are dirty and pickpocketing, prostitution is not a choice but an employment expectation and seems to be the name of the game, and there are non-stop radio-style broadcast voices permeating the interiors and exteriors both, as if the angels and the heavens have trans-mutated into DJ’s for some hellish government-run station.
The film’s absolute biggest strength is the exact same thing that serves as the audience’s ultimate creative litmus test of endurance, which is its ability to make you as confused, uncomfortable, and bone-deep unsettled as Billy is once he departs to Carmarthenshire. While the film’s press release refers to the group of women who brainwash him as “militant feminists,” this is a universe where all bodies in charge are militant in approach and in a wholesale lack of human empathy. In fact, it feels less anti-feminist and more anti-human species. (Something I think most of us can relate to whenever we see or read the news.)
Billy isn’t an innocent necessarily since I don’t think the concept can thrive in such a world, but he is the only one who lacks the vibe of “What do I get?” If innocence is an alien life form here, then altruism is a dead star in such a universe. The closest he ever gets is a sensual encounter with a gentle prostitute, but even that is a supply and demand situation. (The group of scientists implants the urge for sex in his head before he leaves because if you’re going to possibly get trafficked or end up murdered, you might as well have the chance to get a jolly.) There’s also a jabber-jawed androgynous-urchin who keeps hitting on Billy and assaults him in his sleep, another young lad who roughs up our character after showing him his “pirate” knife, and even a grotesque, horny old lady who keeps vying to get into his knickers. Sexual predation lurks everywhere, with some shady character called “The Dutchman” being mentioned repeatedly, who trafficks young men to Arabic territories. Mix all of that with the aural-melange of news reports droning about the execution of Richard Dreyfus (which, okay, did provide a dark chuckle…hopefully it was for Mr. Holland’s Opus), dangers of extreme feminism, the Catholic government of Ireland turning away refugees and immigrants, and a mention of the “Rosicrucian Army” and the result is a hothouse of paranoiac art.
Shot around 1975 and released theatrically briefly in 1983, Taking Tiger Mountain languished for years, only to be reborn with this new edit, courtesy of original director Tom Huckabee, complete with a 4K restoration by the always reliable Etiquette Pictures. For fans of not only Burroughsian cinema (a tiny but fascinating category), but also of Bill Paxton, who was barely out of his teens here but already displayed the charisma and innate ability to wrap himself within a role, this is an extremely notable release. It’s a bold, brave, and complicated work, which is all the more reason to be glad that it is finally coming to the light.