Deep Focus: Dusty and Sweets McGee and the Unsung Floyd Mutrux

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[Editor's note: In a new weekly feature for Country Life, James Cathcart, DJ, cinephile and now programmer of Third Man Records' new Light and Sound Machine film series, shares finds from the dusky celluloid recesses and online frontiers of cinema.]

“The story of a solid gold weekend in LA,” as told through William Fraker’s hazy, drifting camerawork, as untethered as the lives it captures, Floyd Mutrux’s Dusty and Sweets McGee (1971) is not just one of the greatest portraits of addiction, but also one of the paramount examples of the limitless freedom and possibility of American cinema in the 1970s.

Shot on short ends for around $50,000, it’s an unflinching examination of the desperate underbelly of the era. It's wholly unconcerned with dramatic convention, and to say it’s the kind of film that could never be made today is an understatement — it was barely allowed to exist back then. Warner pulled it from theaters after a successful opening week, fearing condemnation for the nonjudgmental style with which it portrayed all-too-real instances of heroin use. It wasn’t enough that the drug is clearly painted as a destroyer of life: it’s as if Dusty presented truths too viscerally, too matter-of-factly for it to be considered anything but dangerous.

At times it feels as if the film primarily consists of B-roll, making collage of the sights and sensations of the era, while using a documentary element as the backbone of its thesis. Indeed, most of the addicts we meet along the way are exactly who they say they are — from the cautionary ex-con who’s returned from the dark side of hell, to the streetwalking male hustler confessing the experiences of “a young boy’s cock in America.”

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Of course, when placed in perspective, Dusty is much more than an exposé of drug use and dependency. Spiked veins and the flirtation with death merely serve as tools to measure how far into the unknown the American psyche had drifted during the trauma of the 1960’s. There to remind us of this chasm is the ever-present motif of FM radio (Mutrux claims to have scored all his films using it) and the constant juxtaposition of the golden oldies of yesteryear with the jaded acid pop of the moment — Del Shannon for one scene, Blues Image for the next. Even little Billy Gray from Father Knows Best is here — only now he’s branded with a bloody swastika, peddling dope around town from his ’69 Boss 302 Mustang.

Though Mutrux only directed five films, all of them embody a distinctly Mutruxian principle: that rock 'n' roll is the language through which the American narrative is told. It’s a notion he would see lifted from Dusty and put to more populist use in American Graffiti, though he would steal it back again a decade later for 1982’s cable-TV favorite The Hollywood Knights, an amped-up, raunchier take on George Lucas’ film.

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But it’s Mutrux’s three features from the '70’s — Dusty, Aloha Bobby and Rose, and American Hot Wax — that prove him to be one of the greatest talents of the decade. Even Variety predicted that the five names to remember from that era of American cinema would be Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese, Malick ... and Mutrux. Sadly, with the box office failure of his passion project, American Hot Wax, a criminally unseen bio pic of legendary radio personality Alan Freed, Mutrux’s future as a director was totally derailed.

To further the tragic irony, his signature milieu of golden age rock 'n' roll would also snag these films in a legal minefield, preventing them from being reappraised on home video. Copies of the American Hot Wax VHS and deleted Aloha Bobby and Rose DVD are expensive collectors items via the secondary market. However, there is reason to rejoice: Dusty and Sweets McGee has been lovingly restored and is currently available on a Warner Archives Series disc. It’s a great place to begin a reconsideration of the varied career of Mr. Mutrux — an artist both thematically and literally lost in time.

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