“New Walden” is so terrible that it is almost hypnotic in its awfulness. Made in 1991 but only now getting a DVD premiere, its marketing materials promise a “fun, filmic fantasy” even thought its creators serve up a clumsy, cheesy catastrophe.
As the title suggests, “New Walden” explores the transcendental philosophy of Henry David Thoreau and his time at Walden Pond. The movie opens with Thoreau working in the twilight hours by candlelight at his cottage by Walden Pond. The cottage curiously looks more like an outhouse, which is appropriate given the quality of the movie. Thoreau falls asleep at his desk and he is visited by a brigade of forest spirits. Actually, the spirits looks suspiciously like a high school ballet class wearing faded costumes and war paint. There is also a small boy in a blue diapers is supposed to be Puck, though it’s never explained how he came out of “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” to be part of the festivities.
The spirits awaken Thoreau and take him to a convenience store, where Thoreau begins to wander the aisles reciting sections from “Walden” out loud as the spirits try to eat sunglasses and sniff anti-freeze. An 18-wheeler turns up and the white driver takes out a black man in chains. The spirits liberate the black man and physically carry him away while leaving the truck driver buried up to his neck in the sand of an empty beach. Yes, a beach â€“ this tribute to New England’s greatest philosopher was shot in Florida.
The remainder of this 51-minute debacle consists of musical numbers allegedly inspired by Thoreau’s text. Composer Ben Moffat created 13 tunes, each one worse than the next. Most of the soundtrack consists of sugar-coated pop ditties which would’ve embarrassed the Partridge Family, though occasionally a faux-Negro spiritual and a faux-Elizabethan ballad sneak into the mix.
No one sings on camera, mercifully, but nearly everyone dances. Or at least I think they are dancing. If a whiskey-soaked Martha Graham choreographed the Hokey-Pokey, you’d have the dance sequences to this film. The performers flap their arms so frequently it is a surprise that none of them take off in flight. At one point everyone dresses up like the aliens of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and wiggle their hips while holding circular mirrors in their hands. There is also a tribute to 1970s bad taste staged in an open muddy field as several women dressed like the “Solid Gold” dancers bump and grind amid a gathering of toga-clad mannequins before getting lifted one at a time atop the brawny shoulders of a shirtless white guy wearing the red beret and baggy pants trademarked by Fred Berry’s Rerun character.
What any of this has to do with Thoreau, transcendentalism or the basic tenets of sanity is open to debate. Bruce Martin Campbell Merwin wrote and produced this thing and Arthur Gross directed it. While it is not polite to advocate homicide, in this case it may be possible to argue an exception to that rule if the gun’s viewfinder picks up the filmmakers who made “New Walden.”