Peter Fonda’s Idaho Transfer is a strange and inventive little film that has gained something of a cult following over the years, though it remains stubbornly elusive. The Trylon, working with the Minnesota Historical Society, has gotten hold of the only known print of the film, making this something of an event. While it’s a flawed movie, it’s also an intensely interesting one: a parable of human frailty and stupidity, and an elegant eulogy to the shattered dreams of the 1960s.
Idaho Transfer begins during an ecological crisis that has apparently doomed civilization. Young Isa Braden (Caroline Hildebrand) recruits her sister Karen (Kelly Bohanon) to join their father’s top-secret research study in the Idaho badlands. It seems Braden pere has perfected a teleportation device that can send a traveler to a second transfer station 11 miles away. But what very few people know – not even the project’s government funders – is that the volunteers are transported not only through space, but more than 50 years in the future as well. Knowing that civilization back home is doomed, the travelers must determine if anyone still lives in the seemingly depopulated future Earth. At the same time they are expected to kick-start a new society. But one of their discoveries is that you can never completely leave the past behind, and many of the sins the doomed the old world threaten the new one.
The movie was made in 1973, when filmmakers were busy picking through the wreckage of the utopian 1960s. Idaho Transfer is a bleak and despairing film, with a human species that has finally outsmarted itself, unable to go either forward or back.
To be sure, the movie has its share of problems. Fonda made the decision to cast non-actors in nearly every role, clearly hoping this would yield naturalistic, unaffected performances. Instead, Fonda’s amateur players stumble around on the screen, swallowing their lines, gawking into the middle distance, not knowing which way to look or what to do with their hands. They carry their performances around like buckets filled with steel shot.
Yet somehow, the movie works despite these gormless performances; the very dull, pedestrian line readings lull you into seeing the production as being low-stakes, as though you’re watching a high-school production of Charley’s Aunt; but the beautiful cinematography and the audacious premise point in another direction. These already small characters somehow seem even smaller when the fate of the human species is set down on their shoulders.
Ultimately there is a beauty and a vaunting ambition to this oddball production, and it deserves a wider audience than it’s had up to now. — Michael Popham
IDAHO TRANSFER is presented in partnership with the Minnesota Historical Society. It screens Sunday, March 5 at 3:00, with an introduction by musician Mark Mallman. It also screens Monday and Tuesday, March 6 and 7, at 7:00 and 9:00.