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Classic Movie History Blogathon, Politics and Unrest in Cinema in the Vietnam Era, Part 1: Looking for America

June 28, 2015

This is part 1 of my post for the Classic Movie History Blogathon, hosted by Fritzi (Movies Silently), Ruth (Silver Screenings), and Aurora (Once Upon a Screen). Enjoy!

As I mentioned in my introductory post, while most of the films made In Hollywood and America during the Vietnam War and the time of civil unrest that were informed by those chaotic times did not address the times directly, but did so through genre or by using the past as a way to comment on the present. However, there were a few movies that did take on the times directly, and since they don’t get written about very much, I thought they might be worth covering.

——————————————————————————————————————————————————- “One, two, three, what are we fighting for?” – Greetings, Hi, Mom!Alice’s RestaurantGetting StraightThe Strawberry StatementDrive, He Said. Robert De Niro in “Greetings”.
Today, Brian De Palma is known, or remembered as, a director of horror/thrillers, and most of all as someone who blatantly copies Hitchcock in his films. What’s less well known is the fact he didn’t start out that way. In fact, while there are Hitchcock influences in his work from the beginning, there were also indications he was primarily influenced by Bunuel and Godard even more. Greetings (1968), which takes its title from the first word in a letter from the military letting you know you’ve been drafted, is a revue-type film more than a film revolving a plot. In his film debut, Robert De Niro plays an aspiring filmmaker who’s also a peeping tom, while Jonathan Warden is a lovelorn man trying to meet women through a computer service, and Gerritt Graham is obsessed with the assassination of John F. Kennedy, specifically with proving it was a conspiracy. Aside from being friends, what links them all together is all three of them worry about being drafted, and that’s pretty much the closest thing to a plot the film has. It was the first film ever to be rated “X” under the new ratings system (likely for the scene where Graham uses a naked woman to prove his theory’s about how Kennedy was really killed), and is more interested in sexual mores than politics, but it was one of the first films to question not only the official version of Kennedy’s assassination, but also question the idea of going off the fight in Vietnam. Also, like most revue-type stories, it’s hit-and-miss, but there’s enough that works here to recommend it. Hi, Mom! (1970), De Palma’s unofficial sequel, brings back De Niro, who’s come back from Vietnam and is trying to become a pornographic filmmaker. Most of the film concerns his sexual escapades, but this is worth mentioning here not just as a portrait of a Vietnam vet who’s (relatively) normal after getting out (De Niro’s turn in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, about another former Vietnam vet, couldn’t be more different), but also for a sequence where De Niro joins a revolutionary theater group (headed by Graham), made up mostly of African-Americans, that engages in a confrontational theater piece called “Be Black, Baby”, where white liberals put on blackface and are treated as blacks (the blacks are made up in whiteface), and De Niro, pretending to be a cop, bosses the people in “blackface” as he would regular blacks. This may be an uncomfortable piece to laugh at due to recent events, but it’s designed to be that way anyway, and De Palma is quite audacious here (especially in how he tweaks both sides). It’s interesting to wonder how his career might have turned out if Warner Brothers hadn’t taken away his equally experimental Get to Know Your Rabbit, and he hadn’t turned exclusively to horror films and thrillers.

Arlo Guthrie in “Alice’s Restaurant”.

Timothy Leary once told a group of hippies at the Human Be-In in 1967, “Tune in, turn on, drop out.” Arthur Penn’s Alice’s Restaurant (1969), his follow-up to Bonnie & Clyde, shows a group of people trying to live that philosophy, more or less (the drop out part more than anything else), with mixed results. On Thanksgiving day in 1965, Arlo Guthrie, son of famed folk singer/songwriter Woody Guthrie, and soon to be a singer/songwriter as well, went to a dump to throw out garbage from a meal he’d had with his friends Alice and Ray Brock. When Arlo and his friend Richard discovered the dump was closed, they decided to put the garbage on the street with another pile that was already there. Unfortunately for Arlo, the police discovered what he had done (he left an envelope with his name in it at the scene), and they arrested him for littering. Though the charge was eventually dropped, when Arlo received his draft notice, he was eventually deemed unfit for service because of the littering charge. This so amused Guthrie that he wrote a song about it called “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree”, which Penn and producer Hillard Elkins decided would make a good movie.

In turning the song into a movie, Penn (who also co-wrote the movie with Venable Herndon, an off-Broadway playwright) doesn’t get to the events described into the song until about an hour into the film. Instead, Penn portrays the community that Guthrie (playing himself) finds himself in when he hooks up with Alice and Ray (Patricia Quinn, who plays Alice and appeared in Penn’s The Chase, and James Broderick, who plays Ray and had done plenty of TV work). Quinn and Broderick were the only professional experienced actors in the cast (though M. Emmet Walsh – as an recruiting sergeant – and Tina Chen – as a girlfriend of Guthrie’s in the last third of the film – have small roles), and the use of non-professionals and locals (William J. “Obie” Obanhein, the officer who arrested Guthrie, plays himself, which he justified by saying he didn’t want anyone else making fun of him; folk singers Lee Hays and Pete Seeger also appear as themselves) lends the film an authenticity that wasn’t apparent in other portrayals of hippies at the time. Not only that, but the film doesn’t paint an idealized portrait of the community or the main character; Guthrie, for example, turns down a 15 year old groupie (Shelley Plimpton) because he doesn’t want to take advantage of her, but soon after turns down the owner of a coffeehouse for being too old. Penn also shows how the women of the community get marginalized, as Alice herself starts to realize by the end, especially when Ray makes a big decision near the end without consulting her. Penn’s film isn’t perfect – the subplot involving Roger (Geoff Outlaw), a troubled friend of Arlo’s whom Ray tries to take under his wing, often veers towards melodrama that the movie doesn’t know what to do with, and while Guthrie’s amused detachment comes off well, he doesn’t always have the presence to hold our attention on screen. Still, this was probably the most honest attempt by American movies to show both the hippie culture and why it ultimately failed (at least on the scale its leaders wanted to succeed at).

Elliot Gould and a young Harrison Ford in “Getting Straight”.

Though they weren’t the only places where protests against the war took place, college campuses were often the most visible location of the nation’s unrest, partly because of all the controversial events that took place there (the attempted shutdown of Columbia University, the Kent State shootings), but also because the students were all draft age and felt a personal connection. After Easy Rider, the studios were quick to cash in on the “youth” trend and make movies about campus rebellion. Unfortunately, the ones I saw all miss the mark. I had hopes for Richard Rush’s Getting Straight, not only because I loved Rush’s The Stunt Man, but because Rush’s work up to Getting Straight, on exploitation movies such as Psych-Out (1968), while campy, at least didn’t treat the setting and characters with condescension. However, in adapting Ken Kolb’s novel about a college teacher (Elliot Gould) trying to get his Masters degree so he can go back to teaching literature, seems removed from the subject matter, despite the fact Rush and screenwriter Robert Kaufman update the novel (written in the early 60’s) to the Vietnam era. Gould’s character is now a Vietnam vet and radical who nevertheless sees the folly of both the establishment and the protesters (at a party, Gould ridicules the students as having facile goals, yet also berates his colleagues for missing the point about what they’re protesting). But the characters of the students come off as actors playing dress up rather than real characters, Candace Bergen (as Gould’s on-again, off-again girlfriend) doesn’t have much of a character to play, and she lurches from one extreme to the other, and while Gould is a perfect fit for the role, he’s forced to flail around at times, especially in the worst scene in the movie, when he’s giving his oral presentation for his masters but loses his temper when one of the judges insists F. Scott Fitzgerald was gay (this was also a bad scene in the novel, but Richard Anders’ campy portrayal makes it worse).

Bruce Davison in “The Strawberry Statement”.

When James Simon Kunen wrote The Strawberry Statement, about the protests at Columbia University in 1968, he was a 19 year old student participating in the protests, and while you might argue he lacked the perspective to talk about what was going on, but it was clearly written by someone who was sorting through his feelings about everything, and it’s compelling because of that and to hear about history as it was happening. The fact the movie version, directed by Stuart Hagmann (best known as a TV director to that point) and written by playwright Israel Horovitz, moves the setting from Columbia to Berkeley doesn’t hurt the film by itself; after all, Berkeley was another hotbed of campus unrest. What does hurt the film is just about everything else. Kunen has been changed in the movie to Simon (Bruce Davison), a member of the rowing team who gets involved in the protest movement on the campus (run by, among others, Jeannie Berlin – who was also in Getting Straight – and Bob Balaban) just on a lark rather than through any particular feelings about the state of the world (as opposed to Kunen), and he initially stays mostly because of his attraction to Linda (Kim Darby), one of the students in the protest. The fact that he becomes more radicalized over the movie might have been meaningful if we had seen the transformation, but Hagmann and Horovitz (who has a cameo as a professor) seem more interested in showing off with some truly bizarre scenes such as the camera zooming in and out on Simon as he imagines himself speaking out (you wonder at times, with some of the shots, if Hagmann thinks he’s making a Busby Berkeley movie instead of a protest movie). There’s plenty of talk in the one scene where Simon comes into the ad building the students are occupying, but again, Hagmann and Horovitz seem to think it should only be interesting as a background event. Also, once again, the women are ignored; Darby comes off more natural here than she did in True Grit, but has nothing to do. The only scene that really comes together, since it’s done in a straightforward way, is when Simon and Linda go to a grocery store to get food for the others, and James Coco, as the grocer, offers them encouragement and food and then pretends they robbed him so he won’t get in trouble. Horovitz apparently said in an interview he wanted to reach the average student, not the committed radical, but The Strawberry Statement (taken from a Columbia University administrator who said students opinions on how the school was run meant no more to him than if they said they liked strawberries) doesn’t seem to be made for anybody except for fans of show-off cinema.

Bruce Dern as the coach in “Drive, He Said”.

Drive, He Said (1971), which marked the directorial debut of Jack Nicholson (he also co-wrote the screenplay with Jeremy Larner, based on Larner’s novel; Terrence Malick and Robert Towne also did uncredited work), opens with the juxtaposition of a college basketball game being played (the name of the school isn’t given, though it’s meant to take place in Ohio, and was shot at the University of Oregon) while a group of revolutionaries plan a piece of theater to disrupt the game to protest the war. It’s an effective scene, and I wish the rest of the movie – which follows the life of Hector (William Tepper), the star of the team, who isn’t sure if it means anything to him anymore, and his roommate Gabriel (Michael Margotta), who participated in the protest, and wants to avoid getting drafted – had lived up to it. Unlike the other two films, Nicholson does seem to have a real feel for the campus unrest (it helps he shot one scene during an actual student protest), and as a real-life basketball fanatic, he knows how to present the basketball scenes as well (it also helps his friend Bruce Dern gives a very good performance as the coach). But the subplot about Hector still being hung up on his ex-girlfriend Olive (Karen Black), who’s now with a professor (Towne), seems shoehorned in, and Gabriel also seems like an ill-defined character at times. There are striking scenes, as when Gabriel shoots up a television after calling it an instrument of evil (apparently Nicholson’s own real-life feelings), but it feels like an unfinished film. Still, like Zabriskie Point, this deserves to be remembered as a film that doesn’t actually patronize the students protesting the war.

——————————————————————————————————————————————————–

Black Power: Medium CoolWUSAThe Man.

“The whole world is watching” – “Medium Cool”.

Haskell Wexler is probably best remembered today as a cinematographer of such films as In the Heat of the NightOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Coming Home, but he’s also a filmmaker in his own right. Most of his directing output has been documentaries dealing with various left-wing causes he’s interested in, but one of his few features, Medium Cool (1969), is one of the best movies about the unrest of the time. Shot during the weeks leading up to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, the film is told through the eyes of John (Robert Forster), a TV news reporter, and Eileen (Verna Bloom), a woman from the Appalachia area who moves to the city with her son Harold (Harold Blankenship). There is a relationship that develops between the two (started when John catches Harold trying to break into his car), but most of the film is about the type of stories John covers, and of course the events unfolding around them. John happens upon a story of a cab driver named Frank (Sid McCoy) who finds an envelope with $10,000 in his cab and tries to turn it into the police, only to come under suspicion for stealing the money because he’s African-American. John claims he wants to tell the story to show what kind of a person Frank was for turning in the money, but the militant group Frank is living with accuses John of exploiting Frank for the story, asking why the media is never interested in the real story of African-Americans.

In an interview included on the Criterion edition of the film, Wexler admits while the main reason he wrote this scenario (which the actors mostly improvised) was because of the friends he made in the African-American community who he wanted to represent fairly, but while he had a feeling violence would erupt in Chicago during the convention, he thought it would be involve African-Americans (which, given the riots that had erupted in other cities, was a reasonable guess) rather than anti-Vietnam War protesters. Still, Wexler did prepare for the latter by showing riot police preparing early on by having training sessions with other police pretending to be anti-war protesters (which was documentary-like footage Wexler shot himself). Wexler also inserts his characters into both the convention (John is covering it) and in the protests around it, especially in the memorable sequence when Eileen runs through the protest looking for Harold, who’s run off (in one bit of humanizing, one of the policemen, who’s taken a hard-line approach to the protesters, allows Eileen to go through without comment when he hears why she’s there). And Wexler has other instances of foreshadowing to the violence to come (as when John does a segment at a firing range and the manager (Peter Boyle in one of his first roles) is showing housewives how to use handguns), as well as the way the Powers That Be view the citizens (John is outraged when he finds out from his station manager the FBI is using his footage to try and catch the members of the militant group Frank was with). Instead of making the story “Hollywood”, Wexler is out to capture the reality of what’s going on (while still telling a fictional story), and doing it in a way Godard (who Wexler acknowledged as an influence, and even pays homage to in a scene where John apes Jean-Paul Belmondo from Breathless) would have tipped his hat to, I think.

Paul Newman and Anthony Perkins in “WUSA”.

One of the subplots of WUSA (1970), adapted by Robert Stone from his novel A Hall of Mirrors and directed by Stuart Rosenberg, also involves a character realize a story he’s doing about African-Americans is being used by his bosses for sinister purposes. Rainey (Anthony Perkins) is doing a survey of people who are on welfare, which he think will be helping them out, but is actually being used by higher-ups, led by Pat Hingle, the owner of the right-wing radio station of the title, to kick them off of welfare. Perkins’ usual nervous persona here works very well, not only making his awkwardness during the interview scenes credible, but also keeps his anger at being used and by what’s being done by Hingle and his cronies from curdling into self-righteousness. The whole sequence would have worked better, however, if Rosenberg and Stone had taking a page from Wexler and actually taken the time to get to know the characters Perkins interviews instead of just using them for the purpose of the story. That, in a way, is symptomatic of the problem of the entire film, which mostly concentrates on Paul Newman as a cynical former musician who gets at WUSA, and his real-life wife Joanne Woodward as a former prostitute. In trying to tell the story of how the right-wing is co-opting the media and is becoming dangerous because of this (a not-unreasonable fear even then), Rosenberg and Stone, while capturing the atmosphere of the setting (New Orleans) very well, seem only interested in the characters as stick figures (Stone admittedly developed them better in the novel), especially Woodward’s ill-defined character. Plus, Newman, who was a passionate liberal in real life, seems to be sleepwalking through the role, and he’s let down by the ending of the movie (different from the novel, where he was inspired to action). Except for Perkins and Hingle, the only performer who registers is Laurence Harvey as a con artist who’s aligned himself with the right-wingers.

James Earl Jones in “The Man”.

Even when Barrack Obama was running for president back in 2008, it seemed amazing the country had come along far enough that an African-American could have a legitimate shot chance at the highest office of the land. 50 years earlier, it was outright inconceivable. At least, that was the viewpoint of trash novelist Irving Wallace, who, in his novel The Man, had his African-American character become President through a bizarre set of circumstances (I don’t know if this is a mistake or intentional, but in the “Library Use Only” section of one of the branches of the Manhattan library, the novel is classified as “Science Fiction”). In 1972, eight years after the novel was published, director Joseph Sargent (the original adaptation of The Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3) and writer Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone) made a movie from it. I’ve not read the novel, but while most of the circumstances are similar in how Douglas Dilman (James Earl Jones) becomes president – the president and speaker of the house die in an accident, though in the movie, the vice-president (Lew Ayres) refuses the presidency because he’s too ill to assume office, where in the novel, he’s been dead for a while – Sargent and Serling concentrate on one major challenge Dilman has during his term as president. Robert Wheeler (Georg Stanford Brown), an African-American activist, is accused of going to South Africa and throwing a bomb in the car of one of their ministers, and Dilman must decide whether to have him extradited or not, particularly when Wheeler claims he’s innocent and Senator Watson (Burgess Meredith) comes up with evidence that he claims proves Wheeler is lying.

Sargent had intended to make the movie for TV, but it was put out in theaters instead, and when Jones was interviewed not long before President Obama took office, he admitted he wished they had the time and money to make a proper movie when they heard they were headed to theaters instead of TV screens. You can see Jones’ point; everything is spelled out completely, especially in scenes where an African-American reporter (Robert DoQui) spurs Dilman to take charge of a press conference by wondering when Dilman will get to speak his own mind, and where Kay (Barbara Rush), wife of Arthur (William Windom), the Secretary of State, denigrates both Dilman and his daughter Wanda (Janet MacLachlan) right in front of them at a state dinner. Also, obviously, the production values weren’t as good for a TV movie back then as they would have been for a regular movie. Nevertheless, this is still worth watching for a couple of reasons. Most of all is Jones’ performance as someone who knows he’s a pawn for several different sides but manages to weather things as best as he can. At first, I was worried he was playing things a bit too stiff, but once his character starts to assert himself more, he gets better and more expansive in the role. The other reason is what many films from well-intentioned directors about race have left out – namely, casual racism. Hollywood has been very earnest in portraying the real bigots, less so in portraying those who would say, “I’m no racist, but…” and then turn out to be just as bad as the obvious racists, or in portraying those who are more patronizing than racist. The only out-and-out racist character here is Kay; even Senator Watson, who apparently is pro-segregation, never becomes a caricature, and you can see how the other characters, in trying to help Dilman – including Jim (Martin Balsam, who, along with Jones, gives the movie’s best performance), his chief of staff – treat him in a patronizing manner, writing out his scripts for his questions (which is why the reporter calls Dilman out), which might be reasonable for a politician who’s not prepared for the office of presidency, but still comes off as if they feel Dilman might not be able to handle the office because of his race. That, and Jones’ performance (along with Balsam, MacLachlan as Dilman’s more radical daughter, and a few others) lift The Man above not only most made-for-TV movies of the time, but also most “well-intentioned” movies dealing with race.

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We’ve got to pick a candidate” – Nashville.

Ronee Blakely and Henry Gibson at a political rally in “Nashville”.

When Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), my third favorite movie of the decade (behind the first two Godfather movies), gets discussed, it’s usually in terms not only of its technical achievements – the way he and writer Joan Tewkesbury are able to juggle 24 major characters in a movie almost three hours long without breaking a sweat – and its portrait of both the city of the title and of country music, that city’s main product. But it’s also worth discussing in terms of politics and the way it references the unrest of the time. After all, one of the main storylines Altman and Tewkesbury weave into this panorama of a movie is how Hal Phillip Walker, a candidate we never see but hear throughout, is running for President as an independent (for the Replacement Party). We hear his slogans (written by Altman’s friend Thomas Hal Phillips), and while some of what he says makes sense (“Congress is made up of 535 individuals. 288 are lawyers. And you wonder what’s wrong in Congress”), but he also spouts platitudes that sound both safe and ridiculous (“Does Christmas smell like oranges to you?”), and takes some out there positions (he wants to eliminate tax subsidies to farmers), which makes him like most every other politician, no matter how much he paints himself as an outsider. Not only that, but John Triplette (Michael Murphy), Walker’s campaign manager, and Delbert Reese (Ned Beatty), a local political organizer, are as unscrupulous in their own ways as any other politician’s campaign staff, especially when maneuvering Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakely), a fragile singing star, into singing at a rally/concert for Walker, or getting Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles), a waitress and tone-deaf singer who doesn’t know she can’t sing, into doing a striptease at a fundraiser for Walker.

Just as important, we see how closely, through the prism of country music, the entertainment industry and politicians are entwined. This had been a fact of American life since at least the 30’s, but rarely acknowledged in the movies. Altman and Tewkesbury are less interested, however, in how politicians might use the lessons of Hollywood to change their image – as Elia Kazan had done in A Face in the Crowd – and more in showing how cozy and yet fraught with negotiation that relationship is. One of the stars Triplette tries to nab for the rally is Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), who pens patriotic hymns (for the upcoming millennial of the country, he’s penned a song which includes the refrain, “We must have done something right to last 200 years”), and professes himself above politics, refusing to endorse any candidate, yet agreeing to play the rally only if Barbara Jean plays (meaning Connie White (Karen Black), Barbara Jean’s rival, won’t play). That’s just one of many ways Altman and Tewkesbury subvert our expectations. Due to not only the horrors veterans had to face in Vietnam, but also the way that had started to be portrayed on screen, we expect Pfc Kelly (Scott Glenn), who follows Barbara Jean around, to be a deranged stalker of some kind, but he turns out to be just a devoted fan. We also are set up for some kind of assassination, given not only the mistaken signals we think we see with Kelly, but also Lady Pearl (Barbara Baxley), Haven’s mistress, speaking with melancholy about both John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, so it comes as quite a shock when not only have we guessed the wrong assassin (it’s Kenny Frasier (David Hayward), a quiet man who had hitchhiked to the city), but the wrong target; it’s Barbara Jean and not Walker (this, by the way, shows another subversion of our expectations; Haven, who had come off as unctuous and selfish up till this person, ignores the wound he gets, thinks of others instead of himself, and pleads for the crowd to keep calm and to remember, “This isn’t Dallas!”). Medium Cool ends with chants of “The whole world is watching!” (taken from the audio of the protests outside the convention), and a cameraman (played by Wexler) pointing his camera at us after a tragedy as if to remind us of that fact. Altman’s movie, by contrast, ends with a rendition of “It Don’t Worry Me”, a song that had sounded complacent earlier, but now comes off with a combination of defiance and of the feeling of “bash on, regardless”!

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3 Comments
  1. You’ve made me want to see ALL these movies. However, I think the one I’m most anxious to see is James Earl Jones in “The Man”.

    You’re right – these movies don’t get much press but, based on what you’ve written, they say just as much as the more well-known films from this era.

    FYI –I nearly choked on my glass of water at your phrase “show-off cinema”. Perfect!

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