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Friday, May 20, 2011

Fourteen or Fight! WILD IN THE STREETS (1968)

In today's environ of political stagnancy we may no longer remember how it could even be possible, but between 1967 and '70, the establishment was seriously concerned about being overrun by its own children. The suits were scared, the politicians saw the size of the crowds at Woodstock, the small cities worth of people who would appear within a week of some rock star announcing a free concert, and they knew no army could stand in their way. And we have WILD IN THE STREETS to prove it. This is the film that made good on the ever-looming urban myth, that the hippies wanted to spike the water supply with LSD, lower the voting age (the age to vote didn't get lowered to 18 until 1971), and send everyone over 30 off to camps for 're-grooving' (1). The only old guy in the film is the original Ed Begley as a youth-hating politician advising California senator Hal Holbrook not to make a deal with the devil, or a young rock star, in this case Max Frost (Christopher Jones, who looks like James Dean's reincarnation times Martin Sheen).

Max is handsome and charismatic, and has a fine drummer in Richard Pryor; Kevin Coughlin is his 14 year-old queer super genius accountant and guitar player; Diane Varsi is the ex-child star resident free spirit. Shelly Winters is the broad comic mom and her schtick has not aged well. Songs include "Shape of Things to Come," which was a real-life hit. There's also "We're 52%"  and "Fourteen or Fight!" both encouraging youth to go on a rampage if the voting age isn't lowered. Eventually it is: Frost is elected prez, baby and the organized jihad against the older generation begins in earnest.

What's interesting is that this film came out a year before Woodstock and Altamont, but it's already prefigured in "the biggest block party in history" that narrator Paul Frees calls Frost's Sunset Strip demonstration. Frees also adds that the older "people die of shock just watching TV." Oh if only, man, if only.  The songs were written by Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann who wrote songs in the following year's ANGEL ANGEL DOWN WE GO, which would have been more of a hit had the whole charismatic hippy cult leader thing not have suddenly gotten a terrible rap thanks to the Manson murders (WILD would probably have been pulled from release had it come out a year later).

But that was then, let's focus up on 1968, the year this film came out, hitting a nice little nerve during a very turbulent and hopeful time. Up until this point in history the youth had a pretty serious voice, especially on campus, where they regularly made local and even national news protesting and holding sit-ins. It was the year that battles against sexism, racism, censorship, and sexual taboos raged and groups like the Rolling Stones could gather hundreds of thousands at the drop of a hat, and no cop on earth could make them disperse. If they wanted, these bands could start a real revolution with their long hair and their rock music.

But the fear on the establishment's end evaporated by the end of the Vietnam era, overdoses and ennui saw to that, and Manson and Altamont and the fearful way Melvin Belli and assorted city planners are forced to accommodate the crowds and not the other way around. You can feel the unease as the old powers bow to the whims of the young in GIMME SHELTER. And the way the wild anarchy of druggie California weirdness in turn overwhelms the music itself.

On that note, it's to the credit of TV director Barry Shear that he can depict Max's massive shows of youth revolt via nothing more than tinted stock footage: the nightly crowds on the Sunset Strip, a parking lot bonfire, parked motorcycles, stalled traffic, random shots of crowds dancing, tinted windows, blinking signs, audiences from rock concert films and earlier love-ins, skylines, and the Capital Building -all whirled together in a color-styled Eisensteinian montage. In other words, nary a farthing spent on crowd scenes. An assortment of faces from the counterculture come and go, as is their wont: Bobby Sherman, Peter Tork, Gary Busey. As with most AIPs, there's less than a dozen people in the whole movie but if you're drunk or ten years-old it can seem like the most dangerous, expensive, a bigger canvas suggested by drawing on parallel drive-in experiences.

Writer Robert Thom based the script on his short story, "The Day it all Happened, Baby." Thom wrote a lot of films about overbearing moms and their beautiful Apollonian sons, like CULT OF THE DAMNED (the mom sleeps with the rock star boyfriend of her heavy daughter), BLOODY MAMA (Mama sleeps with her son's gay lover, Bruce Dern), DEATHRACE 2000 (son runs over old lady), LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE (snide old lady gossip columnist hounds Byronic filmmaker) etc. Thom was born in 1929 so you do the math, he was old, daddy, old. Pushin' 40 when this film was made, this film with its groovy finger on the supple ribs of beautiful youth. In other words it's got Sebastian Venable fingerprints all over its subtexts.

Come to think of it, has Robert Thom ever written a straight love scene? Like a genuine no-nonsense straight people being genuinely romantic kind of trip? Oh wow... no, there's no sex in WILD IN THE STREETS, and the one moment of intimacy comes with Jones and another boy. Oh Thom. As Diane Varsi notes with a loving, languid smile, "methinks you boys are fags."

That's all good though, and awesome. There's also plenty of psychedelic light show madness and teeny bopper blonde hair. That said, the music still has traces of AIP's patented corniness: lazy horn sections remind you that the older generation making the film harbor unconscious resentment for their drive-in demographic, like the horn section is sneering as their talents are wasted on 1-4-5 rock tripe. But they shall play it or go to the camps! Even Shelly Winters eventually has to bow and gurgle to please them, and methinks we're meant to feel bad for her, for in her bloated, indiscriminate devouring does she not represent America itself? But America has always thrived on dissent. Sometimes the greatest patriots are those who would elect a mentally unstable sociopath "just to see what would happen." (you know who I mean).

After WILD was over, I turned cable back on and there was this show on History Channel: '69 - The Sexual Revolution' and Hugh Hefner talking about how he and Shel Silverstein appreciated the free love movement more than the youth around them because they--he and Shel--had grown up in a more conservative time. And I thought, like wow, dig, my generation is living the exact reverse!! I saw enough sexual liberation as a kid in the 1970s that I've come to feel I'll never--no matter how debauched I become--ever live up to that level of freedom, and the younger kids are threatened not by my moral rigidity, but my lack thereof; my preaching of a time before safety, health, environmentalism, and antidepressants (which are a lot like the daily LSD supplements in the re-grooving camps set up by Max) when sex didn't need apologies and guilt trailing after it, repression and fear blocking its path. WILD IN THE STREETS reflects a time when the idea of freedom and the banners of sex, drugs, and rock and roll had permanently (we thought) done away with the nanny state Safety First Clydes and racist, sexist, homophobic Anita Bryants, or at least reduced them to powerless Shelly Winters caricatures whose raving actually made the average Americans more tolerant. But our nation is nothing if not bi-polar, half terrified family man, half crazed druggie biker.

That's the beauty of America - when you're always fighting yourself, you just can't lose.

1) Firesign Theater - Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him


  1. Very nicely done appreciation of WITS, a personal favorite of mine. I recently submitted an article about the making of the film to FILMFAX magazine.

  2. I saw this at the drive-in in 1968 when I was 14 and it rocked my world. I remember my date, the dress I was wearing, and I still have the scar on my thigh where I accidentally burned myself with my cigarette while trying to watch the movie and make out at the same time. I bought the album (still have it) and recently got my hands on the DVD. When I watched it with my now-61-year-old eyes it freaked me out. Man, am I old.