Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Friday, May 20, 2011

Fourteen or Fight! WILD IN THE STREETS (1968) or "The Day it all Happened, Baby."


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 (1968) to prove it. This is the film that made good on the ever-looming urban myth about the evil hippie plan to spike the water supply with LSD, that foresaw the lowering of the voting age (the age to vote didn't get lowered to 18 until 1971), and threatened to 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 the only-then semi-old 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 x Martin Sheen).


Max is handsome and charismatic; he can even get away with having a weird pony tail - he's that hot. Richard Pryor plays his drummer; Kevin Coughlin is his 14 year-old queer (!) super genius accountant and guitar player; Diane Varsi is his ex-child star / acid casualty senator. Shelly Winters brays to the rafters and his glomming mom and her schtick has not aged well (until she gets a dose of the water supply and decides, "I'm sure my son has a very good reason for paralyzing the country.") Songs include "Shape of Things to Come" (a real-life hit), "We're the 52%" and "Fourteen or Fight!" both encouraging youth to go on a rampage if the voting age isn't lowered to 14. Eventually, after a few more rungs in between, it is. As soon as that happens, naturally 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' narration also mentions 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 it not had a late-inning title change (to CULT OF THE DAMNED) to capitalize on the Manson murders, or if it had a real hook like this whole voting age business.


But hey, baby, 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, even pipe-smoking voice, especially on college 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, Vietnam, and sexual taboos raged and America seemed ready to rip its face off.  If they wanted, these bands could start a real revolution with their long hair and their rock music.

I wasn't thee, of course, but anyone can feel the change and nervousness just by watching GIMME SHELTER. The scene were Melvin Belli acting as the Stones' lawyer, meets with assorted SF city planners to coordinate the Altamon Speedway free concert. There's a sense the city needs to accommodate the crowds the Stones will bring and not the other way around. You can feel the unease as the old powers bow to the whims of the young. And then later in the film, 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 without any big crowd scenes, really via nothing more than tinted stock footage of the nightly crowds on the Sunset Strip, overlapping with a parking lot bonfire, parked motorcycles, stalled traffic, random shots of crowds dancing, tinted windows, blinking signs, audience shots from earlier rock concert films and earlier love-ins, skylines, and the Capital Building -all whirled together in a color-styled Eisensteinian overlapping montage set to the bands' music and cheering and sirens. In other words, nary a farthing spent on crowd scenes. Genius! To give the film that you-are-there youth clout, there are walk-on cameos from youth idols like Bobby Sherman, Peter Tork, and 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 film ever made; in the style Corman brought to AIP (and later took with him) a bigger canvas is suggested by drawing on parallel drive-in experiences (i.e. we don't need 'new' crowd shots, we've seen plenty already).

Writer Robert Thom wrote the script, 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 that ANGEL ANGEL AKA CULT OF THE DAMNED (the fat girl's rich bitch mom Jennifer Jones sleeps with her daughter's rock-star boyfriend), 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. It doesn't take much psycho-analytic deconstruction to glean Thom's whole life story, which is great, don't get me wrong, it makes him the link between the AIP drive-in and Tennessee Williams. Sebastian Venable's fingerprints are 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 seduction but never love; 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."

Again, it may seem 'strange' but hey, for a commercial film from 1968 meant for mass drive-in appeal, that kind of risk-taking is awesome. Buried under the main text, and enough psychedelic light show madness and teeny bopper blonde hair to keep the older generation confused, it can fly right by if you ain't lookin'.  For all that great covert stride-taking, however, 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) 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, the type of whose raving actually made the average Americans more tolerant (Anita Bryant's rabid hate-mongering actually turned a lot of Middle-America around on the issue --i.e. if this evil bitch hates them so much, they must be OK). 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.

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

4 comments:

  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.

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  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.

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    Replies
    1. You have a great memory, and are fortunate to have lived during this time. I'm reading a book now called 'The Dream Life' by J. Hobermann. It's look at politics and pop culture during the 1960's. A number of references to this movie which I have ordered on DVD. Peace!

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