Fifty years ago a film about anti-war protest, black rights and students wanting a say in the administration of a university, all wrapped up in philosophical ideology about integrity and self-identification was made starring Elliott Gould and Candice Bergen, directed by Richard Rush (who did Freebie and Bean which I’ve now mentioned twice in my reviews) and a cherub-faced Harrison Ford. Parts of this film may as well be current, and despite the fact that it presaged the horror of Kent State by a couple of years, the film holds some terrific nuggets of interest for anyone who’s tried and failed to excel in a system that is supposed to provide us all a fighting chance at a life well lived.
Gould plays an older student working on his masters degree in English lit, his ultimate goal is to teach on a grade school level, so he’s also working on his certification. Meanwhile he’s trying to keep his apartment (he gets tossed for back rent), keep his heap of a car running (it blows it’s heads and throws oil everywhere), and help advise student organizations (he’s burned out on it, and feels like it’s not worth his effort–he wants to move on with his life). The rest of the time he spends loving and arguing with Candace Bergen and more or less being a lady’s man on campus (poor guy!).
It’s a fairly touching film in a more serious vein than The Graduate, and The Paper Chase, but with a more linear feel than Antonioni’s Zabriski Point which covers some of the same social ground. This film, quite a good one really, even if you find Gould’s Harry character kind of lacking in ethics (he does cheat on exams and perhaps lovers a good bit!) there’s a good amount of story-telling and critical social discontent mixed into the fray and while you’re wondering if he’s going to make it, the film kind of pulls the rug out from under all that in terms of expectations (especially for us gen-Xers on). I suppose the Boomers may have gotten tired of this kind of ideological – hippy comic-drama a long time ago, but I sure haven’t. I find the thing a breath of fresh air in our sourly violent and overtly pragmatic (super-hero saturated) times.
One of the very first lines comes from an irate young woman bellowing to Gould who is rushing to get to class, which she finds unfathomable, she yells at him: the military industrial complex will lock us all in concentration camps! She’s implying quite soon! Gould is late and wants his teaching certification though. The struggle here is with that pragmatism our current crop of adults have been entirely weened on (what else is there?). The terror of the moment, we now can chuckle at that fear (all the way back in 1970), but can we really?
Another terrific line, and you know it’s a great movie when there’s two memorable and thought provoking moments, comes when Gould is arguing with some minorities about their motivations and causes, he beautifully blurts something I long felt but was not rewarded for saying (and more of this pragmatic generation is why) he tells his younger friends that they should “stop trying to join us! You need to be better than us!”. Easily tossed off, certainly, but also a deeply held hope for any of us who have screwed everything up (I know I know, easy for us to say — goddamned it, be better!). Also, perhaps, because Gould’s Harry knows the cause was not going to give him his desires. He does not discourage the young protesters he tells them that their fight is important, just maybe not as important as some other actual actions. Campus protest, he implies, isn’t really valuable, it’s being “allowed” and “tolerated”. At least to a point! Back to thinking about Kent State that this film could not have imagined, or did it, the national guard lounging about the campus after the police hide their badges (sound familiar??) and start clubbing the students certainly can’t be interpreted any other way so many years, post Kent State, later.
Harry’s Master’s degree defense is wholly unexpected, and new knowledge explored! At least for me! And the atmospherics and occasional overweening demonstration from Gould could be called hubris in another film, but here they work beautifully. Hell we forgive him his trespasses and eccentricity. A finer form for Gould had not been created since he did Hawkeye in the original M.A.S.H.
The reason this film could not be a call to arms, or a demonstration of drawing a line, lies in the fact that the working-class poor, as presented in our film, can’t really sustain the argument. Bergen’s well off parents host Harry and Harry immediately gets into an argument at dinner with her father. It’s not a bad one, but all the same knot-headed noise gets made today. The police beat the protesters, but the old man thinks the protesters were egging on the cops and were doing illegal deeds. Harry points out that even if they were compared to the deeds accomplished by the authorities it’s beans. Today we can argue about the symbolic monuments erected, in many cases, not as sober reminders of the folly of war and the innocent deaths of unfortunate farm-boys, but as reactions to Civil Rights and enforced White Supremacy (Pride!)! Is it wrong to topple a crude symbol of injustice? When we see a protester friend, lit in an emotional rampage smashing building windows in a kind of spasm of victory, caught in Harry’s arms, and for a moment smiling at one another but incapable of expressing anything, we are given that emotionalism that becomes so hard to justify. I have to think about it, my rational outlook too often disregards the emotional unrest.
Amidst all this we’re meant to think about our protagonist couple. The real world so quickly forgets, but a film cannot. Fitting in, and making wild decisions. Letting go, not of complacency (as no one was complacent) but of fear of failure and lack of success . . . these are real life concerns well dealt with.
Thanks to my pal at Film-Authority.com for reminding me of a great film I’d put off too long. it’s 4 bucks on Prime! Well worth the study.