Well, all good things must come to an end and that includes my cinematic trip back to college. Now, just in case you’re feeling that my trip back was a bit too overly critical and snarky, allow me to conclude things with a scene that I truly love. This is a scene that so epitomizes everything that’s great about college. The film takes places in the 60s and was filmed in the 70s but National Lampoon’s Animal House is a truly a timeless film.
At this point, during my cinematic journey back to college, I paused and considered the films that I had already watched. I had watched three films about campus political activists and one film about a college tennis team and the results had been mixed. How, I wondered, could it be that watching none of these films, with the possible exception of R.P.M., was as much fun as actually attending college?
And then it occurred to me that a huge part of the problem was that I really couldn’t relate to any of the characters in the previous films I had watched. Political activists bore me to tears and, for that matter, so do jocks. So, for my next college film, I decided to take care of that problem by re-watching a movie that I actually could relate to — 2012’s Pitch Perfect.
I was recently shocked when a male acquaintance of mine told me that he loved Pitch Perfect. Don’t get me wrong — I love Pitch Perfect, too. But it’s never really struck me as a film that guys would like.
“Really?” I said, “I love Pitch Perfect! What was your favorite part?”
“The shower,” he said.
And suddenly, it all made sense.
In Pitch Perfect, alienated college student Beca (Anna Kendrick) is taking a shower at her dorm and, thinking she’s alone, she starts singing. Earlier in the day, she had turned down a chance to audition for an all girls a capella group, saying that she really couldn’t sing. However, as this scene shows, she actually has a wonderful voice.
However, one of the members of the a capella group — Chloe (Brittany Show) — is over in the next shower stall and, as soon as she overhears Beca singing, she confronts her with, “I knew you could sing!” and she and the reluctant Beca end up singing Titanium together.
(And, of course, they’re both naked while doing it, which I imagine is the reason why, whenever I mention Pitch Perfect around any guy, the shower scene always seems to come up. Of course, none of them ever mentions my favorite part of the scene, which is when the cute guy who was taking a shower with Chloe pops up and tells the girls that they sound really good.)
Even though I’ve never been invited to be a member of an a capella singing group, I could relate to that scene, if just because I also sing in the shower and, during my first year at college, I lived in a dorm with a communal shower as well. Every time I took a shower, I would sing — not to be obnoxious but just because that’s what I had always done and, when I was living at home, nobody ever seemed to have a problem with me singing.
And, like anyone who has ever spontaneously broke out into song, I guess there was always a part of me that hoped it would inspire a complete stranger to tell me how talented I was. I didn’t necessarily want anyone to interrupt my shower but there was a part of me that always hoped someone would say, “I knew you could sing!”
So, one morning, I was down in the Bruce Hall cafeteria and I overheard two girls who lived on the same wing as me talking.
“Oh my God,” I heard one of them say, “did you hear her singing in the shower this morning?”
“Oh my God,” the other replied, “she has got the worst voice I have ever heard. I’m just like, ‘Bitch, will you shut the fuck up?'”
Now, I’d like to say that I stood up for myself and told both of them off, because that’s what would have happened in a movie like Pitch Perfect. Unfortunately, however, I wasn’t in a movie. I was in the real world, I was 18, I was insecure, and I was living away from home for the first time. So, instead of turning around and challenging those two mean girls to a sing-off, I went back to my room and cried. Then I got mad and said “Fuck them!” Then I cried some more. And this went on for a while.
Finally, my roommate Kim got tired of watching me pace back and forth, alternatively crying and cursing. Standing in front of me, she said, “Lisa, do you like to sing?”
“Yes,” I replied, in between sobs, “and how dare they–”
“If you like singing, then sing!”
To this day, those six words make up some of the best advice I’ve ever been given. As soon as I heard them, I felt better. And yes, I did take Kim’s advice. Every time I took a shower, I would sing. Of course now, I made it a point to sing as loudly and as with much twang in my voice as possible. If I couldn’t be the best, then I was happily going to embrace being the worst. The important thing is that I enjoyed singing so that was what I was going to do and if they didn’t like it, that was their problem.
But anyway, this review is supposed to be about Pitch Perfect and what can I say other than it’s one of my favorite films of all time. The plot is predictable — of course, Beca joins the a capella group and of course, she, Fat Amy (played by Rebel Wilson, who is like a hilarious force of nature in this film), and a bunch of other unlikely singers go on to compete and win. And yes, in the end, Beca also gets a really cute boyfriend.
Pitch Perfect really is pretty much Bring It On with a capella replacing cheerleading. But, who cares? The music is great, the cast is full of good actors (and Elizabeth Banks has a hilarious cameo as a commentator), and it’s just a very likeable and enjoyable movie. If you’re not happy after watching Pitch Perfect, then there’s probably no hope for you.
In other words, it’s a movie that makes me want to sing.
Having already watched 3 campus protests from 1970, I decided that maybe I should watch something a little bit less heavy-handed for my next college film. But I knew that, in order to find a college film that would have nothing serious on its mind, I would have to find a film that was made after the 70s.
That’s what led to me getting out my Too Cool For School DVD boxset and watching Jocks, a “comedy” from 1987. As you can probably guess from the sarcastic use of quotation marks, I probably would have been better off staying in the 70s.
Christopher Lee (!) plays the President White, the strict president of L.A. College. President White is upset because the athletic department has failed to win a championship in over ten years so he gives Coach Bettlebom (played by veteran character actor R. G. Armstrong) an ultimatum: win a championship or lose his job. Bettlebom argues that the rest of the athletic department would be able to win if it wasn’t for the financial obligation of supporting the school’s tennis team. Bettlebom then tells tennis Coach Williams (played by Shaft himself, Richard Roundtree) that he’s canceling the tennis program and all of the tennis players are going to lose their scholarships. Williams responds by making a bet. If the tennis team wins the national championship, the tennis program will continue. And if they don’t, the team will cease to exist, Williams will be out of a job, and the members of the tennis team will all be forced to drop out of college and have their lives totally ruined…
Wait a minute.
That makes absolutely no sense.
What the Hell is Coach Williams thinking!?
That’s the sort of thinking that leads students to protest and occupy buildings and basically act like they’re extras in Getting Straight, Zabriskie Point, and R.P.M.
But anyway, let’s just move on and not worry about things like logic and narrative sense. It’s time to meet the tennis team!
There’s Tex (Adam Mills), who doesn’t have a Texas accent. Tex doesn’t really do much but he’s certainly in a lot of scenes.
There’s Andy (Stoney Jackson), the flamboyant black guy who freaks out his opponents by pretending to be gay, because this film was made in the 20th Century.
There’s Chito (Trinidad Silva), who speaks Spanish and dramatically crosses himself before playing each set.
There’s Ripper (Donald Gibb), who has a thick beard, growls a lot, and appears to be in his 40s.
There’s Jeff (Perry Lang), the nice guy. In a film full of unlikable characters, Jeff seems to be, at the very least, a decent guy. Plus, he has a fairly funny drunk scene and, when you’re watching a film like Jocks, you come to appreciate fairly funny.
And then there’s The Kid (Scott Strader), who apparently doesn’t have a name. Seriously, even President White calls him “The Kid.” As you might guess about someone with a permanent nickname, The Kid is a master tennis player.
Anyway, the team goes to the championships in Las Vegas where they engage in the usual drunken hijinks and basically act like a bunch of jerks. They also play some rather boring tennis games. The Kid falls for a tennis groupie played by future Law & Order: SVU star Mariska Hargitay. Eventually, it all comes down to whether or not the team can beat Dallas Tech and, as a proud Texas girl, I’m not ashamed to admit that I was saying, “Go Dallas!” the entire time.
So, is Jocks worth watching?
If you’re a Christopher Lee fan, maybe. But, honestly, I think Sir Christopher would forgive you if you skipped this one.
For my next return-to-college film, I ended up watching R.P.M. Like both Getting Straight and Zabriskie Point, R.P.M. was released in 1970 and deals with political unrest on campus.
Directed by Stanley Kramer (who also gave us such respectable and middlebrow liberal films asGuess Who’s Coming To Dinner and Judgment at Nuremberg),R.P.M. takes place at prestigious college. Students radicals led by Rossiter (Gary Lockwood) and Dempsey (Paul Winfield) have taken over a building on campus. When the university’s president goes to confront the students, one of them yells out, “Buzz off!” Well, you know how sensitive college presidents are. He quickly resigns his post and the students demand that he be replaced either by Che Guevara, Eldridge Cleaver, or Paco Perez.
Unfortunately, Guevara is dead and Cleaver is in Algeria. Fortunately, left-wing sociology professor Paco Perez (Anthony Quinn) is available and he just happens to teach on campus! Perez is named interim president of the college. Now, Perez has to bring peace to the campus, despite the fact that the protestors now see him as a sell-out because he accepted the position. Perez also has to deal with nonstop snarky comments from his girlfriend, a grad student named Rhoda (played by Ann-Margaret).
Especially when compared to Getting Straight and Zabriskie Point, R.P.M. is something of a forgotten film. I haven’t found many reviews online and the majority of them mostly seem to focus on the fact that the film is dated and that director Stanley Kramer’s portrayal of the student protestors is incredibly negative. And, in many ways, those criticisms are perfectly valid. And yet, with all that in mind, I still loved R.P.M. Of the three 1970 campus protest films that I watched last weekend, R.P.M. was my personal favorite.
Why do I so love R.P.M?
Well, let’s check out some of the dialogue.
When Paco first comes to see the protestors, one girl literally sings, “Look what the revolution dragged in!”
Later, another demonstrator is heard to philosophically ask, “Why is the good ass never radical and the radical ass never good?” (And that’s certainly a question that was asked by everyone who drove by Occupy Dallas back in 2011.)
About the college administration, one girl announces, “They’ve got empty scrotes!”
When Paco tells Dempsey that the college is finally going to hire a black admissions offer, Dempsey replies, “How black? Is this cat an oreo cookie? Is he related to my uncle Tom?”
When Paco asks how long it will take for the protestors to peacefully leave the building, one of them loudly announces, “It would take to the 12th of never!” Of course, everyone applauds.
And that’s not counting all of the times that random protestors say, “Right on!”
But even better than listening to the protestors is listening to Paco and Rhoda discuss their relationship.
When Rhoda tells Paco that she knows the real him because she sees him without his pajamas, Paco replies, “That’s not reality. That’s flab.” With a world-weary sigh, Rhoda replies, “Flab is reality.”
When Paco complains about Rhoda’s cooking, she sensibly tells him, “Next semester, hump a home economics major.” Paco replies, “I did. The food is great but the talk is lousy.”
After being taunted by a student, Paco asks Rhoda, “Did you tell the kids I was a lousy lay?” Rhoda laughs and replies, “I may have thought it but I never said it!”
Finally, in one heart-warming scene, Paco informs Rhoda that, “The whole campus calls you Paco’s Pillow.”
Seriously, how can you not love a movie with dialogue this overwritten and over-the-top? It’s obvious the Kramer and screenwriter Erich Segal were desperate to sound hip and contemporary and, as a result, nobody speaks like a normal person. Instead, listening to R.P.M. is a bit like listening to a party to which every 60s stereotype has been invited.
And yet, it’s not just the dated dialogue that causes me to love R.P.M. As opposed to the histrionic Getting Straight and the artistically detached Zabriskie Point, R.P.M. is an attempt to seriously deal with the issue of student protest. For every three moments that ring false, there’s one that works and that’s a lot more than most films about campus unrest can say. Anthony Quinn gives a good performance as a man who doesn’t realize quite how complacent he has become. He and Gary Lockwood have a wonderfully tense scene together where they sincerely and intelligent debate their different worldviews. It’s the best scene in the film and one that is so well-done that it excuses any previous missteps.
R.P.M. occasionally shows up on TCM. Keep an eye out for it.
Now, you may be thinking that after reading my reviews of Getting Straight and Zabriskie Point, that we here at the Shattered Lens are encouraging you to overthrow the United States. Nothing could be further from the truth! To quote Michael Scott, nobody here is subversive. Everyone is thoroughly versive. (Michael Scott said that once, didn’t he?)
Anyway, just in case anyone is having any dangerous thoughts, here’s a 30-minute short film from 1972. In Brink of Disaster, Johnny, a college students who sympathizes with the n0-goodniks of the world, breaks into the library so that he cans study late at night and protect it from rampaging campus radicals.
(Wait? What? That makes no sense but, then again, it was 1972…)
Anyway, as Johnny attempts to smoke and study, the ghost of his great-great-great-great grandfather, John Smith, materializes out of thin air and tells him everything that’s wrong with his generation. Johnny attempts to argue but he’s no match for his wiser ancestor.
“Don’t compare to the founding fathers to that riff raff!” John Smith exclaims at one point, “We want to worship God and they want to deny God!”
You tell him, John Smith!
Anyway, you know me. Whether I agree or disagree with the message, there’s nothing that I love more than an old school propaganda film. So, watch and enjoy Brink of Disaster and think twice before you try to overthrow the establishment because you might end up getting haunted by a condescending ghost.
After watching Getting Straight, I decided to watch another student protest film from 1970, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point. Much like Otto Preminger’s Hurry Sundown, Zabriskie Point is a film that frequently gets mentioned when film bloggers are trying to list the worst films of all time. Unlike Hurry Sundown, Zabriskie Point is not quite as terrible as some reviewers seem to think.
It’s probably a mistake to describe Zabriskie Point as being as a college film. Only one of the main characters — Mark (played by Mark Frechette) — is a college student and he drops out early in the film. The film’s other main character — Daria (played by Daria Halperin) — is a secretary who may (or may not) be the mistress of venal real estate developer Lee Allen (played by Rod Taylor, the sole professional actor out of the starring cast). However, the film does start on a college campus, it deals with political protest (which was apparently the only thing happening on campuses back in 1970), and the movie’s message and style was obviously meant to appeal to campus radicals.
Mark Frechette, star of Zabriskie Point
Zabriskie Point opens with the type of lengthy scene that will be familiar to anyone familiar with counter-culture filmmaking. A bunch of very serious college students sit in a conference room and have a very long conversation about how to best bring about the revolution. All of the white, middle class students argue for petitions, manifestos, and civil disobedience. A black woman with a gigantic afro replies that all of the white students are phonies who aren’t truly committed to the revolution. Some of the students cheer. Some of the students boo. The meeting goes on for an eternity and, for the most part, it served to remind me of why I could never stand hanging out with any of the student activists back at the University of North Texas.
Yet, at the same time, it’s an effective scene because it’s one of the rare moments in the film that feels authentic. For the most part, Antonioni cast this film with nonactors. (Though apparently — just like in Getting Straight — a young Harrison Ford can be seen in the background of some of the scenes.) Watching the opening, I got the feeling that I was experiencing what a political gathering in the 70s was truly like. And, by the end of it, I was happy to have been born long after the 70s were over.
The scene ends when a student named Mark announces that he’s prepared to die for the revolution and then walks out of the meeting. Mark proceeds to drop out of school, buy a lot of guns, and set up an apartment safe house. When he gets arrested at a protest, Mark gives his name as “Karl Marx,” which the booking officer proceeds to spell as “Carl Marx.” Eventually, Mark ends up shooting a police officer. (Or maybe he didn’t — the film is deliberately vague about whether Mark actually fired his gun or if the officer was shot by somebody else.) He then steals an airplane, flies out to the desert, and meets Daria.
Mark and Daria
In the film’s most famous scene, Daria and Mark walk around the desert and talk about — well, nothing in particular. One of the most frequent criticisms of Zabriskie Point is that neither Mark nor Daria were particularly good actors and that’s certainly true. However, that’s only a problem if you assume that Antonioni means for you to view these characters as individuals. As becomes clear during their desert walk, Mark and Daria are meant to be archetypes. Mark Frechette and Daria Halperin may have been terrible actors but they had the right look and they had the right attitude. You may not care about them as individuals but Mark and Daria work perfectly as symbols for alienation. Mark and Daria stand in for everyone who has reached the point where they have to decide whether to join the establishment (represented by Lee Allen and the university) or whether to overthrow it. In the scenes in the desert, Antonioni presents Mark and Daria less as being people and more as being parts of the American landscape, as permanent as the mountains that surround them.
Mark and Daria end up making love in the middle of the desert and, as they have sex, they are suddenly surrounded by hundreds of other hippie couples having sex and it all becomes one big orgy in the middle of Death Valley. And yes, this scene is totally over-the-top, pretentious, and ludicrous but yet, how can you condemn something so gloriously silly?
Orgy in the desert
Anyway, after the orgy, Mark and Daria paint his plane and then go their separate ways. Mark tries to return the plane. Daria stares at a house in the mountains and imagines it exploding over and over again.
Zabriskie Point is an interesting misfire. Michelangelo Antonioni (who is best known for directing the classic Blow-Up) originally intended for the film to end with an airplane skywriting “Fuck you, America.” However, MGM made him cut that from the film. That Antonioni meant for this film to be an attack on America is pretty obvious. Antonioni, after all, was a committed Marxist and the film goes out of its way to try to present businessman Lee Allen as being the epitome of capitalist evil. (Unfortunately, Rod Taylor is such a likable actor that I know, if I had to make a choice between the two, I’d rather spend a day with Lee Allen than Mark Frechette).
Rod Taylor as Lee Allen
However, at the same time, Antonioni appears to have been fascinated and confused by the material excesses of America as well. In the first half of the film, as Mark walks through the small town setting, the camera lingers on the billboards that dot the landscape and, as a result, those billboards take on a beauty of their very own. Even when Daria is walking through Lee Allen’s mansion, the camera can’t help but linger over every opulent detail, almost as if it can’t decide whether it is seeking to condemn or celebrate. In many ways, Zabriskie Point reminded me of Lars Von Trier’s Dogville. Both films attempts to condemn America just to end up accidentally celebrating it.
Celebrating America While Condemning It
Zabriskie Point may not be a good film but it’s an endlessly fascinating and visually beautiful one. If nothing else, it serves as a record of the time when it was made. And, as such, it deserves better than to be dismissed as one of the worst.
Am I too young to start feeling nostalgic for the past?
It’s been 6 years since I graduated from the University of North Texas and, as much as I enjoy officially being an adult and all that good stuff, I have to admit that there’s a part of me that misses being in college. Even though I know that I will be returning to school to work on my master’s, there’s a part of me that really regrets that I’ll never again get to be an undergrad with the rest of my life in front of me.
Fortunately, I review movies so, whenever I start to feel nostalgic for the past, I can just watch and review a movie. Last week, I was missing college. So, I watched a few films about college. The first film that I watched was from 1970 and it was called Getting Straight.
One of the first things that you notice while watching Getting Straight is that director Richard Rush apparently made the decision to film nearly the entire movie in extreme close-ups. When Nick, a spaced-out hippie played by Robert F. Lyons, steps into a room and starts laughing, the camera zooms in so close that you can practically see down the back of his throat. When Jan (played by a very young Candice Bergen) breaks down into tears after getting beaten up at a political demonstration, the camera so obsessively lingers over her tear-stained face that the viewer is left with little choice but to consider just how terrible a performance Bergen is actually giving. When Harrison Ford shows up in an early role, the camera zooms into his face, as if to force us to say, “Hey, that’s Harrison Ford!” Meanwhile, the star of the film, Elliott Gould, is in almost every scene and, thanks to Rush’s love of extreme close-ups, it’s hard not to focus on the fact that his thick sideburns and his walrus mustache looks like they are threatening to devour his entire face.
Elliott Gould plays Harry Bailey, a grad student at an unnamed California university. In his undergraduate days, Harry was a political activist who, we’re told, marched for civil right as Selma. Then he served in Viet Nam and not as some conscientious objector either (though that would have made sense, considering his political beliefs). No, Harry saw combat. And, while doing all of that, Harry also somehow found time to be in Paris during the 1968 student strike. However, Harry is now back in America and all he wants to do is get his master’s in education so that he can teach the underprivileged.
Along with his prominent facial hair and his colorful past, the main thing that you notice about Harry is that he yells. A lot.
Harry yells because his professors expect him to show up for classes that he doesn’t care about. When those same out-of-touch professors expect Harry to take a test that he doesn’t consider to be important, he gets his friend Nick to take it for him. Nick, being an idiot, signs his name to the test but then marks it out and writes down Harry’s name instead.
Harry yells because a bunch of student activists expect him to join their protests. Harry tells them that they’re shallow and the only reason they care about politics is because “protests are sexy.” Despite his condescending attitude, the rest of the student body continues to look up to Harry. I imagine it has something to do with the hypnotic power of his mustache.
Harry yells because a professor suggests that F. Scott Fitzgerald might be gay. Harry also says that Arizona is the best state of the union because it has the lowest occurrence of homosexuality. If nothing else, all of this serves to remind us that this film was made in 1970.
Mostly, however, Harry just yells at his girlfriend, Jan. Jan lies about being pregnant and Harry yells. Jan says that she’s thinking about getting married. Harry yells that she is a “dumb broad.” Jan says she’s on her period. Harry yells that she’s lying and that he’ll be over later that night. Harry yells when Jan breaks up with him. Harry yells when Jan introduces him to her new boyfriend, despite the fact that Harry has been screwing — in extreme close-up — every other undergrad on campus. Harry yells at her that she might as well just be a “man with a hole.”
In other words, Harry is a self-righteous jerk. Harry is a misogynist. Harry is a hypocrite. Harry is an asshole. And yet — probably because this film was made in 1970 — Harry is also supposed to be the film’s hero. Harry is supposed to be the character that we sympathize with and, indeed, every other character in the film is totally charmed by Harry and his behavior. Even poor abused Jan continues to come to Harry, despite the fact that her next door neighbor is Harrison Ford!
Harrison Ford in Getting Straight
Yes, there are many very valid criticisms to be made about Getting Straight. Harry is unlikable. Candice Bergen gives an amazingly bad performance. Richard Rush’s direction shows an overdependence on close-ups and rack focus shots, techniques that he uses so frequently that they eventually lose all meaning but instead simply come across as being nervous tics. Like so many of the counter cultural films of the early 70s, Getting Straight is an excruciatingly sexist film. That’s one thing that the films of both the counter-culture and the establishment had in common, a deep disdain and fear of women in general. Harry may claim that the student protestors are only into politics because they want to get laid but it’s hard to see how he’s any better. The middle stretch of Getting Straight could have just as easily have been called Harry Must Get Laid.
However, Getting Straight does get one thing right. It perfectly captures the atmosphere of college. From the pompous and out-of-touch professors to the creepy old grad students (that would be Harry) to the portentous seriousness of the student activists, Getting Straight captures all of that perfectly. As such, Getting Straight might not really work as a dramatic film but it’s definitely worthwhile as a record of a specific time and place. Much of what today seems annoying about a film like Getting Straight is really nothing more than a recording of what was once considered to be culturally acceptable.
Getting Straight is a portrait of 1970 that makes me glad that I was born in 1985.