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!
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.
And you can watch it below!