Shattered Politics #27: Medium Cool (dir by Haskell Wexler)


Film_Poster_for_Medium_CoolFor the past few days, I’ve been chronologically reviewing 94 films about politicians and, to a lesser extent, politics.  Four days ago, I started in on the 60s by taking a look at Sunrise at Campobello, one of the most traditional-minded and pro-American movies ever made.  And now, I’m closing out the decade by taking a look at 1969’s Medium Cool, a film that is — in style, ideology, and content — the exact opposite of Sunrise at Campobello.

I should admit that I’m cheating a bit by including Medium Cool in this series of reviews.  When I first started Shattered Politics, I said that I would be reviewing films about politicians.  While Medium Cool is a fiercely political film, there are few elected officials to be seen on screen.  That said, it was shot during the infamous 1968 Democratic National Convention and, as such, the politicians are present regardless of whether or not they’re seen.

Plotwise, the film follows a news cameraman, John (Robert Forster), and his sound guy (Peter Bonerz) as they go around Chicago, searching for stories.  Along the way, they interview the disturbingly cheerful owner of a gun club (played, in his film debut, by Peter Boyle), several people who volunteered on Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign, and, in one of the film’s best and most awkward scenes, a group of Black Panthers.

Throughout the first half of the film, John remains detached from the stories that he covers.  He’s more concerned with getting the footage and getting a good soundbite than in really listening to what anyone is saying.  (In many ways, he’s like a less sociopathic version of the character played by Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler.)  It’s not until John discovers that his station is sharing his footage with the FBI that John finally starts to show some political awareness.  Unfortunately, he also shows some anger and ends up losing his job as a result.

Now unemployed, John meets Eileen (Verna Bloom), a single mother who has recently moved to Chicago from West Virginia.  Now that he’s free from the detachment of his job, John actually starts to develop feelings for both Eileen and her son, Harold (Harold Blankenship).  When Harold runs away, Eileen and John search Chicago for him.  Unfortunately, their search happens at the same time as the 1968 Democratic Convention.  While John and Eileen search, the Chicago police are busy beating protestors in the street.

(The video below is long, but worth watching, as is the entire film.)

Now, I know that, in the past, I’ve been critical of many of the counter culture films of the late 60s and early 70s, describing their politics as being shallow, trendy, and faux Leftist.  (And if you doubt me, read my reviews of Getting Straight, Zabriskie Point, and R.P.M.)  However, Medium Cool is an exception to those films, in that it actually works.  Medium Cool was directed by famed cinematographer, Haskell Wexler.  Wexler began his career shooting documentaries and, in many ways, that’s exactly what Medium Cool is.  Though Robert Forster may be an actor, many of the people that he interviewed in the film were not.  When he talks to the former Kennedy campaign workers, he’s talking to actual volunteers and getting their true feelings, as opposed to something written for them by an out-of-touch screenwriter.  When we see John and Eileen trying to survive the violence outside the Democratic Convention, we’re also seeing Robert Forster and Verna Bloom attempting to do the same thing.  The protestors being attacked were real.  The cops doing the attacking were real.  The violence was real.

And, considering that Medium Cool was released 46 years ago, the issues raised by the film are still real.  When the Black Panthers suspiciously view John and his sound guy, we’re reminded of the protestors in Ferguson demanding that the national media get out of their way.  When we see the protests outside the 1968 Democratic Convention, how can we not compare them to the protests that we still see every day?  When the cops line up in military precision and we hear that orders must be followed, are we watching Medium Cool or are we watching CNN?

During one of Medium Cool‘s better known moments, an off-screen voice is heard to shout, “Look out, Haskell!  It’s real!,” warning director Haskell Wexler that the violence he’s filming is actually happening.  And that’s a warning that’s still appropriate and relevant today.  We may be watching from the safety of our homes but it’s still real.

(Of course, it should be mentioned that, according to Wexler himself, “Look out, Haskell!  It’s real!” was actually added to the scene in post production.)

It’s perhaps indicative of how much American culture changed in the 60s that a decade that started with Ralph Bellamy playing Franklin D. Roosevelt would end with Medium Cool.  Fortunately, Medium Cool gives us plenty of evidence about how that change happened.

 

 

Shattered Politics #26: Wild In The Streets (dir by Barry Shear)


Wild_in_the_streets_dvd_cover

I am really not looking forward to turning 30.

Seriously, the great thing about being in your 20s is that everything is set up to specifically appeal to you.  Everyone wants your attention, your money, your tweets, your ideas, you love, and everything else.  And, yes, I understand that most people neither like nor respect my generation but oh well and whatever.  Trust me, the generation coming up behind mine is a hundred times worse.

2008 was a great time to be a politically knowledgeable millennial.  Everyone running for President was desperate to get our vote and they were willing to promise us anything.  And, since my age group voted overwhelmingly for Obama, all of the old elitists in the national media briefly fell in love with us.  (The genius of Obama’s 2008 campaign was to tell us that we were the people that we were waiting for.  Technically, it’s a bit nonsensical but never doubt what you can accomplish by appealing to the ego of the electorate.)

Of course, over the past few years, my generation has essentially been fucked over by both political parties and, since we dared to complain about it, nobody likes us anymore.  But, oh well and whatever.  American culture is basically built around our whims so we really don’t need anyone else’s love.

And, if all this sounds a little bitter or angry, I would point that young people and old people have been at war since time began.  Generational conflict is nothing new.  And if you need proof of that, I suggest watching a film from 1968 called Wild In The Streets.

Wild in the Streets tells the story of Max Frost (Christopher Jones), a rock star who lives in a gigantic mansion with his band and his groupies.   When Max is asked to perform at a campaign appearance for senate candidate Johnny Fergus (Hal Holbrook), he agrees to do so because Fergus supports lowering the voting age.  (When Wild In The Streets was made, you had to be 21 to vote.  So, if your birthday fell on election day, you could cast your first vote and then go have your first legal drink.)  However, at the rally, Max announces that he wants 14 year-olds to have the vote and then performs a song called “14 or fight!”

Max’s song is such a sensation and leads to so many protests that, in a compromise, the voting age is lowered to 15.  Johnny Fergus is elected to the Senate and, before you can say “Blue dog,” promptly starts to ignore the will of the people who supported him.  So, Max arranges for his girlfriend Sally (Diane Varsi) to be elected to the U.S. House.  After spiking the water supply of Washington D.C. with LSD, Sally gets a bill passed and the age requirement for holding political office is lowered to 14!

Of course, in the next election, 24 year-old Max Frost is elected President of the United States.  Soon, anyone over the age of 35 is being sent to re-education camps where they are force-fed LSD.  Max is so ruthless that he even sends his own mother (Shelley Winters) off to re-education.

And, with all the old people gone, everything is perfect for Max.  Except for that fact that 10 year-olds are now demanding the vote…

In many ways, Wild in the Streets feels like a film that could have only been made in 1968.  From the psychedelic direction to the costumes to the hair to music, everything about this movie screams late 60s.  But, at the same time, it’s still a genuinely amusing satire, largely because generational conflict is timeless.  We all think that those older than us are clueless and that those younger are spoiled.  There’s a lot of things in your life that can control.  Sadly enough, getting older is not one of them.

Wild in the Streets is a fun and amusing time capsule.  See it now before the younger generation comes of age and totally fucks up the world.

Shattered Politics #25: The President’s Analyst (dir by Theodore J. Flicker)


Presidents_movieposter “If I was a psychiatrist, which I am, I would say that I was turning into some sort of paranoid personality, which I am!” — Dr. Sidney Schaefer (James Coburn) in The President’s Analyst (1967)

Let’s just be absolutely honest about something.  Judging from what they regularly get caught saying and from some of the policies that they support, a good deal of politicians could probably use some sort of professional help.  That’s probably especially true of the men who sit in the Oval Office.  It can’t be easy to have to hide so many secrets, tell so many lies, and be constantly aware of how close the government is to actually collapsing.  We’ve had 44 Presidents and I imagine all of them probably could have used someone to talk to.

But here’s the thing.  We spend so much time worrying about the well-being of the President that we often don’t stop to think about the people who have to listen to them speak on a daily basis.  I imagine that being the President’s therapist must be a thankless job.  Not only do you have to spend hours listening to someone who you may not have voted for but, at the same time, you can’t share any of the information that you’ve learned.

That would certainly seem to be what’s happening with Dr. Sidney Schaefer (James Coburn), the title character of the wonderfully psychedelic 1967 satire, The President’s Analyst.  At the start of the film, Sidney is a supremely confident psychiatrist.  He can calmly and rationally deal with all of his patients problems and, in order to keep from getting overwhelmed, he has his own analyst (Will Geer).

One of his patients is Don Masters (Godfrey Cambridge), an agent for the Central Enquiries Agency (CEA) who is first seen casually murdering a man on the streets of New York.  (When Sidney discovers that Don is an assassin, he’s thrilled and impressed to discover that Don has managed to channel all of his hostility into his job.)  What Sidney doesn’t realize is that Don is testing him to see if he’s up to the job of serving as the President’s analyst.

At first, Sidney is thrilled with his new position but he soon discovers that being the closest confidante of the leader of the free world has its downside.  For one thing, Sidney is viewed by suspicion by Henry Lux (Walter Burke), the head of the Federal Bureau of Regulation (which, in this film, is exclusively staffed by people who are less than 5 feet tall).  Even beyond being targeted by the FBR, Sidney struggles with not being able to see his own therapist and discuss what he’s been told by the President.  Soon, Sidney is becoming paranoid and is even convinced that his girlfriend is a spy.

(And, of course, she is.)

So, Walter does what any sensible and paranoid person would do.  He makes a run for it.  Pursued by the FBR, the CEA, and a Russian assassin (a funny performance from Severn Darden, who also played Kolp, the sadistic torturer in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes), Sidney hides out with everyone from a group of hippies to a family of heavily armed, karate-trained, middle class “militant liberals.”

(The father of the militant liberal family is played by William Daniels, who decades later would play Mr. Feeney in Boy Meets World.)

Of course, there’s an even bigger conspiracy at work than even Sidney realizes.  The real threat is the TPC and I’m not going to tell you what that stands for.  You need to see the movie.

And really, The President’s Analyst is a film that you really should see.  What makes this film truly special — beyond the clever dialogue and the excellent performances and the great direction — is that it’s both a product of when it was made and a timeless portrait of power and paranoia.  It’s a time capsule that still feels incredibly relevant.

 

Shattered Politics #24: The Born Losers (dir by Tom Laughlin)


Born Losers

For the past few days, I’ve been in the process of reviewing 94 films about politics and politicians.  With that in mind, you may be wondering why, after reviewing films like The Last Hurrah, Sunrise at Campobello, and Advise & Consent, I am now reviewing a 1967 biker film called The Born Losers.

It all comes down to Billy Jack.  In the 70s, Tom Laughlin would write, direct, and star in two hit films — Billy Jack and The Trial of Billy Jack.  In these films, Laughlin played the title character.  Billy Jack was everything that you could hope for in a counter-culture hero.  First off, as an American Indian, he was an authentic American as opposed to just another European intruder.  He was a war hero, who had served as a Green Beret in Vietnam.  He often carried a gun with him, which meant that he understood and supported the 2nd Amendment and good for him!  Billy Jack was also a master of hapkido, which meant that he could kick ass in the most visually appealing way possible.

Even more importantly, Billy Jack called the Man out on his racism and his intolerance.  Billy Jack was an environmental activist before anyone else.  Billy Jack went on vision quests.  Billy Jack was anti-war.  Billy Jack was a pacifist.  And, of course, Billy Jack ended up killing a lot of people but they were all bad guys.

By making and distributing Billy Jack himself, Laughlin became an independent film pioneer and made history.  He also became a counter-culture hero and Billy Jack remains a cult figure even today.  But what a lot of people don’t realize is that Billy Jack first appeared in Born Losers and that, in the little seen Billy Jack Goes To Washington, he eventually ended up serving in the U.S. Senate.

When you consider that Billy Jack would eventually be Sen. Jack, that means the Born Losers isn’t just a low-budget, violent biker film.  Instead, it’s the exploitation version of Young Mr. Lincoln.  It’s a chance to see what Billy Jack was doing before he became a statesman.

(And rest assured, the other three Billy Jack films will be reviewed before Shattered Politics ends.)

As we discover at the start of Born Losers, pre-politics Billy Jack was just an enigmatic veteran who lived in the mountains of California.  When we first see Billy, he’s walking along a grassy hill.  A deer safely runs by the camera.  A rabbit pops its head out of a hole in the ground and looks relieved to see Billy.  If I’m being a little bit snarky, it’s because I’ve seen all of the Billy Jack films and I know how often this exact scene is played out over the course of the franchise.  But, in all fairness, it’s actually a fairly well-done and visually appealing scene and, as an actor, Laughlin had the presence to pull it off.

A far less pretty scene is occurring in the town of Big Rock, where teenagers are showing up to hang out on the beach and are being harassed by a group of bikers, the Born Losers of the title.  The Born Losers are an odd collection of bikers, with half of them looking like extras from Sons of Anarchy and the other half looking like the type of hipsters that I always see whenever I go to a movie at the Alamo Drafthouse.  Their leader (Jeremy Slate) is named Danny but the rest of the gang are known by their nicknames.

(For instance, there’s Crabs.  Why is he called Crabs?  “Because he’s got them!” Danny helpfully explains.)

After the Born Losers rape four girls, they launch a campaign of violence and intimidation to keep the girls from testifying in court.  Billy comes to the aid of one of the girls, Vicky (Elizabeth James, who also wrote the script).  I related to Vicky, largely because she does things like ride a motorcycle while wearing a white bikini, which is exactly the sort of thing that I would do if I lived in California.

Now, there’s a lot of negative things that I could say about Born Losers.  It’s talky.  With the exception of Laughlin and Slate, it’s obvious that the majority of the cast was made up of amateurs.  The final half of the film drags as you wait for an ending that you have probably already predicted.

But you know what?

I actually like The Born Losers.  Hidden underneath all of the exploitation trappings and heavy-handed moralizing, this is a very sincere film.  Whatever they may have lacked in budget or subtlety, Laughlin’s films made up for in sincerity.  And, as strange as it may be to say about a film that features four rapes and is padded out with a thoroughly gratuitous striptease, The Born Losers is not a misogynistic film.  Both Laughlin the director and Billy Jack the character are on the side of the victims of the Born Losers and when the film calls out society for blaming the victims instead of the rapists, it does so with a fury that elevates the entire film above your typical 1967 biker film.

And, while I don’t know if I’d ever vote for Billy Jack, there’s nobody I’d rather have on my side.