Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Drive, He Said

Part I, America Lost & Found: The BBS Story

Few canvases are as cinematic as that of a chaotic American college campus in the late 1960s/early 1970s. What with all the brouhaha over Vietnam, civil rights, blossoming feminism; the Establishment was getting a loud raspberry from coast to coast as students waged their own wars on the ills of the day. Some events were peaceful, others were immortalized with a chilling photo (Kent State). In my conversations with Baby Boomers who were in such places, I notice the lights in their eyes as they recall their perhaps not-so-halcyon days. Maybe their words downplayed things, but their expressions revealed much more. What a rush it must have been. But I also wonder, did anyone actually study? I think of that as I watch films like first-time director Jack Nicholson's obscure 1971 DRIVE, HE SAID.

Seen today, the spate of movies from the years in question that told stories of sit-ins and other collegiate hippie doings are almost quaint. THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT and others were well intentioned but static and dramatically weak. Surely real life was more interesting? Hollywood tends to favor cliches and easily resolved plotlines. The films thus work best as time capsules, documents of a weird era, especially weird to Generation X and beyond as they watch folks like DRIVE's Gabriel (Michael Margotta) run around a campus in the buff, freeing all of the laboratory test animals in his bid for liberation. He's also doing his damnest to avoid getting drafted and sent to war. He makes quite a scene at the draft office. He abruptly smashes furniture and even flings toilets through windows. Maybe if people think he's insane, they won't send him into the insanity of war.

Gabe's roommate is also the film's lead: Hector (William Tepper), a basketball wunderkind who has fears of a different sort of draft: the NBA. He's a sharp, intuitive player but as it goes, he's unfocused. He begins to question why he's always "staying after school in his underwear." His coach, Bullion, (Bruce Dern, entirely excellent) pounds him hard like coaches do, lecturing and punishing him on and off court relentlessly. Bullion is all business in his speech, constantly spouting stats and platitudes about teamwork. He's so lasered on his team and the game you never hear him muttering about say, the weather. In other words, a real square, brah.

Hector is also having a fling with his professor's (future CHINATOWN scribe Robert Towne) wife, Olive (Karen Black). It seems to be as joyless and empty as everything else in his confused existence. DRIVE, HE SAID makes some salient points about so-called freedom, and it is through Hector's promsicuity that this point is most clear: the more choices and opportunities he has, the more miserable he is. Does that mean that Nicholson's and Jeremy Larner's screenplay is a bit "pink" in the middle, as some like to say? Yet another left-wing manifesto against the American Dream? The theme of the loss of freedom looms large here, though. Any number of reads on this strange little pic could be substantiated. I suspect someone who lived through the era would have a deeper understanding.

As the film progresses, the contrast between Gabe and Hector's paradigms becomes less delineated; both are scared shitless; they just have different ways of expressing it and for different reasons. Hector's apathy is like that of the privileged "fortunate son" who has everything (here: athletic talent and a way with the ladies) and yet is overcome with disillusion. Gabe is a likely anarchist who nonetheless fears the Man's war and whose actions are entirely driven by fear. No one is really free in this movie. Certainly not Olive, who, with each tryst with Hector loses a bit more of her soul. It is interesting how a film that at first glance seems amoral would actually elucidate that point. There will be at least the beginnings of a path to realization for Olive, however (cue feminist mantras).

Nicholson's directorial style is best described as disorganized. The pace is off-kilter, a jangly sort that keeps the viewer at arm's length and anxious at almost all times. This also (along with an undercooked script, with alleged participation also by Towne and no less than Terrence Malick) keeps us from getting any depth from the characterizations. The actors are not to blame for this, and all are quite good, but the script sees them as ghosts, maybe just ideas (see also: TWO LANE BLACKTOP). Symbolism is sometimes ambiguously woven in the script, other times blatant (witness the scene where Gabe stands at the fork of two departing sidewalks, one which shows Olive departing, the other, a more age appropriate choice for him).

The basketball sequences are dazzling and exciting. The camera whirls around the court like what you would expect from an overseer who has been a ticket-holding courtside Lakers fan for many years. The actors are all experienced players, as we learn from a 10 minute doc on this Criterion disc. This caused quite a challenge for casting. The other scenes are a mishmash of lighter and darker tones. The shifts are not smooth and the film feels episodic. It is like an old jigsaw puzzle that you suspect has more than a few pieces missing. The pieces we do get don't always seem to belong. Like blackout skits performed by say, a college drama troupe. An eyebrow raising clash of the theatrical and cinematic (remember that atmospheric college campus). If Nicholson was trying to shoot something that mimicked a film student's pretentious thesis, he more than succeeded.

The more you watch and ponder DRIVE, HE SAID, the more it indeed feels like a student film: the thrill of the riot scenes (some are real, shot on the University of Oregon campus), the rampant male and female nudity (in the doc, we learn how Nicholson really wanted to shoot the male post-game shower scene, a both hilarious and concerning notion), the expected moments of LSD fueled philosophical blather, the overall attention deficit. It makes watching this film a real mixed bag of reaction. Overall, it fails, but it is a fascinating failure. It is probably one of the best time capsules of the era I have seen, however.

The disc has the aforementioned short making-of documentary, with current interviews with Nicholson, Dern, and others. We also get the trailer, but that's it for extras. Spare to be sure, but satisfying. I'm not sure how much more I'd want to learn of this project; I like the enigmas, the mystique. Nicholson shows some flair in his direction (mainly the basketball scenes), but would only go on to direct two more films (GOIN' SOUTH and the CHINATOWN sequel, THE TWO JAKES). His wide (and wild) -eyed perspective makes DRIVE, HE SAID worth seeing at least once, and taken as part of the BBS whole, it is an important stop on the journey.
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