Though admirable for his commitment to exploring progressive causes onscreen, producer-director Stanley Kramer was also a total square whose movies were so conventional they felt ancient even when they were new. That’s certainly the case with R.P.M. (the poster of which provides the handy translation Revolutions Per Minute), which explores the student unrest that was pervasive on college campus circa the late ’60s. However, instead of building his movie around a student leader whose experiences might illuminate issues related to the counterculture, Kramer focuses on a fiftysomething professor who’s so “hip” to the youth scene that his live-in girlfriend is a 25-year-old grad student (Ann-Margret). Yes, in Kramer’s archaic viewpoint, being a dirty old man is a revolutionary act.
Further identifying this weird movie as an establishment statement about anti-establishment themes, studio-era leading man Anthony Quinn stars as Professor Paco Perez, a social-sciences specialist recruited by his school’s board of trustees to serve as an interim president after students storm the administration building and force the resignation of the previous president. With his hep-cat clothes and “rebellious” motorcycle, Paco swings to the same lefty tune as student leaders Rossiter (Gary Lockwood) and Dempsey (Paul Winfield), but once Paco starts engaging in rap sessions with the protestors, he discovers the gulf between his grown-up pragmatism and the kids’ all-or-nothing extremism. This renders the whole film somewhat pointless, because the focus on the uninteresting topic of Paco’s midlife crisis pushes the whole subject of student unrest into the background.
That said, R.P.M. is strangely watchable. Kramer’s filmmaking is energetic, even though he opts for borderline embarrassing vignettes like a dream sequence in which school administrators are seen as clowns. There’s also considerable pleasure to be found in watching Kramer struggle with the movie’s climax, because his shots of the inevitable student riot are laughably overwrought. Furthermore, the dialogue is like a greatest-hits collection of ’60s slang; R.P.M. was penned by future Love Story author Erich Segal, who knew a thing or two about tapping into the zeitgeist. Leading man Quinn is comparatively restrained, embracing the talky role of an intellectual as a switch from his usual casting as animalistic macho men. Lockwood, best known for his costarring role in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is quietly charismatic; Winfield is characteristically intense; and Ann-Margret’s sex appeal is as formidable as always.
Ultimately, R.P.M. is fascinating not only for its clumsy onscreen examination of the generation gap, but because its very style demonstrates the breadth of that gap—in every scene, it’s painfully obvious that Kramer and the kids he’s depicting come from totally different worlds. (Available through Columbia Screen Classics Request via WarnerArchive)
R.P.M. : FUNKY