Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Strawberry Statement (1970)

          Arguably the hippest of several fiction films that dealt with unrest among American college students during the Vietnam era, The Strawberry Statement has not aged especially well. Presented in a freewheeling style and revolving around a protagonist who kinda-sorta shifts from noninvolvement to radicalism, the movie has plenty of attitude and style. Moreover, the way the filmmakers link activism with sex says something interesting about horny dilettantes worming their way into the realm of politically committed youths. Yet by failing to predicate the story on real issues (the motivation for the film’s major protest is a fictional urban-development issue), and by failing to place a true radical at the center of the story, The Strawberry Statement ends up conveying an experience that’s tangential to the chaos pervading American campuses in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
          Set in and around a fictional San Francisco college, the picture stars Bruce Davison as Simon, an apathetic student who digs having a good time, but mostly thinks about grades and post-graduation career opportunities. When he meets an attractive radical named Linda (Kim Darby), Simon slips into the activist community as a way of making time with her. Later, when Linda is away from school for an extended period, Simon dallies with another activist hottie, and he allows the misperception to spread that he was beaten by police during a demonstration. This naturally gets Simon into Linda’s good graces once she returns to school, so the new couple splits their time between radicalism and romance, though Simon remains only marginally interested in actual politics. Finally, events at a major demonstration force Simon to definitively choose a side in the us-vs.-them conflict.
          Based on a book by James Simon Kunen, which documented real-life student unrest at Columbia University, The Strawberry Statement is openly sympathetic with student demonstrators, often portraying cops as faceless paramilitary goons. The most appealing grown-up in the movie is a shopkeeper (James Coco) who happily gives groceries to the radicals so long as they let him pretend he’s being robbed, thus enabling him to file a bogus insurance claim. In fact, scenes with ironic humor often work best in The Strawberry Statement. One hopes, for instance, that the following line was written with a wink: “I’m only 20, so I’ll give the country one more chance.” Other strong elements include the soundtrack, featuring tunes by CSNY and other rock acts, and the visual style, with fisheye lenses and offbeat upside-down camera angles used to accentuate disorientation. Does it all come together for a cohesive expression of a singular theme? Not really. But does The Strawberry Statement’s shambolic structure capture something about a wild time? Yes.

The Strawberry Statement: FUNKY

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