Thursday, July 13, 2017

Just Be There (1973)

          Earnest drama Just Be There epitomizes the strengths and weaknesses of low-budget indie filmmaking circa the early ’70s. On the plus side, the movie has abundant local flavor, with real locations throughout the Minneapolis/St. Paul area providing the backdrops, and the use of amateur and semiprofessional actors means there isn’t any trace of Hollywood slickness in the performances. On the minus side, no film-industry veterans were present to push producer-star Michael Montgomery outside his comfort zone of gentle character work, so the picture lacks anything resembling commercial elements. In fact, it barely even has a story, since Just Be There mostly depicts the protagonist’s angst upon returning from Vietnam. To Montgomery’s credit, he avoids the cliché of presenting his main character as a PTSD-addled psycho, but to Montgomery’s detriment, the protagonist handles wartime trauma so well that seems as if he endured a tiring overseas voyage rather than soul-searing jungle combat. Timidity is the watchword here, both in terms of the storytelling and the style. And that’s why Just Be There is such a quintessential indie: Whereas the worst Hollywood pictures bludgeon viewers with overstatement, Just Be There nearly puts viewers to sleep with understatement.
          The narrative begins with Mitchell (Montgomery) returning home to his girlfriend, Kathy (Lynn Baker), and his parents. Dad runs an investment firm selling futures in pork bellies and the like, while Mom is a housewife. Mitchell longs to write a novel about his wartime experiences, an ambition that Kathy supports, but Dad wants Mitchell to join the family business. Upon doing so, Mitchell succumbs to the lure of steady money and upward mobility. Soon, he is so lost that he begins an affair with an alluring coworker. Through it all, Mitchell treats Kathy worse and worse, blowing up whenever she has the temerity to call him on his bullshit. Yet we, the viewers, are meant to sympathize with Mitchell, because, y’know, he’s goin’ through a heavy scene, man. Just Be There is relatively well made, so the movie exists on roughly the level of an advanced film-school project. Because Montgomery never made another picture, it’s unknown whether he could have improved upon this first effort. Also known as Comin’ Home and Stranger at Home, the movie was reissued—with a change in rating from PG to R—as Swinging Teacher, so presumably racy footage was added. These remarks pertain to the original version.

Just Be There: FUNKY

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