Tuesday, October 15, 2013

DVR Diary: R.P.M.* (*Revolutions Per Minute, 1970)

During the 1960s Stanley Kramer was one of the most popular and most despised directors in Hollywood. His films were Oscar bait, except when he made the epic-length slapstick comedy It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Projects like Inherit the Wind, Judgment at Nuremberg and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner were more typical. Many found his films preachy or pretentious, without any saving stylistic graces. I'll give him this much: his post-nuke film On the Beach was one of the most forceful warnings against nuclear war, to me, because it concluded, unlike better regarded films that show some people muddling through, however dismal the circumstances, with everyone dead -- or at least with a montage of empty streets that evoked the end of humanity. But this was "preaching" as much as any of his films. Whatever critics thought of it, Kramer had an audience -- but by the end of the Sixties he was losing it. Not realizing that he was doomed, Kramer thought to ride the tide of youth unrest by making a film about a college uprising. Initial publicity promised a screenplay by Rod Serling, but R.P.M. ended up written by Love Story author Erich Segal. Presumed insightful on current collegiate life, Segal came up with a quasi-Capraesque situation: when a college president resigns under pressure from students occupying an office building (housing the school's $2,000,000 supercomputer), the trustees accede to one of the protesters' demands. The kids (led by Gary Lockwood, representing the whites, and Paul Winfield, representing the blacks) had included on their otherwise fanciful list of preferred presidents (Che Guevara, already dead, led the field) a faculty member: sociology professor "Paco" Perez (Anthony Quinn), a man of some radical ideas and an affinity for youth demonstrated by his romance with a former student (Ann-Margaret). Kramer and Segal doubtless thought themselves cutting edge to have one of the trustees, informed of Quinn's affection for undergraduates, ask for clarification: girls or boys?

The newspaper ads tried to sell the picture as a sex comedy (see above). This was a desperate gesture; little is sexy or funny about the film. Now that we've established the situation, here's the plot: Perez, the intellectual cinderella man, negotiates with the protesters; the negotiations fail. R.P.M. is a succession of ineffectual negotiations, not just between Perez and the protesters, but between him and his girlfriend as the relationship deteriorates under the strain of Paco's new job. Once Lockwood openly threatens to destroy the $2,000,000 computer, Perez has no choice but to allow the cops to storm the building. For the climax Kramer seems to have been aiming at something hallucinogenic. As cops and students brawl -- a co-ed kicks a pig in the nards in slow motion -- the screen grows blurry, the camera bleary-eyed when not looking into huge close-ups of Anthony Quinn's sensitive gaze. I half expected him to go all Iron Eyes Cody with the tears as he watched, but that would have been too funny for this picture. This lame excuse for a climax exposes Kramer's inability to go over the top, as if he'd spent what little frenzy he ever had on Mad, Mad, Mad, etc. In the year of Kent State this mild mayhem must have provoked yawns from those few who went to see it. A better film from Kramer probably would have fared little better at the box office. He was the great explicator of social or cultural or historical problems to a general audience that suddenly stopped going to movies so much after around 1967. His intent, certainly, was to explicate youth rebellion to that bourgeois audience. His challenge, however, was to represent youth to youth, and for that purpose R.P.M. is hopeless. It lacks the empathetic immediacy the newly-regnant youth audience found in Easy Rider and similar pictures. Looking at it from another angle, Kramer, so often indicted for self-righteous sanctimony, lacked sufficient sympathy with the self-righteous sanctimony of a new generation to make a cinematic connection. By mid-decade he was reduced to directing a half-hour pilot for a TV series based on Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? He had hoped to chronicle a revolution on the campus but failed to reckon with a revolution in his own business.

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