Monday, September 25, 2017


In many respects, Stuart Hagmann's film is inescapably an artifact of its time, but it reminded me of more modern movies in two ways. First, Hagmann himself was given an important project as a first-time feature film director after working in TV. Second, I'm sure that part of the idea behind filming James S. Kunen's memoir of student protest was to make money off a soundtrack album. The recording artists included in the picture receive prominent mention in the opening credits, and to a great extent the Strawberry Statement soundtrack sounds much like what you'd probably get today whenever someone makes a film set in the same time-period. All that aside, Statement was a notorious box-office flop, part of a double-whammy for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, along with the more-ambitious Michelangelo Antonioni youth epic Zabriskie Point, that seemed to belie young moviegoers' presumed hunger for radical subject matter. Posterity may grow kinder toward these and other turn-of-the-decade pictures, forgotten precursors to canonical Seventies cinema, for their audacity in imagining a here-and-now dystopia for American youth. At this specific moment in American history, films like Statement may get more sympathetic viewings from people who expect the worst from the Trump administration or its supporters and expect it to look somewhat like Statement's climax.

If the film is actually memorable at all, it's for that bravura closing sequence, in which California college students -- Kunen's story took place at Columbia in New York City -- occupy a building and await a police attack. Audience anticipation builds as the students, including the romantic leads played by Bruce Davison and Kim Darby, sit down in circles and chant John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance," keeping time by thumping on the hardwood floor. Hagmann milks the suspense for all it's worth, cutting back and forth from the students inside to the convergence of forces and anxious spectators outside. Finally the cops attack. charging in with tear gas guns that look like futuristic nightmare weapons before systematically dragging the kids outside and clubbing the most recalcitrant. Hagmann and his editors let the scene take its time, giving it an air of semi-documentary authenticity that makes up for the relative lack of drama -- and probably makes the film more startling now than then -- but they err at the end by simply letting it stop -- literally freezing the action -- at the brink of a truly climactic moment, when Davison's semi-radicalized jock dives onto a group of cops who are clobbering the Darby character. It's as if they want to tease an all-out doomsday finish a la Easy Rider (or Beneath the Planet of the Apes) without really having one. That finish also shows a disinterest in resolving any character arcs still in play that probably makes any emotional investment in the main characters seem wasted. If the message is "These are the sort of kids who are getting beaten down (or worse) by the police," then I suppose the point is made, but Statement had seemed more character-driven, if episodic, than that until the climax. 

If the romantic plot seems like a dead end in retrospect, the film still has good or interesting moments throughout. There's a nice bit of cynical comedy when Davison goes to a corner grocery said to give away free stuff to student radicals, and learns that the grocer (James Coco) does this so he can claim insurance after reporting robberies. There's also a nice refusal to idealize the student cause or its adherents compared to other films of the period. In one scene, Davison and Darby are chilling in a park only to discover that they've trespassed on a black gang's turf. Fortunately, they get away with only Davison having a camera smashed, but the randomness of the encounter and the character's rage afterward ring true. In the end, though, Statement will more likely endure as a period artifact than as a work of art. Parts like the climax are ideal for anthologies or documentaries of proto-Seventies cinema, but the whole is definitely less than the sum of the parts. Statement may never become a lost film, but it'll most likely survive only in fragments in film lovers' collective memory.

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