Sunday, February 28, 2010


"He's a prophet, he's a pusher..." These are the lines of a Kris Kristofferson song that Cybill Shepherd quotes to Robert de Niro, to Travis Bickle's indignant confusion ("I have never pushed!"), in Taxi Driver. Moviegoers first heard the actual song in Bill L. Norton's Cisco Pike, which "introduced" Kristofferson in the title role (he had already performed in Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie)while giving top billing to then red hot but here relatively little-seen Gene Hackman. Kristofferson is credited with writing and performing four songs on the soundtrack. This one in particular raises questions. Was it composed by Kristofferson for the picture? If so, is it Kristofferson's commentary on the character he plays, or should we think of it as a song written by Cisco Pike? In that case, is it Pike's way of truth-telling on himself or is the song an ironically unselfconscious commentary intended for someone else? The song itself describes its subject as "a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction," so perhaps we should leave it at that.

Cisco Pike is a singer-songwriter and onetime band leader who had at least one hit song ("Breakdown") and a few successful concerts around 1966 before declining into petty drug dealership and jail time. Out of prison for now, but still in some legal jeopardy, he's determined to go straight and return to the music business, encouraged by his aspiring yogi girlfriend Sue (Karen Black). Since creative success wouldn't make much of a movie, Cisco finds himself bedeviled by a corrupt narc, Leo Holland (Hackman), who's nabbed 100 kilos of pot from a drug dealer and wants to make money from it. We'll learn that he's about to be dumped from the force due to a medical condition one year short of eligibility for a pension. The $10,000 he expects to make from the pot will be his nest egg, but Cisco will have to sell it for him, over a three-day weekend, or else Holland will make sure the musician ends up back in jail.

Good and bad influences: hippie Karen Black and cop Gene Hackman.

The plot is a scaffold for a series of episodes illustrating Cisco's descent back into the drug demimonde on the borderland of the music scene our hero hopes to re-enter. He visits recording studios and nightclubs and hooks up with old cronies and colleagues, but his main purpose is to move "keys," and he finds quite a few customers in his old milieu. Sometimes Holland screws up deals by lurking too close for buyers' comfort, and sometimes Cisco has to abort sales when he recognizes other narcs from details like polished shoes. He tries to give the dope back to Holland at one point, but the cop convinces him at gunpoint to resume his salesmanship. The weekend carries Cisco further away from Sue's presumably positive influence until he's cheating on her two women at a time. Worse, his old bandmate Jesse Dupre (Harry Dean "H.D." Stanton) turns up in a very needy state. He'd be happy to reform the band or score some major drugs. His main problem is that, while he feels the pressure to sell before Holland's deadline, he also finds his adventures too much fun for his own good, for a while.

Norton's episodic script has a cumulative atmospheric effect, immersing you in the hazy border zone between the world Cisco wants to reclaim and the one to which he must return. Their close proximity, the effective borderlessness of the scene, is part of his problem. How he responds to the challenge brings us back to the question of the correspondence between Cisco Pike and Kris Kristofferson. The real man was not the first choice for the role, from what I've read, but his presence and his song contributions tempt us to ask how good a musician Cisco Pike is supposed to be. If a different actor played the role, we could more easily assume that Pike's talent is actually pretty limited and that his early success may have been all he could have expected. Either way, of course, Cisco Pike is a tragedy of thwarted potential, but if Pike is supposed to have written the Kristofferson songs, and is stuck where he is, then it's arguably a tragedy of a different order. As an actor, Kristofferson further obscures matters. I've never really cared for him but others clearly respond to his perceived authenticity or his gravelly-voiced masculinity. He was obviously a talented songwriter, but could he play one on film? What would one look and sound like, anyway? Obviously there's no set type, but Kristofferson playing Pike still leaves me wondering whether the actor was effectively portraying a relatively untalented artist or ineffectively portraying a superior talent.

Familiar '70s faces: Harry Dean Stanton and Antonio "Huggy Bear" Fargas

The Kristofferson enigma doesn't necessarily determine whether Cisco Pike is good or not. As a Seventies buff, I was impressed by the locations and the ambiance, and the lead is supported by a strong cast of period stalwarts and iconic performers. Hackman doesn't really earn his top billing despite striving to make his character eccentric; nevertheless this is from a period when his presence is always welcome. Overall, I think any Seventies enthusiast will find items of interest in this folk-rock noir. If you think that decade was a golden age of American cinema, it can't hurt to give this representative film a try.

Fans of Seventies violence won't be disappointed either; Cisco Pike climaxes with a gunfight between a man (center) and a helicopter.

With no trailer available, here's Kristofferson's original performance of "The Pilgrim, Chapter 33" from his 1971 album The Silver Tongued Devil and I, as uploaded to YouTube by woudshoorn.


dfordoom said...

The presence of Karen Black in the cast means I'm vaguely tempted by this one, but I'm not much of a Kristofferson fan either. And I like Gene Hackman even less. But still, Karen Black is always fun.

Samuel Wilson said...

d: despite her yogi antics early on Black pretty much plays the straight man to the film's more dramatic losers. On the other hand, she does get topless in one scene. Kristofferson I can take later in his career as a character actor, but as a leading man he baffles me.