Monday, March 3, 2008

Revolting Youth

This past weekend I finally saw Wild in the Streets, the 1968 moving picture about a rock star who takes over the country, lowers the voting age to 14, and sends everyone over 35 to concentration camps where they are controlled by LSD in the drinking water. I wish I’d seen it when I was a lot younger, when I was in its target demographic. I was 17 when it was released, but I don’t remember feeling any urgency about seeing it back then. I don’t remember that anyone I knew saw it, or talked about it. Maybe I sensed that it had nothing to do with “youth culture,” more with adult paranoia and youth’s paranoia about adult paranoia.

There’s general agreement that Wild in the Streets isn’t great cinema. As Pauline Kael put it in 5001 Nights at the Movies, “This blatant, insensitive, crummy-looking …” Well, you get the idea; she sums it up very neatly. “ ... is entertaining in a lot of ways that more tasteful movies aren’t: it has wit without any grace at all, and is enjoyable at a pop, comic-strip level.” Even better, check out Roger Ebert’s original review, which is tastefully hysterical:

Once you've experienced a concert by a group like the Beatles or the Doors, the fascist potential of pop music becomes inescapable. There is a primitive force in these mass demonstrations that breaks down individualism and creates a joyous mob. … For this audience, Wild in the Streets needs no serious political comment and no real understanding of how pop music and the mass media work together. It's a silly film, but it does communicate in the simplest, most direct terms.

Ah, yes: I remember the 60s squares (outdated 50s slang used here by malevolent design) who fretted about “the fascist potential of pop music,” but never seemed to mind the fascist potential of mass sports events, or for that matter mass political rallies. Why pop music should be any more threatening than these all-American staples has never been clear to me, aside from the obvious: all those little girls screaming and wetting their pants for those long-haired creeps, just as their older sisters had for Elvis and their mothers had for Frankie and Bing, plus the Brandoesque bad-boy stance that so many boys adored from an equally safe distance. Would the fans do anything Jim Morrison or John Lennon ordered them to do? I doubt it very much. Or was the spell based on a suspension of disbelief that depended on the knowledge that, in a crowd one could let go for an hour or two, screaming and dancing in a contained freedom? That’s my guess. As far as I know, the only rock’n’roller who went into politics was … Sonny Bono. Radical. (One of Wild in the Streets’ crucial missteps is having its protagonist turn into a ranting Hitler, complete with jackboots.)

So. Wild in the Streets was entertaining, though it looked more like a TV show than a movie, something on the order of The Brady Bunch. The music is typical Sixties movie-rock, which is to say, warmed over rockabilly trying to sound psychedelic. Think of the music that was popular in 1968 – Sergeant Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour, The Doors, Beggars Banquet – and the thinness of Wild’s pseudo-psychedelica becomes all the more laughable. It wasn’t until Easy Rider a year later that a movie would use real contemporary rock’n’roll on its soundtrack, instead of imitations by studio jazz hacks.

The plot, summed up in my first sentence, blusters along with hamfisted glee, though it ends with predictable cautionary Hollywood logic: anyone who breaks out of his or her destined place must be brought low, so our hero Max Frost (Christopher Jones, age 27 when the film was made) discovers at the age of 24 that he is already old to the children he wants to lead. He too will be overthrown in his turn. Soon fetuses in the womb will rebel against their older siblings in diapers, and then what will become of America?

Still, there were some surprises. Wild in the Streets has a major gay character. Amazingly for an American movie made in 1968, he’s not a screaming queen, nor does he die as queers are supposed to, nor does he have a furtive crush on the manly hero. (I'm surprised he's not mentioned in Vito Russo's The Celluloid Closet.) Billy Cage, aged 14 (Kevin Coughlin, age 22), is a child prodigy, the youngest-ever graduate of Yale Law School (if I recall correctly), and Max Frost’s legal advisor and business manager. Early on he teases Max for having sex only with “chicks”; Max defensively retorts, “You’re a minority”, but Billy isn’t fazed. Max, we are assured, is quite a cocksman, supporting four children (he’s only sure of two). But in another scene he’s almost cheek to cheek with his buddy Abraham the Hook (Larry Bishop, age uncertain but no teenager), as they reassure each other of their mutual devotion – in a manly male-bonding way, of course, until Max’s main “chick” Sally LeRoy (Diane Varsi, age 30) rouses herself from her acid-induced haze to jeer at them, “You guys sound like a couple of fags!” That’s the only expressed homophobia in the movie, too. Later still, as the inner circle confers on how to deal with their former ally, 37-year-old Senator Johnny Fergus, Sally muses, “Maybe I could get him.” Billy grins and counters, “Maybe I could get him.” Unfortunately, we never see Billy with a boyfriend or a trick, but I wonder how 1968 audiences reacted to his blunt openness.

(N.B.: All dialogue is quoted from memory; I don't have the DVD to hand, and the lines I needed weren't in IMDB's memorable quotes. But they're close paraphrases, I hope.)

Aside from that, the movie is predictable in its attitudes, especially towards women. Sally Leroy is one member of Max’s harem. (There’s also Fuji Elly, “typewriter heiress and beach bum,” played by May Ishihara.) A former child star, she now provides eye-candy for the boys on the screen and in the audience, shocking the adults in the film with her casual nudity as she serves drinks at a meeting. (For others, there’s the eye-candy of Stanley X [Richard Pryor, 28] “drummer, anthropologist, and author of The Aborigine Cookbook,” who usually appears either shirtless or with his shirt hanging open.) She’s the earth-mother / hippie-love-child character; her only moment of rebellion is her homophobic jab at Max and the Hook. Also standard is Max’s mother, played by Shelley Winters: a sex-hating, man-hating, castrating wife and a smothering, over-intimate mother, she’s the archetype of Momism – the constant bugbear of sexist males in the postwar era. Winters has such fun in her over-the-top role that you have to love her anyhow. But then, she’s not my mother. Chicks and moms – Wild in the Streets is very much of its time. Only Billy Cage stands out and defies the zeitgeist.