Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on November 24, 2011
Stuart Hagmann’s THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT (1970) is often dismissed today as a dated relic of the early ‘70s. During its initial release it was singled out for being exploitive and failing to be a straightforward adaptation of the book it was based on. Many critics claimed that Stuart Hagmann’s direction was erratic and too creative for its own good, which supposedly diminished the film’s political message.
When I recently set aside some time to watch THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT I prepared myself for the worst. I expected to see a confusing, opportunistic, dated and laughable Hollywood film made to cash in on the political zeitgeist of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. But I came away from the movie with an entirely different opinion and immediately understood why it had been nominated for a Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1970 and walked away with a Jury Prize.
Not only is THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT a much better film than I had anticipated but it’s particularly poignant considering the current political climate. Student protest, police brutality, free speech and social activism are still hot button issues today. Not a lot has changed in 40 years. We’re still fighting the same battles and wrestling with the same issues that have been plaguing the country for decades. Like other controversial films from the same period such as MEDIUM COOL (1969), ZABRISKI POINT (1970) and PUNISHMENT PARK (1971), THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT asked some important questions that still haven’t been answered.
The script was based on a novel written by James Simon Kunen who was a young college student at Columbia University in New York during the contentious 1968 protests. According to Seth Cagin & Philip Dray in Hollywood Films of the Seventies, the unusual title is credited to a flippant statement made by a college administrator who said, “Whether students vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on an issue is like telling me they like strawberries.”
At the time students across the country who had been motivated by the civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam began making demands of their universities. They wanted to become part of their school’s decision-making process regarding issues such as minority study programs, military defense-related research, ROTC recruitment on campus and women’s rights as well as basic things like outdated dress codes. This led to many student demonstrations and protests.
Kunen’s book focused on the 1968 student demonstrations at Columbia University but the film adaptation is set in San Francisco. Apparently the director and producers couldn’t get permission to film their movie in New York and this location change is often sited as one of the film’s major flaws. But New York’s loss became San Francisco’s gain. The city by the bay has always been a radical hot spot and the location change makes the film’s basic concerns regarding human rights seem more universal instead of chained to one particular historic event.
THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT focuses on an awkward student named Simon (Bruce Davison) who’s a member of his university’s rowing team along with his friend, Elliot (Bud Cort). Neither of them have any interest in politics but Simon’s outlook begins to change after a cute girl named Linda (Kim Darby) catches his eye while he’s filming the student demonstrations on campus. Afterward Simon slowly becomes more and more involved in the student movement (author James Simon Kunen plays one of the activists) and their efforts to occupy campus buildings until their demands are met. He also encourages his friends, such as Elliot, to participate by telling him he can ‘meet girls’ through campus protest activities. But after Simon, Linda and Elliot get arrested the student demonstrations begin to take on a more urgent and personal tone.
It would be easy to assume that Simon and Linda’s blossoming relationship led Simon to revaluate his life and adapt Linda’s radical political outlook but things aren’t so simple and straightforward in THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT. Simon is drawn into the student demonstrations for a myriad of reasons. He’s a curious young man and his ego drives him to envision himself as some kind of revolutionary hero in imaginative flashes that illuminate his daydreams. Throughout the film he also voices his personal and political concerns to Linda in various conversations the two share.
Linda: “The University is burning babies and killing men and you’re on the rowing team? This strike is something real. It’s better than being a rowing jock.”
Simon: “I don’t want to blow up buildings. I slaved my ass off to get into this school. I know I’ll hate myself if I just sit back and watch all this… This university stinks. This whole country is getting dumb, DUMB! I mean, this country used to have a dream about things being different, you know? Now everyone’s just content to sit back on their asses and leave things just the way they are.”
The film disregards linear storytelling methods and uses rapid edits to interweave the ensuing drama with news footage of important political figures of the time such as President Richard Nixon playing the piano and Black Panther leader H. Rap Brown giving his memorable “violence is as American as cherry pie” speech. The film also includes references to the Paris Commune and the posters of Che Guevara that cover the campus walls continually come into focus.
First time director Stuart Hagmann worked with three editors on the film including Oscar winners Marjorie Fowler and Fredric Steinkamp. THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT owes its kinetic style to quick cuts and unusual perspective shots. Hagmann’s camera is rarely stagnant and seems to be moving all the time, which breathes life into his postcard perfect location shots of San Francisco. While watching, I couldn’t help thinking that it was truly one of the most beautifully shot films set in the Bay Area during the early ‘70s that I’ve ever seen.
The narrative is driven by a terrific soundtrack featuring songs by John Lennon, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Crosby, Stills & Nash and features the best use of ‘Give Peace a Chance’ and Thunderclap Newman’s ‘Something in the Air’ that I’ve ever come across. I got the sense that the director not only appreciated the music that was chosen for the film but that he genuinely understood it and revered it, which might be wishful thinking on my part or just good filmmaking on his part.
The film ends with the students staging a massive demonstration inside the school that ends in a storm of tear gas and police violence while protesters chant the haunting lyrics to Lennon’s song, ‘Give Peace a Chance.’ As both Vincent Canby of The New York Times and Pauline Kael of The New Yorker pointed out in their own lackluster reviews of the THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT, Hagmann staged the protest as if it was some kind of bizarre Busby Berkeley musical number but it also references classic Soviet dramas like Eisenstein’s BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (1925).
At the time it may have seemed rather hackneyed but from a distance of 40 years the film has taken on an incredibly subversive undertone. Director Stuart Hagmann also references Hollywood by having Simon ask his friends if they’ve seen the Mike Nichols’ film, THE GRADUATE (1967), which clearly influenced some of Hagmann’s directing choices. And today it’s hard not to be horrified while watching iconic young film actors like Bud Cort (M.A.S.H, HAROLD AND MAUDE, etc.) and Kim Darby (TRUE GRIT, THE GRISSOM GANG, etc.) getting brutally beaten by the police during the final protest. When Bruce Davison’s character finally explodes at the violence unfolding all around him you can genuinely feel his rage.
Bruce Davison was only 23 or 24-years-old at the time that the film was made but he brings a real complexity to the role of Simon and I admired the way he never let you forget that you were watching a young person being transformed by his environment and experiences. Simon’s awkwardness, naïveté and unfocused anger are commonplace among many young students just entering college who are trying to find their voice while learning to stand on their own two feet. But Davison’s character also has a propensity towards lying and exaggeration, which gives him a distinct personality. It also allows for some genuinely funny moments in the film.
THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT is available on video and can currently be streamed online thanks to Amazon Instant Video and Warner Video On Demand courtesy of Youtube. It’s also airing on Comcast On Demand if you have cable TV access. The film occasionally plays on TCM but it’s never been released on DVD. I suspect that might be due to the film’s soundtrack, which features many different recording artists and today that can become problematic when a studio like MGM wants to release one of their films.
The movie failed to find a receptive audience in 1970 and I tend to agree with Tino Balio who speculated in The Foreign Film Renaissance on American Screens: 1946-1973, that a seismic shift happened at the time of the film’s general release which occurred just days after the tragic May, 1970 shootings at Kent State. The American public suddenly had very little interest in seeing radical politics and student demonstrations depicted in the movies they were watching so films like THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT as well as Antonioni’s ZABRISIKI POINT had a particularly hard time at the box office. The fallout from real student activism was making headlines across the country and being seen on television every night so mainstream filmgoers and aging movie critics had little desire to see them fictionalized on screen. And many students had their minds on something else besides the movies.
Whatever the reason for the film’s inability to find a receptive audience, I think THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT is ripe for rediscovery today. In 2011 the film’s sentiment seems particularly poignant and Stuart Hagmann’s creative choices give the film a modern look that makes it one of the most compelling directorial debuts I’ve come across. It’s a shame that Hagmann only made a few more movies before he apparently retired from filmmaking in the late ‘70s including BELIEVE IN ME (1971) and the made-for-television thriller, TARRNTULAS: THE DEADLY CARGO (1977).
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