By Richard Winters
My Rating: 9 out of 10
4-Word Review: The 60’s up close.
If you ever wanted to travel back in time and take part in the events of the tumultuous 60’s this film comes about as close to that as you can get. Watching this isn’t like viewing a movie, but more like an experience in itself. Acclaimed cinematographer Haskell Wexler who had previously worked in the documentary field heard that demonstrators were going to march at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago so he decided to hire a few actors and throw them into the fray while building a thin plot around it and creating a pseudo-reality effect. The story deals with news cameraman John Cassellis (Robert Forster) who meets and starts to date Eileen (Verna Bloom) who has just moved to Chicago from West Virginia with her 11-year-old son Harold (Harold Blankenship). As the convention and protests begin and John begins to cover it Harold runs away from home and Eileen goes into all the chaos to find him.
The scenes from the riots leave a major impact and even though I had already seen this film several times before I was amazed at how compelling it still was. Everything still seemed fresh with a clarity that makes you feel you are right there and a vividness that seems like it was filmed just yesterday. Watching the National Guard with their rifles raised marching down the streets of Chicago threatening crowds of people is incredible as is the sight of army tanks rolling down Michigan Avenue. The people in the crowds are not actors and you see them getting clubbed by the police only a few feet from the camera. Watching them take the park benches in Grant Park and use them to build a shield from the police is exciting as are actual sound bites of reporters describing the action and at certain points being roughed up by the patrol as well. The look of fear and confusion on Bloom’s face at what she finds herself in the middle of it is authentic and helps build the tension.
Of course these scenes only make up the final fifteen minutes of the film, but the movie is filled with a variety of other unique moments that are all captured with the same vivid style and are equally memorable. The part where John and Eileen go to a roller derby and watch actual female players beat each other up with some even using their fists gets quite vicious. The scene showing hundreds of caged pigeons being set free and flying off in a giant flock that fills the sky is eloquent. There is even some effective erotica as a naked John chases his naked girlfriend Ruth (Marianna Hill) around his apartment before lifting her up by her legs and spinning her around in a circle.
The film also takes a great critical look at television news and the people who cover it. It shows how reporters and cameramen are very detached from the events and people that they are covering and how their need to capture that ‘great’ image or sound bite supersedes the human element.
Forster is perfect for the lead role. I loved his aggressive, blue collar, tough-guy attitude that perfectly reflects the Windy City. Peter Bonerz who plays Gus his sound man is great, but in the opposite way. His character is much more timid and wants to avoid confrontation at every turn and finds it difficult dealing with some black people who make him feel uncomfortable when he visits their apartment and even some young children when they start to climb on his car.
The only negative is that the song ‘Merry-Go-Round’ by Wild Man Fischer is not included in the most recent Criterion Collection DVD/Blu-ray release. The song was in the original release shown in theaters as well as the film’s first VHS version, which I saw. Unfortunately the song’s copyright holders sued Paramount stating that a VHS/DVD release is not the same as a theatrical/television broadcast, which they were under contract for to use and therefore could not include it in any later reissues, which is a real shame. The song has to be one of the strangest things you will ever hear and done by an eccentric one-of-a-kind artist. It has a weird alluring quality to it that gives personality and an extra edge to the film and in later versions gets replaced with ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ better known as the theme for The Harlem Globetrotters, which is just not as effective.
My Rating: 9 out of 10
Released: August 27, 1969
Runtime: 1Hour 11Minutes
Director: Haskell Wexler
Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray (The Criterion Collection)