About Me

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Montreal, Quebec, Canada
I am a Montreal-based actor, writer and comedian. When U.S. President John F. Kennedy was shot, I was three days old. I cried all day. My favourite books of all time are Moby Dick by Herman Melville, The Last Temptation by Nikos Kazantzakis and The Ewoks Fun Time Activity Book by Chirpa and Pamploo. I am a member of The Vestibules, On The Spot Improv and The Best Buy Battery Club. Except for the Battery Club, I've been at all this stuff for over 20 years. Enjoy my blog.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Student Protests: Haven't I Seen This Movie Before?

Living in Montreal as I do, it's become pretty difficult to ignore a few little things that keep happening in and around my city: the escalating student protests, the mob mentality violence, the police brutality, the divisive reactions to the provincial government's legislative response to the crisis, the nightly pot banging marches outside my window in my supposedly sleepy west end neighbourhood, the list goes on...

It's also hard for me not to think that maybe I've seen this movie before. These kinds of protests and the subsequent public reactions to them are nothing new. It has happened in many different places and during many different times, including in our own backyard. For those of us with even dim memories of decades past, it does all seem kinda familiar. For someone my age, much of that familiarity does not come from the events first hand but, rather, from the pop culture of the day.

Also familiar from both life and pop culture is the slowly increasing number number of comments turning up in the social media spheres regarding "entitled" and "spoiled" "kids" who should "get a job", "learn about responsibility", "sacrifice" and generally "wake up" and get used to life in the "real world".

We have certainly heard that kind of thing before, like in, say, way back in 1968....

Jack Webb in the TV series Dragnet (who became something of a poster child for parodies of  "the establishment" in the 60's, 70's) concisely encapsulates the often dismissive, judgmental and condescending attitude on the part of the established order faced by many different successful and not so successful popular movements towards social change.

On the other hand, the protesters and the activists, even in their pop culture form, are also not above employing their own similarly incendiary language and rhetoric....

Sure, these kinds of clips aren't exactly Montreal 2012. The issues are different. The time is different. The place is different. The culture is different. The underlying emotion, basic ideological conflicts and general atmosphere, though, are really not so different. Social change has and will continue to happen all the time. Otherwise, we'd all still be living in caves and eating Brontosaurus Burgers (again, there might be some pop culture in there).

When seen through the eyes of the events of the last one hundred days here in Montreal, looking back at the pop culture zeitgeist of the so called "youth revolution" of the 60's can be quite thought provoking. If nothing else, it can give us a much broader social and historical perspective. If nothing else it makes it clear that one thing remains unchanged: the issue of student protest and social and political reactions to it is just as devise today as it was then.

While these movies, TV clips and pop culture in general are not necessarily historically accurate records of the events of the day per se, they are incredible time capsules to the way these movements were seen at the time.

For example...

Wild in the Streets (1968) is, at first glance, a silly film. It only takes a few minutes of viewing to see, though, that,  in spite of its superficial silliness, the movie is fascinatingly telling of its time and the attitudes towards the issues that it attempts to address.

Wild in the Streets tells the story about how the youth population of the late 60's (52% of the US population was under the age of 25 at that time, according to the film) manages to change the voting age in the USA to 15. As a result, they elect the first 24 year old President of the United States of America.

Let's make no mistake, this movie was made, first and foremost, like almost any film anywhere, to make money. American International Studios, the people responsible for the picture, were the major producers of Drive-In type B-movies at the time. And it is easy to see the film as cynical  exploitation of then very lucrative youth market. Yet Wild in the Streets does manage to address the issues of the day in a surprisingly well rounded, albeit over the top, manner. The movie both plays to and satirizes the youth movement at the same time.

The youth movement, led by the young millionaire pop star, Max Frost,  wants to see Frost elected as the youngest President of the United States in history. In order to do so, they concoct a plan to get the Legislative Branch of the US government to lower the voting age by putting LSD in their water supply. The scene of all these middle aged politicians tripping out on acid is shot with that classic swirling focus and tilting camera angles that was practically de riguer for movie acid trips of the day.  The scene is played as a youth empowerment fantasy for laughs while simultaneously the film also manages to create an underlying sense of something sinister. It's kinda funny but, still, watching all these hippies manipulatestoned out of their mind elected officials into enacting legislation that will allow their guy to be elected President (in what amounts to a bloodless coup d'etat) is quite unsettling.

The satire arches up even higher as the newly elected President Frost orders that everyone over thirty years of age be rounded up and sent to "re-education" camps where they are forced to drop acid every day. It's part youth culture empowerment fantasy, part satirical political cautionary tale.

View the complete film of Wild in the Streets by clicking here.

A clip from Punishment Park was featured earlier in this post.

On the the almost opposite side of the spectrum is Peter Watkins' still controversial 1971 film, Punishment Park  . Peter Watkins is a British filmmaker known for his mockumentaries. Unlike much of the genre, his mockumentaries are not comedies. If fact, they are generally deadly serious affairs.

Two of Watkins' better known earlier mockumentary works are Culloden and The War Game. Culloden (1964) documents the history of the Battle of Culloden, in which the English (some say brutally) put down a Scottish rebellion in 1746. The film utilizes historical reenactments shot it a TV news documentary style.  The War Game is a 1967 mockumentary film that takes places in England after a hypohthetical nuclear war. It unflicnlingly depicts the potential devastation of such a conflict. It is, to the best of my knowledge, the only mockumentary to ever win an Academy Award for Best Documentary.

Punishment Park, follows in the tradition of those two films by telling the story of how convicted young radical revolutionaries in the US  are sent (under the pretext of an actual existing piece of US legislation enacted in the 1950's) to a desert in Southern California. Once there they are given the chance to escape their sentence if they can survive what is essentially a three day desert death hunt at the hands of the police and National Guard trainees. The central conceit of Punishment Park is that it is a documentary ostensibly shot by a European film crew.

As is the case with many of Watkins' films, he uses only non professional actors. Also like much of his work, the cast improvises a great deal of the film. In this case, the convicted protesters were played by actual activists, students or other similarly inclined young people. The cops and National Guard trainees were played actual cops, ex-cops, National Guardsmen, veterans or others who also may have been similarly ideologically inclined. The result of this non professional improvisational approach creates an unexpectedly engaging discourse between the two sides. Watkins does not take the easy route of merely making the activists righteous heroes and the authorities two dimensional closed minded villains. While the film undoubtedly leans more to the left than than the right, neither side is portrayed as completely right or completely wrong.

In fact, almost everybody  in the movie comes off as pretty much equally unlikable. And that's kinda the point of the whole endeavor. Unmistakably, Punishment Park is agit prop, yet it is not the simple agit prop that often defines the genre. Watkins seems to be ramping up the rhetoric and the hyperbole for the exact purpose of instigating inflammatory debates (and perhaps even second thoughts) on the issues of power vs revolution, peace vs violence, social order vs individual rights, equality vs oligarchy and so on.

It's almost as if Punishment Park is there to kick you in the ass and get you upset about the questions it raises, whether you like it or not.

When you go back into the history of 1960's student protest films, there are many forgotten films that are actually still quite relevant, most especially in light of the recent Occupy movement and the even more recent Quebec student protests. Among others there's Medium Cool (1969), The Revolutionary (1970, starring the now much more right leaning Jon Voight) and this one, The Strawberry Statement (1968):

I'm not sure why the local Montreal TV stations have not been running these movies every night for the last 100 days...

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