Wednesday, June 30, 2010
There Is No Gravity
When I look at something like GETTING STRAIGHT I find myself consciously aware of how the film is very much a relic of another time and yet all I can do is associate my own life with it. Originally released in May 1970 just a few months before star Elliott Gould appeared on the cover of Time, the film may be dated and it may be very much a product of a certain point in history—it came out within days of the Kent State shootings for crying out loud—but all I can do is look at it with my own eyes. Since this is a film which is even older than I am I’m not sure I can really state with any confidence how much to take certain elements simply as satire. I just know how it makes me feel. However dated the story along with some of the ideas presented in the film directed by Richard Rush (FREEBIE AND THE BEAN, THE STUNT MAN) might be in this day and age at the least Ingmar Bergman apparently thought it was the best American film he’d ever seen, certainly causing him to cast Elliott Gould in his own THE TOUCH, made the following year. As for my own perspective, I know that the bleak setting of the film on a college campus with such modernist architecture (filmed in Oregon) that would seem more at home in a science fiction film causes it to ring a particularly uncomfortable chord with me, thinking of a certain university I was once unfortunate to attend (and which will go unnamed here). Every time I watch GETTING STRAIGHT the last fifteen or twenty minutes stir up a form of anger inside of me that I’ve long kept dormant. So as far as I’m concerned it means something to me and I could believe that someone else out there might feel the same.
Post-graduate student Harry Bailey (Elliott Gould, with huge mustache) who was at one time a protester who someone even calls, “the great rebel, the great leader” is now looking at his 30s and is ready to join the system, desperately trying to finish his studies at a small college to receive a Master’s so he can become a teacher. The fact that he has no money left for food or rent is the least of his problems—he’s dealing with a faculty head determined not to let Bailey pass, girlfriend Jan (Candice Bergen) who he keeps fighting with and a growing feeling of student protest happening as Harry, who knows he’s getting too old for this place and feels like he’s done all the protesting he can already, finding himself literally caught between the growing fervor among the student body and a faculty who literally refuses to pay attention to the escalating riots that are going on right in front of them.
Much of the visual style seems appropriate for a 1970 film starring Elliott Gould, as if it’s meant to represent how his character sees the world around him. Wandering from place to place, rack focusing to look at something else in the background and leering at times a bit too long at certain female students who slink past the camera. With a screenplay by Robert Kaufman (also screenwriter on FREEBIE AND THE BEAN as well as LOVE AT FIRST BITE) from the novel by Ken Kolb, GETTING STRAIGHT veers between freewheeling comedy, satire and earnest drama, at times seemingly attempting to combine all three at once and more than willing to become confrontational about what’s being presented. The riots that eventually explode on this campus combining demands for students rights and a black studies program (news reports on Vietnam are briefly seen on TV and the threat of the draft also plays a role here) very much ground the film in the period. Some of it also remains as politically incorrect as certain elements of FREEBIE AND THE BEAN are these days—when told the government is going to put everyone in concentration camps in Arizona, he says, “Don’t knock Arizona, it’s a great state. They have the lowest incidents of lung cancer, homosexuality and crabs,” it’s hard to ignore certain elements of the sentence. I mean, can you believe it? Actually saying something nice about Arizona?
The film’s tone is somewhat unique in how it never wants the viewer to settle down in the sort of freewheeling comedy it sometimes begins to approach. The counterculture vibe is there throughout but GETTING STRAIGHT doesn’t make as easy as other films from this period do in a young vs. old way, making the thirty year-old Harry’s dilemma in being caught in the middle that much stronger—the protesters are often portrayed as blind to their own arrogance or naiveté and the old man professors are hardly clueless as to what’s going on even if they aren’t particularly sympathetic towards the students or even just to Harry (as for the cops seen putting away their badges as the riots begin, that’s another issue entirely). Even for the purposes of the film, the backstory of Harry Bailey (presumably not George’s brother, the one who saved that transport ship and won the Medal of Honor) is almost too good to be true—between serving a stint in Vietnam, protesting in Berkeley, Selma and Paris his sixties were apparently very busy but the way he’s written makes it clear how much he’s seen and how much he’s had enough of all that, he’s “done it already”. When someone unsuccessfully trying to get him to join up asks him as he’s racing across the campus, “What are you afraid of?” he just responds, “Of being late for class,” and he means it.
All he wants to do is be a teacher, to inspire children the way he was once inspired and the nature of those in the school trying to prevent him from doing that, to do something good with his life, exposes him to how broken the system is that he’s trying to find his way into. It’s his attitude, the rebel inside him, that’s holding him back according to the head of the department (played with icy intelligence by Jeff Corey who works very well with Gould) who looks at the act of teaching as more of an assembly line to move students through than any sort of road to the passion of learning and assigns Harry to teach a class of ‘Dumbbell English’ as a way to test him for that future. Some of the blatant comedy in the film doesn’t always quite work (particularly the running gag with his car that’s falling apart) and Gould’s outbursts are in some cases a little much even within this volatile atmosphere. But the film captures the feeling of being trapped between these two factions that one feels completely alienated from, looking for some kind of middle ground, some kind of something and what it builds to, what finally boils over in the last fifteen minutes as Harry attempts to answer certain questions about THE GREAT GATSBY during his Master’s Oral, is what really gets under my skin, even watching it right now. It’s a feeling of anger that brings up long buried unpleasant memories and because of that watching this film is extremely cathartic for me as if in some ways it allows me to finally witness the destruction of that certain place in my life from years ago.
In the midst of all this is Harry Bailey’s ongoing relationship with Candice Bergen’s Jan, which seems to consist of sucking her toes in between arguments not to mention how he casually sleeps with various other girls on campus (it is, after all, a counterculture comedy) after they’ve been arguing. Drifting in and out of all this is the ongoing look at campus life of students (with minor student characters who appear throughout and become extremely familiar by the end) getting involved with protesting and trying to avoid the draft—one friend of Harry’s lost his deferment because he came up short on his credits after taking a class over, not because he failed it but because he liked it. Some of the numerous shouting matches between some characters maybe go on longer than is sometimes necessary but there’s a passionately literate feel to them (makes sense, considering how it’s set in college) and even a few who seem dead wrong in their points of view feel like they’re given a moment to speak their piece in an intelligent manner.
Kaufman’s dialogue is very sharp throughout, though Rush may have played a hand in it as well since he once claimed ownership of one of the best lines, Gould’s kiss-off to Bergen at the end of one argument when he screams after her, “You’re not a woman. You’re just a guy with a hole in the middle!” The director’s visual style (the film was shot by László Kovács) is genuinely ambitious even if it’s not always perfect, with those rack focuses used throughout becoming a crutch that he relies on a little too often, but the way he frames the immense austerity of this campus is often very sharp. He also seems to have a keen eye that occasionally pauses to check out the girls in certain scenes. For me personally, GETTING STRAIGHT is about making the choice to not avoid who you are, no matter what certain individuals who may call themselves teachers try to accomplish in attempting to destroy you and as long as kids go to college that’s a concept which will never become dated. The riots are at first believably horrific, but by the end they’ve become something else…as if the film is presenting what truly has to be for the earth to keep spinning and for the lead character to realize what he needs to about himself. It all hits me like a lightning bolt, a film with ideas that are big and small and I find myself continually responding to it.
Elliott Gould digs into his character with a great amount of confidence and even if it all becomes a little much once or twice he nevertheless manages to infuse his character with passion and intelligence that is always present in every word he speaks, making it a key iconic performance of his from this period. Candice Bergen is still very green here but though her performance seems somewhat undisciplined there’s something about her overeager earnestness, her willingness to look Gould in the eyes when they argue, that I bought into. And yes, she’s beautiful too. I love that final closeup of her as well—is it a zoom in/dolly out? In addition to Jeff Corey, Cecil Kallaway makes his last film appearance as one professor sympathetic to Harry’s situation and Jon Lormer, instantly recognizable from several classic STAR TREKs, appears as a key member of the administration as well. Max Julien of THE MACK nails the militant black leader of the campus, unafraid to laugh condescendingly in the face of anyone who disagrees with him and totally commanding the screen when he speaks, getting the tone of this sort of person totally right. Robert F. Lyons brings an interesting early-Nicholson feel to his performance as Harry’s friend willing to do anything he can to avoid the draft, John Rubenstein and Jeannie Berlin are some of the more prominent protesters on the campus, Gregory Sierra of BARNEY MILLER and THE TOWERING INFERNO is the ‘Dumbell English’ student who turns in a book report on Batman and none other than Harrison Ford appears in several scenes as a partying student who lives down the hall from Bergen.
Maybe it isn’t very dated after all. Maybe how dated it is doesn’t even matter. What happens during the last half hour of GETTING STRAIGHT is where much of my response to it comes from so it’s possible that I’m overrating it slightly to myself, ignoring a few of its flaws. But I don’t care. All I know is that there’s something about the film that makes me wish that I’d seen it years before I finally did. I think it would have made me feel better but looking at it now helps me put things into a sort of perspective, reminding me of how far I’ve come, confirming for me that they didn’t deserve the power I once gave them. Thinking about it now, they didn’t deserve to be in the same room as me. But that was a long time ago now, so as I watch the beautiful (for me) final shot of this film as I hear that music which still stays with me I just think, fuck ‘em. Fuck ‘em all. That’s probably a steal from Robert Evans, but so what. I didn’t deserve what happened. I’m better than that. I’m better than they are. I still am. And I love a film like GETTING STRAIGHT that helps me remember this.