FROM THE ARCHIVES: The Strawberry Statement
Reviewed by Leonard Quart

Produced by Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff; directed by Stuart Hagmann; screenplay by Israel Horovitz, based on James Simon Kunen’s The Strawberry Statement: Notes of a College Revolutionary; music by Ian Freebairn-Smith; cinematography by Ralph Woolsey; edited by Marje Fowler; art direction by E. Preston Ames; starring Bruce Davison and Kim Darby. DVD, color, 103 min., 1970. A Warner Archive release.

In the late Sixties and early Seventies, Hollywood tried to capture the hip youth market with films of varying quality. For every first-rate Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Graduate (1967) there were many more films like Getting Straight (1970) and The Strawberry Statement (1970) that seemed more interested in exploiting than rendering the times.

The Strawberry Statement was based on James Simon Kunen’s smart, quirky, humorous book of the same name, which looks at the spring 1968 Columbia Strike through the eyes of an undergraduate, who never turned into a revolutionary. Kunen describes himself, at the beginning of the protests, as someone that will “do anything to feel like I'm doing something." He becomes deeply engaged and radicalized—expressing rage with the cops and revulsion with the university’s administrators.

Playwright Israel Horovitz (The Indian Wants the Bronx) adapted the film from Kunen’s book. The film transposes the book from Columbia to a nameless university in San Francisco where the students are on strike and occupy the administration building. Simon (Bruce Davison) is sweet, considerate, committed to getting a college education, and vaguely liberal, though not particularly political. He joins the strike in pursuit of a pretty girl, Linda (a bland, undefined Kim Darby). She’s supposedly a committed activist, but her politics, beyond nebulous talk about caring, are muddled and unconvincing. (In fact, none of the women protestors are given more than a walk-on role.) Simon, whose commitment is desultory, sneaks out from the sit-in each morning to practice with the rowing team. But he gradually becomes radicalized. He’s willing to put his body on the line, and even declaims against the racism and brutality of the police.

The film wastes much too much footage on the relationship between Simon and Linda, which never arouses a scintilla of interest. But what is more troubling is that the film’s director, Stuart Hagmann—making his first feature, having done all his previous work in commercials and for television—was so in love with being stylistically inventive that he barely allows the film a quiet or reflective moment. He gratuitously trots out every camera angle and technique he can think of, using bird’s-eye views, extreme low angles, and reflection in eyeglass shots. He indulges in countless zooms, montages, constant cross-cutting, and camera movement, and pounds us with heavy-handed images by shooting through a hole in the American flag and barbed wire— presumably to convey what the American dream has turned into. What does work visually is Simon wandering up and down San Francisco’s steep hills, past white-shingled, three-storied houses, drugged-out kids on street corners, and the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s an evocative glimpse of a city that the camera loves.

He augments the action with a stirring soundtrack from the era featuring Joni Mitchell's "The Circle Game" (sung with much vibrato by Buffy Sainte-Marie), "Helpless" by Crosby, Stills and Nash, and "Down By the River" by Neil Young. The problem is that character and action are often subordinated, even stopped for the musical interludes. Hagmann made only one more feature film, and then returned to TV where his empty virtuosity was probably better appreciated.

The Strawberry Statement continually shifts tones from the satiric, to the romantic, concluding with realistically depicted violence, a balancing act that only a more gifted director could sustain. Still, both Horovitz and Kunen are capable of writing witty lines and capturing a sense of the absurd: Simon, sitting-in, wondering if the Paris Commune could have been as dull; the tale of the talking parrot; Simon’s bloody lip, that he received in a fight with a fellow student, is magnified into an instance of police brutality; and low-key Simon’s fantasy of addressing and arousing crowds of protestors.

The film’s political sympathies lie with students. The politics of the protestors, however, and the issue that they organize around—the university’s decision to demolish a children’s center and playground used by black children in order to build an ROTC building—is never given any depth. Although some of the politics of the time did involve the young merely acting out against authority or treating political rebellion as something barely reflected on and easily dropped, there were participants who treated the protests with political seriousness. Of course, Hollywood was never going to make a Ken Loach film, where political argument and exploration of ideology had centrality and is depicted with intellectual complexity and real insight. Nevertheless, one still wants more from this film than merely highlighting Che and Mao posters, antiwar street theater, a radio bulletin announcing Huey Newton’s leaving prison, or providing fragments of student leader speeches attacking the university’s collusion with the Defense Department. The film almost never goes beyond the level of political posturing, and giving us a taste of the period’s artifacts and rhetoric.

There are a couple of scenes that work relatively well politically. An encounter in a park where Simon and Linda meet a group of black and Mexican toughs, who gratuitously destroy his movie camera, demonstrates a contradiction between Simon’s growing commitment to “the people” and his experience of daily life, forcing him to question the nature of his involvement. The issue, however, is quickly dropped. Simon puts his doubts aside and joins the rest of the protestors in the university gym waiting to be busted by the police and the National Guard, sitting in a large circle chanting John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance.”

The riot that ensues is the film final and most powerful scene, though as is his wont, Hagmann employs superfluously showy technique, using a high overhead shot, creating a Busby Berkeley-like floral pattern of the sitting students. Still, the scene of cops wearing gas masks, shooting tear gas, and brutally clubbing the students—saving their worst treatment for the black students—brings back vivid memories of the time.

The Strawberry Statement is flawed, but even this shallow, pop version of the Sixties gives us a taste of the period’s dreams and volatility. I’m still hoping for a film that captures the heart of those times of great hope, some success, and much senselessness and futility.

Leonard Quart is the author or coauthor of several books, including the fourth edition ofAmerican Film and Society since 1945 (Praeger).

To purchase The Strawberry Statement, click here.

Copyright © 2012 by Cineaste Magazine.