1910s & 20s * 30s * 40s * Pre-50s * Frankenstein * Atomic Angst * 1950 * 1951 * 1952 * 1953 * 1954 * 1955 * 1956 * 1957 * 1958 * 1959 *
1960 * 1961 * 1962 * 1963 * 1964 * 1965 * 1966 * 1967 * 1968 * 1969 * 1970 * 1971 * 1972 * 1973 * 1974 * 1975 * 1976 * 1977 * 1978 * 1979

Monday, May 9, 2011

Wild in the Streets

American International released this curious social-commentary film in May of 1968. Wild in the Streets (WS) has nothing traditionally sci-fi to it. It is included here, because it shows up on some lists as a sci-fi film. WS is a speculative fiction, and paints a dystopic picture of the future. That may be the connection. Watch for Hal Holbrook as Senator Fergus, Shelley Winters as Max's mom and a very young Richard Pryor as Stanley X.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A quick montage shows young Max Flatlow growing up with a detached father and overbearing mother. Max becomes a "bad" teen, brewing LSD in the basement. He blows up his father's beloved Chrysler and runs away from home. Fast forward a few years, and Max is now Max Frost, wealthy pop rock star. A background factoid is that 52% of America's population are under 25. Max and his band play at a fundraiser for Johnny Fergus (Hal Holbrook), a relative youngster at 35, running for congress. Fergus, via Max, is courting the youth vote. Max takes advantage of the spotlight to call for the voting age to be dropped to 14. This sets of a power play between the old establishment and the masses of demonstrating, sit-in youth. The two sides compromise at 15. Max's mother and father surprise him after a concert. On the way home, Mrs. Flatlow drives badly and kills a young boy. Max orders lawyers to get her off, then put her away. A aged senator from California dies so there must be a special election to replace her. With the lower voting age, Max is able to get his perpetually stoned keyboardist, Sally LeRoy, elected. Max has her propose a constitutional amendment to lower the age restriction for all elected offices to 14, including president. Max's gang dope the water supply with LSD so all of congress show up trippin'. His gang, who drank only bottled water, help the congressmen to approve the amendment. Max runs for president and wins by the largest landslide in history. As president, he orders camps built to house everyone over 30. Everyone in them is to be given LSD "treatments". Young men in black uniforms, carrying guns, round up the over-30s. Busses drop them off at concentration camps. Families hiding in the wilderness (the Fergus family) are captured and interred as well. Johnny can't take it, so hangs himself. Everyone else is happily stoned. Max, heady with his power, stomps on the pet crayfish of some young boys. "What are you gonna do about it? Beat me up?" Max gloats. The boys respond that they'll get rid of everyone over 10. The end.

Why is this movie fun?
WS is not particularly "fun" in the usual B-grade sci-fi ways. As a social commentary on the rebellious youth of the late 60s, it has some interest.

Cold War Angle
None. WS is social commentary.

Middle-Age Fear -- The portrayal of late 60s youth is far from flattering. Despite this fact, viewers who saw WS as youths report feeling invigorated by the pro-youth message. Perhaps cases of selective seeing. The writer, Robert Thom, was 39. The director, Barry Shear, was in his 40s. They tell their story of the Coup of Youth from a middle-aged point of view. In their portrayal, youth are self-centered, irresponsible, cold-hearted and there are millions of them! This is a nice snapshot of how those over-30 viewed the socially-active, irreverent, angry youth of the late 60s. The notion that a pop star could command all of the nation's youth is a bit far fetched. Could Jim Morrison, Roger McGuinn or Mick Jagger get every kid in America to follow them politically? Probably not. Youth tend to be as internally divided as any other group, but seen as monolithic from those outside -- the over-30s.

Pre-Chappaquiddick -- Just in case viewers did not get the allegory of Max to John F. Kennedy, a radio reporter intones about the Kennedy effect. In the 1960 election, concerns were raised as to whether such a young man as JFK was stable enough to be president. Curiously, WS has a scene which foreshadows the actual event of Chappaquiddick by one year. In the real event, Senator Ted Kennedy drove off the bridge from Chappaquiddick Island, killing his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne. Despite the media furor, young Kennedy was not prosecuted. In the movie, Max's mom is driving recklessly and rolls his limo on a suburban street. The crash kills a young boy who was playing in his yard. Max demands lawyers to get her off. The parallels, while not perfect, are an interesting preview of the Kennedy clan's troubles to come in July of '69.

Affordable Crash -- In one scene, Max's mother drives irresponsibly and crashes his 1965 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow III (note the quad headlights) It probably cost more than their entire shooting budget. Note the director's use of camera work to create the "crash" without harming the car. One moment we're looking at the passengers through the windshield with spinny-cam creating the roll-over. The next moment, the actors (now all disheveled) are pulling themselves out of a gently tipped over Rolls. Fake smoke wafts from a totally unscathed hood (or bonnet, if you prefer). No actual Rolls-Royces were harmed in the making of this movie.

Next Nazis -- A semi-subtle shift occurs once Max and his youth achieve a tyranny of the majority. They become the new Nazis. The over-30s are the new Jews. The young soldiers dress in what look like casual SS uniforms (black t-shirt, black pants, black soft caps) and tote guns. They forcibly round up citizens, put them on busses and ship them to concentration camps (grim barracks, fences, guard towers). Over-30s hiding in the woods are hunted down. A woman holed up in her house is dragged away while she pleads that she's really 25. Max is advised of young people hiding over-30s in hidden rooms. From the writer and director's point of view, the new boss would be the same as (or worse than) the old boss.

Cycle of Doom -- Thom sets up a parallel between characters, thus predicting the eventual doom of Max's youth revolution. Johnny Fergus is Max's future. Fergus courted the youth vote to get into power. Once the young had power, they turned on Fergus, who eventually hanged himself in one of the concentration camps. Max is swept into power by the youth. What gnawed at Max was 7 year old Mary Fergus' comment that Max was old. He becomes -- like Orwell's pigs in "Animal Farm" -- just as bad as those he railed against. He, too, kills to suit himself. In doing so, he raises the ire of those younger than himself. The implication is that Max will go the way of Fergus as he ages and the angry youth dispatch HIM to a camp.

Bottom line? WS has almost no sci-fi to it at all. It is a grim dystopic tale which could stand alongside other sci-fi dystopias. For a low-budget film, it doesn't come across cheap. The pace is a bit slow in the beginning, but the second half moves right along. Take it with a grain of salt, but it does capture some of the Sturm und Drang of the late 60s.

No comments: