Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.
We’ve been working through the early successes of Criterion’s America: Lost and Found: The BBS Story box set, the history of which you should absolutely read HERE before continuing on into today’s piece if you want some historical context. For the sake of brevity, I’m not going to be covering that ground again, which I’m sure those of you playing along at home will thank me for. Regardless, following last installment’s film, Five Easy Pieces, writer/actor Jack Nicholson had suddenly found himself thrust into the spotlight, becoming the voice of a generation. With that sudden fame came the ability to parlay it into a small directorial debut, which Nicholson did with today’s film.
Drive, He Said (1971)
Remember how I said last time that Five Easy Pieces reminded me a lot of mumblecore, except it actually was about something and thus every scene had narrative momentum and thus the audience wasn’t bored by the lack of direction, but empathized with it because it accurately resembled the emotional journey they and the hero were going on? That was a nice dream, and apparently a fleeting one, because right after it we have Drive, He Said to remind us just how the other, shittier half lives.
The movie opens with a college basketball game being played over the opening credits, which will actually be the best part of the movie (though I, poor sap, didn’t know it). Nicholson is a huge basketball fan, not just of the game but of the whole experience, and it shows in these opening sequences. There’s the gracefulness of the players, the rhythms of the game, the ebb and flow of the crowd as they cheer or jeer, and the other accompanying hustle of any well-attended sporting event. Into this scene, however, intrudes a small group of student protesters, who cut the lights and co-opt the PA to say they’re holding the group hostage. They drag someone out onto the court, and hold a gun to their head. They pull the trigger, and out pops an American flag, right before the police rush in to arrest them all.
In a reaction that is baffling to anyone alive today, everyone has a big laugh about the whole thing and carries on with the game. Sure, what they did gets the students in trouble, but nobody seems too awfully concerned about it, and as the game carries on to its conclusion the movie refocuses on the star athlete, Hector Bloom (William Tepper), a kid with aspirations of going pro and not much else to recommend him. He’s our hero, giving an interview and then running off to hook up with the wife of one of his professors, Olive (Karen Black), who he’s having a barely-secret affair with. For her part, she seems happy to fuck the star athlete in the back seat of his run down car, living out a dream of youth before going back home to her potentially oblivious stuffed shirt of a husband.
Hector lives with a roommate named Gabriel (Michael Margotta), revealed to be one of the students behind the protest. He’s a typical burnout type, railing against the world and using a fairly ruinous amount of various drugs to keep his high-energy paranoia binge going. He isn’t particularly threatening (at least at first), but just boring in the way self-absorbed drug users are, pontificating ‘deep’ thoughts with the rest of his friends in an endless series of smoke filled rooms. The most interesting part is his juxtaposition with Hector, who he looks at mostly with derision for daring to care about anything, especially something as silly as basketball. The problem is, Hector doesn’t really care at all, he only seems to bother because he likes the pressure to excel. When it becomes easy, he gets as bored as anyone, and the laziness starts creeping into his game.
All of this takes place in a setting of increasing unrest due to everyone out of this generation being called up for the draft, with a weird, bizarrely out of place set of sequences where Gabriel goes in for his draft physical and throws a fit to try to get thrown out, acting out and even assaulting a psychiatrist in order to prove that he’s unfit to serve. It should work, but it really doesn’t, mostly because the tone of the movie is all over the place. This scene drops right in the middle of smaller human drama with Hector and Olive struggling in their relationship, with him falling for her and her finding that she’s pregnant and neither of them really equipped to break out of the normal roles expected of them in the rest of their life.
It tries to put a lot of things out onto the film: the competitive expectations of the mainstream, the quickly burning out counterculture that blows all its energy on drugs and self-indulgence, the quiet desperation of youth and age trying to emulate one another, the undercurrent of anger at responsibility and the difficulty of accepting it. Any of these probably would have made an okay movie on its own, but together it’s just too much, and the movie dances from point to point without landing any of them with any actual emotional resonance. When they begin to collide late in the film, with a drug-addled Gabriel breaking into Olive’s house and assaulting her, it just feels like a cheap grab at scandal than it does any sort of threat. And when Gabriel goes on to run naked through the campus and free the animals in the biology lab, what tries for poignancy comes off as comically overwrought, well worthy of the not-kind laughter I find myself having at its expense.
I try to treat these movies fairly, but honestly Drive, He Said is a bad movie, an indulgent waste of 90 minutes that makes all reflective art films of this type look bad by comparison, full of an array of half articulated ideas that should have been beaten out of the script in the second draft, not put on screen for us to suffer through. I appreciate its inclusion on the set, because historically it shows just how quickly BBS fell into the easy traps of their own new niche of film making, and how not every movie was a smash success. It’s a painful lesson, both for Nicholson (who wouldn’t direct again for 7 years), and for me having to watch and write about it. Sometimes obscure movies reveal hidden treasures, and sometimes you step in a pile of rotten garbage, and sadly this is a clear example of the latter.
A New Hollywood Summer — BBS Box Schedule
Head (1968) – 6/11
Easy Rider (1969) – 6/25
Five Easy Pieces (1970) – 7/9
Drive, He Said (1971) – 7/23 You are here!
A Safe Place (1971) – 8/6
The Last Picture Show (1971) – 8/20
The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) – 9/3