Oct 6, 2014

Drive, He Said

 Unbeknownst to most film fans, archetypical filmic psychopath Jack Nicholson—one of the few Hollywood actors that I think seems to have enough talent, character, and intelligence to become an ‘auteur’—has also worked as film director. Indeed, aside from being one of the five or so uncredited directors (which also included Francis Ford Coppola, Monte Hellman, and Jack Hill, among others) of the cheap Roger Corman-produced horror flick The Terror (1963) starring Boris Karloff and directing the forgotten cocaine-fueled comedy-western Goin' South (1978), as well as the unsurprisingly inferior ‘too-little-too-late’ Chinatown sequel The Two Jakes (1990), Nicholson tried to jump on the post-classical Hollywood ‘American New Wave’ bandwagon and direct a counter-cultured-themed quasi-arthouse work of the decidedly dark yet equally humorous and teenage-angst-ridden sort with his first ‘official’ directorial debut Drive, He Said (1971). While Nicholson became one of the most integral actors of the American New Wave due to his less-than-handsome “everyman” looks, completely natural “fuck you” attitude, and genuine acting talents, he also directed one of the most ambitious, subversive, pessimistic, and—in my opinion—underrated, if not somewhat flawed, films of Hollywood’s most revolutionary, experimental, and auteur-emphasized era. Of course, Drive, He Said did not do for the seemingly half-crazed actor turned nihilistic auteur what his comrade Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969) did for him, hence the film’s relative obscurity today. Somewhat loosely based on leftist literary icon Jeremy Larner’s 1964 debut novel of the same name about a confused counter-culture-brainwashed college basketball player who has become disillusioned with stardom and the American dream and who has a decidedly negative influence in the form of a commie revolutionary roommate who ultimately burns down their college, Drive, He Said was looked at as a reeking pile of bombastic anarchistic shit when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, received mixed reviews in the U.S., and did extremely poorly at the box-offices. Over four decades later, Nicholson’s misunderstood movie offers one of the most incriminatingly truthful depictions of its degenerate zeitgeist when a bunch of spoiled baby boomer brats brainwashed by The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Trotsky, and Marcuse thought they could change the world but ultimately debased the nation to the point where social disunity, race hate, loveless sex and bastard children, authoritarian educational institutions, gender disharmony, cultural impoverishment, political corruption, economic inequality, and spiritual retardation have become all the more malignant. A dark comedy the depicts the early stages of rot of a dying nation, Drive, He Said offers a great argument for the case that Jack Nicholson could have become more important as an auteur than an actor. 

 Hector Bloom (William Tepper) is a college basketball star who is suffering from increasing cognitive dissonance as a result of being brainwashed by his good-for-nothing beatnik Bolshevik roommate Gabriel (Michael Margotta), demanding coach Bullion (Bruce Dern), and dubious romantic relationship with his hippie leftist cuckold professor’s beautiful wanton wife Olive (Karen Black) as well as his dread of being drafted into the Vietnam War. At the beginning of Drive, She Said, armchair revolutionary Gabriel—a swarthy babbling turd who seems to have raided the wardrobe of frog counter-culture actor/auteur Pierre Clémenti—stages a New Left publicity stunt at one of Hector’s basketball games with his moronic Marxist theatre troupe by shutting off the lights in the stadium, pretending to be members of the U.S. military and mock executing a sexually androgynous gook hippie. Of course, Gabriel gets his gang of pseudo-socialist skidmarks to ritualistically chant, “My name is Gabriel… I am a visionary… You have no power,” like acid-addled automatons while standing in a holding cell. When a Cop asks Gabriel, “How does it feel to be in jail buddy?” the brain-damaged pseudo-existentialist piece of untermensch excrement rather retardedly replies, “You’re in jail buddy. You’re in jail.” Luckily, one-too-many acid trips eventually take their toll on contra archangel Gabriel. 

 Right in front of the frail face of his ‘progressive’ leftist college professor Richard (played by Chinatown screenwriter Robert Towne), who cares more about Gabriel’s arrest than satisfying his undersexed wife, Hector carries on an affair with his cuckolded teacher’s wanton wife, Olive. Hector claims to love Olive, but there is no way their relationship can go anywhere. After being told by Gabriel that basketball is “jive” and that he should give a shit about Maoist hippie bullshit, Hector also begins screwing up his basketball career by blowing off practice, getting injured by playing in a half-ass fashion, and getting kicked out of a game for fighting. Hector also intentionally screws up an important meeting with some basketball bigwigs by spouting senseless hippie gibberish about the price of hotdogs. Meanwhile, gook-loving goofball Gabriel falls into some sort of drug-induced psychosis after being drafted and destroys a television with a sword while screaming “Viva La Revolution” while in the company of a scared blond toddler boy and an unclad hippie dame. Upon discovering that he might be kicked off the basketball team due to his senseless delinquent behavior, Hector becomes all the more dejected after his MILF mistress Olive reveals to him that she is pregnant with a kid that is probably his and ends their relationship. For whatever reason, Gabriel decides to pay his roommate Hector’s ex-mistress Olive a visit while wearing pantyhose over his head. After scaring Olive by letting loose birds around her house, chasing her with a knife, and screaming “you want me,” Gabriel begins molesting the whorish housewife and gets her to confess that she loves him and that he is “right.” After Olive manages to escape out the front door, Hector shows up in his fancy sports car and attempts to act like a hero, with cuckolded husband Richard showing up soon after. After Gabriel runs out of the house and makes some semblance of sense for the first time in the entire movie by stating regarding Olive, “She’s a bitch, man…She turns you on and then she backs off,” Hector and Richard get in an argument when the latter threatens to kill the former. In the end, Gabriel presumably achieves his dream of not having to fight in the Vietnam War after being institutionalized after showing up at his college completely naked and setting free all the animals, including snakes and lizards, in the science lab.  Undoubtedly, it seems like Gabriel would have most likely suffered less brain damage and avoided spending his remaining years like Nietzsche did by mindlessly smirking like a buffoon in a mental institution had he grew some testicles, accepted the fact that he was drafted, and fought in the Vietnam War. As for disillusioned basketball star Hector, he learned the valuable lesson that it is best to stay away from acid-addled pseudo-philosophic draft-dodgers like Gabriel, who might ruin your life and/or influence you to spout inane hippie lingo.

 A basketball flick that no self-respecting negro would ever watch, Drive, He Said ultimately makes for a strange synthesis of director Jack Nicholson’s love of b-ball and mixed feelings regarding the counter-culture movement he was a symbol of as a result of his iconic performances in Hopper’s Easy Rider and Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces (1970). Of course, Nicholson’s film was meant to be the next big cinematic counter-culture hit, as a sort of spiritual brother film to Hopper and Rafelson’s films, but without the actor turned auteur starring in the film, not to mention its forlorn and patently pessimistic tone, it was almost doomed from the get go to be a celluloid bomb. Lead actor William Tepper, who never really went on to do anything notable after appearing in the film aside from appearing in Jim McBride’s 1983 remake of Godard’s Breathless, is one of the greatest weaknesses of Nicholson’s film, as he lacks charisma and charm and seems somewhat like a somnambulist merely sleepwalking through his seemingly confused and one-dimensional performance. Indeed, no charming leads and dejecting themes certainly make for unpopular films for the general public. 

 In the featurette, A Cautionary Tale of Campus Revolution and Sexual Freedom (2009), featured on the Criterion Collection DVD release of Drive, He Said, the film’s co-producer, Harry Gittes, states of the work and the decidedly degenerate zeitgeist it depicts, “It was about a very regretful time in history.” Most notably, at the end of the featurette, director Nicholson, who originally intended to make the film more scandalous with an opening featuring what he described as a “symphony of dicks” (the released film was stamped with an X-rating), states of the film, “The tragedy of the story is the problems in all free love.” Of course, there is nothing “free” about an aimless and nihilistic existence where you’re addicted to soulless sex, drugs, and shitty rock ‘n’ roll and Drive, He Said more or less lets the baby boomer generation know this, hence their bewilderment with the work. Indeed, with The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart (1970) starring a then-unknown Don Johnson in his debut film, Nicholson’s film is most certainly one of the most undeservedly forgotten celluloid counter-counter items.  After all, what other film features a cuckolded leftist college professor and a commie revolutionary who destroys his brain after one-too-many bad acid trips?!

-Ty E

No comments: