Friday, January 8, 2021

Going Wild in the Streets: Then and Now

I was all set to write about film noir, or about George C. Wolfe’s masterful film production of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, with its remarkable valedictory performance by the late Chadwick Boseman. But the events on Wednesday in our nation’s capital led me in an even darker direction. With the wielding of political power very much on my mind, I remembered back to 1968, and the low-budget indie called Wild in the Streets.

 Wild in the Streets began as a short story in the then-hip culture magazine, Esquire. “The Day it All Happened, Baby!”-- a darkly humorous account of the rising youth culture -- was authored by Robert Thom, who was then hired by American International Pictures to adapt his story into a low-budget screenplay with lots of music and youth appeal. The story’s hero, Max Frost (Christopher Jones) is a twenty-something who digs sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. Fronting his home-grown band, he sings about the fact that 52% of the U.S.  population is 25 or younger, This attracts the attention of a Kennedy-ish politician (Hal Holbrook) who reasons that a massive youth vote is just what his Senatorial campaign needs. He comes out in favor of changing the U.S. voting age from 21 to 18 (which, of course, actually was to happen in 1971), and commissions Max’s band to spread the word. Instead Max gains massive national attention with his audacious hit song about lowering the voting age even further: “Fourteen or Fight.”

 I won’t get into all the complications that ensue, except to mention that large doses of LSD are involved, but ultimately Max becomes President, boosted into America’s top job because of his populist appeal to the youth of the nation. And his #1 priority? To take revenge on anyone older than 30. If you’re unlucky enough to be 35, you’re shipped out to a re-education camp, where (behind barbed wire) you’re drugged to ensure docility. That’s how he pays back his mom (the inevitable Shelley Winters) for being aggravating. But Max’s own days are numbered, as a nifty final scene makes quite clear.

 Of course there’s no direct analogy to what’s just happened in the streets of Washington DC, and (needless to say) in the halls of Congress. And the presidency, of late, has seemed to go to septuagenarians, not post-pubescents. But the very idea of a charismatic leader and the enthusiasts who’ll follow him anywhere seems all too current. The insurrectionists who burst into the sedate chambers of the Capitol, bent on somehow ensuring their idol’s success, were promised a “wild” time in DC, and they got one.

 I have a keen recollection of Robert Thom (who died at 1979 at the age of 50) from my New World Pictures days. He’d been hired to write the screenplay to the film that became Death Race 2000, and  I actually chanced to meet with him over a working lunch. He looked very New York (sports jacket, cigarette, sardonic smirk), and seemed to look down his nose at us unsophisticated Californians. He ordered a Rob Roy (what was that?) and then steak tartare. Watching him gobble up raw beef seemed a perfect start to our work together on a script about auto racers who score points by mowing down pedestrians. But the few pages of script that emerged were hopeless: long literary arias that were all scene description. Robert Thom had a wild and crazy mind. He might have relished the anarchic spectacle we saw on Wednesday, but I suspect someone else might be better at making it into a timely action flick.


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