Stars: Del Clos, Gary Goodrow, Caroline Parr, Sam Ridge, Orville Schell and Dorothy Schmidt
I was born in England in 1971 so attempting to fathom what was happening in America in 1968 is an impossible task for me. I know enough to know that to understand it you had to have been there, but if you were there you were probably so stoned out of your brain that you didn't notice. I understand a bit more of what was happening to American cinema at the same time: as much change on the screen as was happening off it. The studio monopoly had been dealt a death blow in 1948 and finally rolled over in the mid fifties. The Production Code they adhered to was slowly weakened throughout the sixties until being officially abandoned in 1968. For the next few years the heads of the big studios freely admitted that they didn't have a clue what people wanted any more and, after Easy Rider, just threw money at anyone who seemed like they might have a clue. Most didn't. It wasn't until Jaws gave birth to the blockbuster that things fell back into place.
What this leaves us is a period of time that's full of amazing experimentation, many films being made by visionary artists instead of professional filmmakers. In the right hands, this freedom led to taboo-crushing works of art like Night of the Living Dead, Putney Swope or Two-Lane Blacktop. In the wrong hands, it led to pictures so wildly out of control that they were often never finished. Gold got finished but promptly lost, perhaps because nobody could actually believe anything of substance could have been conjured up out of the filmmaking environment Bob Levis set up for his debut film as a director. He collected together a host of free thinking hippies and took them out into the middle of nowhere to get stoned, get naked and get some footage in the can. Levis is the writer, of sorts, but he didn't have a script. He presumably just stayed a little less stoned than everyone else in order to keep the camera rolling and effectively wrote while editing.
Finally available on DVD, the liner notes clamour about how it was lost for forty years and how it systematically shattered every movie rule, but they're being economical with the truth. It wasn't ever quite that lost, for a start. It saw a theatrical release in England in 1972, but not in the US until 1996, so it's been out there, just not particularly remembered except by fans of rock 'n' roll legends, the MC5, who contributed three long unavailable songs to the soundtrack. Now we can evaluate it without a heady cloud of drugs floating around our heads to distort our thinking and, watched clean, it succeeds in shattering movie rules, but not systematically. It's obvious that nobody had much of a clue what they were doing, so they just kept shooting what felt cool at the time with a vague hope that it would still look cool in the editing room. To be fair, some of it does but only because naked mudpile wrestling is always intrinsically cool.
There is a vague plot, but only just. It's all about The Man and how he keeps everyone down, as you might expect for a 1968 hippie movie. 'You are important,' reads a sign at the beginning, in a set of counterculture images that back the opening credits. They're good photos, to be honest, iconic ones of peace signs and bullets, Vietnam and the Stars and Stripes burning, Martin Luther King both alive and dead. There's pirate radio station Radio Caroline, but perhaps only because its founder, Ronan O'Rahilly, was an executive producer of this film, though he did much better the same year with Girl on a Motorcycle. These iconic images underline just how much this film honestly aimed at being an important cultural artefact, but it succeeded in a strange way. This simply works far better as a portal into the counterculture era than as an actual movie. In other words, it's more important for simply existing than for anything it does on screen.
Perhaps for the only time ever in a movie, The Man is as singular as the epithet suggests. Yeah, the oppressive power of the state is represented here by one man, state police captain Harold Jinks, played by Garry Goodrow. We know he's tough because he tells us he has a black belt and demonstrates by doing something close to a Bob the Builder dance. Really he's a corrupt cop, a corrupt politician and a gangster all in one, as is hammered home relentlessly in every way you can comfortably imagine and then some. When he shoots a man dead he pulls out his pecker to savour the moment. He wants to buy Edward Russ's land but when he discovers that he doesn't own it, even after 18 years of occupancy, he gives him eight hours to get off it. He beats up the opposition during a political election for mayor of a town we never see. He doesn't like free love because if you give it away the whorehouses lose business and he gets a cut from everything.
He also generates our attempt at a story with a dastardly plot to send a bunch of misfit hippies off on the Sierra Railroad to find gold so that he can arrest them for public nudity when they strip off and frolic around in the river. At least I think this is what he's up to, but it's hard to tell when every time we blink he's off doing something else. It doesn't help that it seems like every overtly evil act is accompanied by a distraction. While Jinks beats up his election opponent, he has Little Miss Gold Nugget dance naked on the table. If I could buy that this was deliberate comment on how easily our eyes get diverted from the real issues then there might be value, but it doesn't work as well in the concentration camp scenes later. I think it was merely as subtle as Levis was able to think. When opposition to Jinks is phrased as elegantly as, 'The law is bullshit. The law sucks,' nobody is enticing here. Are the revolutionaries and the establishment all morons?
The only character who may be intended to be enticing is Hawk, a prospector who unfortunately looks rather like Torgo from Manos: The Hands of Fate, right down to the floppy hat and the huge walking stick. He overhears the shenanigans and so catches the train too, to flit in and out of the story to do bizarre things and fall over a lot. He's played by Del Close, who John Belushi cited as his biggest influence in comedy, but this is hardly his finest moment. He's often regarded as one of the key players in improvisational comedy and it's when he's really called on to think on his feet that he's worth watching. At one point Hawk tries to teach Le Roy Acorn revolution but the man is just too stoned to understand what he's talking about. Effectively Close has to treat his fellow actor as a prop and attempt to create valid humour out of a drugged out idiot. His attempt to teach Acorn how to make a molotov cocktail is hilarious but I'm not sure how intentionally.
Drugged out hippies and molotov cocktails in the Californian wilderness is not a particularly safe combination and there are points where I wondered if someone didn't come back. Why anyone would think it would be a good idea to mix people this unstable with things like bullwhips, pistols and high explosives I really don't know. I'm surprised nobody got hurt. Then again, maybe they did. There's a shot where Close gets taken down hard and the camera followed suit a few times. Wouldn't it be hilarious if there's a lost colony in the woods begun by people who got left behind when the drugs ran out and everyone went home? Maybe they woke up in graves, presumed dead. It wouldn't surprise me here, as no more than a handful of the cast and crew stayed clean and sober throughout. The only reason I believe that anyone did is that the experience ended up on DVD. Someone had staying power but maybe that just came from different drugs.
There are scenes that are interesting to watch, at least for a moment. Shortly into its trip into nowhere (talk about a metaphor for the movie) the train stops to treat us to a psychedelic love scene, shot in black and white with various tints and with music from Carl Orff's Carmina Burana. It's like, out there, man: split screen in a number of directions, even diagonal. On drugs it may be a riot, but without them it seems like a random scene thrown in with as much explanation as you might get in a porn film. Both the man and woman involved are naked, but how taboo stretching that was in 1968 with Hair on Broadway, I can't say. As befits a hippie film, the full frontal nudity here is about sexual freedom rather than exploitation, as summed up by the line, 'Inside every clothed person a naked person is trying to get out.' Some of the scenes look more like a nature documentary, merely one where wallowers in mud are human beings not hippapotomi.
What struck me most here, beyond the idea of taking a cast and crew into the wilderness with a copious supply of drugs not being a good one, wasn't the nudity or the lack of any coherence. It was that the counterculture world seems to be just as sexist as the one it aimed to replace. Sure, these hippie chicks are liberated: they take off their clothes, bathe naked, frolic in mud. Some even have short hair, but none talk. There are odd words here and there, but never a complete sentence. You'd think that folks trying to reject their parents' morality would allow women to open their mouths, but not here. For a film where an American cop builds a concentration camp, sexism feels like a strange thing to focus on but it stood out for me and made me wonder both how Bob Levis found these people to take into the wilderness and just how committed they were to this project. I think the lesson is that nobody really was, perhaps not even Levis.