Wednesday 27 May 2009

The Explosive Generation (1961)

Director: Buzz Kulik
Stars: William Shatner, Patty McCormack and Lee Kinsolving

I'm not going to even attempt to argue with modern culture's verdict on William Shatner's acting chops, but I'll stand up in public any time you like and defend his filmography as one of the most fascinating and daring of anyone in the book. I need to work through them all in order sometime and write a serious article about them: this is early in his career, over a decade before Star Trek and right after a couple of classical films you might be surprised to find the Shat in: Oedipus Rex and The Brothers Karamazov.

For those of you who only know him as Captain James T Kirk, take a quick look at his next five films: Judgment at Nuremberg, an IMDb Top 250 movie, no less; The Intruder, a Corman movie about racism shot guerilla style on the streets of the South; an American remake of Kurosawa's Rashomon called The Outrage; a horror movie called Incubus that may just be one of the most daring ever made given that it was shot in the artificial language of Esperanto; and a multiracial double role as the lead in White Comanche.

As you can imagine, none of these films are remotely like any of the others and this one follows that trend. You can imagine the style just from the title credits overlaying a high school basketball game: it's black and white with frozen screens and a bouncy jazz soundtrack, so it'll be hip, baby, hip. Sure enough, the Shat is the hippest teacher at school, Peter Gifford, who teaches social studies, or some sixties equivalent. But the film isn't the cheap teen drama it might appear: it's a serious attempt to talk through the changes that a new generation was bringing to America.

Now Mr Gifford is a sensitive soul who isn't too fond of the curriculum he's supposed to teach. He sees things like college entrance as only speaking to the future needs of his students, not their current ones. So he opens discussion with them about what issues they're dealing with as high school seniors, and sure enough, top of the list is sex, a contentious subject in school now but even more so in 1961. And there's something serious lying behind it all in the minds of the kids: four of the seniors in Mr Gifford's class had surreptitiously spent the night after the basketball game partying down at a beach house.

At this party things happened that aren't mentioned on screen but which are pretty clear to anyone except the most dense viewers. Yeah, those things. And through Mr Gifford's upcoming discussion, these things turn into a maelstrom. You see once sex is on the table, he has them write questions down, with complete anonymity, so that he can collate examples and use them for discussion the following week in class. But that single act starts toppling the dominoes until the surreptitious party becomes open, the kids' parents rant at the principal and Mr Gifford is suspended. However this isn't the end of the story, it's the beginning because the real story is about what these students do about it.

Beyond this film containing the worst example of the boom mike dropping into the screen I think I've ever seen, something that reoccurs from scene to scene, it's an eye opener. It sets up so many things that appear to be obvious, only to take a slightly different tack and keep our questions coming. It isn't a teen sex drama, it isn't even a sex education drama, it's about the birth of the protest age: how concepts like communication, solidarity, civil disobedience, silent protest and effective use of the media could be brought to bear to make a point and raise awareness of what they really want.

It's a surprising film, but one of the most surprising things is how little screen time the star gets. William Shatner is the catalyst for the film but he doesn't actually get to do a heck of a lot. Even Edward Platt seems to get more to do as the principal. Most obvious are the effective leaders of the student body: Janet and Dan, played by Patty McCormack and Lee Kinsolving respectively. McCormack was already well established through being the original evil movie child in The Bad Seed, but Kinsolving was both up and coming and at the end of his screen career. This was the third of his three films, as he moved instead to TV and quick retirement from the industry. He died at 36 in 1974.

The Explosive Generation certainly carries an impact but I think a second viewing would really be needed to judge it appropriately. Much of its success seems to come through the manipulation of our expectations, constantly surprising us as to where it's going. With foreknowledge of where it's going it may be much less successful. The second half is also much better than the first, as the communication and solidarity that's so in place at the end is utterly not there at the beginning. There's not a lot to take us believable from one extreme to the other, Dan's chauvinistic nature being quashed entirely and Janet's dad disappearing entirely from the story. Powerful and interesting, certainly, but perhaps not as great as it may seem when the end arrives.


Anonymous said...

Hello! :)

Bill Chapman said...

You mentioned Shatner and the "artificial language of Esperanto". I hope you'll allow me to say that Esperanto has become more than artificial. It is now the language of an international speech community. Take a look at