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I've been entertained and informed by various Icarus Films discs over the years, as they often come up with valid examples of alternative cinema, from last year's eerie wallpaper movie Decasia to the politically fascinating and long-withheld ICE, the AFI's first sponsored film that turned out to be a pseudo-documentary about armed revolution. In general, the filmic reflection of politics fascinates me. This period is particularly personal -- if only because I remember being a thoughtless teenager living in an unconscious state as ideological war raged across the country.
Icarus' new disc Last Summer Won't Happen looks and feels like a polished student film production that just happens to capture some big personalities in the political counterculture circa 1968: Abbie Hoffman, Paul Krassner and lesser known names from the anti-war resistance movement. The show imposes a sense of drama with an opening title card:
"Lower East Side, New York, 1968. For many young people, a time of confrontation and contradiction. The innocence of Summer is replaced with alienation, isolation and the birth of a political activism. This film is a partisan tracing of these questionings and beginnings."
We then get a montage-style view of life in a poorer district of Manhattan, with old folks congregating in the parks and playing chess. Aged immigrants are intercut with stylish young people. For a moment we think we're going the artsy route as some very good superimpositions make it look as if clouds of red liquid are running down the old buildings, like walls of (faded) blood. Does the visual imply that revolution is on the way, that, "all this" is going to change?
No, Last Summer Won't Happen settles into a series of offbeat, casual interviews. Some are meant to capture the vibe on the street. We meet some inarticulate kids, mostly teens that talk to the camera without communicating much beyond their disconnection to anything relevant. One or two are runaways, another might be a gang member. Others might be hangers-on with the filmmakers, it's hard to tell. They're only given first names. Some of their dialogue is drowned out by location noise and is very difficult to make out. They're not exactly an illuminating bunch, but maybe the filmmakers are trying to say that they're what one would have found in the East Village in Winter 1968.
The film then moves on, giving us a chance to listen to the name "radicals" on the ticket. Most seem to be socially concerned guys interested in 'making something happen' with the protest movement. The film's title refers to earlier clashes with the authorities, especially a protest at the Pentagon that became a big deal in the movement (yet was grossly underreported in the media, I can attest). The pessimistic words "Last Summer Won't Happen Again" are heard in various forms. Activist Osha (Thomas Neumann) jokes around with Paul Krassner, an underground publisher and the co-founder of the Yippie Party. Filmmaker Alan Jacobs pretends to be a magazine editor in one semi-staged scene, critiquing the (fairly weak) artwork of Britt Wilkie, a frail-looking young man who wants very badly to become a name artist. Performing artist and painter John McClash is shown performing his "box" act in a park. He takes part in a lively discussion with other activists, including musicians Michael Markowitz and the well-known Phil Ochs.
Frankly, except for a few admissions of doubt and frustration, most of what we hear is small talk. The activists are not poseurs, but they also see no need to pontificate for the camera. The meetings take place in some of the messiest rooms imaginable, places littered with junk and beer cans. Say what you will about the commitment of these protest pioneers, the Berkeley folk and UCLA flakes I later met were at least housebroken. Also, the impression given by the film is that activism is a boy's club. That might be just coincidence, but it's an aspect that changed right away. The firebrands at UCLA that wanted me to boycott classes and march tended to be female, the most aggressive and accusatory women I ever met.
Protest superstar Abbie Hoffman takes center position in the film. Already in his thirties, he seems exhausted and expresses grave doubts about where things are going. He complains that he feels burnt-out after being arrested four times in just a few weeks. He jokes and laughs with the others as they smoke and drink beer. We don't see him in fired-up performance mode, as he appeared when making his marvelously provocative public appearances.
Actually, we see Hoffman give a speech, before a group called Workmen's Circle, which if I landed on the correct Wiki page is an American Jewish fraternal organization "committed to Social Justice, Jewish Community, and Ashkenazic Culture." An invited guest, Abbie is casual and non-caustic, and tries to explain to the mostly older folk what is happening with their kids -- the discontent, the rebellion, the runaways. He does tell them that the political climate out there is not healthy, and that in terms of familial security, the "neighborhood is in flames." This background of this particular audience seems well aware of what "political turmoil" really means, and would seem to harbor few illusions of America as a monolith of justice. They listen intently to the longhaired guy in the work shirt. Hoffman would save his American Flag shirts and "screw you" grins for other occasions, like insulting the HUAC.
Last Summer Won't Happen ends in a montage of snowy streets that do not make New York's poorer environs look very hospitable. The relevance of the movie really accrued later, when 1968 literally exploded with assassinations, riots, major strikes in Europe, a massacre in Mexico City and of course the anti-war movement's finest hour at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. Some of these activists made their mark but the really constructive aspects of the movement didn't build to a great future. The activists seen here did not move on to lengthy political careers or make further changes to the system. But their important protests surely changed history. The movie is valuable as a key witness to a particular time, and will not impart a wider picture of the anti-war protest movement.
Icarus Film's DVD of Last Summer Won't Happen looks terrific, and is some of the nicest restored 'alternative' film I've seen. The show was given a loving 16mm restoration in 2012 by the Pacific Film Archive, University of California & the Berkeley Art Museum. Colors are very good, grain is at a minimum and as I said, the funky special effects of the ink-cloud overlays work well. The audio in most of the interviews is also fine. Only when a young drug dealer or street kid is interviewed next to traffic noise does the track become impenetrable (to these ears). The filmmakers must also have been connected musically, as we get healthy doses of Country Joe and The Fish (Section 43 and Colors for Susan) and Procul Harum (Repent Walpurgis) on the soundtrack. Takes you back, it does.
A very welcome extra is a gallery of bios, each accompanied by a photo so we can recognize who is who in this movie. I knew what Hoffman, Ochs, and perhaps Krassner look like, but the background info on the other 'players' is much appreciated. We find out who is alive and who is not, and what they've done with their lives; only a couple of them remain activists although most are still engaged in useful social-oriented professions. All the street kids are known only as first names, and are unaccounted for.
Filmmakers Peter Gessner and Thomas Hurwitz are on hand for new interviews, conducted by Jonah Raskin of the Pacific Film archives. They're both getting up there but come across as committed and energetic. Frankly, without their input and the gallery of bios I would be lost watching Last Summer Won't Happen. It's a fault with many releases of important so-called radical films, that they're not annotated or explained in a way that makes them meaningful. Icarus and the Pacific Film Archive have done us a service.
A powerful final extra is a full encoding of a likewise restored copy of Peter Gessner's groundbreaking anti-war short Time of the Locust, from 1966. Although I've never seen it looking so good, this is one of the key anti-war films that circulated in college and really made a dent in my perceptions. It's a simple montage of Vietnam footage from newsreels, North Vietnamese sources and Japanese news crews. It was surely considered treasonous Red-inspired propaganda by the U.S. authorities, but its power is undeniable. The pictures tell the story. U.S. armored vehicles slog through rice paddy fields, casually destroying the work of the farmers. We see mostly South Vietnamese army units, but our boys are there too. A harrowing center section watches as a pair of (presumed) suspected Viet Cong sympathizers are beaten, held underwater, kicked and eventually shot (an agonizingly slow process) by brutal captors, as horrified peasants watch. All the locals seem terrorized in extremis. The last scenes show a protest by Monks in Saigon (?) being put down by military police. The short film is 13 minutes long, and I imagine it did its part in making students reconsider the nature of the Vietnam adventure.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Last Summer Won't Happen rates:
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