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You had to live through it to really understand, but...MAN...was American ever fudged up politically and socially toward the end of the 1960s. The Summer of Love had given way to the Winter of Widespread Youth Discontent, and rebellion among said generation was widespread - and growing. Naturally Hollywood wanted to tap into that wealth of wasted energy and set about creating hip and happening films that supposedly reflected the cool college kid agenda. Most of the time, they missed...and missed badly. In other instances, however, they came up with craziness like R.P.M. Standing for "Revolutions (literally) Per Minute" and helmed by one of Tinseltown's great hot button populists, Stanley Kramer (The Defiant Ones, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? ), it was an attempt to explain the ongoing unease on campuses nationwide. Arriving a year after the awful shootings at Kent State, the film failed to deliver much impact. Today, it's a terrific time capsule, dated, demented, and definitely worth checking out.
When the students at a small California university stage a sit-in of the administration building, threatening to destroy the school's $2 million computer, the reigning President resigns. In his place, the Board of Trustees ask former activist, sociology professor, and counterculture favorite F.W.J. "Paco" Perez (Anthony Quinn) to take over. Known for his proclivity toward bedding undergraduates - though he is currently living with sexy graduate candidate Rhoda (Ann-Margret) - he is also the only faculty member the radicals will listen to. When he meets up with the other side, Paco immediately butts heads with the leaders - the laidback but demanding Rossiter (Gary Lockwood) and the head of the Black Student Union, Steve Dempsey (Paul Winfield). They have 12 demands that they want met. Paco can only guarantee them nine. Eager to stand their ground, the kids make our hero question his very posture as a thinker, scholar, and instrument for social change. Perhaps they are right. Perhaps Paco has become part of the Establishment without really knowing.
You've got to cut R.P.M. some slack. You just can't enjoy it otherwise. This is a movie that's so high minded and noble that it's nauseating in the actual execution. By the tenth confrontation with the spoiled brat students of this spineless institution of higher learning, we're ready to read them the riot act - both figuratively and in reality. Luckily, Quinn sees the same thing, and gets his police buddy to bust some heads before the last act totally loses us. Some 40 years later this plays like braindead moronic posturing, kids with little or no investment in their education demanding more say in what their college condones - that is, before they are kicked out, graduate, and fall into some more free love and tabs of LSD. We are supposed to see their resolve, their stick it to the Man machismo as they lambast Paco for being a pawn for the Board. But in reality, they are dumb and dead wrong. Their sticking points - a say in the hiring and firing of faculty, the determination of degrees, the rewriting of the curriculum - sound like sentiments suggested by the ignorant, not the so-called professional student.
Sadly, it's left to Paco to make sense of it all and in Quinn, the film finds a formidable center. Yes, he seems a bit long in the tooth to be a member of the rebel set, and his relationship with Ann-Margret is more titillation that telling (she bares a bit of skin here). Still, he's a thinker and resolved to talk this thing out - which brings us to R.P.M. 's biggest problem. It's talky. It's dense with dialogue. In between minor comic bits, Quinn and his co-stars rap...and rap...and rap...incessantly. Anyone looking for the foundation of the "talking cure" can easily locate it here. The problem is, the script by Erich Segal (yes, of Love Story fame) is all innuendo and open-ended declarations. The kids can't seem to make sense of their own rebellion and Paco has no answers except a combination of the party line and confusion. And still they yammer back and forth, the occasional light curse word or derogatory comment substituting for anything cutting edge.
And yet there is something hypnotic about watching a movie made several decades ago trying to define its life and times. Granted, by 1971, Charles Manson and his family had put the kibosh on the counterculture once and for all, and the Me Decade was already making great strides toward a calming cultural malaise, but Kramer really cares. He wants these kids to be heard, to be seen as strident and yet passionate about their cause. He could have easily cast cliches in the lead roles (and a few do exist around the edges), but for the most part, Lockwood and Winfield come across as two sides of the same student radical coins. The former wants to stand on principle and principle alone, no matter the outcome. The latter is seen as more capable of compromise, and knows it himself. He even defends the position when Paco tries to split the sit-in. Better are the moments when our hero speaks to all the students, asking them to rally in support of a more "majority" view on the demands, as well as the last act police standoff and ensuing mêlée. The movie ends on a sour note, perhaps suggesting that there never was a solution to the whole student uprising issue in the first place. Whatever the case, R.P.M. wants to open your eyes to what's new and important. What is ends up doing is deafening us with lots of implausible prostylitizing.
Unlike other titles in the MOD series, which seem to unnecessarily tweaked in the conversion from analog to digital, the 1.79:1 anamorphic image here is excellent. The colors are sharp without being overly pushed, and the details delivered in the close-ups belie the stars' actual ages. Overall, an effective transfer.
The soundtrack, which features contributions from '70s siren Melanie, is given a rote, routine treatment via the standard Dolby Digital Stereo mix. There is little modulation and no distortion, and the dialogue is always separate and crystal clear. As a basic aural presentation, this one is amiable and above-average.
I was ten years old when R.P.M. came out, living a normal kid's life in a normal everyday American small town. Something like this would have played like a missive from Mars on my block, a place where even the 'radicalized' teens talked about favorite gory comic books and the loss of Janis Joplin more than the War in Vietnam and the protests on campus. Yet in those areas where such subversion was a concern, one could easily see this film lighting fires where none needed to be flamed. Earning a curious Recommended rating, one must enter this film with caution. Not everything you hear will make sense or even try to. Similarly, the sentiments expressed in 1971 are like Sanskrit compared to what colleges are like today. R.P.M. may have been shorthand for 'Revolutions Per Minute', but one could also argue for another interpretation - Rants Posing as Meaningful.
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