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The Strawberry Statement (1970)


LuckyDan
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The Strawberry Statement is both a coming-of-age counter-culture study and a love story with comedic overtones. It is based on an event that took place two years before it's release: the 1968 student strike at Columbia University staged by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). It attempts to show how Simon James, a nice well-adjusted 20 year-old who is happy to have been accepted at a college where he can compete as a member of the rowing team, becomes, as producer Irwin Winkler put it, "an anarchist." 

Up against the wall - Bruce Davison, Kim Darby and Bud Cort solve their identity crises.

Simon is played by Bruce Davison, one year after his movie debut in Last Summer, and one year before his more popular turn as Willard, friend of Ben. Simon is a likable boy-next-door type whose world is divided between his workouts with his rowing team ("the crew"), life at his Telegraph Hill apartment with his ever-on-the-make roommate Charlie, played by Danny Goldman, and, as we will see, his increasing involvement in the student strike going on at his school, into which he is lured - though it wasn't her intention - by the equally cute and likable Linda, played by Kim Darby, in her second lead film role since True Grit

Supporting players from the crew include familiar TV actor Murray MacLeod whose "jock" character, George, stands in for the conservative counter-protesters from Columbia; and, in his second credited film role, Bud Cort, whose character Elliott #1 (there are two Elliotts) serves as the crew's coxswain. His shouts of "Stroke! Stroke!" during the very stylized shots of the crew on the water are intercut (intercutting is a big part of the story telling here) with protest leaders' shouts of "Strike! Strike!" Both George the alpha jock and the awkward-when-off-the-water Elliott #1 will come to make their own decisions about the strike. One will announce his decision suddenly and inexplicably, and the other will join to get girls. (You may be surprised which is which.) 

The getting of girls seems to have been a motivator for many guys involved in the student protest. While some real-world Barnard undergrads at Columbia would later complain about sexism among the male SDS leadership, specifically about being shouted down at meetings and relegated to food preparation, there were apparently other young women who took a more happily submissive and romanticized view of their revolutionary brothers and rewarded them with sex. ("Did you know Lenin loved women with big breasts?") Simon will get just such a reward after suffering a bloodied lip in service to the cause (kind of) and it will take place under the watchful guard of the popular Che poster, as ubiquitous here as the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg.

Indeed it is from a liberated and politically involved woman (Cherchez la femme)  that Simon learns of the impending revolution, when, upon returning to his apartment one afternoon he finds Charlie "balling" (this is 1970, remember) "a strange chick" in Simon's bed. The girl, named Irma, ("I'm not a strange chick, I'm a strange woman!") is played by Kristina Holland, another familiar face from TV who could then be seen as Tina, the mod secretary from "The Courtship of Eddie's Father."

While assisting her in getting back into her dress and red arm band, Simon is informed by Irma of the strike. "The university is very involved in racism and war, so we're starting a revolution." She mentions the sit-in happening in the school president's office. 

"A sit-in is not a revolution," Simon says.

Irma, who finds the guys "very politically uninformed," explains the sit-in will grow into a revolution."The university took away a school and a playground from the little black kids" which will be used as an ROTC headquarters. "We're trying to get everybody to sit-in upstairs so when they come to bust the little children, they'll have to bust the whole school!"

When Simon asks Charlie in the next scene how many he thinks will be at the sit-in, Charlie, who finds the whole thing "stupid" says, "A lot of kids will show because of the strawberry statement." 

"What?"

"The dean. He said our telling him we had an opinion is like telling him we like strawberries." 

Which was true. (Kind of.)

In April of 1967, Herbert Deane, vice provost of Columbia University, said to a student interviewer, "A university is definitely not a democratic institution. When decisions begin to be made democratically around here, I will not be here any longer. Whether students vote 'Yes' or 'No' on a given issue means as much to me as if they were to tell me they like strawberries." Provocative.

But he wasn't wrong.

Columbia student and crew member James Simon Kunen would refer to this as the "Strawberry Statement" (a nod to the SDS's recruiting pamphlet, the "Port Huron Statement") and use it as the title of his non-fiction, hour-by-hour account of the Columbia revolt, which serves as the source material.

Kunen himself appears when the action moves into the occupied President's office, where he, through his character, pokes fun at the hyper-democratic ways of the SDS. In calling a meeting to order, Kunen says they will vote on whether to have a vote on whether he should chair the meeting. More harshly critical is a reference to the real-world complaints of male superiority made by the women, when Kunen says, referring to the girls in the reception area, "Will someone tell those four maids out there to please shut up?" 

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James Simon Kunen, future public defender and author of The Strawberry Statement

Also in the president's office we will meet the final key supporting player, Bob Balaban, who would have been familiar from TV's "Room 222," in his third film role as Elliot #2, a student organizer. He is first seen passing out the last of the snack food and asking if anyone can fix a Xerox 720. Simon volunteers and is ushered into the copy room, which we will see, to Elliot's surprise and mild disgust, doubles as a trysting place. Elliot directs Simon (who upon admittance to the office had been assigned by the door keeper to the Food Patrol, despite his gender) to fix the Xerox and search the files for anything regarding the University and the children's center. Simon, after whacking the machine once or twice, soon tires of trying to fix the Xerox and wanders into the president's adjacent lavatory.

Though they have seen each other once before, when Simon took his movie camera to the plaza to shoot footage of the gathering crowd, it is in the president's bathroom that Simon will have his first words with Linda, who finds him playing with the president's toiletries. With her observation, "You're very compulsive," a reference not only to his apparent mid-day toilette but to his having trained his camera on her only minutes before in the plaza, their romance begins. 

As co-members of the Food Patrol, Simon and Linda are able to come and go from the sit-in by way of an escape route which leads them off campus and into the town where they will meet a grocer played by James Coco who allows them to take whatever items they can carry as long as they make it look like a robbery, for insurance purposes. 

Also while out on the town, on another occasion, our couple will be set upon by five unfriendly young men of, as we say today, color. (This movie, one young critic wrote during it's 50th anniversary "is bad on race.") The imposing quintet finds our lovers making out in the park where Simon has been shooting movie footage of Linda with his Instamatic. Without words, one of the interlopers stomps on and destroys the camera before another (who looks like Clarence Williams III, or Linc, from "The Mod Squad" but I can't confirm it) shoves the stomper and leads the group off. This scene may have been necessary to illustrate the suspicion of, if not hostility towards, Columbia's white student body felt by their Harlem neighbors, as well as the split between black separatist protesters and the SDS. ("The split" was referred to earlier when an off-camera voice in the president's office says, "Did your hear about McCullough Hall? The black kids are throwing the white kids out, man. They want their own sit-in.") It also serves, along with the later off-camera beating of one of the supporting characters while the cops looked on idly, to accelerate Simon's growing taste for militancy.

Worth noting here is the appearance in a small but memorable role of Michael Margotta, who we saw quite a bit more of in a companion piece to this film, Drive, He Said (discussed here.) Margotta plays Swatch, who wears not only eyeglasses but an eye patch. Maybe he is meant to recall Rooster Cogburn - and with the number of inside jokes in this movie that's a real possibility (I still don't get the phone booth bit) - or maybe he is based on a real-world radical known by Kunen, but in either case he is surly, angry and serves to represent the eager revolutionaries itching for war.

A counterpoint to Swatch is the depiction of the police throughout the film. They are shown variously as intimidating, bored, disconnected,  and dutiful. In a darkly comic scene at the playground, they are over-powered by the students, and absolutely humiliated by the screenwriter. Their depantsing at the playground may have been deemed necessary to provide motivation for their behavior during the 8-minute sequence at the climax where, in a break with reality, black students joined white students prior to The Bust. 

It should not come as a spoiler to say this is a "Boy-meets- girl, boy-loses-girl, then guess what happens?" story, but that's all I can say, because I'm still not entirely sure why their romance takes the turn it does. Some reviewers say Linda's discontent is based strictly on Simon's initial ambivalence about the strike but I sensed it went deeper than that with Linda, and that may be due to Kim Darby's portrayal of her in two crucial scenes. The first involves the couple at a record store where they put on headphones and Linda plays a recording of Alessandro Marcello's Concerto in D Minor - Adagio that she wants Simon to enjoy more than he apparently does. (And he is a lunk for not digging it because it is a beautiful work.) The other scene has her saying directly to him that she doesn't want to get involved with someone who doesn't believe in the movement, who just wants to row a boat, but I didn't quite believe her and I'm not sure she wanted me to, even if she did hope to convince Simon, and maybe herself. Simon tells her, "I don't want to blow up any buildings," to which he adds, truer than he knows, "That'll come."

Like many of the actors, the production team also came from television. The film was directed by Stuart Hagmann whose credits include episodes of "Mannix" and "Mission Impossible." It was shot by Ralph Woolsey, an Emmy nominee for "It Takes a Thief." Once you know this, it all makes sense, because the visual elements of zooms and swirls, of time-shifting, a key freeze-frame, all carefully edited under music and other audio effects, and all with the familiar sit-com faces, lend a 1970  prime-time vibe. Aerial photography, á la Busby Berkeley, is used poetically, with evenly spaced white water splashes created by the crew dropping their oars in the water, mirrored by shots of the protesters, first in the office in meetings, and then in the gym, carefully arranged in circles and singing "Give Peace a Chance."

Music is central to the atmosphere. Oddly, when we hear the kids playing records, it is not pop or psychedelia they choose, but classical music, including what might be Charlie's preferred make-out piece, "Also Sprach Zarathustra," which was then enjoying a surge of popularity from 2001: A Space Odyssey. This was the era of the musical interlude, and we get a few. The first features Neil Young's "Down by the River" as Simon crashes in his apartment amongst his psychedelic 2001 art and his RFK poster. Another occurs during the love montage to CSN's "Our House." Thunderclap Newman's "Something in the Air" is most fitting, but it is Buffy St. Marie's version of "The Circle Game" ("Yesterday a child came out to won-derrrrr") that begins and ends the story, though with starkly different meanings.

The film is largely true to the events at Columbia. In a 2014 interview with TV Store Online, screenwriter Israel Horovitz said he initially planned to intercut black and white footage shot by students during the Columbia protest (by which he probably meant the documentary Revolt, upon which I expound in obsessive detail here) but MGM changed the setting to the west coast. (A closing title card suggests Columbia would not allow filming on it's campus and so an "anonymous locale" was used instead. That locale was Berkeley.) I think splicing in the black and white footage would have been a mistake, but in any case, Horovitz got around the problem by simply writing in jump cuts and dialogue that appear throughout the film to depict what he needed to include. The result is scenes within scenes showing Simon sometimes observing his lookalike speaking to a crowd, and sometimes addressing a crowd himself, but never longer than a second at a time, perhaps remembering, maybe imagining, but possibly, as the final shot suggests with a jolting zoom, foreshadowing. 

It was released in June of 1970, a time when youthful Boomer political and cultural attitudes were in flux and more varied than those who have written the history would have us know. By the time the film hit theaters, the Columbia revolt and other incidents of campus unrest had already been overshadowed with bombings committed by The Weathermen, the militant group that began as an SDS faction and whose stated goal was the violent overthrow of the federal government. The Strawberry Statement then, even upon it's release, was already behind the times with a theme that was too-familiar. It was aimed at a war-weary audience that knew more than the characters, despite Simon's prediction, about how the story would end, and while they loved it at Cannes, at home it was a critical and box office bomb.

But it's not bad.

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My thanks to community member Eucalyptus P. Millstone for providing me with the below link to a recorded TCM airing of The Strawberry Statement subtitled in, rather fittingly to my mind, Russian. It runs 104 minutes.

https://m.ok.ru/video/2863099611846

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Very impressive report, critique, and analysis, LuckyDan! It successfully does what a top-notch movie review always does in my case: provoke and galvanize me to want to see the movie!

For others whose interest in seeing The Strawberry Statement might be piqued, here's another OK link that offers a, to me, more appealing frame and design around the movie.

https://ok.ru/video/2863099611846

The Strawberry Statement: Notes of a College Revolutionary by James S. Kunen

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7 hours ago, Eucalyptus P. Millstone said:

Very impressive report, critique, and analysis, LuckyDan! It successfully does what a top-notch movie review always does in my case: provoke and galvanize me to want to see the movie!

Thank you, sir.

I assume you mean see it again. I'd be surprised if it were entirely new to you.

Looking forward to your thoughts. 

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15 hours ago, LuckyDan said:

Thank you, sir.

I assume you mean see it again. I'd be surprised if it were entirely new to you.

Looking forward to your thoughts. 

No need for formality. I haven't been knighted . . . yet.

Strictly entre nous (and please keep this under your hat) . . . I've never seen The Strawberry Statement (oh, the shame!).

I noticed that the clip on OK is a recording of a TCM broadcast. Perhaps TCM will show TSS again. If not, I'll watch it on OK . . . which for some odd, annoying reason will not play on my TV set, requiring me to use my laptop computer to watch movies on OK. Quel drag!

Ever seen The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart, another example of counterculture cinema circa 1970? Notable as being Don Johnson's movie debut.

There's a mediocre, "cloudy fishbowl" but watchable presentation on myMail, another Russian website.

https://my.mail.ru/mail/azatmairamov/video/53/19587.html

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14 minutes ago, Eucalyptus P. Millstone said:

No need for formality. I haven't been knighted . . . yet.

Well I didn't capitalize it. 

15 minutes ago, Eucalyptus P. Millstone said:

Strictly entre nous (and please keep this under your hat) . . . I've never seen The Strawberry Statement (oh, the shame!).

I got the impression from our Drive, He Said discussion that this might be one of your preferred subjects. No reason you should have seen it, other than I know it made the late movie rounds in the old days.

17 minutes ago, Eucalyptus P. Millstone said:

I noticed that the clip on OK is a recording of a TCM broadcast. Perhaps TCM will show TSS again. If not, I'll watch it on OK . . . which for some odd, annoying reason will not play on my TV set, requiring me to use my laptop computer to watch movies on OK. Quel drag!

I had to watch it on my tablet which was alright but it forced me to make handwritten notes for my review, and I have the handwriting of a drunken psychotic. 

21 minutes ago, Eucalyptus P. Millstone said:

Ever seen The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart, another example of counterculture cinema circa 1970? Notable as being Don Johnson's movie debut.

There's a mediocre, "cloudy fishbowl" but watchable presentation on myMail, another Russian website.

https://my.mail.ru/mail/azatmairamov/video/53/19587.html

I haven't seen it but I will have a look. I see Don plays a Columbia student and I'm beginning to think of it as my own alma mater after spending the last several days with Strawberry and the Revolt documentary. 

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Great writeup. You gave an excellent overview of the movie and real-life events around it. I missed it at the time, but that may have been either intentional or due to the fact that I was living year-round in a seasonal resort town with one movie theater and we watched what they booked period. (In the winter they cancelled the showing if at least five people didn't show up.) The movie sounds way better than I would have imagined but I think it may have seemed behind the curve when it came out, since the Kent State killings had happened early that year. There was also a Stanley Kramer movie about student protest the same year, R.P.M. with Anthony Quinn and Ann-Margret, which also failed to get traction at the box office, but I think that one really was a dud. Speaking personally, by 1970 I was pretty skeptical of Hollywood in that era dealing with "youth" issues, since it had pretty much always turned out to be stupid exploitation like the biker movies and the nonsensical The Love-Ins, about a student underground paper exposing a charlatan guru type. So I'm sorry that I may have turned my back on this; I can't remember specifically. You've definitely made it seem worth watching, though there's no way I'm visiting a Russian web site, so I'll have to wait for another opportunity. Anyway, this was your usual good job of patrolling out there on the fringes of film culture and reporting back to us.

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23 hours ago, DougieB said:

The movie sounds way better than I would have imagined ...

It was better than I expected. 

Another actress who I should have mentioned but didn't know enough about to have recognized is Jeannie Berlin, the girl who plays the doorkeeper. Her wiki page quotes the NYT's John Gruen, writing of her performance in The Heartbreak Kid two years later:

 "What is more, every critic said that Jeannie looks, sounds and acts exactly like her mother. One critic even said that she is a much better actress than her mother . . . 'with real blood coursing through her.' Anyway, this piece will set out to prove that Jeannie Berlin, who looks, talks, and acts exactly like Elaine May, is, in fact, Elaine May's 23‐year‐old daughter, and a person in her own right, even though . . . well, there's just no denying it, she looks, sounds, and acts exactly like her mother."

I also found a Kim Darby interview with TV Store Online (who also interviewed the screenwriter) where she was asked about the record store scene that I thought made the reasons for her conflicting feelings about Simon ambiguous. The interviewer asked what was going through her mind in that scene;

"Nothing was going through my mind!   When we were shooting that I remember just having the thought that it really wasn't even a scene.   I just did it.   But I was concerned that what we were doing--us playing around--didn't have any meaning!   I didn't know if we really needed to reflect on ourselves there and I wondered if it was needed in the film."

In that interview she also talks about meeting the real Linda and being "shaken" by her militancy. 

So.

Her character seems to have been written as a truer-believer in the cause than Kim played her to be. 

Thanks for reading, Dougie.

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Interesting about Elaine May's daughter. Now I'm even more intrigued, because Elaine May is one of my all-timers. I was pleasantly surprised recently to find out that Louisa Jacobson, who plays the very credible female ingenue lead in The Gilded Age series, is Meryl Streep's daughter. I wasn't aware of any fuss being made of it, so she's apparently trying to make it on her own too.

I had another thought about why the movie may have gone by the wayside. 1970 was also the year when Love Story blew up to phenomenal proportions and ushered in the return of comfy campus life. Even when campus protest was dealt with after that, like in The Way We Were (1973), it was very sanitized and non-threatening. You were right to point out in your original post that Boomer ideologies and tastes were in flux in 1970 and that acting out in an isolated and basically secure campus environment paled against what was brewing out there in the real world at the time. 

 

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On 9/21/2022 at 9:16 AM, DougieB said:

Interesting about Elaine May's daughter. Now I'm even more intrigued, because Elaine May is one of my all-timers

Jeannie's performance was comfortably familiar and memorable even in its brevity, but I probably just thought she was playing a type. The similarity should have been apparent to me.

On 9/21/2022 at 9:16 AM, DougieB said:

I had another thought about why the movie may have gone by the wayside. 1970 was also the year when Love Story blew up to phenomenal proportions and ushered in the return of comfy campus life.

Excellent point. In all the reading I've done on this, you are the first to note that. I think you're right. 

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