We begin at the drive-in, in a curious evening glow where objects and images come in and out of focus erratically. Enormous vats of molten metal are sloshing back and forth. Men in laboratory coats walk around authoritatively, gesticulating. This is apparently a documentary about the steel industry; the sound is turned off so we receive only the general impression of awesome industrial processes making America stronger. The film is a purely capitalist product—it comes directly from the steel companies—but if someone were to change the soundtrack to Russian, it would seem a prize example of Socialist Realism. Muscular laborers; the lyricism of hard work, perceived through the windshield of an ancient tan Rambler, with a bearded gnome on the hood squirting glass cleaner in our direction.
The gnome owns the Rambler and also a fine leather hat currently flopping about his ears. This odd piece of headgear, which cuts off a good deal of the smelting and sizzling up on the screen, is neither a cowboy hat nor a farmer's hat nor even a hip California hat. As a matter of fact, it belongs to some other time than 1979. It would look well at a peace demonstration. Very few people in the audience—so far as I can perceive them in the yellow evening—could be old enough to have experienced a peace demonstration. Those of us in ... or on ... the Rambler would seem entirely out of place, were it not that the movie we are about to see is equally anomalous.
Come to think of it, the film has begun, and we lunge for the soundbox to catch muffled dialogue about why the football players are stuffing the beanied freshman into the locker. Now the credits. Rock 'n' Roll High School is produced by Roger Corman, the greatest purveyor of cheap horror films in the known universe. You may remember Corman's wonderful series of Edgar Allan Poe travesties, most of which appeared circa 1965. Corman has always been a great money maker, which makes his association with the Ramones difficult to understand. The Ramones have never made money. They are an American group who started the fashion for punk rock in England and failed to start any fashion at all in their native land, where Peter Frampton and then John Travolta reigned king.
As Rock 'n'Roll High School unfolds, I begin to wonder if Corman has lost his marbles. The kids at Vince Lombardi High School think the Ramones are terrific. Everyone's going to the Ramones concert, especially P.J. Soles. P.J., who was last seen being garroted by the maniacal killer of Halloween, must be almost as aged as I am, but there she is in her high school gym shorts, inciting the students to rebel against an authoritarian principal and her brownshirted hall monitors. It is somehow comforting to know the principal is a former Andy Warhol model. Deep down, everyone in this movie is on the same side.1 We can forget the plot, then, and look forward to the Ramone's concert some two-thirds of the way into Rock 'n'Roll High School.
Corman, or rather his director, Allan Arkush, has accomplished a miracle here. Rock 'n' roll on film tends to get lost but this eleven or twelve minute sequence captures the energy and inspiration of a first-rate performance. Joey Ramone jerks back and forth on stilt-like legs, out of a sea of leather jackets. The words flash on the screen: do we follow the bouncing ball? "I'm gonna get my P.H DEE. I'm a teenage LOBOT-OMEE." Giant white mice dance ecstatically in the aisles—no one said this had to be starkly realistic—and P.J. Soles does her best to attract Joey's attention. She succeeds. At the end of the film everybody gets together, sings the title tune, and blows up Vince Lombardi High School. The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom—at least in B movies.
Alas, no one in the audience appears to have noticed any of the action. It is, of course, traditional for drive-in audiences to spend most of their time necking and drinking but this group is bored beyond redemption. Who are they anyway, business majors? For the first time in my life—perhaps I should attend business school too—I have a piece of marketing advice for Roger Corman. The only way he will make money on Rock 'n' Roll High School is by renting it out for two a.m. showings after the midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Show.
Rock 'n' Roll High School is a summer movie in the classic sense: silly, wonderful, cheap. A few days after this evening of hedonistic debauch, pangs of moral fervor set in and I attend another sort of summer movie altogether. The China Syndrome is a good film for this particular summer : it ties in all too easily with what we read in the papers. Its relevance was acknowledged at an early stage. A month or two before the film showed up locally—and a few days before the Harrisburg disaster—I received a press release from the "Scientists and Engineers for Secure Energy," a pro-nuclear group with members at Yale, Cornell, Stanford, and practically every other major university in the United States. This release argued that movies are meant to entertain and to make money, and that one should be very suspicious of a movie that tries to do anything else. It is never very clear just what Americans mean by "entertainment." Whatever entertainment may be, it is apparently neither serious nor worthy. In these respects it is unlike science, engineering, hard work, and the Republican Party. The Scientists and Engineers for Secure Energy did not seem to be working with a very sophisticated aesthetic theory but perhaps they didn't do much reading or moviegoing.
I was a little more worried by their comments on the actual film. Most of their statement was devoted to revealing that Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon are against nuclear power. The "coverup" of Jane's political opinions (in film publicity) has not been "of Watergate proportions" but is still sufficiently dastardly to deserve a five-page single-spaced expose. The general drift of this expose confirmed my initial impression that these particular Scientists and Engineers have been cut off from books and movies. They must be the only people in the United States unfamiliar with Jane Fonda's political opinions. One hopes that they are more familiar with nuclear energy but the statement doesn't say much about that. I looked forward to the film with anticipation.
The China Syndrome—at the downtown theater, not the drive-in—attracted large and emotionally engaged audiences. One could hardly expect otherwise with a nuclear power plant under construction just up the road. Unlike many films which benefit from sheer timeliness, this one is intelligently constructed. As a well-made narrative, the film has only one serious defect—a defect masked, fortunately, by the outstanding performance of Jack Lemmon. Lemmon plays an engineer at a nuclear power plant who begins to have second thoughts about an industry he has always believed in. The film fails if it cannot dramatize this character's change of mind. Lemmon succeeds where most other actors would have failed. He does the poor, sincere sucker better than anyone since the young Jimmy Stewart, even though he just barely gets enough time on screen. Apart from this one narrow escape the film builds, as they say, towards a riveting climax (more precisely an unriveting climax, since things are falling apart).
Regardless of one's political opinions, one can hardly avoid being shaken by The China Syndrome. The above mentioned Scientists and Engineers recognize this point, since they do their best to debunk the good guys-bad guys polarization which they see developing in the course of the film. Their argument seems to be that movies may depend on such distinctions but real life is much more hazy and ambiguous. Once make absolute distinctions and it is the end of civilized dialogue: we return to the narrow self-righteousness of (for example) the 1960s. I think I have done better by this argument than do the Scientists and Engineers, but in any case there is certainly an answer. The China Syndrome is about polarization but its observations on this process are far from simplistic.
The kind of social structure created by vast and expensive technologies—television or nuclear power, to mention the two important here—has a great effect on the way the world runs today. The China Syndrome does not primarily concern technology as such. It focuses, rather, on the interactions of technology and human nature in modern America. These interactions, complicated as they are by the profit motive and the need to consume goods, do create difficult choices. What the Scientists and Engineers see as an absurd manicheanism is more accurately an analysis of the status quo in America, and how nuclear power might upset or perpetuate it. To put this in the form of a question, what if the basic use of nuclear energy is to perpetuate the worst features of consumer society? At the end of the film, when Lemmon listens to the shudder of the machines and the beat of his own heart simultaneously, we are presented with an excellent metaphor of a connection perceived, in many different forms, throughout the film.
People clapped for The China Syndrome. Outside the door volunteers from the Bailly Alliance passed out anti-nuclear power pamphlets. A few weeks later, at an afternoon performance of Hair, the same theater was almost empty. I had been surprised to see The China Syndrome in a neighborhood cinema so soon but Hair's appearance was highly predictable. It had failed in the shopping malls, and as a last resort it had made its way downtown. If no one came to see it there either, it was not for lack of recognition. Anyone who was alive and conscious in the 1960s is bound to remember Hair. The actors sang hippy anthems and at the end they took their clothes off. No wonder people stayed away. The last hippy was seen around 1972, when this film was originally supposed to come out. As it happens, the delay probably helped the quality of the final product. We —or in this case Milos Forman—have had some time to think about the sixties. Forman's version of Hair is thoughtful, witty, beautiful (in a non-hippy sense), and very affecting. It is one of the two or three best American films of the 1970s. Perhaps people will discover it eventually.
The power of the film resides partly in individual efforts and partly in the impact of the whole. The Twyla Tharp dances underline rather than destroy the continuity of an artfully simplified plot. This plot—concerning a southwestern boy about to be drafted, who meets some Central Park hippies—provides a framework for the strongest songs from the original show. Many of the songs are better placed than they were originally. They bear less resemblance than ever to rock 'n' roll, but then the idea of the rock musical was never much more than a Madison Avenue ploy. There is an excellent scene in which the chief hippie dances and sings his way down the middle of a carefully-laid table at a society wedding. One detail in this sequence shows the sureness of Forman's touch. He realizes that the humor of the number depends largely on the singer's not breaking any dishes in his Bacchanalian shuffle through the banquet. The young man's impetuosity is therefore counterpointed by the desperate efforts of his friends to keep anything from smashing on to the floor.
The dream-fantasy at the center of Hair embodies on a large scale this combination of control and abandon. Clyde, the southwestern boy, is in love with a society beauty he met at the wedding, he relives the wedding in hallucinatory form, only this time he is the groom and she the bride. A flying butler serves up gorgeous Sheila on a little tray. Sheila undergoes breathtaking metamorphoses. She is pregnant. She is an Indian goddess. The wedding guests —including practically everybody who has appeared in the movie—embark upon a grand ballet whose visionary logic is never in doubt. All this occurs inside a little church in the town the dreamer has just left behind.
Was this the spirit of the sixties? It is hard to give an articulate answer to the question but certainly nothing of Hair's intelligent sweetness has been seen in films recently. The movie itself is aware of this fact. At the end of Hair, the characters enact a death of the heart, or of the spirit. They do so by way of the most hackneyed melodramatic device known to novelists and movie directors; the handling of this device makes it new. In brief, Berger (the chief hippy) drives out with his friends to the desert military base where Claude is now in basic training. Berger gets a crewcut so that he can stand in for Claude at roll call—freeing him for a picnic with Sheila. While Claude is picnicking, the troops are packed off to Southeast Asia. The last scene in the film shows Claude and the others standing over Berger's grave.
As I write this scenario down, it sounds rigged, but once again an attention to detail and a sense of timing save the day. Berger is so pleased with his initial ploy that we smile, in our turn, at his pleasure. His dawning horror, when he realizes that he will have to go in Claude's place, expands into a musical number with the soldiers marching, and singing as they march about their desire to be somewhere else altogether. The song is powerful, moving, as it does, midway between a patriotic anthem and a dirge. Berger, among a mass of others, disappears into the black hole of a gigantic transport plane, in a shot that is perfectly conceived. Without the music ever stopping—instead it develops—the camera shifts to the scene of mourning and on to a vast expanse of veterans' graves, and so the film ends. The economy of editing, acting, and choreography have created a convincing epitaph for the Vietnam dead and for the spirit of the country as well. LBJ is president when the events of Hair take place but one cannot help remembering the amazing prolongation of the Southeast Asian war in the administration that followed.
In the last summer of the 1970s, it is uncanny to find the presence of the sixties so strong. We have been taught by Time and Newsweek that the sixties just went away, folding in influence when they folded in fact. Perhaps repressed memories return all the stronger, in new and more telling forms. Hair makes me wonder about such possibilities and so, when I come to think of it, do the other two films. No one can say whether nuclear power—in the current cliche — is becoming our new Vietnam, but there is Jane Fonda up on the screen, confronting the domestic issue much more intelligently than she did the international one. The Ramones are up there too—and the Ramones are nothing less than a restoration of rock 'n' roll to its original anarchic energy, before the mass media took over. The summer movies of 1979, just previous to the new decade, could prompt a dream as mixed up and as promising as Claude's hallucinated wedding. There is a certain logic in going backwards to find the future. Lewis Carroll would have seen the point. Modern audiences don't, if we except the freak success of The China Syndrome, but then artists are often ahead of their time. At the very least, these summer movies show that the American cinema is still alive. May the public catch up with them.
1. Or has Warhol gone disco? In this case, the film assumes the proportions of allegory.