Retro: our movie & TV vault... a fresh look
at neglected classics and cult favourites
Simon (a very youthful-looking Bruce Davison, actually 23 at the time) is a student
in San Francisco. A member of the rowing team, he's vaguely liberal in politics but
generally unaware of what is going on - namely, student protest at the University's
plans to repossess black-occupied tenements. As much through his developing romance
with the more activist Linda (Kim Darby), he gradually becomes more involved.
Needless to say, The Strawberry Statement (based on a book by James Kunen) is very much a product of its time. In the wake of the success of Easy Rider, major studios green-lighted many 'youth' movies like this, hiring younger directors who were - they hoped - more attuned to a demographic than the older studio heads. Some very strange and interesting films were made; including some that would be far too arty for a major studio to touch before or since. Taboos were being broken too, a process to which The Strawberry Statement contributes: it contains brief nudity and three 'fucks' in the dialogue.
The Strawberry Statement has quite a few things in its favour: excellent performances from a fine cast, a strong sense of San Francisco at the time, and a literate screenplay by distinguished playwright Israel Horovitz (father of Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz). Horovitz also appears in the small role of Dr Benton. The film is clearly on the side of students: the title refers to a teacher's comment that a student's opinion is as relevant to him as whether or not the student likes strawberries. However, it's not too simplistic: one scene with one of Simon's rowing colleagues demonstrates that some of the students are very much on the side of authority against 'commies'. There's also an excellent soundtrack, featuring Joni Mitchell's The Circle Game (sung with much vibrato by Buffy Sainte-Marie), Thunderclap Newman's Something In The Air, Crosby, Stills and Nash with or without Neil Young, Young solo, not to mention John Lennon's Give Peace A Chance sung by the protestors. Unfortunately, that music selection may well preclude a retail video or Region 2 DVD release in the near future, unless someone spends the time and money to clear the rights for home viewing. (Apparently ex-rental videos can be bought online - presumably very old tapes released before someone realised that the music in the film was only licensed for theatrical and TV showings.) In the meantime, you'll have to keep an eye out for television screenings. In the UK, the cable/satellite/digital channel TCM has shown it more than once recently.
What lets the film down is its direction. Stuart Hagmann was a TV director, with several episodes of Mission: Impossible to his name. The Strawberry Statement was his theatrical debut. He directed one more film (Believe In Me, 1971) before returning to the small screen, and the IMDb lists no credits after 1977. His penchant for odd angles and tricksy cutting is also very much of its time, and becomes distracting. His pacing is off, making the film drag in places, and the switches in tone (comedy, romance, stark tragedy) don't entirely work. He has a strange liking for overhead shots, taken to an extreme at the film's ending (some shots of protestors looking like something Busby Berkeley might have devised), distancing us when we should be most involved.
Despite its flaws, The Strawberry Statement is an interesting film from a time of considerable changes in Hollywood, and it remains worth tracking down today.