Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Strawberry Statement

I never called them pigs. Many of the people I hung out with and many that I was friends with used that term, but I never did. I didn’t think that dehumanizing the very folks who were dehumanizing us was a good idea. It’s the sort of thinking that leads us to words like Jap, gook, wetback, and nigger. Which is not to say that some of them didn’t behave like pigs from time to time. And you know what? At those times I always managed to be somewhere else. I am not even a teeny bit ashamed of that. I saw no point in getting tear-gassed or in having my head split open for the Chicago Seven, or Huey Newton, or anybody else.

This was inspired by and based on a book about the student occupation of buildings in Columbia University in 1968. I’m sure I was solidly on the side of the students back then. Looking at it now, it doesn’t seem so black and white … but so little does, as I get older. The movie climaxes with the police entering the buildings and flooding them with tear gas, and fighting and clubbing the students. Some of the students remained non-violent, as did most of the protesters I heard of in that era. But a lot fought very hard, and I asked myself, what did they expect the cops to do after they came at the cops swinging chairs and fists? I looked it up. Wiki says 132 students, 44 faculty, and 12 cops were injured. One policeman, Frank Gucciardi, had his back broken and was permanently disabled when a student jumped on him from a second-story window. I hope that student is still in jail, but I suspect he never even did time. Mostly this movie just saddens me. I often think back to how hopeful we were, and how little it seems to me that we ever accomplished. You may disagree.

The director, Stuart Hagmann, basically made just this one film of any consequence. (Unless you think Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo is a forgotten masterpiece.) I think the amazing thing is that it was produced at MGM by some real heavyweights: Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler. How did that happen? The film is self-consciously arty, with super-quick cutting, hand-held cameras, and way too many dizzy circular panning shots. Some of it works; a lot of it doesn’t. Columbia refused to allow shooting in their campus so they went to Berkeley, where the administration apparently didn’t know just how anti-establishment it was going to be.

There are two good things about this movie. One is the setting. I lived in San Francisco in 1970, in the heart of the Haight-Ashbury, and I owned that city. I knew every spot of any interest at all, and it’s great to see these places as they used to be. The second is the music, by Buffy Sainte-Marie (remember her? The Indian woman with the weird vibrato?), Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, and Neil Young solo. Also something called Thunderclap Newman, which I’d never heard of though I knew their one hit. It seems that was a group briefly formed by Pete Townshend of The Who. Who knew?