Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Getting Straight (1970)

Part of the cycle of campus unrest films of the early 1970s, Getting Straight stars Elliot Gould as a seasoned and idealistic graduate student clashing with the Establishment every waking moment of his life. Despite some dated elements, a compelling portrait is presented of an American campus during a time when institutions were under the microscope. 

Gould is an icon of American film during the 1970s. Always irreverent but with a growing sense of malaise as the decade progressed, his filmography is a narrative in itself. Here Gould's in full rebel mode, playing a character not toofar from Trapper John he made famous in 1970 in MASH. Harry's at heart a reformer and wants to be a teacher, but not one who's going to go through the motions each year, preparing young people for a staid middle class existence. 

As a graduate student he's assigned to teach remedial classes on grammar, and he manages to connect with his students. More teaching scenes would've humanized him even more. The film is filled with so much manic activity outside the classroom. First of all, Harry's no saint, a bit of a blowhard himself. Sometimes he's the entitled white guy explaining to an African-American man where he's wrong on civil rights, or the emotional abuse he dishes on his girlfriend Jan (Candice Bergen) for not being as hip as him, and insulting her desire to marry and have a family as, you guessed it, so middle class.

In a way it's refreshing to have a teacher protagonist who's more of an anti-hero. So many films build up dedicated teachers as saints doing a thankless job. Or the opposite approach, a teacher is a horrible person and resents not being more successful so they like to destroy any student they see as having promise, thinking Whiplash. Educators are flawed human beings like everyone else and that's the portrait we have in Getting Straight.

Harry's clashes with the establishment are the most compelling scenes. University administrators and academic department view students as statistics they are mandated by the state to educate. Classrooms and the grading systems are more alienating than inspiring, and that is what Harry is fighting against. Academics don't come off well in the film, even over the top at times. During his Masters oral exam, one professor tries to humiliate Harry over a provocative interpretation of The Great Gatsby. I'm sure some of this still goes one, I once had a prof rake me over the coals because he was having a bad day.

His interactions with undergraduates also shed light on the era. Most of them are there to party and take advantage of their freedom. Some want to avoid being sent to Vietnam, while others want to take advantage of the opportunities presented by a state school. In the backdrop are protests against the war, almost foreshadowing the massacre at Kent. St that same year. There are petitions to legalize marijuana and for a less culturally biased curriculum - young people pushing the institutions for change. 

While Getting Straight has some dated qualities, many of the issues raised are still being fought over. We're still having a discussion on the value of going to college: an enriching experience that produce mindful citizens or a factory to churn out corporate professionals? The cost of college and role of the state are also issues in the background. Who should pay? How should teachers be compensated? 

Everything was more heightened during this era, every issue is a battleground between the forces of change and reaction. That's not unlike today either. There's no existential threat young people face on the level of the Vietnam War. I don't want to speak for what young people of the moment are anxious about, but it's not being sent to foreign land to kill people. But Getting Straight does capture the disconnect going on at the current moment, older people will always grumble when young people start to get outspoken, when old ways of doing things are questioned - the film nails that sentiment. 

Richard Rush directed the film, a veteran of AIP films Hell's Angels on Wheels and Psyche-Out, he would go on to make one of my favorites The Stuntman. There's a lot camera movement, creating a sense of everything always being in motion and moving forward. Getting Straight is a minor classic in its direct engagement with the era from which it was made. 

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