' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Drive, He Said (1970)

Friday, March 23, 2018

Friday's Old Fashioned: Drive, He Said (1970)

“Drive, He Said” (1970) opens with a collegiate basketball game being invaded by anti-war radicals who briefly stage a theatrical protest that no one in the crowd seems to take all that seriously. It’s a pretty blatant mixing of disparate Americas, sports’ safe space and the persnickety insurgents who refuse to stick to sports. Of course, look at the way Jack Nicholson, in his directorial debut, employs frenzied camerawork to render the basketball scenes, deliberately yielding a sensory overload with the roars of the crowd, the shouts of the cheerleaders, the sounds on the band, the shots on hoop shown from every conceivable angle. This is not a conventional Big Game but something else entirely; it feels like an earthquake rumbling beneath the floorboards, threatening to swallow the place whole.

There is certainly something rumbling within Hector Bloom (William Tepper), the squad’s star player but also the roommate of the principal anti-war radical, Gabriel (Michael Margotta), whose manic prodding spurs Hector to question his place on the team and his team’s role in campus life. Why this unlikely duo are roommates at this advanced stage of their collegiate careers is never explained and feels disingenuous, but then, “Drive, He Said” is not the sort of movie concerned with being nominally true, only emotionally, and it sometimes is, even if sometimes those emotions become so hysterical the movie feels like it’s out of control.

Hector’s rebellion, however, comes across less purposeful than meekly unplanned, walking out on the basketball team when his coach wants him to run laps, telling a professional basketball team that wants to sign him to a contract that he wants hot dogs to be sold to spectators for fifty cents cheaper. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad, which Tepper plays to, with an air of someone who doesn’t have enough inner-inspiration to be a radical, maybe because he knows he’s not smart enough. He says his major is Greek, but it may as well be Underwater Basket Weaving for as much time as we see him studying.

Even if his Coach, played by Bruce Dern with a believable tough love, actually comes across concerned for his star player’s well-being, the shoulder Hector chooses to lean on instead is Olive (Karen Black), wife of a school professor, Richard (Robert Towne), with whom the jock is having an affair. Not that it’s an affair long on traditional passion. When Hector says he loves her, Tepper lets you feel all the pitiful desperation this confession entails, which is made worse by the way Black barely has Olive engage with these sentiments. Indeed, in their sex scenes, Black evinces a woman who is closed off even in the most intimate of acts. That she has drifted so far from her husband seems inevitable.

Richard is played by Towne with an oddly, wonderfully disengaged air, seeming like a man who would have been all in the revolution of the 60s and now has mostly let it pass him by, hardly even bothered by his wife’s dalliance, at one point sitting down with both Hector and Olive at the dinner table to talk things through. This is one of the few scenes when Nicholson resorts to a more classical three camera style of editing, sort of twisting the screw on traditional domestic dramas, particularly when Black calls both men on the carpet as, more or less, big babies who deserve each other.

Running concurrent to all this is Gabriel, urging Hector to rebel even as he goes off the deep end, devolving into madness in the hopes of not getting drafted for Vietnam. Some of these scenes, like his campus streaking, feel more broad than scarily moving, yet there is still a powerful cumulative effect in his madness, particularly in how he gets further and further from whatever cause it was he sought to champion in the first place, sort of a mirror for the era, leaving radicalism for hedonism, emblemized in how he tries to rape Olive.

Only Olive finds her way out of this emotional mess, as Gabriel gives into madness and Hector simply falls back in line with the team, the comfort of the community re-opening his arms to him. The movie ends with Gabriel driven away to the insane asylum while we see Hector, through the back of the ambulance window, shout “Your mother called”, as if they are all just kids, waiting for this whole bad interlude to pass before everything is ok again.

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