The revolution may not have been televised, but it was certainly filmed. In 1970, youth rallied in droves and studios rolled out the little red carpet: MGM released The Strawberry Statement (Stuart Hagmann), Zabriskie Point (Michelangelo Antonioni), and The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart (Leonard Horn); United Artists released The Revolutionary (Paul Williams), Halls of Anger (Paul Bogart), and Up in the Cellar (Theodore J. Flicker – if seducing your university president’s wife, daughter, and mistress counts as campus unrest); Columbia released Getting Straight (Richard Rush) and RPM (Stanley Kramer). Each bookended the Kent State killings. The release of Getting Straight practically coincided with them. In fact, it was the only film that turned a profit. The plots are fairly similar: a young man somehow both disillusioned and naive phases in and out of free love with a woman who is somehow both noncommittal and consuming while debating deans, clobbering cops, and spurning squares who are somehow both artless and jaded. Now that this brief and brutal era of Hollywood protestploitation films has garnered 50 years of dust, din, and damnation, I’d like to revisit its relevance for the commercial representation of anti-commercialism today.

The film critic David Denby wrote in a review of Stuart Hagmann’s The Strawberry Statement that we usually best enjoy the phony parts of an old movie, while we scorn them in one set in the present.1 Accordingly, he scorned these student protest films for lying – not of distorting political agendas from the left or right, but of simply leaving them empty. I emphasize The Strawberry Statement and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point because they are both prototypes and exceptions. Hagmann’s film is so full of these tropes that it empties them of meaning: there is nothing to acts beyond scheming (interrupted by head-busting), nothing to words beyond slogans. Conversely, Antonioni’s meaning is so overt – MGM cut his original ending, an airplane sky-writing “Fuck you, America” – that one is never sure when he is serious and when satirical.
This protestploitation cycle had psychedelic precedents, where the generation gap was only a political issue insofar as gaining power ensured that freaks be left alone to freak: the Riot on Sunset Strip (Arthur Dreifuss, 1967) was a resistance to curfew laws; the boarding-school insurrection in if… (Lindsay Anderson, 1968) is only tragic because it leaves no answers (it ends with a freeze-frame of the moment before our pubescent revolutionaries are unceremoniously shot by the Combined Cadet Force); the rocker protagonist of Wild in the Streets (Barry Shear, 1968) spikes the D.C. water supply with LSD and runs for office to lower the voting age to 14 and send every citizen over 35 to re-education camps in VW paddy wagons, only to be threatened by a preteen fringe group looking to “put everybody over 10 out of business.” The overtly political exceptions usually mentioned here, like Medium Cool (Haskell Wexler, 1969), don’t involve students at all. 

Critics regarded these teenybopper dramas as bad caricatures of good ideas. The celluloid call to drop out for dropping out’s sake culminated with films like The People Next Door (David Greene, 1970), a bloodless and histrionic drama about the dissipation of a 17-year-old girl hooked on LSD and birth control which comes off like what the film critic Christian Divine called an after-school special directed by John Cassavetes.2 By 1969, theatre attendance shrunk among every part of the population except those under thirty. MGM lost $72 million, United Artists $85 million, and Columbia was in receivership.

By the spring of 1970, the country flared. Nixon invaded Cambodia in April and the Ohio National Guard shot four Kent State students in May. Studios turned their lenses upon the student revolutionary. As hundreds of thousands of students filled the streets, many boycotted exhibitors and studios with military and government ties. To quell demographic distrust, MGM hired the thirty-eight-year-old Louis F. Polk, a relatively young president given to quoting Marshall McLuhan during stockholder meetings. Theatre owners relented to screen these projects less by a belief in their wisdom – their self-righteous and fickle tone bode poor marketing overseas – than by a loss of ideas to lure older viewers. To widen the appeal of these antiestablishment flicks, ad campaigns stressed character dramas and shirked political agendas.
Irwin Winkler, producer of The Strawberry Statement, insisted that the film was “not about a college revolution… [The film] is about growing up. About a college student who goes through an identity crisis during a college revolt.”3 In the wake of Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), which scandalized Old and galvanized New Hollywood with the first full-frontal beaver shot in conventional theatres, Zabriskie Point was promoted as an angsty desert shag. Collective violence was merely a dramatic backdrop to traditional narratives of individual change. These two movies garnered more press debate than any other as to the political efficacy of pretty pictures of tear-gassed students.

Zabriskie Point

This was a schizophrenic way to market films which sought to render the politicization of this violence more holistically than any had before. Riots, if contrived, were nevertheless filmed according to vérité conventions, with hand-held shaky-cams, zoom shots, pulled focus, frenetic and unframed editing, and incoherent or contradictory sound. The Strawberry Statement was made in cooperation with San Francisco and starred James S. Kunen, the author of the biographical account of the 1968 Columbia University protests upon which the film was based; he plays an ineptly methodical sit-in leader who devotes the meeting to a vote as to whether to vote as to whether he should chair it. Truffaut turned the script down, and so it went to Hagmann, a TV director. 

The wooden and photogenic stars of Zabriskie Point, Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin, are non-actors. Frechette, cast after Antonioni spied him at a bus stop barking insults at a man leaning out of a third-story flat, was living in the acid-fascist Fort Hill cult of Mel Lyman (whose jug band features on the soundtrack). He and Halprin fell in love during filming; she moved in and soon fled. In 1973, he robbed a bank with three communards and an unloaded gun in protest of Watergate. He died of a prison weight-lifting accident in 1975. Antonioni cast Black Panther Kathleen Cleaver for the opening scene, in which black militants harangue the white students’ zeal.

The Strawberry Statement concerns the radicalization of Simon (Bruce Davison), a whey-faced San Francisco college newspaper photographer who exploits his job to pursue a helmet-haired dream woman, Linda (Kim Darby), from protest to protest. The “revolutionary” cause is something Nixon himself would revile: the school plans to demolish an African-American neighbourhood playground in a tax-dodge land deal with the water and power companies. At a certain point, Simon’s fear of merely sitting back and watching the strikes overwhelms his fear of what they will do to rowing practice. Nevertheless, the prime imperative is never far from his mind: after being battered by a jock, George (Murray MacLeod), he rubs the blood into his collar, claims police brutality, and uses his injuries to nab sexual favours from a co-ed during a sit-in at the president’s office. George turns revolutionary after being battered by another jock. Simon visits him in the hospital and asks him how he feels. George, with a shit-eating grin and three cast-plastered limbs: “Shitty”.

Hagmann dedicates a third of the film to youthful jaunts through San Francisco set to Crosby, Stills, and Nash and shot in the style of an ad director aping Eisenstein and Busby Berkeley. The commercial cliché of every scene is the film’s sole constant: from overhead shaky-cam reveries in the park, psychedelic superimposition in a record store listening-room, quick-cut necking on a Tilt-A-Whirl, and long-take city strolls replete with wind-blown newspaper stands, conspicuous construction sites, plate-glass reflections, and a jaunty game of basketball with jaunty street kids, no scene is too tried and no technique too incoherent for Hagmann. He uses the staggering park montage which opens the film for one other scene: the end, as the National Guard gasses and brains a gym full of concentrically seated students chanting “Give Peace a Chance”. He uses the same soundtrack, in fact – Buffy Sainte-Marie’s resolutely perky “The Circle Game”.

 Simon is torn between a refusal to spurn the school he slaved to attend – wondering at the sit-in “whether the Paris Commune was this dull” – and the urge to blow it off the face of the earth if the spectacle will mean something. By the end he prays for “massive casualties, because I don’t want to be a part of light-to-moderate casualties.” He gets his fantasy and (uniquely among protestploitation protagonists) every other: he litters pamphlets from a paddy wagon as a fellow arrestee soft-shoes to “America the Beautiful”; he gets fingerprinted, frisked and freed with a slap on the wrist; he earns the devotion of Linda; he learns firsthand from the Samaritan admiring his jock-wounds that “Lenin loved women with big breasts”, and he relishes it all.

Throughout it, he doesn’t hold a single conviction. The Che Guevara posters which plaster the walls merely backdrop the rush of blood from one extremity to another. Even this “action” is more than concerns his roommate (Bud Cort), who only camps out in the office because it’s “crawling with chicks”. After Simon and Linda return with groceries, the camera pans from the famished students within to the dazed cops without as Neil Young’s “Helpless” plays; it is unclear who the song concerns more. After a group of Black men smash his Super-8 Instamatic in the park, Simon concludes that the strikers are no better than the cops beating them. He regales them with a grave and frantic diatribe on the vagaries of violence and the meaninglessness of “marching with a magic-markered ‘Ban the Bomb’ sing in your lily-white hands”. The following riot is intercut with footage from H. Rap Brown’s D. C. speech: “Violence is a part of America’s culture. It is as American as cherry pie.” It’s the only consistency, cause, and conclusion of Hagmann’s film.

The Strawberry Statement

Zabriskie Point concerns a noncommittal post-teenybopper named Daria, a passively radical bum named Mark, and not much else. It opens with a student strike meeting in which black revolutionaries knock the white students’ readiness to die for the cause. Mark walks out, declaring that he isn’t ready to die of boredom. He joins his roommate in jail in an attempt to bail him out and buys a .38 pistol upon release. He takes it to a protest and flees when a student and a cop are shot dead. Phlegmatically traumatized, he books it to Hawthorne Municipal Airport. He non-consensually borrows a Cessna 210 and nearly razes Daria in Death Valley, North by Northwest-style (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959). She’s driving a non-consensually borrowed Buick to meet her boss and lover Lee Allen (Rod Taylor), a property development exec, in his Phoenix compound.

They range Zabriskie Point – symbolically enough the lowest point in America – at odds as to whether it’s peaceful or dead. They commence the most arid love scene in movie history, set to a sedately improvised Jerry Garcia riff. The camera pans back through the kicked-up sandstorm to reveal unexplained and equally beige couples (members of Joe Chaikin’s Open Theatre) rolling in the dunes with mild desperation. The U. S. Department of Justice investigated this scene for violation of the Mann Act (forbidding the cross-state transportation of women for sexual purposes), despite the fact that no sex was filmed and no states were crossed. Mark returns the plane and is shot dead on the tarmac. Daria learns from her car radio, outside Lee’s desert Berchtesgaden. She spies housewives by the pool, businessmen by the bourbon, and a maid by the hall. She splits. She looks back at the house – the marble ashtrays and National Geographic sheaves, the olive-and-gin tumblers and mahogany-panelled Book of the Month shelves – and imagines it blown up.

Antonioni portrays this with the same explosion shot from different angles, set to a Pink Floyd death-wail, and replayed no less than 17 times over 5 minutes. Then the same slow-motion rain of fire and plastic debris shot from different angles, red and white against blue sky, like a Roger Corman agitprop production of The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean, 1957). The distortion fades into Roy Orbison’s “So Young” (written for the film) and the camera pans to the sunset. Pink Floyd played the entire soundtrack, but Antonioni gutted most of it for Garcia, John Fahey, the Rolling Stones, and Patti Page. One reject ended up on Dark Side of the Moon as “Us and Them”. Jim Morrison wrote “L’America” for the film; the irascible Italian scrapped it. It was too loud.

Zabriskie Point

The film amounts to a mealy vision of Western apocalypse shot by what Andrew Sarris called a Vogue photographer with a Marxist agenda.4 It has all the trappings of Antonioni: a committedly thin, unfelt and underplayed plot; aimless and amoral faces; full silences and half-formed thoughts; stale angst and surly passivity. Alienation in his work is always architectural: the scattered Mediterranean in L’avventura (1960), bourgeois Milan in La notte (1961), the factory smog of Ravenna in Il deserto rosso (Red Desert, 1964), Mod London in Blow-Up (1966). In his only American film, disintegration attains a geographic scale, “a moving picture of a crumbling land” (as David Gilmour sings from Halprin’s car radio). The climax of the film – communal desire, bodies rifting and sanded over – is one of the most listless moments in Antonioni’s oeuvre. When the post-coital dust settles, Mark: “I always knew it would be like that.” It is unclear whether he’s satisfied or resigned.

Yeats wrote that “Rhetoric is heard, poetry overheard.”  There is a poetry to the emptiness of a slogan when it is met with nothing more than another slogan in The Strawberry Statement, when death heard means no more than death overheard in Zabriskie Point, and only film could convey it. There are more protest scenes between these movies than you can shake a stale Molotov at, and each tries to mean a sincerity that it cannot. When his athletic abuser decides to no longer be square, Simon asks George if he feels any different with the same confidential brio he’d ask a man who decides to no longer be a virgin. He gets no answer. Mark insists in defence of the Panthers that “when it gets down to it, you’d have to choose one side,” but only because he can’t get what he wants from the other if he doesn’t see them as swine. Everyone in the wake of the Silent Majority is a victim, a villain, or dead.

Alongside their emptiness, both films share a fairly unanimous critical and commercial failure. Zabriskie Point was regarded as “the worst film ever made by a director of genius”.5 Dotson Rader, a participant of the original Columbia strike, panned The Strawberry Statement as a vapid commercial displacement of “the American radical-revolutionary vision” from Harlem and the Upper West Side, where Kunen’s novel was based, to WASPy California climes, true to Hagmann’s toothpaste-ad oeuvre.6 Then again, Columbia trustees forbade shooting anywhere in New York. Nevertheless, the film won the Jury Prize at Cannes.

The critics had a point: despite Simon’s talk, his schemes concern the surest way to make it with co-eds. Israel Horovitz wrote ten scripts over two years, struggling to render the message without preaching to the choir. He scarcely rendered any at all: between the puppy-love and nightsticks, the only reason the students give for protesting is “to prove they are alive.” Antonioni never reveals what his students protest at all, only who they side with. When a kid needs tear gas to prove he’s alive, only newsreels benefit.

Nor did the choir listen. The Boston’s Phoenix held that Hagman had no attitude at all about revolution, except that it is photogenic. The East Village Other proclaimed Zabriskie Point “perhaps the most definitive piece of youth cultural kaka,” framing revolt on a level with beach-party flicks.7 On the other hand, the violence these films neither began nor ended on celluloid. In March 1970, when Zabriskie Point was in national distribution, four Weathermen accidentally imploded themselves in a makeshift Greenwich Village bomb factory. The Strawberry Statement, a now-forgotten flop which generated more underground press copy than any other classic in its time (including Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967), Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969), and The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1969)) with the exception of Woodstock (Michael Wadleigh, 1970), was systematically sabotaged. Film rolls inexplicably disappeared and spoiled. Production-room property was defaced with MGM approval. Antonioni’s shoot was monitored by the FBI and Oakland County Sheriff. The films garnered attention at the cost of hollowing the violence they echoed.

They drew such attention at a time when nonviolent revolution scarcely seemed feasible, presenting a radicalization which was at least as visceral as it was intellectual. Simon and Mark only turn to the red after they’re beaten and barred. While violence was the precedent, content, and consequence of MGM’s output, it served safer purposes when stockholders saw red. By 1971, studios schmoozed older, calmer folk; a Variety headline attributed it to “an economic slump and higher tuition costs”.8 The ideological tightrope-act of protestploitation PR yielded, ironically, to a steady spate of bank-robber thrillers and gangster comedies; that year MGM released Shaft (Gordon Parks), The Last Run (Richard Fleischer), Catlow (Sam Wanamaker), Chandler (Paul Magwood), The Clay Pigeon (Tom Stern & Lane Slate), Get Carter (Mike Hodges), Villain (Michael Tuchner), Wild Rover (Blake Edwards), and The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (James Goldstone).

In an interview with Godard in 1964, Antonioni foresaw a world of unending crisis which he attributed to a confusion…of faith and politics.9 There is not only no distinction in these films between faith and fact, but no value which this distinction formerly had. Susan Sontag visited San Francisco while Hagmann shot The Strawberry Statement. After witnessing it, she concluded that nobody working within the establishment could understand let alone resist revolution.10 The caution that these films present to any cinema of rebellion is as simple as it is vain, so long as cinema entails a subservience of politics to profit and pyrotechnics: to film a protest is one thing; for that film to meet its promise, it must bridge the gap between representation and reality.

The reality for youth in revolt today is frustration at best and impotency at worst. A good film, after all, engages or educates; to avoid veering into hopelessness (which does neither more than once), representations of protest in current film either pan over chanting masses and neglect to film the morning (or month, or year) after, or sit with individuals to reveal the religious, idealistic, or emotional reasons why Joe Schmo doesn’t like where the country has gone and why he’s convinced that Donald Trump or pipe bombs are the answer. Folks emerge from the theatre and their eyes adjust to the light and they understand the other guy better and nothing comes of it.

Protestploitation films so inflamed viewers, censors, and youth alike to the extent that they presented these protests in vérité – not that the destruction was unembellished, but that nothing was destroyed for reasons which the protestors did not chant. Today’s progressive revolutions seem more suicidal or ineffectual than homicidal or counter-effective, likely because they are not as organized as their models. The ineffectuality of current films owes not to the fact that they are not empowering enough. Any film which seeks to garner the carping and cheering of protestploitation in its time should render disempowerment as verily as plot allows, as protestploitation rendered disillusionment.

I know one mainstream example of this in the past few years: Mathieu Denis and Simon Lavoie’s Ceux qui font les révolutions à moitié n’ont fait que se creuser un tombeau (Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves, 2016), a three-hour half-documentary about four acerbic, dingy and originally middle-class Québécois squatters. The “Maple Spring” – the largest student demonstration in Canada’s history – fizzles. They turn to vandalism and anthrax hoaxes. They conclude from the movement’s collapse after one hundred days (the State agreed to freeze tuition hikes and students voted to return to class) that, as their defaced billboards read, “People do not see yet that they are miserable. We will show them.” 

They reject all fantasy, past and future (they are naked for a third of the film but deny each other sex; when one is caught watching a YouTube video of a past protest, he’s nearly ousted), and in doing so marginalize themselves in the present. The greater their terrorism, the pettier their reasons. Ultimately, tension and scarcity within the group threatens it more than that without. 500 people walked out of the premiere, screaming – Canadians, remember – and banging doors. The point was crass: the system precludes resistance which does not marginalize. The common thread between films like these and their fifty-year-old models is a lack, sometimes of reason and sometimes of aim: there is nothing to acts beyond scheming, nothing to words beyond slogans. Surely one can fight for a better world without dying for it, or fighting roaches in a flophouse. Little comes of it (then again, little comes of the roaches). It is as plain as a rubber bullet what is to be resisted, and dim what is to be done. Protestploitation presents the emptiness of resistance when dying for the cause merely precludes dying of boredom.

Further reading


  1. David Denby, “Commercials for Revolution” in Film 70/71, David Denby, ed. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971), pp. 101-106.
  2. Christian Divine, “Protestploitation!”, Technicolor Dreams, 13 September 2008.
  3. Aniko Bodroghkozy, “Reel Revolutionaries: An Examination of Hollywood’s Cycle of 1960s Youth Rebellion Films,” Cinema Journal, Issue 41, number 3 (2002): pp. 38-58.
  4. Andrew Sarris, “Zabriskie Point” in Film 70/71, pp. 175-179.
  5. Peter Craven, “Uneasy Moments from Master of Angst,” The Age, 17 May 2008: A2, p. 20.
  6. Dotson Rader, “A Razzberry for ‘Strawberry’”, The New York Times, 19 July 1970: p. 76.
  7. The three previous quotes come from Bodroghkozy, “Reel Revolutionaries.”
  8. Ibid.
  9. Jean-Luc Godard, “The Night, The Eclipse, The Dawn (November 1964),” Michelangelo Antonioni: Ontological Architecture: Writings & Interviews.
  10. Bodroghkozy, “Reel Revolutionaries”: p. 48.

About The Author

Selen Ozturk is a San Francisco-based arts writer. Her work takes a critical and dedicated interest in environmental architecture, '60s-'70s film, and contemporary art. Her recent publications include Bayou Magazine, Bright Lights Film Journal, Cinema Retro, Whitewall Magazine, Oxonian Review, Archetype, PopMatters, and the Penn Review of Philosophy.

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