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Laramie Movie Scope:
Drive, He Said

A look back at a turbulent time

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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August 20, 2013 -- I saw this movie last night for the first time even though I actually saw it being filmed as a University of Oregon student back in 1970 in Eugene, Oregon. In fact, I was in one of the crowd scenes filmed at McArthur Court, where the University of Oregon basketball teams used to play before it closed around the end of 2010.

I have always wanted to see this film, but it did not get a wide distribution when it was released in 1971, so I missed it. It was also not readily available on DVD until quite recently. It was a rare item, and expensive to buy. But finally the Criterion Collection DVD made its way into the Netflix fold, and I was able to rent it.

I was disappointed that I was unable to spot myself sitting in the crowd at McArthur Court watching one of the games. These crowd shots are fleeting and distant, so trying to spot myself in the crowd is going to be very difficult, perhaps impossible. This movie has some basketball games in it. The main character, Hector Bloom (William Tepper of “Bachelor Party”) is a star basketball player on a college team, supposedly in Ohio, but the “U of O” logos and green and gold colors are all University of Oregon.

The movie isn't really about basketball, however, it is about rebellious angst, the military draft, critics of contemporary society, the Vietnam war, the commercialization of college athletics, drugs, sex and other social issues. This film was directed by famed actor Jack Nicholson (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Jeremy Larner, who wrote “The Candidate” screenplay as well as the book on which “Drive, He Said” was based). Nicholson talks about “Drive, He Said” in an interview featured on the DVD of the film.

In the interview, Nicholson confirms that the film crew did take advantage of a real campus protest at the University of Oregon, putting actors amongst the crowd and filming them. I had heard this story and wondered if it was true. Filmmakers in the interview feature called it “Guerilla filmmaking.” They also talked about an actor, Michael Margotta (“Nine 1/2 Weeks”) filmed running across campus in the nude. This violated the film crew's contract with the university, so Nicholson ordered the exposed film taken out of the state immediately. There is a lot of nudity in this film, by the way. This film is a lot less famous than another film later shot on the same campus, “Animal House.”

Margotta plays a protester and draft-dodger named Gabriel. He engages in a “guerilla theater” skit which involves shutting off the lights in McArthur court and interrupting a basketball game. He also pops illegal pills in an attempt to be declared unfit for the draft. The pills work and he seems to go insane, at least in terms of being seen as unfit material for the military during a riotous draft exam. Gabriel is one of the film's main characters, engaging in all kinds of outrageous behavior, including an attempted rape. He is the film's main voice of protest.

A large part of the plot concerns an affair between the basketball player, Bloom, and the wife of a university professor, Olive (Karen Black of “Nashville”). I just happened to see this film shortly after the death of Karen Black. This was filmed early in her career. She was an iconic star of this era, with roles in important films like “Easy Rider” and “Five Easy Pieces.” She seems to embody the ambivalent feelings of an unhappy married woman engaged in an empty sexual affair with a student. Her constantly changing emotions are mercurial.

One of the other main actors in the film is Mike Warren, who plays Easly, a player on Bloom's team. Warren went on to a long, successful acting career after being an All-American college basketball player on two NCAA championship teams at UCLA. Nicholson, who is a devoted basketball fan, wanted the basketball scenes in “Drive, He Said” to look as authentic as possible, so he recruited a number of former college players for the film. Warren helped him recruit players and helped stage the basketball scenes as well, according to the “making of” documentary on the DVD.

I saw a number of the players when they were playing college basketball games at the University of Oregon, including Billy Gaskins, Vic Bartolome, Nick Jones and Bob Rodgers. I saw Rodgers when he was playing high school basketball in Oregon. It was fun to see them again in this film.

Probably the most recognizable star in the film is Bruce Dern (“Django Unchained”) who plays the coach in the film. Also in the film is David Ogden Stiers, best known as a regular on the “MASH” TV show. Cindy Williams of the “Laverne and Shirley” TV show also has a small role in the film.

The film revolves mainly around three characters, Bloom, Gabriel and Olive, played by William Tepper, Michael Margotta and Karen Black. The story is a jumble of campus protest, social criticism and a messy love affair involving a kid out of his league and a housewife on the verge of a meltdown. The protester and social critic, Gabriel, slowly devolves into insanity. I think the film is a mess. Even though I was there where and when it was filmed, and I went through some of the same stuff these characters did, I couldn't relate to it.

This is a lot like an experimental film in some respects, with jarring cuts to unexplained shots, some unconventional cinematography and lighting, impressionistic dialog which seems to be unconnected to anything, and the juxtaposition of contrasting story elements. In the film's opening scene, a campus protester, watching a basketball game on TV, recites these words tonelessly:
“As I said to my friend, because I am always talking, John, I said, which is not his name -- the darkness surrounds us, what can we against it, or shall we, and why not, buy a big goddamn car and drive, he said -- for Christ sake, look out where you're going.”

That kind of sums it up. This film rates a C.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2013 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)