Friday 27 February 2015

Cisco Pike [1972]

CISCO PIKE is an American drama that was written and directed by B. L. Norton and originally released by Columbia Pictures in January 1972.  It stars Kris Kristofferson, Karen Black, Gene Hackman and Harry Dean Stanton.  In what was his proper 'Introducing' film d├ębut Kristofferson plays the title character, a faded rock star whose success has dried up.  Reduced to selling drugs in and around Venice Beach he resolves to get out of the game and try again in the music business but is coerced by a crooked cop (Hackman) into selling a mountain of drugs over one weekend.

Watching a film such as this is enough to drive you to tears over the current state of US film-making. Before I go off on a long rant I'll say that I do recognise there are some fine independent people working in the US today and that they occasionally make some fine movies.  However, this is not the norm.  Today US film-making seems to be dominated by three things: revenge movies, superhero movies and cartoons.  Where are the slices of life?  Where are the small scale dramas?  Where are the character studies?  Where is the political and social commentary?  You'll go a long way to find a modern US film that is but one of those things; CISCO PIKE on the other hand is all four.

Hare Krishnas outside The Troubadour

For ten years or so from about 1967 the US made dozens of terrific intelligent films for adults, films that above all else questioned the way things were in the country at that time.  Of course it was a time of great social upheaval so the impetus to do so was obvious but is the US not now in a similar situation, if not worse?  Inequality, oppressive government, brutal policing, racial discrimination, hawkish foreign policy, corruption - these are all going on as we speak in the US.  These were issues that in the 60s prompted a new wave of US film-makers.  So where is the current equivalent?  Are we to conclude that these issues no longer concern film-makers?

Take this year's Oscar nominations.  There was a reverential biopic of Martin Luther King, a reverential biopic of Stephen Hawking, an offbeat backstage movie, a decent film about Alzheimer's, a by the numbers coming of age drama, a whimsical comedy, a slice of Americana and a film about a US soldier who killed a record number of foreigners from a long way away.  Okay, it's the Oscars and they're not about ground-breaking cinema, independent or otherwise, but there's nothing hard hitting there, nothing expressing doubt, nothing putting forward another way of doing things.

Which brings me to my conclusion that if one is looking for those things in cinema one either has to look to films made by non-American directors or one has to look to documentaries.  It lifted my spirits to see that CITIZENFOUR, about whistle-blower Edward Snowden' was awarded the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.  Now I'm not suggesting every US film, documentary or not, has to be driven by desire to expose what that country gets up to; far from it, what I'd like to see - and what we all saw in that golden age I referred to earlier - are films which simply show the reality of US lives and, more to the point, in a non-judgemental manner.

Cisco inspecting the dope that Holland wants him to sell

That brings me back to CISCO PIKE.  The central character is a drug dealer, there's no getting away from that, but does that make him a bad man?  A supporting character is a corrupt cop bud does that make him a bad man?  The point is that blatant injustices in the system have positioned these characters where they are.  Now, they have made choices that have taken them there but the film makes clear that because the way things are they have had a reduced number of choices.  In fact, with society structured in the way it is character A finds himself with few options which leads him down the path to character B who has even fewer.  Sooner or later you end up with another character who has no options at all.  So do we blame the characters / people or the system / society?

Cisco's pad, inside...

CISCO PIKE is interestingly set at the fag end of the hippie era and just before Watergate, as the idealism was on its last legs and just about to be shattered completely.  Tastes are changing: the music business is becoming more mercenary - Pike is told that his style isn't hip any more and he should start playing electric; managers rather than performers are now calling the shots - and the drugs seem to be consumed not by potheads but by junkies.  In a way Cisco and Sue are a little island of idealism; their house, still done out in red and yellow paint and wall hangings, is not much more than a shack sandwiched between two commercial properties.

... and out.

I suppose the point is that what you do does not define who you are.  Cisco was no more a rock god genius any more than he is a lowlife drug dealer but others define him in these terms.  The music business people he meets wanted something from him when he was hot and want nothing from him now except the occasional drug deal.  The only person who wants him just as he is is, predictably, his girlfriend Sue played by Karen Black with her customary endearing kookiness.  So in the end the film is about identity and whether that is something imposed on us by others or something we generate ourselves.  And if we do generate it ourselves what happens when everyone else sees us differently.

Kris Kristofferson as Cisco Pike

I've have long admired Kris Kristofferson both as a man and as a performer.  I have to confess I'm not a big country and western fan but it has always seemed to me that he approached the genre from a more left of centre perspective.  Not that you'd have to try that hard, after all it's a pretty reactionary field, but he took the music and more importantly the lyrics in a more intelligent direction.  He's underrated as an actor in my opinion and appears in two of my all time favourite films, namely Sam Peckinpah's PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID [1973] and Michael Cimino's HEAVEN'S GATE [1980].  Those are stone cold classics, obviously, but his overall CV is better than you might think.

Karen Black as Sue

Karen Black who died recently was an iconic figure of the freewheelin' movie scene in the late 60s and early 70s.  She wasn't a typical movie actress at all - she was slightly cross-eyed and always seemed kind of one card shy of a full deck.  Maybe it's just that I'm figuring her in terms of the characters she very often played but I suspect she was just as unconventional in real life.  She was in a string of really terrific movies right up until the early 80s but just as the off-beat films stopped getting made she stopped getting the good parts and found herself relegated to low budget genre movies in which, it has to be said, she was very watchable.

Gene Hackman has now sadly retired from acting but one of the true giants of his craft.  I don't think I've ever seen him give a bad performance.  He's been in some bad movies but even in those you can see the intelligence at work.  Whether it's in trash like SUPERMAN IV [1987] or genuine film art like THE CONVERSATION [1974] or NIGHT MOVES [1975] he's always good, a phenomenal consistency over a 40-year career.

Harry Dean Stanton as Jesse Dupre

The supporting cast is a who's who of weirdos and character actors.  Harry Dean Stanton is of course the ne plus ultra of off beat, half-soaked chancers but he too is a fine actor.  Viva was one of Andy Warhol's crew and Joy Bang was a genuine free spirit who ditched the movie business before her career had really begun.  I wrote about her in my review of MESSIAH OF EVIL here.  There are plenty of other familiar names and faces: Roscoe Lee Browne, Severn Darden, Antonio 'Huggy Bear' Fargas, Howard Hesseman, Alan Arbus and even Doug Sahm of the Sir Douglas Quintet.

Doug Sahm as Rex.  It was difficult to get a still of Sahm because he never stood still

Viva (L) as Merna and Joy Bang (R) as Lynn

The writer-director B. L. Norton, also known variously as B. W. L. Norton, Bill Norton or Bill L. Norton made his debut with this film and it's really good.  So good in fact that his career was a slow decline afterwards.  He had a couple of stinkers in a row - MORE AMERICAN GRAFFITI [1979] and BABY: SECRET OF THE LOST LEGEND [1985] - and as per the adage of you're only as good as your last film that was that for his cinema career and the world of TV beckoned.  It's a shame that he never followed up on the promise of CISCO PIKE because it is a perfectly sound contribution to the last golden age of American film-making.

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