Cinema Veritas Victory at Emerson 105
THE LATEST producer to go into the business of bankrolling films about Harvard is Harvard itself. Its popular documentary identifying demonstrators at the recent antiwar rally at Sanders Theatre is still touring the disciplinary circuit, and already the University has produced another flick which will probably be making the rounds with admissions committeemen for years to come. Those wondering if an independent producer can still make family pictures should take heart: Experience makes the Victory at Sanders Theatre documentary look like Night of the Living Dead.
The film was made by two seniors as their Vis Stud thesis. It's one of those quickies using nonunion actors which cost under a million-$10,000 to be exact, $6000 given by the Corporation to the admissions committee several years ago, and $4000 more kicked in by Dean of the Faculty John T. "Darryl" Dunlop. The actors are, in fact, real-life students supposedly participating in their real-life activities, though in certain scenes-such as a slow-motion sequence of joyous romping in the Radcliffe Quad overlaid with pseudo-classical music-they are, at their most real, life imitating art.
On the whole, however, the film is quite honest, certainly more so than most of the college recruiting genre. (I remember seeing one about Brown, a flashback affair concerning a close-cropped kid in white socks sitting on the library steps writing a letter home to Mom and Dad. Princeton that year toured with a 45-minute Howard Cosell-esque masterpiece about the basketball career of Bill Bradley.) There are some wonderful classroom scenes and a great interview with a freshman playing catch in the Yard, his pithy comments about the variety of options open to a Harvard student metered by the regular slap of the ball in his glove. Pinball is there, and so is Archie Cox. But other omnipresent motifs of Harvard life are missing, most notably drugs and sex (unless you can get titillated by a passing reference to how much men enjoy living in Currier House).
The purpose, I guess, was to show as wide as possible a variety of Harvard experiences, so there is no central theme. A recurring idea is the need to escape from purely intellectual activity. In a way that perhaps does not do credit to those involved in them, for the film implies that this is the main reason for everything from radical politics to the final clubs to the Crimson to most of what goes on in Carpenter Center. This lack of a theme is the major disappointment of the movie. At the beginning we meet a series of awed freshmen describing the odd things they've seen, like the hippies in Harvard Square, and one keeps waiting for the film to return to them two or three years later, having given up physics for the revolution. But the revolution never comes. (There is only one explicit reference to "the revolution" in Experience, the gist of which is that "at this time in the revolution" it's still okay to go to Harvard.) The revolution, despair, elitism are all real-life fantasies left out of this fantasy of real life.
NOW if the directors had really wanted to make a movie about Harvard, they might have considered discreetly filming the World Premiere celebration last Saturday night at Emerson Hall and splicing it in with the current product. I don't know how Chase Peterson's boys decided who got sent those engraved crimson invitations, but however it was done it was a really artful amalgamation of all the students, faculty and administrators who for one reason or another, thought they deserved to be invited. The high point of the evening came for me during the champagne punch when one student cuff-link, who juggles a couple of publications and several other local organizations on his sherry-sipping calendar, proclaimed: "I've just chitchatted with John Dunlop. Zeph Stewart pawned him off on me because he wanted to leave." Now what could be sillier? Who the hell does this kid think he is to be accepting pawned deans, or claiming to have done so? Who the hell is Zeph Stewart to be pawning off John Dunlop? Why should Dean Dunlop have to be pawned off on anybody? Who are Zeph Stewart and John Dunlop, anyway? And who are all the rest of these people whose names Derek Bok knows, as he winks at them, he'd better try to learn? What makes them think they're so important? Are there no standards anymore? It's questions like these that another film about Harvard might have attempted to answer.
A reviewer on this page a few weeks ago, commenting on a somewhat different attempt at cinema verite, said that the biggest shock was the credits at the end when it turned out that all those supposedly real people were really actors playing parts. Watching Experience in a darkened Emerson 105, just the opposite happened. The screen went dark and you waited for the credits. But instead of credits, the lights went on, you resumed your own role, and went to get some champagne. This, too, is art, God knows, but is it life?