The Strawberry Statement by James Simon Kunen (and directed by Stuart Hagmann)

The Strawberry Statement was one of those surprise purchases from a library book sale. There was something about a slim volume with a rare Vonnegut quote on the cover (and then, also, the comparison to Vonnegut by one of the other quotes) and the author’s full Social Security Number on the back that seemed to catch my eye. With a meager investment of a quarter, The Strawberry Statement sat on my TBR pile for a while, but its length and captivating opening pages made me pick it up recently.

So… Kunen is no Vonnegut… But he did create a book with a vibrancy and energy that is unlike a lot of what I have read before. The timeliness of picking this piece up when I did is undeniable. I read it through our current crisis – COVID and a variety of flashpoint uprisings that have reemerged throughout our country as once again we have to remind law enforcement that Black Lives, do in fact, Matter. Police violence responding to people taking to the streets – peacefully – to protest the police violence that came before it. And so on. And so on.  

Kunen’s book comes from another era where the stakes seemed to be high. However, the federal government wasn’t sending storm troopers to arrest protesting civilians and throw them into unmarked vans to take them to who knows where. Today’s federal government also keeps kids in cages and is in cahoots with a variety of dictatorships, our executive branch calling Nazis ‘very fine people.’ Here, we see young people engaged in a war unlike the war of today’s federal totalitarian force. Kunen’s era wanted peace, wanted an end to the Vietnam war, and simply wanted their colleges to take them seriously rather than creating kangaroo courts of ballot initiatives given a gravity as lucrative as whether the students prefer strawberries in the dining halls or not… or whatever. Not to give the book away, but administration didn’t care, and they didn’t do anything about it.  

And this was in a time when tuitions were low, enrollment was way less than it is today, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young could dominate a soundtrack of disruption

I was shocked at the relevance to today’s warriors of peace… Not that it was particularly edgy or bold at the time – because it was – but that the same illegal, violent tactics of suppression and dominance have only increased since then. So have the same issues that haven’t gone away. In fact, I have no idea why Kunen hasn’t been on national news broadcasts espousing his absolute disgust (and personal experience) regarding the increase in suppression and violence since writing The Strawberry Statement. 

After reading the novel, I found the film and watched that as well. The book cover espoused that a ‘new kind of film from MGM’ directed by Stuart Hagmann was on its way. It won the Cannes Jury Prize in 1970.

Full disclosure side note: I personally think Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude is the greatest film ever made. A young Bud Cort stars in both pieces. He was nominated for a Best Actor Golden Globe in 1972, as was Ruth Gordon for Best Actress. Undeniably, that year was almost impossible to shoulder into recognition competing with The French Connection, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, A Clockwork Orange, The Last Picture Show, Fiddler on the Roof, Brian’s Song, Summer of ‘42, Shaft, The Andromeda Strain, A Simple Story, MASH… I mean, bonkers films… And The Strawberry Statement saunters in amid these films that continue to be Hollywood icons even today, directed by a a relatively unknown television director with only a few motion picture credits to his name. 

The film is problematic in many ways. While Kunen’s book is encouraged to be completely torn apart and read in any order (and I would say one can, albeit in varying levels of success) as it was written, the film fails in many ways to achieve that same level of grassroots momentum. First, it is a relatively unfilmable book. The development of the movement and Kunen’s involvement in it being as patchwork as the narrative is. But what the director does is attempt to subvert the accepted modern method of filmmaking – I mean, one of the most violent moments in the book involves a movie camera – but many other directors had done much more with much less prior to 1971. The result is a cinematic pastiche that contains a lot of shots, cuts, dialogue, sets, and execution that has not only been done before with way more success, but in this case was done in a way that seems to pander to a wide-release audience that doesn’t seem to know any better. In fact, the film contains one of the worst lines delivered by one of my favorite actors of all time: 

Elliot – Coxswain : [describing a large breasted woman who looks for Simon]  Do you remember that… National Geographic you have in your back room? 

Simon : [laughs]  Yeah. 

Elliot – Coxswain : Yeah, well this one is a white version of page 43. 

Listen… Reading this book during the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020 was inspiring, but watching the film during it after feeling so inspired felt terrible. It isn’t the worst movie I have ever seen, but it is a very bad film that feels as though it is pandering and artsy in a manner that is probably the most artless way possible. Trying too hard, with too much studio money, depicting a time that was comparatively only a little difficult for white kids that are lucky enough to be going to college and their big fallutin’ rules. But there are redeeming “fuck the police” and “black lives matter” moments in the film. 

In today’s lens, the movie almost feels like a parody of the arthouse film. It’s most redeeming quality is its killer soundtrack. It opens and closes with Bruce Davidson spinning with a duffel bag on his head like a hit-you-over-the-head, culturally appropriated whirling dervish. Is it a symbol? You better believe that was the point, and the rest of the film also feels like it is hitting you over the head with similarly obvious moments and crazy camera angles that are simply too much.  

Earlier I espoused the beauty of my favorite film, Harold and Maude. Sure, it isn’t without its moments of obvious arthouse fare, but in Ashby’s work, we aren’t bludgeoned with it for the entirety of the film. A groan with the wooden sculpture, fireworks, and a quick cut of Gordon’s arm tattoo are easily forgiven with a tour of a garbage painting of “lady and the swan with egg underneath and an elephant,” an endlessly forgiving keychain of keys, and fields of daisies like tombstones set to the music of Cat Stevens. Listen, it’s there, but it is so damn beautiful that by the end you want to die a dignified death and love all you can as well as Cort and Gordon’s characters did. And I think The Strawberry Statement is trying to do this, but fails horribly. It was great seeing Davidson, Cort, Darby, Balabin, Margotta, and the author himself destroy their performances in the film – but the direction, cinematography, and editing were so heavy handed I had a hard time even getting through it. 

Kunen’s novel is a brilliant and sophisticated narrative about his personal experience during the Columbia riots he lived through firsthand. The violence of the police and administration in the book have only increased since he wrote the book over fifty years ago. The timeliness of its impact on America has only grown since he penned the book. I wish the film was as groundbreaking as it purported to be, but no matter – this book should be in the hands of every young person in America questioning the systems of oppression we have grown to accept. It is the handbook and blueprint of safely and nonviolently subverting the system, and we all deserve to finally be free of it. 

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