Tonight's film: Ghetto Freaks (1970)
(preceded by trailers for The Pusher and The Hard Road)
It was an unusually cold night at The Third Floor Drive-In ® . We were shivering in our blankets, quivering while sipping coffee as Ghetto Freaks unspooled. As it turns out, the conditions couldn't have been more appropriate to view such a film. This hippie exploitation avoids the usual locations of sunny California in the "summer of love", and displaces the action to wintertime in Cleveland as these long-haired kids hand out pamphlets on the streets while freezing to death. The production history of this movie is as interesting as the onscreen shenanigans. This was originally titled Love Commune (and far more accurately at that), but it was re-released as Ghetto Freaks with two minutes of a silly hippie cult initiation scene, in which the African-American member of the commune . It was directed and co-written by Robert J. Emery, perhaps better-known for his later string of Florida-produced exploitation (Ride In a Pink Car was in an earlier season of The Third Floor Drive-In ® .
By the time of its release, there had been many films made about the counterculture, yet this one is one of the best-- both an exaggerated caricature and plain presentation of the hippie movement. Witnessing the sex orgy scene (with anamorphic lenses, great bad rock music and well-endowed flower children) might make you want to tune in, turn off and drop out too, but otherwise shows that hippie life isn't the soft-focus Utopia evoked by Laszlo Kovacs' lens in Psych-Out. These long-haired kids are constantly harassed by fascist cops (reminding us once and for all about the turmoil of the decade not recalled in K-Tel compilations), get bugged by gangsters wanting to push their drug cartel into the scene, and eke out a living hustling underground newspapers on the street. All fifteen of them live in one apartment, and are led by a guru named Sonny, who looks twenty years older than he ought to be (but didn't they all, in these hippie flicks?). In one amusing scene, all the kids get on one bus with the same bus pass that is circulated by handing it out the window to the next person to board the vehicle-- doesn't the bus driver notice? Among the vague linear threads of this fascinating time capsule is the burgeoning yet tragic relationship between Sonny and the newest commune member Diane, a runaway from her upper-class but ultra-conservative upbringing.
Ghetto Freaks is an interesting contradiction. On the surface it attempts to be a gritty expose, and largely succeeds thanks to Paul Rubinstein's docu-like photography (the numerous street scenes seem off-the-cuff) and the likely improvised, overlapping dialogue between the pothead protagonists. But no film with such an overlong drug-trip sex-orgy sequence can be taken as "the real thing", and it also has a strange Brechtian device a la Godard, where in one protest sequence, a film crew is clearly in view. What at first seems to be a mistake occurs again after the shocking finale- actors and crew stand around movie lights at the previous location while the credits roll, as if to say "up yours", much like the early scene where a hippie gives the viewer the peace sign and the finger in a single shot.
Are we to presume that the movie was just a big put-on? Ghetto Freaks thusly (and perhaps carelessly) raises more confusions than conclusions, but only makes this flick more thought-provoking than was intended. The cameras finally become turned upon the viewer forcing one to consider how we as a society have been portraying the movement in media. I'd be interested to know what -if any- response this perplexing picture received in its theatrical runs. People probably just wanted some sex and drugs, which it does deliver, plus a whole lot more bang for their bong.
View the groovy trailer for Ghetto Freaks here: