DRIVE, HE SAID (Jack Nicholson, 1971)

The mascot of the Leopards, a college basketball team, is a necessarily caged leopard. An early shot of this creature at a game in Drive, He Said impresses its confinement upon us; later, when he fails in his attempts to sidestep the military draft during the Vietnam War, disaffected Gabriel crashes the laboratory on campus in which animals are being experimented on and releases them from their tight prisons, impressing upon us the freedom that this boy feels is being snatched away from him. It is, I suppose, a set-piece; it is also poignant and devastating.
     Drive, He Said was actor Jack Nicholson’s directorial debut. It is based on presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy-speechwriter and peace activist Jeremy Larner’s 1964 novel, which he, Nicholson, Robert Towne and Terrence Malick adapted. (Larner won an Oscar for writing the original script for 1972’s The Candidate.) Michael Margotta’s abrasive Gabriel, team star Hector’s roommate, is more or less a younger, more anarchic Nicholson-surrogate. It’s a terrific performance—although William Tepper’s lead performance, as Hector, is considerably less of an asset.
     The film is episodic; detractors have found it “disorganized” and called “meaningless” the relationships among its characters. Yet all of this struck us who loved the film forty years ago as absolutely accurate in depicting our moment of time, and indeed more than nostalgia today pegs Drive, He Said as one of the sharpest articulations of counterculture protest in the U.S. Nicholson’s film is rich and raw, not hollow, self-pitying and facile like Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969), in which actor Nicholson is himself not all that convincing.
     Something else exalts Drive, He Said: it is invested with Nicholson’s love of basketball, which includes the application of slow motion to bring forth the erotic measure of a ball caressing a hoop before falling in. (Heavens, Jack!) Some feel, incidentally, that Bruce Dern (best supporting actor, National Society of Film Critics) distinguished himself as the Leopards’ tense coach.
     The title comes from “I Know a Man,” which poet Robert Creeley wrote in the mid-’50s but which drew wide attention after its inclusion in the 1962 volume For Love. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass has called it “the poem of [its] decade,” but I’ve always considered it an “easy ride” by (at his best) a brilliant poet, a poem that a little too pretentiously pricks pretentiousness:

As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking, – John, I

sd, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what

can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,

drive, he sd, for
christ’s sake, look
out where yr going.

By looking back at Nicholson’s worthy film perhaps we can better judge whether we had anyplace to go.

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