Thursday, February 16, 2012

ANTICIPATING BILLY JACK AND JEAN

Billy Jack
 Stars: Five of five.
    Here is how I began an article about the use of art as propaganda. I started writing the article ten years ago and published it sometime last year.



    In 1971 a group of film students wrote, directed, produced and acted in a movie called Billy Jack. The film, which starred Tom Laughlin and Dolores Taylor, was dependent for approval first upon the pre-existing politics of the viewer and second upon that viewer's decision about the acceptable means of achieving political change. Naive and simplistic, Billy Jack was also brash, daring, and quite accurate in its message that pacifists exist at the mercy of emotional heathens. And emotional heathens have a history of being unmerciful.


Billy: You worked with King. Where is he?
Jean: Dead.
Billy: And where are Jack and Bobby Kennedy?
Jean: Dead.
Billy: Not dead. They had their brains blown out.


    The significance of this movie should not be underestimated. Not many films released in the USA have suggested that the Allies lost World War II or that the government's government is none too benignly fascist or that it is not only appropriate but even urgent to defend the country against that government. The film makes the choices simple. The man v. man conflicts are (a) oppressed native Americans versus reactionary WASPs, (b) communal dwellers versus urban despot, (c) youth versus aged, (d) poor versus rich, (e) free versus neurotic, and (f) good versus evil. At the time, those who enjoyed the film saw it as an inspirational work that gave hope to those opposed to the status quo. Today, such a film would be considered inspired propaganda, even by those who agree with its central themes, just as today such once revolutionary philosophies have been co-opted and perverted by right wing separatists who find safe havens in Idaho and Montana.


    While I stand by every word of that, I feel the need to add a few items and one of the perks of this blog (perks for me, at any rate) is that I can add or subtract at my leisure, all in the pursuit of providing you, Constant Reader, with the best I have to offer.
    I never got around to mentioning in all twenty-thousand words of that article [Shooting Oswald] why the writer, director and star of that film, Tom Laughlin, deserves to be held in the high esteem that he is among those of us--mostly those of us of a certain age, admittedly--who credit the man with shaking us up in that most sacred of temples, the movie theater. There we were, sitting in our respective sanctuaries, glued to our seats as we watched the character of Billy Jack suggest to us that our own programming was a bunch of shit. You see, we had been led to believe that we pretty much had to take it: the war in Southeast Asia, the deaths at Kent State, the corruption of our political system, the inherent contradictions of our economic system, the abuse of our children, race hate, greed, on so on. Certainly some riots had exploded and not all those explosions had been peaceful. But for the most part we had convinced ourselves that we didn't fight back. Well, the character Billy Jack fought back. The difference was that he didn't take a stand for himself. He took a stand for others, specifically for the kids at "The Freedom School." He was not going to stand passively/pacifistic-ally by and let Jean and the children be abused. 
    Even though smart critics such as Roger Ebert (who actually had many good things to say about Billy Jack) raised the point that the film forced viewers to choose between "bad fascists and good fascists), that argument is mostly ridiculous, at least as far as film criticism is concerned. The choice is a hard political reality within the world constructed in that film and to the extent that the film reconstructed the world outside the theater. "It's a little one-sided," says one of the councilmen in the movie, giving his reaction to a skit put on during the film. Howard Hesseman, as one of the players, responds that "Kids see things one-sided." He's correct. The difference is that here the kids point of view is given voice, and by "kid" I mean children, women, Native Americans, and anybody else who has less power than the mayor of your town. 
    Tom Laughlin may or may not make a long-awaited sequel as part of his Billy Jack franchise (the other movies being The Born Losers, The Trial of Billy Jack and the unreleased Billy Jack Goes to Washington). His health is a possible factor and, let's face it, the role of politics in the movie industry is just as real today as ever, and there's even the suggestion that Laughlin's occasional vitriol against the motion picture industry has done nothing to endear him to certain investors. Still, Billy Jack and Jean, if it is released, stands a good chance of being the life-changer that it's namesake was so many years ago. Either way, we owe a debt of thanks to Tom--and to his wife Delores Taylor (since 1954!)--for showing us one way to stay strong against the emotional as well as psychic erosion of our morality. 




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