All of these films weave political commentary into narratives, making bitter protest palatable with the sweet coating of entertainment.
The shaggy dog of the three, Greendale is directed (under the pseudonym Bernard Shakey) and filmed by Neil Young using a German Super 8 underwater camera blown up to 35mm. The grainy, low-tech visuals can be amateurish at times but also fleetingly tender and poetic in their evocation of an idealized America of small-town simplicity and verdant farmland. Despite its raggedy aesthetics, the film bristles with the kind of pure, sentiment-tinged horror of a '60s generation surveying the charred and corrupt world around them, defined by corporate greed and chemical tides.
Instead of Richard Linklater's roving, cantankerous college hipsters in Slacker, Greendale features the kind of gray-haired, soul-patched but still vibrant hippies who make up communities like Woodstock, N.Y., or in this case, Young's Northern California stomping ground. The hive of the film's action is the Green family's utopian farmhouse, home to three generations of dreamy hippies. In the fictitious Greendale, chickens roam free-range, the front porch is for rocking (both of the Cracker Barrel and concert stage sort) and the Greens' idealistic 18-year-old daughter, Sun Green (Sarah White), spells out an antiwar protest in hay bales arranged on a hillside.
Grandpa Green (Ben Keith) has a long gray ponytail, thinks the only good thing on TV is "Leave It to Beaver" and sits on his front porch appealing for a world that could use "a little love and affection." Grandpa's old-timey, peaceable values are contrasted with an encroaching apocalypse symbolized by grandson Jed's (Eric Johnson) murder charge and TV news delivering images of smoke-belching factories and warfare.
All of the film's action is taken from Young's Greendale album, with characters lip-synching to the 10 songs in a succession of loosely connected vignettes. The film is freeform and often nonlinear. No clear protagonist emerges until well into the film's midpoint, when ethereal granddaughter Sun becomes an environmental activist in the tradition of real-life forest advocate Julia Butterfly Hill. The acting in Greendale, from Sun to Grandpa to the town's art dealers and police officers, depends on the expressive qualities of its amateur cast. For the most part, performances echo silent cinema's gesticulating and overdone gestures to get points across.
Aesthetics are often equally rudimentary. When characters read newspapers, the headlines obviously have been pasted in, and Grandma (Elizabeth Keith) looks wardrobed by a high school drama department, in her crocheted shawl and wire rim granny glasses.
It would be easy to dismiss Greendale as amateurishly wrought hippie propaganda (with a fair share of retro hippie gender divides). But there is a moving purity and conviction in its political message. And the grainy, homemade visuals seem well suited to the equally raw and plain style of Young's voice and lyrics, which also seek to throw out pretense in pursuit of a gravely, hard-won truth. As the film churns on and Sun Green grows more vociferous, Greendale's message becomes clear. It is not the aging hippies who should be in charge of this environmental, moral revolution, but the kids who Greendale urges out into the world to continue the fight.
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