Are we living in an age-reversed version of 'Wild in the Streets'?
The cult classic tells of a young rock star who dismantles the American government —just as Donald Trump and Steve Bannon may want to do.
In the 1968 film “Wild in the Streets,” the youth take over. Its hero, if you can call him that, is Max Frost (Christopher Jones), a dreamy rock star and self-described revolutionary, nobly fighting the same things — the war, prejudice, injustice, The Man — being fought when it hit drive-in and grindhouse theaters. But Max goes too far. In the back half, he becomes president. He dissolves the FBI and the Secret Service. He sets the mandatory retirement age at 30. Anyone over 35 is sent to a “re-education camp,” where they live out their days behind barbed wire, dosed 24/7 on LSD fed from water coolers.
This ludicrous “What if?” — sold, amazingly, to the very audience it was hysterically demonizing — didn’t happen, obviously. Or maybe these kids just waited 50 years to do it again, this time for real.
At some point last spring or summer — when it became clearer that Donald Trump would seize the Republican presidential ticket, when his “movement” began to be seen less like a joke, when the idea of an autocratic dictatorship started to look like a real possibility — it began to feel like we were living in “Wild in the Streets.”
By “we,” we don’t mean we felt like olds being crushed by the youngs. (Though this writer, in the world of this semi-obscurity, would have been rounded up two years back.) What we mean is that we could be trapped inside an age-reversed “Wild in the Streets,” where it's the scared old white people who are hell-bent on destroying civilization.
Hopefully that’s as hysterical a prophecy as “Wild in the Streets” was in 1968. And of course, not all old white people voted Trump, nor were his voters exclusively old and white. (Well, it nearly was.)
But whatever happens in the coming years, if not months, if not weeks or even days, it doesn’t look good. We’re probably (hopefully?) not getting re-education camps, but we might be seeing a very different, very scary new America. We’re already at a point where nobody but frazzled progressives listen to the press. Meanwhile the president’s supporters have tuned out the media and his civilian critics, taking his every un-checked lie as gospel. Fans of this dangerous, unstable, perpetually tweeting narcissist-sociopath might not even bat an eye when, let’s say, he orders a reckless, poorly planned anti-terrorist strike and gets innocent civilians and a Navy SEAL killed.
In short, we’re living in chaos, and things haven’t even gotten as bad as they could. Ask any Hillary or Bernie (or Stein) voter, if you aren’t one yourself, and they’re likely a frazzled mess — not sleeping well, pessimistic, a slave to terrifying news articles and conspiracy theories that seem questionable (or do they??). Are Trump and his maybe-secret-president Steve Bannon about to dismantle the government and start their own? Are we going to war with China or with the entire religion of Islam? Will the U.S.A. become like Putin’s kleptocratic Russia or like Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”?
Whatever it is, it feels like Trump’s “movement,” as he calls it, is a little too close to the take-no-prisoners revolution waged by Max Frost and his cohorts (including a young Richard Pryor). If we take Trump voters at their word and believe they were just concerned about economics — while charitably ignoring the dog-whistling that unlocked their bigoted, nativist, irrational sides, which had long been itching to be let out — then they could have been, at least in theory, as noble as Team Max Frost was at its start. Team Max Frost’s concerns were real and laudable: They wanted to stop a system that used the youth like cannon fodder, shipping them off and returning them in body bags. They wanted to end racial and gender discrimination. They wanted to create a new society that was free of prejudice and war and hate.
That they just happened to get carried away, bringing worse than they had suffered, betrays the filmmakers’ own reactionary beliefs. The movie stars the forgotten Christopher Jones — then famous for headlining the show “The Legend of Jesse James” — but Max’s shoes were originally to be filled by folk god Phil Ochs. He took a look at the script and turned it right down, and rightly saw it for what it was: A youth movie written by scared olds, saying thatit misrepresented the real revolution.
Ochs was right; it did. But maybe it accidentally predicted a second revolution, to come a half-century later. The people who voted for Trump may have have seen “Wild in the Streets” during its first run. Now Trump is their own Max Frost. Or it may really be Steve Bannon, who’s spoken about his dream to dismantle the government, just as Frost once did on the big screen.
This begs the question: Are the Baby Boomers the second worst generation born in the 20th century? They tried to remake America in the 1960s, in ways that were utopian, not a Max Frost hellscape. They failed. Some kept up the good fight. Many were reborn as mega-capitalists. Dennis Hopper voted for Reagan and Bush II. Now they’ve been given a second chance, only they’re fighting for the very things they once fought against. They’ve been offered, once more, the chance to blow up the world, and they’ve taken it. And they may actually blow it up this time.
"Wild in the Streets" is hard to come by, though you can buy an old DVD or stream it for a price on Amazon Prime and YouTube.