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Country Joe & the Revolution in Chile

Friends Nº 20

December 11th. 1970

[Friends mag cover]

They're not out there every day, but most of us have seen them. The guys in the new American station-wagons. Only government people can afford new station wagons - cops these ones are, secret police. They park opposite our rambling Spanish-style villa under the trees in quiet upper-class Avenida Ricardo Lyon, while we all go about our business, arguing the rationale for a team of leftists making a revolutionary movie about revolution living in such a bourgeois house.

If they really wanted to bust the movie wide open before we've even half made it, they surely could. I mean, a large house full of long-haired, left-wing, dope-smoking Americans - who needs a warrant for that in Chile? Actually the movie company is half Chilean but that half lives in its own houses and refers to Lyon as "The Boarding House", not only because we're crammed in there and eat our communal meals at a big mess-table, but also because the personality problems of such a commune-of-necessity are pretty heavy. In fact, the secret police are probably biding their time till September 4th when the Chilean presidential elections decide just what the new line is to be toward radicals - and Americans. Meanwhile Gabriel (The Fixer) tells us when new developments threaten us - our phone's definitely being tapped, don't mention "revolutionary" things, or the black market rates on U.S. dollars, August 28th - a rumour that current president Frei is plotting with the military to stage Chile's first coup for over 30 years. Frei is a Christian Democrat and can't stand for re-election because of the constitutional limit on presidents to one 6 year term. His heir-apparent, Tomic of the Christian Democrats, is running behind both the left and right-wing candidates in the electoral stakes. (Where does Gabriel get this information? Noone asks.)

The film opens with a dramatic shot of a Brannif Airlines jet whistling to a halt at Santiago Airport. In fact this happens twice and each time we follow a different guy as he gets out and through the heavy green-coated customs cop. One is Martin Scott Bradford, whose travel paper say he's here on business, the other is Simon, a Chilean who's been in Cuba since the revolution and is returning ostensibly to help the communist-backed Unidad Popular win the election. Both of them are men with a mission - they walk that way. Dick Stahl who plays Martin, knows how to frown like an ernest liberal, and Anibal Reyna who plays Simon knows his dialectics, having once founded Chile's El Teatro Libre (Free Theatre). As they each descend the stairs on deplaning (as the hostess call it), a familiar voice ballads out their respective life-stories in a sardonic, languid tone. Country Joe McDonald is in Chile to help Saul Landau and Raul Ruiz direct and produce a revolutionary film - or is it several films uncomfortably bundled into one?

Fuck for the Revolution

Having arrived to the strains of Country Joe, Martin the CIA agent-cum-businessman and Simon the Fidelista make their respective ways to their hotel (the one and the same), and start making contacts. Martin is after Suzanne (a Peace Corps volunteer) - to get at her body as much as to check out her "disillusionment", Simon to meet Osvaldo the old-line communist and his revolutionary son Hugo. When they get it all together, several thousand feet of filmed debate ensues and one can only pity the editor and mourn for Marx that he is destined to become so much celluloid on the cutting-room floor.

[Photos © Phil Franks]

Simon from Cuba, who quit Chile when the Party refused to take to the streets after 1964's narrow election defeat, naturally gravitates toward Hugo the Mirista (urban guerilla). Suzanne, meanwhile, finds herself obliged to talk to Martin of the C.I.A. - and to justify her urge to quit the Peace Corps which she perceives is yet another agent of Empire. The election looms closer and rallies are filmed with real actors mixing it with real crowds and real politicos on stages rigged up across main streets. In the northern village of Copiapo the whole band of actors/characters/archetypes come together for a Socialist Front rally. In the furor of demonstration and counter demonstration the local (left-wing) priest is mowed down by cops - and Country Joe sings. "Actually", Joe said, as we sat in the warm comfort of a Hollywood Chinese restaurant far from the madding Chilean crowds. "I'd probably rather try to highlight the emotional involvement in the audience. I don't intend to bring anyone down - I think the priest's death is tragic and terrible and that is exactly what should be felt. I'd like to raise the audience's involvement and identification from the vicarious gut-reaction to a higher, head reaction. As I said, this movie really has a lot of dialectical dilemmas awaiting resolution."

In the excitement that follows the priest's death, Suzanne and Hugo finally get together and fuck for the revolution. Movie sex. Problem: how to get Chilean cops to play themselves in a scene where they shoot some guy to pieces, and a priest at that.

Gonna rise up angry

As Martin drives determinedly back from the village of Copiapo after the symbolically violent crisis engineered by the priest's death, the screen splits to show the advertising signs all along the road. The camera moves in on a nuts and bolts factory just outside Santiago where the workers have staged regular strikes and takeovers. A huge sign stretches right across the front of the factory proclaiming the (genuine) name of the company - AMERICAN SCREW (CHILE). On a ledge just below the sign sits Country Joe in peasant's robes singing The Ballad of Imperialism:

"Ladies and gentlemen (begins Joe as the other half of the screen follows the impassive Martin on his way to report back to Washington), this could be a heavy ballad, telling you about how imperialism is terrible, but everyone knows all that stuff so instead we'll sing you a ballad of imperialism...

What did I know of life, 

from you I was apart,
Until Imperialism came 

and stole my heart,
I took my lips, my eyes, 

my head and soul.
Without it I'd feel so alone,
Like the man I loved
And it's big and strong 
And I'm a peaceful dove
I'm gonna rise up angry
I've got them deep down, 

woebegone, suffocating, 


anti-imperialist blues!"

As Martin rendezvous with his CIA contacts, and Simon with his revolutionaries, Suzanne's dilemma reaches its peak when she is co-opted to help Hugo and his Mirista friends kidnap Martin for the cause. She realises that revolution must be fought, but that for her the fight is in the belly of the beast - back in the USA. As she desperately searches for a solution, Osvaldo and the Party put their power behind their electoral effort and Hugo is captured - just as his real-life brother was. The film nears its end.

[Photos © Phil Franks]

You choose your film

The next day was a quiet Saturday in central Santiago as the victors slept it off and the vanquished plotted their strategy.

I was lunching on white wine, chicken and the monk's harvest with the lovely Sandy Archer, her fellow star Dick Stahl (Martin in the movie), Dick's wife Katherine, Anibal (Simon in celluloid) and the cool Chilean air. We were interrupted by the arrival of two university professors from Brazil who knew Anibal - they had flown in that morning as the news spread to the faithful left of South America that they had a new home, a new hope.

That night I rushed to the airport to catch the only seat left on a plane out of Chile for weeks - the airport was packed with long-haired, cord-jacketed intellectual leftists pouring into the country jostling happily with sour-faced men in blue flannel suits and James Bond suitcases. Americans and other capitalists getting out while they still had their dollars. Allende had promised to nationalise all major industries, including Anaconda Copper, Kennecott Copper, Bethlehem Steel, International Telephone & Telegraph (ITT). Standard Electricity (owned by ITT), Standard Oil, Crown Zellerbach, Mobil Oil, Bank of America, Dow Chemical (they're everywhere), Du Pont and the First National City Bank. Not only that but he also promised to expropriate large landholdings and redistribute them as peasants' cooperatives and finally to dissolve Congress and replace it with a single-house People's Assembly!

As the camera follows Martin and Simon on board their plane to take them back to their leaders, Country Joe sings: "You have just seen an adventure film..." (20 second trailers cut montage with adventure music)... "A film about romance..." (a love-scene trailer of the sexiest cuts from the film)... "A great war film about the greatest war of all times: Latin America at war..." (shot of guerillas, demonstrations, the shooting of the priest)... "A true-life documentary about under development..." (shots of poblacions, tent-villages, poverty and filth).

As the picture fades a box appears on the screen with each of these alternatives in a separate column, and a notice asks you to choose your film.

Text: © 1970 Phillip Frazer
Photos: © 1970 - 2022 Phil Franks

re-typed from Friends by Lola

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