On the title track of his 1984 album Voice of America, the unabashedly political rocker Little Steven (aka “Miami” Steve of the E Street Band, aka Silvio Dante on The Sopranos, aka Steve Van Zandt) demanded, “Can you hear me, wake up/Where’s the voice of America?” Alas, he had little success rousing the Reagan-era silent majority against such outrages as the murders of innocents (with our help) in Chile, Argentina and Nicaragua. (Not the standard stuff of rock lyrics, which might explain why Van Zandt’s solo career was abbreviated.) Two decades later, in the midst of a disastrous and unpopular war, America’s conscience is still hibernating. This is the climate, or condition, if you prefer, that spawned Revolution Summer.
Local filmmaker Miles Matthew Montalbano’s impressionistic and bravely ambiguous debut feature, which had its world premiere in May at the S.F. International Film Festival and opens Friday at the Roxie, centers on three singles in their 20s laboring under an unseen weight. The cross Montalbano wants them to bear is the crucible of personal responsibility, a sense of moral obligation to rise up against the neo-fascists in far-off Washington who are lowering the hammer on civil liberties even in the abandoned industrial backwaters of Oakland.
This is all implied, I hasten to add; almost nothing is spelled out. Montalbano has said in interviews that he doesn’t think it’s the filmmaker’s place to offer political answers, but rather to prompt discussion. So Revolution Summer is made for a certain type of filmgoer, one who is more numerous in Paris than here. That is, someone who embraces a film as the starting point for a passionate debate and not a diversion to fill the time before a bite and bed. A moviegoer who relishes filling in the gaps and the backstory, and interpreting the behavior, the motivations and even the dialogue of the characters.
Revolution Summer revolves to a large degree around Hope (Mackenzie Firgens), a lithe, lovely woman struggling silently to find some purpose in life beyond getting wasted and hit on. Her pal Francine (Lauren Fox) can’t comprehend this existential dilemma so long as the supply of pot, whisky and attractive, scruffy men is uninterrupted. When Hope meets Frankie, a friendly, easygoing guy who has secretly joined a cell that’s planning to plant a bomb at some unnamed building, she catches a glimpse of what real political commitment looks like.
Fans of the three-act screenplay, crystal-clear motives, obvious consequences and carefully escalated tension will find Revolution Summer a frustrating experience. Montalbano doesn’t always let us know where we are, nor does he identify several of the people who cross — and derail — the main characters’ paths. What he does, though, is nail the unsettling fear of approaching 30 with no idea of what’s important or what one stands for. That’s what drives Hope and Frankie, along with the nagging feeling that complacency and inertia just don’t cut it any more.
Plenty of movies have used a woman’s biological clock or a man’s loss of friends to marriage and parenthood as catalysts for a belated maturation process. Revolution Summer makes such concerns seem shallow and banal, simply by repeated reminders that the ship of state is sinking and all hands are needed on deck. The film’s most obvious concern is the erasure of civil liberties, but it’s impossible not to also be reminded that, um, we’re in the middle of a pointless, dishonest war. Frankly, it’s remarkable to encounter that level of political consciousness in an independent film.
As much as I admire Revolution Summer for its big-picture awareness, and for having the courage of its convictions, what I’ll always remember is Mackenzie Firgens as Hope. Drifting aimlessly around her apartment, tracked by a handheld camera, looking for some opening through which she can escape her malaise and powerlessness, she is a haunting image of American privilege, beauty and soul on ice. Girl, you’re a desperado.
Revolution Summer plays Aug. 31-Sept. 6, 2007 at the Roxie New College Film Center.