The mission of The Department of Afro-American Research Arts and Culture to identify the global significance of the creative contributions pioneered by an international diaspora of Blackness
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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Ghetto Freaks [a.k.a. Love Commune, Sign of Aquarius] (1970)


  • Toni Ceo
  • Jim Coursar
  • Paul Elliot
  • Nick Kleinholz III
In the strange and fascinating world of trash cinema, sometimes you stumble on a real gem. A dear friend gave us the Something Weird double bill DVD GHETTO FREAKS plus WAY OUT for Xmas, and a more thoughtful gift one cannot imagine.

GHETTO FREAKS is apparently a slapdash retitling of the 1970 film, LOVE COMMUNE (itself a retitle of SIGN OF AQUARIUS), with two minutes of ridiculous additional footage thrown in. But don't let the sexploitation angle of the marketing fool you: LOVE COMMUNE is a real winner, a unique combo of trash melodrama and frank neo-realism.

First of all, LOVE COMMUNE is a full-fledged narrative feature, in a genre which often offered quasi-documentaries and plot less sexual escapades and patchwork stock footage montages any anything they could find in order to fill an hour.

No, here we have a lurid yet coherent, and quite touching, melodrama about a gaggle of "Love Children" living in drab Cleveland, Ohio (!), tangling with "the fuzz", "the mob" and each other in a most believable way. And although scruffy in the extreme, the intelligent screenplay and impressive camera-work reveal this was not a micro-budget wonder, but a medium-budgeted attempt at a populist potboiler that, like so many others, got lost in the trash film ghetto.

The film starts off on a high-concept high note, as squares groan into camera about how awful Hippies are, and one of the dreaded Hippies then walks up to the camera and flips the finger, which he then turns into a peace sign. The film's mood and philosophy changes from hate to love in one breathtaking shot.

The thing that is refreshing here is that the "Hippies" are portrayed as benevolent, piece-loving slackers (though not without a penchant for begging and scamming squares). In general, they are the heroes of the piece, atypical of much exploitation cinema of the period. The "fuzz", for the most part, are fascist goons who harass the gang primarily for prejudicial thrills rather than any actual law-breaking.

One amazing sequence, which for my money catapults this dear film right into art-film territory, involves the gang standing on a busy city street corner, engaging the passerby by handing out an underground newspaper and begging for money in return. This amazing scene, with some intricate and incisive editing, starts off looking highly predictable, as old farts and squares rush by, scowling and name-calling. Then we see an old woman, and later, a young black girl, actually stopping to talk to the freaks, and listening earnestly to their spiel. We then realize with amazement that this scene was likely IMPROVISED on the spot, and the passerby are being caught unawares, ala CANDID CAMERA! This scene, an incredible cinema-verite time capsule of cultural anthropology where one might least expect it, alone marks LOVE COMMUNE as "cult classic".

Another "heavy" touch in this somewhat serious film is the sobering fact that we are watching something fairly rare in the documentation of the Hippie movement: the scenario takes place in WINTER, in deep snow. Thus, seeing the gang standing around, in the park or on the street, covered in rags and virtually freezing to death, has a rare poignancy not seen in the typical Hippie treatise, which always seems to portray them on a sunny summer's day… Indeed, the harsh living conditions in which the Hippies live begs the existential question: how do peace lovers who eschew the working world SURVIVE in a hostile environment? This is a question not easily answered, and indeed is one of the harsh realities which likely led to the movement's mercurial demise. It is odd that "throwaway" films like LOVE COMMUNE sometimes address the "hard" issues more clearly than most "legit" attempts on the same subject.

But even after all this, the melodrama's the thing, and LOVE COMMUNE has a terrific, over-the-top storyline. The Hippies are busted by the cops, and spend some time in a terribly dreary real-life jail cell. The Hippies fight amongst themselves, and try to come up with ways to make money without aiding "the man". There's also a subplot about gangsters trying to horn in on the drug scene in town, an uneasy alliance which ends tragically.

Another terrific plot line follows a black guy (indescribably named "Mousey") as he tries to teach "Whitey" how to behave. He is prejudicially treated, of course, and virtually martyred at one point, but portrays the Afro-American experience of that moment in time with clarity and bravado.

The acting, in good B-movie tradition, is terrifically bad, and gives the film its wonderful lurid underpinning. Lead Hippie "Sonny", especially, looks way too old to be playing the part, and in addition utters his lines with god-awful acting-school hamminess, making him a true caricature.

And last but not least: SEX & DRUG ORGIES! Yes, this film has it all, including a stoned orgy that looks, at times, almost TOO realistic. Freak-outs and gang sex and lest we forget, BAD FAUX-ROCK MUSIC. Indeed, LOVE COMMUNE shows the entire Hippie catalog of activity and perspective with an incredible range of frankness: warts and all, as it were. And folks, there's some BIG warts! From the stagy acting to the surprisingly competent camera-work to the thrilling milieu to the wild party scenes to the stunning high-art moments, LOVE COMMUNE is an essential and impressive document of an amazing moment in time, and a heck of a lurid thrill ride to boot. (And don't forget, BAD FAUX-ROCK MUSIC.) (The GHETTO FREAKS print has about two minutes of ridiculous footage snuck into the orgy sequence, in which a black dude and his cute dudettes pray and moan and gesticulate in front of a makeshift alter, in what might be called somebody's idea of a Black Panther's midnight sex-and-blood ritual! Weird as hell, and pointless. And perfect.)