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  Top of the Heap Life's Hard And Then You're Fly
Year: 1972
Director: Christopher St. John
Stars: Christopher St. John, Paula Kelly, Florence St. Peter, Leonard Kuras, John Alderson, Patrick McVey, Allen Garfield, Ingeborg Sørensen, Ron Douglas, John McMurtry, Damu King, Ji-Tu Cumbuka, Brian Cutler, Jerry Jones, Willie Harris, Almeria Quinn
Genre: Drama, Thriller, WeirdoBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: Officer George Latimer (Christopher St. John) is hurtling towards a crisis in his mind. For a start, his mother died recently, which has sent him into a turmoil, but there are other things that have been bubbling up in his thoughts that render his days something of an ordeal, not least because as a cop, his job is not allowing him any respect. He has been passed over for promotion too many times to be a coincidence, and as an African American he is accused of letting down his race over and over in a community that regards the police as the enemy. To add to that, his daughter has hit puberty and brought with that a whole host of issues, including underage sex and possible dealings with drugs. What is a man to do?

Christopher St. John's claim to fame in 1972, when this, his directorial debut, was released, was that he had played the leader of the black power activists in that groundbreaking detective movie Shaft, out the year before this. Someone must have been impressed with him there as he got the chance not simply to direct his pet project, but write and produce it into the bargain, as proudly announced in the opening titles which constituted a freeze frame of him looking suitably heroic as his character is about to wade into a riot. A riot that while chaotic, appears to be a fight between hippy protestors and construction workers that included a tearing up of an American flag, an image he returned to.

Indeed, the flag and all it represented was very much on St John's mind, on this evidence at any rate, as he introduced it to a collection of shots which brought into question his personal place in the nation, as well as that of those of his race. If this is sounding rather dry, then there was another, parallel story to Latimer's anguish, which was either his fantasies or really happening in another dimension where his counterpart was an astronaut, among the three-man team about to be the first on the Moon. Yet these sequences were frequently surreal, as if wish fulfilment were clashing with harsh reality and conjuring up a jumble of conflicting emotions, so we see Latimer in his suit on the satellite, then it is farcically revealed to be on a sound stage in a studio.

Either the director had recently seen a certain, unexplained scene in Diamonds are Forever, or he had begun to read a bunch of conspiracy literature, and the movement to disprove the fact that mankind had made the Moon visit had started earlier than often supposed. Whatever, that cynicism, that jaded rejection of the truth in favour of a surly belief system where little was to be trusted outside of your own experience which may be far from reliable was part and parcel of the astronaut sequences, but there was a hint at comedy too when for example spaceman George takes out a joint in the middle of a press interview and begins smoking it, or when he has escaped a capsule that exploded a minute before thanks to a disembodied voice telling him to "Get out of the machine!" and he is in a hospital room that sees him catered for in a sexual manner by the nurse (a former Miss Norway).

Back in this dimension, Latimer is trying to juggle his hectoring home life with his working environment, both of which have him insulted at every turn and seriously doubting his worth and vocation. He also has a mistress, played by Paula Kelly but not given the benefit of a name (she's merely credited as playing "Black Chick"), who he would love to run away with until the implications of that dream intrude and serve to ruin that fantasy as well; plus the other fantasy where he and his mistress run through a forest naked and smash up a watermelon to rub all over their bodies. Whatever turns you on, man. This was all painfully sincere, which kind of took the ridiculous edge off what was blatantly a deeply personal statement, but there was so much here that was absurd purely because of that single-minded vision it kept you watching to see what St. John would come up with next. What he actually came up with were a smattering of acting roles and a belated second film, a documentary about his experiences in a controversial cult in India. Quite a life. Funky music by J.J. Johnson.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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