"History is philosophy teaching by example." (Lord Bolingbroke)

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Sunday, May 28, 2006

"The Celluloid Time Capsule"

The hippie-burnout drama "Cisco Pike" is a movie in which the optimism of the 1960s slips into the disappointing loneliness that Los Angeles can cultivate like no other city.

It is a cruel irony, then, that the 1972 film sank without a trace upon its release, so concerned is its hero's need for recognition and reward. Although both a Marvel Comics character and a Chicago indie-rock band have taken the name Cisco Pike, the film— despite unforgettable performances by Kris Kristofferson in the title role, Gene Hackman, Karen Black and Harry Dean Stanton—has never had enough exposure to become known even as a cult classic.

It struggled for its audience from the beginning: Bill L. Norton, a 27-year-old filmmaker, first pitched the story (original title: "Dealer") in 1969 to Columbia exec Gerald Ayres, who then left the studio to produce it. After countless rewrites and last-minute cast changes, the film was shot on location (for less than $800,000, with the smallest Hollywood crew Columbia had ever used) in late 1970 and early 1971. And then . . . nothing.

While Columbia sat on the picture, Gene Hackman's star-making turn in "The French Connection" was filmed and released to theaters, and magazines such as Seventeen went ahead and published what were supposed to be tie-in profiles of Kristofferson. It was released to one theater in Los Angeles, where it played for several weeks before closing. Norton couldn't get work as a director until "More American Graffiti" in 1979. In the '80s, the late Z Channel head Jerry Harvey, who had resuscitated interest in other mishandled releases such as "Heaven's Gate" and "Once Upon a Time in America," was unable to persuade Columbia to license the rights for broadcast. Never officially available on VHS, "Cisco Pike" has nonetheless circulated on bootleg videotapes, and has occasionally surfaced in various "great lost films" series at revival theaters.

It was finally released on DVD this year to little fanfare—so little that Norton didn't know of the release until I contacted him. In a final indignity, the packaging was adorned with this supremely backhanded compliment from critic Leonard Maltin: "Surprisingly Good."

But "Cisco Pike" is much more than that: It belongs in a pantheon of films—along with "Sunset Boulevard," "Mi Vida Loca" and "Valley Girl"—that have managed to capture in-the-moment pieces of the L.A. landscape that are no more.

Read the rest.


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