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The Celluloid Time Capsule

The forgotten film `Cisco Pike' preserved '70s-era L.A. in the equivalent of amber. Now that it's out on DVD, sean howe says it's time to take a closer look to see how much has changed.

May 28, 2006|Sean Howe

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.

Kristofferson's character, Cisco Pike, can't accept that his 1966 song "Breakdown" will stand as his only hit. Now he sends out demo tapes, collects rejections and bitterly corrects music-biz slicksters about the trivia of his distant career:

"I saw you guys at the Forum in, what was it, '68?"

"The Shrine '67."

What everybody does agree on is that Pike is good at dealing drugs. But a recent bust and the pleas of his girlfriend Sue (Karen Black) have nudged him to quit.

Enter Sgt. Leo Holland (Hackman), a narcotics officer whose health concerns and pension dissatisfaction drive him to a cannabis-unloading scheme: If Cisco sells $10,000 worth of Holland's 100 seized kilos in 59 hours, Holland will help get Cisco off on a technicality--and Cisco can keep whatever is left after Holland gets his money. Along the way, Cisco runs into reminders of his longed-for past, such as Rex (Doug Sahm), a former record-chart peer who is still a success, and Jesse Dupre (Harry Dean Stanton), a junkie and former bandmate who has left his wife and children to return to L.A. Added to this is the indignity of making drug deals at recording studios and a rock club where he used to play. Even rival dealer Buffalo (Antonio Fargas), whose gaudy jewelry and scepter (adorned with the head of an African king) anticipate the blaxploitation aesthetic, rubs salt in the wounds: "What happened? I thought you could make a million dollars in the record business a couple of years ago.Now you broke. Ain't that a bitch!"

But it's a sense of place, rather than plot, that makes "Cisco Pike" special. How better to depict the fallen musician's drought of luck than by opening on him, guitar case in hand, walking on broken sidewalks past the murky canals of rundown Venice?

With its focus on neighborhood hangouts and desperate meet-ups, rather than the freedom of the highways, "Cisco Pike" literally stays at street level. And so we're treated to a look beyond the postindustrial transformation that was underway in the city--1970 was, after all, the year that Joan Didion's Maria Wyeth indulged her freeway-driving addiction in "Play It as It Lays." Within two years, the Riverside, San Gabriel, Ventura, Orange and Antelope freeways also would be completed.

Although there are plenty of generic locations befitting the rootless anonymity of Los Angeles--a hotel entrance, a strip club, a studio sound stage, an abandoned parking lot--Cisco Pike's Los Angeles has a specificity that's rare for films of its era.

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