27 March 2008


David Hoffman’s film, Sputnik Mania, has a lot to say about the collective American psyche, but does so without being heavy handed. By interpreting the narrative that it constructs, and the roles that America plays in that narrative, the viewer understands why the space race was so important to Americans. Though, the visual metaphor of phalluses being launched into the stratosphere over and over again may be more than enough explanation.

In the beginning of the film, America is represented as a geeky adolescent, whose first rocket explodes before leaving its launch pad. America’s first satellite is also criticized for weighing only thirty lbs. while the Sputnik weighed eighty. But the story of the geek’s triumph over the bully through smarts is the obvious trajectory for the film—one that it subverts in the end. Unfortunately for America, it is not quite the lovable, innocent geek you might expect from The Mighty Ducks etc. As the film shows, America had little sympathy in the eyes of the rest of the world, due to coverage of racist protests at Southern schools after Brown vs Board of Education, the decision reached three years before the launch of Sputnik. One archival film of three young, white and attractive female students trying to give rational reasons why blacks should not be allowed in their schools, was particularly disturbing. So America seems more like the kind of geek that grows up, founds a multi-million dollar software company, but is still an asshole. Russia on the other hand is portrayed as a big, silent bully, and stock footage of Khrushchev only adds to the effect, not to mention the part where they send a dog into space to die.

Dwight D. Eisenhower’s speech in which he warns Americans about the “military industrial complex,” appears in just about every political documentary that comes out these days, but in Sputnik Mania, which uses Eisenhower as its protagonist, the speech is absent, though not irrelevant. The film follows the decision making process of Eisenhower, who is pressured more and more to escalate funding and research due to fear of attack from Russian satellites. Both the military and put pressure Eisenhower, while the country experienced mass fear and paranoia. Eisenhower resisted at first, reluctant to give Russia a reason to expand their arms productions, then acquiesced to the demands of the military, giving them the funding to build the first successful rocket. But in the end, he took the responsibility away from the military and put in the hands of civilians through NASA, a truly astute move, which makes one cringe when thinking about all the presidents that have followed him, other than Carter, and I guess Ford.

On a cynical note, you can’t help but think that given control over space travel, the military would have taken it much further than NASA has, given the string of failures and bad press that has plagued NASA for as long as I can remember.

According to Elena, potential reasons not to see this film are a) you’re not American, and b) you’re a girl. She slept through a lot of it, and when I made a lot of jokes about rockets and penises afterward she said, “No wonder I was bored.”

In relationship to other documentaries reviewed on this blog, Sputnik Mania is an interesting example of a work that has no political vision, it's simply a good story. If anything, its slant is promoting peace and the pursuit of science of nuclear holocaust and irrational fear. So the film is really more about making art and telling a story than it is about trying to get across a political message, or inspire political action. And admittedly, it was a little boring. No conspiracy, or corruption, scandals. But it is an astute approach to a bizarre time in American history that has become romanticized, and sort of a worthy homage to Eisenhower.

25 March 2008

Remembering Chicago

I had never heard of the Chicago Ten, or Seven, or Eight, before seeing Brett Morgen’s documentary Chicago 10. In many ways, the film serves as a commemoration of a seemingly insignificant event that occurred during the civil rights and Vietnam protest era of the 60s and 70s, a time that American culture and politics, in Morgen’s view, seem unable to get past. Chicago 10 makes no explicit attempt to compare its subject with the current political climate, and thus implicitly acknowledges both the insignificance of the Chicago Seven and the superficiality of its revolutionary goals.

Abbie Hoffman, the most recognizable of the Chicago Seven, is the unannounced centerpiece of the film. Most of the video footage and sound recordings come from his conversations and public appearances. His personality embodies the spirit of the “Yippies”—the Youth International Party—and he is most often their spokesman. It is his light-heartedness, irreverence and critical nature that the film, and his movement, romanticizes.

At several points in the film, Hoffman refers to the theatricality behind both the establishment and the protests themselves. (That Sacha Baron Cohen is reported to be cast as Hoffman in an Aaron Sorkin and Steven Spielberg film in development is too ironic to even begin to comprehend). Theatricality played a big part in his protests and political message. He once organized a fifty-thousand member demonstration where demonstrators attempted to use their psychic energy to levitate the Pentagon. His long, wild black hair and large nose made his appearance distinguishable. But, as an activist and intellectual, Hoffman made little if any impact in the actual practice of American law making or politics.

One statement that Hoffman makes did resonate with me. Early on in the film, as the demonstration at the 1968 Democratic National Convention is beginning, Hoffman claims that the revolution will not happen through radical changes in law or government, but through changing the attitudes of the constituency in American by setting examples through a certain way of life, presumably one that promotes peace, equality and goodwill. I think this has a lot of power as an idea, but in my opinion, Hoffman was unable to make that ideal a reality, even for himself.

Brett Morgen presents a one-sided view of Hoffman as a martyr and charismatic leader for the anti-war cause. Given that he was dealing with a figure that relied on theatricality over political insight, his documentary did not have much of an opportunity to make significant political commentary, and might have done better to present a more comprehensive portrait of Hoffman the character—or, alternatively, a more complete history of the political climate at the time. Despite this limitation, Morgen is successful in making a relatively uninteresting story into a pretty compelling drama.

When I heard there was a political documentary that used animation I couldn’t believe it. My two favorite things in one film! Which only made it that much more disappointing. The trial scene uses what looks like rotoscoping—a method of animation popularized by Richard Linklater—poorly executed. The characters, other than Judge Julius Hoffman, who I loved, were anatomically simplistic and inaccurate, making those scenes difficult to watch. The choice to use such a stylized form of animation was ultimately a bad one. Two of the more tasteless points in the film were the use of rotoscoped characters in black and white stock footage, and the overlay of a Rage Against the Machine song with stock footage of a concert that featured a white classic rock band in hippie costumes.

Though it picks up at the end, the first hour and half of the film only hints at storytelling—which leaves only twenty minutes at the end. The film does not employ narration, so the viewer is expected to make all the connections between given dates, stock footage and animated sequences to construct the story of the Chicago Seven, and the narrative of the film. Unfortunately, Morgen’s editing is not up to the task, made especially difficult by his lack of a focused argument or political goal. Some of the stock footage is very compelling, as are certain animated sequences, but the collage of the two does not achieve a unified vision. The story of the trial that Morgen tells does not serve as compelling counterpoint to the riots and demonstrations he chose to include.

But Morgen’s craft is not the main culprit in his failure. Instead, it his subject. As a protagonist and martyr, Abbie Hoffman is simply not compelling. His lack of substance and hippified anti-war, anti-establishment positions make him a stereotype and jester of the 60s peace movement, and the rest of the Chicago Seven are even more lacking in personality. After the trial, Jerry Rubin went on to become a business man and entrepreneur, investing in companies like Apple computers. David Dellinger continued to work as a peace advocate. Tom Hayden was an author and unsuccessful mainstream politician. Rennie Davis became the founder of the Foundation for New Humanity, a venture capital company the specializes in new technology, and a followed of Guru Maharaj Ji, of the Divine Light Mission. John Froines is a professor at the UCLA school of Public Health. Lee Weiner continued a career of social activism, but has been relatively quiet. Even Bobby Seale moved away from activism, and in 1987 wrote a book called Barbequing with Bobby. Hoffman committed suicide in 1989 by overdosing on pills. After being arrested on drug charges in 1973, five years after the Chicago Seven trial, Hoffman skipped out on his bail and hid from authorities for several years, continuing his writing and activism.

One of the more effective segments in the film is the silencing and oppression of Bobby Seale—who would make a more compelling protagonist than Hoffman—in the courtroom by Judge Hoffman and the guards. This realistic portrayal of the judge’s overt racism is difficult to watch. Unfortunately Seale’s story is never resolved, other than during the end title where the viewer learns that he was acquitted of all charges after two years in jail. This is most likely due to Seale’s loose affiliation with the rest of the Chicago Seven—the title ‘Seven’ actually excludes Seale—who was eventually dropped from the group of defendants. In the animated courtroom scenes, Seale is silenced because he wants to represent himself, and is very outspoken about the denial his constitutional rights, eventually being bound to his chair with tape over his mouth. His own lawyer was apparently out of the country at the time of the trial and Seale refused representation from William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass, who represented the rest of the Chicago Seven. But Seale’s position as a Black Panther, and his activist work is inconsequential to the rest of the film, and his abuse by the judge and court officials serves more to characterize—or demonize—Judge Hoffman, and the establishment. The presence of blackness, though comprising only a few instances, discredits Hoffman and the Yippies entirely.

In a rare moment of unbiased journalism, Morgen shows a clip, about two-thirds of the way through the film, of a group of black Chicago residents, who are not taking part of the protest. In the stock footage, an interviewer asks a young black girl what she thinks of the protestors. “I don’t really care if they get hurt,” she says. In the footage of the protests in the park, there are few if any non-white protestors, despite the diversity of cultural symbolism and dress that is represented.

Chicago, a city known for its racial tensions, is not the real focus of the film, nor even the residence of the Chicago Seven. The only charge any members of that group—comprised of educated white men—were found guilty of was crossing state borders with the intention to riot. Hoffman scoffs at the allegation, dismissing the court’s ruling as absurd. “We’re being tried for our thoughts,” he told people on the streets of Chicago. “Do you think you should be put in jail because of what you think, or how your hair looks?” he asks an old woman. The statements underline Hoffman’s fundamental problem. His activism and anti-war position is based on a trend—one that combines style and ideology. He is as opposed to the manners and style of the establishment, and their condemnation of his own, as he is to their ideas—ideas which, at least in Chicago 10, he rarely talks about.

sort of related note:
Hoffman reminds me of Ganesh, the protagonist of V. S. Naipaul’s The Mystic Masseur, as a white man in America. In the novel, Ganesh adopts a phony Hindu spiritualist persona when he realizes that people will pay him large amounts for his services. It is the authenticity of his performance, which includes not asking for money at all, that attracts people to him, and thus his ethnic identity becomes capital. Hoffman’s appeal is based more on his presentation of an alternative to the establishment than on his writing or philosophy. For him, image and philosophy are inseparably mixed, but his commitment to this practice seems to have made it impossible for him to move on from the events in 1968. Ganesh, on the other hand, did eventually become the official pundit for his people at the novel’s conclusion.

19 March 2008

Berlin: 14

I started Jason Lutes' Berlin at issue 11, and then went back through the rest of them. I just finished 14, and it's getting pretty hard to keep track of what's going on. It's a weird story, there are a ton of characters and threads, some issues end with cliff hangers, some end with non sequiturs. The main threads are fascinating, and everything is underlined with the political tension in Berlin that surrounded the years of the Wiemar Republic and the rise of the Third Reich. When I first started reading it I found myself asking, "Why the hell did he want to write this?" and I'm not sure I'm any more able to answer that question at this point, but there is something incredibly shrewd and impressive about the book. Berlin is more interested in history than politics, and presents as even handed approach to the time period as one could imagine. Lutes also provides links to reference materials on his website. I love that a "cartoonist" is infinitely more researched and journalistic in his approach to a comic book than the makers of the "documentary" reviewed in the previous post.

Issue 15 comes out this month, and though the end of 14 left me pretty confused, I'll be looking forward to the next installment.

PS. While writing this post, I was watching The Bourne Identity, which I'd never seen, on a movie channel that my parents were getting for free for some reason, but it crapped out when it seemed like it was getting to the climactic scene. Fuck.

13 March 2008

The Spirit of the Times

It’s telling that Dylan Avery started writing his popular 9/11 conspiracy film, Loose Change, as a novel, but instead turned it into a documentary. The film, besides having relatively clean graphics and video editing, stands out among other web-based conspiracy movies because of the strength of its narrative. It resembles mainstream political documentaries like Fahrenheit 9/11, and it strings together apparently legitimate sources into a compelling story that seamlessly explains the US government involvement in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Despite the vast amount of criticism debunking the theory, the DVD has sold fifty thousand copies, and the film has been viewed online over ten million times, even eliciting a response from the U.S. State Department. However, there has been little critical attention paid to the filmmaking itself.

Loose Change has spawned an abundance of YouTube videos that support, deny, or provide alternatives to its arguments about 9/11. The most recent film to gain similar web popularity, though almost no attention from the mainstream media, is Zeitgeist, a three-part attack on what it claims as the pillars of the American establishment: Christianity, the 9/11 conspiracy, and the Federal Reserve bank. Despite the lofty ambitions of the two-hour film, it appears to be successful, as its creators claim, somewhat dubiously, 2.1 million views per month on Zeitgeist’s website. I first heard of the film from a friend and Google employee, who last year lost one hundred dollars in a bet that the film would change his thinking.

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