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.

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