Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Chicago 10 (PBS, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film Charles and I were both anxious to see at the library (we met there, with he arriving after work) was Chicago 10, a marvelous movie by director/writer Brett Morgen reconstructing both the police riot during the Democratic National Convention and the MOBE/Yippie attempts to protest it in August 1968 and the conspiracy trial against eight of the organizers and activists in Chicago between October 1969 and January 1970. I have vivid memories of both events — the Chicago riots as they were shown on TV at the time (simultaneously with the riots in Prague protesting the Soviet invasion and occupation of Czechoslovakia that ended the “Prague spring” — which looked so similar that until the newscasters explained which was which it was hard to tell the two apart, something I commented on myself by singing “Chiprago” to the melody of Fred Fisher’s famous song and one of the protesters noted by carrying a sign reading, “Welcome to Prague,” shown in the film) and the conspiracy trial (since cameras weren’t allowed into the courtroom) by the Pacifica news reports and eventually by the paperback book The Tales of Hoffman that was published containing edited excerpts from the transcripts of the trial.

Morgen adopted a chancy strategy for making a film of the protests and the trial: he combined documentary technique (using actual footage of the protests in the streets and, in some cases, of the principals in the trial doing public speaking, which was their main way of earning money to fund their defense) and reconstructions of the trial using Rotoscoped animation and drawing on the transcripts for his script. Not surprisingly, he recruited an all-star cast to be his voice actors: Hank Azaria as Abbie Hoffman and Allen Ginsberg (the film shows Ginsberg in court attempting to calm down the proceedings by chanting “Ommmmmm … ” from the witness stand, and later an archival clip of a telecast features a square news reporter recording the chant as “Um”), Nick Nolte as prosecutor Thomas Foran, Mark Ruffalo as Jerry Rubin, Roy Scheider as Judge Julius Hoffman (who comes off less as the Avenging Angel of Justice and Traditional Values and more as a malevolent but ineffectual Charles Dickens figure) and Liev Schreiber as defense attorney William Kunstler. (The other defense attorney, Leonard Weinglass, voiced his own role, the only actual trial participant to play himself in non-documentary footage.)

The opening promised an absolutely dreadful movie — mostly due to the very loud music drowning out the original soundtracks of the archival clips, much to my frustration — but as the film progressed and found its groove (and Morgen mixed Jeff Danna’s original score down to a tolerable level) it turned into powerful drama and the intercuts between the actual convention events and the trial work surprisingly well. Danna’s music starts out as the kind of high-tension psychedelic rock ’n’ roll the defendants would have listened to at the time (when he wrote his book Woodstock Nation Abbie Hoffman even included a footnote listing all the albums he’d had on while he was writing) but soon goes into reggae and even rap, anachronistic genres for a film set in the late 1960’s but which work emotionally, especially when the rap song accompanies footage of the last doomed attempt by the Chicago peaceniks to march to the convention site and the determination of the police to prevent them.

The police-riot scenes look remarkably like the more recent footage of similarly militarized demonstration sites outside more recent conventions and international trade meetings — proof that the so-called “Miami Model” for suppressing dissent at major ruling-class events is nothing new — and the trial seems exactly the sort of unwitting theatre-of-the-absurd just about every other account of it has portrayed even though some of the best bits weren’t in the movie (like prosecutor Foran’s references in his opening statement to the “freaking fag revolution” the defendants were supposedly part of — all of them were heterosexual and in this pre-Gay Liberation Front era the Left was still residually hostile to homosexuals and homosexuality, but Foran couldn’t prosecute people for being transgressive revolutionaries without dragging in what to a man of his ilk in 1969 would have seemed to be the worst transgression of all — and Abbie Hoffman’s statement from the witness stand that from then on his name was just “Abbie” because, due to the coincidence that the hanging judge who was rigging the trial to convict them was also named “Hoffman.” “I don’t have a last name anymore; I lost it”) and the chaining and shackling of Bobby Seale in the courtroom, which actually happened a third of the way through the trial, is saved towards the end to form a dramatic and emotional climax. (At the same time, the depiction of Seale’s agony — he was chained and shackled because his attorney was too ill to represent him and, rather than accept being represented by the other two defense lawyers, he asked to be allowed to defend himself and the judge refused — here made it seem more than ever like the way slaves were treated on the Middle Passage.)

Some of the junctures between rotoscoped animation and documentary footage are awkward — especially in a few scenes in which rotoscoped figures of the defendants (particularly David Dellinger and Tom Hayden) are shown speaking to actual footage of the audiences that listened to them — but for the most part the mix of the two different kinds of footage works surprisingly well and communicates the bizarre aspects of the street theatre the trial turned into. In his introduction to the book The Tales of Hoffman, the edited excerpts from the trial transcripts, Dwight Macdonald quoted the old saw that judges were supposed to have “ice water in their veins” and said instead that Julius Hoffman had “aquavit, maybe.” He also noted that one of Tom Foran’s few correct observations about the trial was that the attorneys for the defense had come from the same radical world-view as their clients (which is very much a part of the film and why it’s called Chicago 10 instead of Chicago 8 or Chicago 7), and he made an interesting comparison to the sedition trial in 1918 that had broken the Industrial Workers of the World, in which whatever actions they had done to earn the disapproval of the government, they had dressed in suits, politely followed the dictates of the court and been model participants in the trial (fat lot of good it did them!), whereas the Chicago defendants had used the trial the way they used the convention — to follow the Yippie ethos that, in Godfrey Hodgson’s words, “when the might of a society is unassailable, strike at its myths.”

Alas, Charles and I didn’t really have a chance to discuss the film, since I’d be interested in getting his reactions since this is an artifact from the decade during which our perceptions don’t overlap. The nine-year difference in our ages means that for anything up to and including the 1950’s we both start at the same place (we’re experiencing that culture vicariously since neither of us really lived it) while anything in the 1970’s and after we both start at the same place (both of us were around then), but for the 1960’s the great political, social and cultural upheavals of the time are living memories for me and matters of history for him. It’s impossible to watch Chicago 10 without having the subsequent fates of its characters in mind — Abbie Hoffman, who (especially in his own footage here) comes off as a great stand-up comedian, the logical successor to Lenny Bruce, died by his own hand at age 52 on April 12, 1989 after a long history of manic depression (ironically he’d written an article in The Nation attacking Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign by saying that telling a drug addict “just say no!” makes about as much sense as telling a manic-depressive “just cheer up!”); Jerry Rubin making his fabled transformation from Yippie to yuppie, becoming a businessman and early investor in Apple Computer (!) and doing a nationwide “Yippie vs. yuppie” debate tour with Hoffman before Rubin also died young (victim of a traffic accident when a car hit him while he was jaywalking) in 1994; and the entire movement of which they were a part one of the most incredibly counterproductive in social-political history, since instead of empowering the Left its long-term effect was to spark a backlash that has put the Right in near-total control of American politics since.

Remember that 1968 was also the year Richard Nixon won the presidential election — and between them he and George Wallace got 57 percent of the vote to 43 percent for Hubert Humphrey, the sacrificial lamb nominated at that convention in Chicago under such high security that one delegate, protesting after going through three searches to enter the convention hall, cried out to the security guard, “I wasn’t sentenced to come here! I was elected!” — and that percentage of Right-to-Left votes in American presidential elections held constant until 1992 (when, between them, Bush and Perot got 57 percent of the vote to Clinton’s 43 percent, and Clinton won only because Perot’s votes were distributed nationwide instead of concentrated in the South, so Perot won no electoral votes but got high enough vote totals in several states to swing them to Clinton and thus “spoil” the election for Bush) and it’s still clear that the social and especially the cultural divisions of the 1960’s still hold sway over a majority of the American electorate. It’s what’s likely to keep the presidency firmly in Republican hands this year despite the abysmal record of the Bush II administration — a “war on terror” that turned Iraq into a bottomless pit and now a virtual vassal state of Iran (against which John McCain has saber-rattled to the tune of “Barbara Ann”), turned Afghanistan into such a cauldron of “collateral damage” that the Taliban are almost certainly coming back for the same reason they got the support of the Afghan people in the first place (their promises to restore order and “protect women”), shattered both America’s standing with the rest of the world and our overall economy, destroyed what was left of our industrial base after the previous administrations of Reagan, Bush I and Clinton pursued deregulatory “free trade” policies that led to the outsourcing of most of our industrial jobs, and more recently have greased the skids of a near-total collapse of Wall Street and the “FIRE” (finance, investment, real estate) sector that was supposed to replace actual honest-to-goodness manufacturing as the driver of our economy.

In the face of all this John McCain remains competitive and even ahead thanks to the Republicans’ well-honed skill at manipulating racial and cultural hatreds that formed the “backlash” to the 1960’s and have worked for them from that time to this — and the sight of all these wonderful young people pursuing a political and social strategy that, by horrifying the bulk of the country, would in effect turn it over to the Right and destroy any basis for a mass American Left gives an eerie, to say the least, feeling to a movie like Chicago 10, obviously made with an affection for the peaceniks and hippies and the same kind of withering scorn for the authority figures the Chicago 10 themselves had. The media showed footage of the police beating up the protesters and all but openly took the protesters’ side — largely because members of the media had themselves been victims of the police riots — and within the week polls were showing that an overwhelming majority of Americans fully approved of the way the Chicago police had handled the demonstrations. That was when we should have known that what we were doing would be terribly, terribly wrong and counterproductive in the long run.