CHICAGO 10 (Playing at the SUNSHINE THEATER)
March 16, 2008 by JAN ALBERT
It’s hard to distance myself from personal memories of the late 1960’s and early 70’s and judge the new film, CHICAGO 10, entirely on it’s own merits. The film revisits the demonstrations in the streets of Chicago during the Democratic Party Presidential Convention in 1968. Dubbed a “Festival of Life” by Yippee Party leader, Abbie Hoffman, one of the main organizers of the event, the gathering was meant to expose the self-congratulatory, politics-as-usual “Festival of Death” being held inside the Convention Hall and protest the expansion of the Vietnam War. The protest turned into a violent confrontation with Chicago’s police force as the world watched on TV. In the aftermath, Hoffman and seven other counterculture leaders were put on trial for conspiring to cross state lines and incite a riot.
I have mixed feelings about the film itself, but before I get to that, here’s a brief disclaimer: I used to babysit for Abbie and Anita Hoffman’s baby son, America. I thought they were both bright spirits and admired Abbie’s great sense of humor; thumb your nose at ‘the system’ attitude and theatrical approach to political consciousness-raising in the USA. It was a very sad day when Abbie went underground and changed his name after a well-orchestrated cocaine bust by the feds and an even sadder one when he was found dead of a prescription drug overdose in 1989 at the age of 52.
Back in 1969 and 70, I was also working at WBAI, New York City’s underground radio station and I remember Abbie calling in virtually every night and updating Bob Fass and his listeners about what had happened that day in court at the Chicago Conspiracy trial. (Bob Fass happily is still broadcasting his legendary show, Radio Unnameable, on WBAI [99.5FM] Thursday nights at midnight.) One call I remember like yesterday was when Abbie told Bob that he had received a letter that day addressed simply: Abbie Hoffman: Chicago, Illinois. Bob said, “Well, you’re famous now Abbie”.
He was a real star.
Anyway, it’s great to see Abbie and Bob back together again, this time on the big screen, thanks to Brett Morgen, who sprinkles their phone conversations throughout CHICAGO 10. Like the terrific THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE, (about the life and times of film producer, Robert Evans) Morgen’s first film, this movie takes a different approach to telling a true story. It intersperses standard documentary footage of the 5-day protest with a cartoon version of the surreal trial that followed. (Morgen counts the two defense attorneys, William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass, who were cited for contempt of court, in with the eight defendants to make the CHICAGO 10). Since cameras weren’t allowed in the courtroom, Morgen got great actors (like Liev Schreiber, Jeffrey Wright, and the late Roy Scheider who plays Judge Julius Hoffman) to give voice to actual sections of the trial transcript. It’s a pretty ingenious solution that brings a lot of energy to the proceedings. I found the rotoscoped animation jarring and ugly, but then again, the actual event wasn’t exactly a pretty picture.
The best part of the film experience for me was watching it with young activists and college students brought together by the Generation Engage, Campus Progress and takepart.com. The audience was clearly engaged by the sheer number of Yippees and hippies and lefties – old people and young – who traveled to Chicago to stand up against the status quo. They were alternately amused and horrified by the outrageous travesty of justice at the trial, which truly plays like a piece of theater of the absurd, with Abbie and Jerry Rubin wearing their own judicial robes, blowing kisses to the jury, while Judge Julius Hoffman regularly forgets the defendant’s names and generally acts like a crazy old coot.
Seeing how attentive the audience genuinely was shook me out of the slough of complacency I have sunk into during the Bush League. Gradually I settled in and found myself also admiring the spirit and insolence of the merry pranksters, at first having fun ‘fighting the establishment’ with their presence, then courageously holding their ground as they were confronted with tanks and tear gas and Billy clubs.
Hearing activists say things to television cameras like, “we are not all going to be good niggers”, “young people are not going to stay uninvolved”, made me proud of my generation. I remember Walter Cronkite (truly the great white father of TV News anchors) remarking in disgust that the Democratic Convention was taking place in what could only be described as a “police state.” Forty years later, it is still a very powerful moment.
There are also many genuinely funny moments in this horror show – a youth worker answering the defense headquarters phone with a blithe – “Conspiracy!” Abbie Hoffman responding to a question from a reporter about what he thinks of the trial with, “well, I’ve got a good seat”. Watching Defense Attorney William Kunstler patiently explaining to Judge Hoffman that witness Allen Ginsberg is trying to calm the courtroom by chanting “Ohm”, then hearing a local news reporter analyze the day’s events by describing how the poet, Ginsberg, kept humming, “Ummmmm”, is priceless. Morgen effectively connects the moment to present day concerns by playing songs by Eminem and The Beastie Boys over the demonstrators, rather than wallpapering the vintage footage with period music.
The film’s momentum grows in fits and starts until no one is laughing anymore by the time the sole black defendant, Bobby Seale, (who was reportedly in Chicago during the convention for only 2 hours!) is actually bound and gagged in court to prevent him from speaking in his own defense. Morgen ends the film with Bobby Seale addressing a post trial demo by saying to the crowd, “You don’t need a leader telling you what to do – you know what to do. Power to the People.”
This is the kind of history lesson high school kids don’t get and I believe they are the ones for whom Morgen (born in 1968) made this film. Judging by the response from my 21-year-old daughter – (“Why didn’t they let the demonstrators sleep in the park?” and “I knew the Vietnam War was a bad thing and that people were against it but I never realized it was anything like that1”), I’d say CHICAGO 10 succeeds. It underlines that moment 40 years ago to illuminate the situation we find ourselves in today and may inspire the current generation to come together and make their move.
A CODA to the review:
After the lights came on, Kevin Powell who is planning to run for Congress, interviewed Morgen. The first question came from a young man who said he loved the film but wondered, “Where were all the women leaders?” He was so used to the presence of female comrades, it took a moment for him to comprehend that 1968 was pre-feminist revolution and women were still deep background.
Maybe progress is incremental but things do change, occasionally for the better. That was the most hopeful sign I saw all night.
view: the TRAILER
see: the official website