Thursday, January 22, 2009

Chicago 10 (2007, Brett Morgen)

First off, all those critics complaining that Morgen doesn’t adequately lay down historical context in this movie are high. I’m part of a generation that was born after the titular trial had been consigned to history (to wit: the last time I heard anyone mention Bill Kunstler was my most recent viewing of The Big Lebowski), yet I had no problem following what was going on in Chicago 10. Does it honestly matter that (as A.O. Scott gripes) the film barely touches on the candidates at the Democratic National Convention that occasioned the mass convergence of demonstrators on Chicago in summer ’68? I’d say it doesn’t. Great documentaries aren’t about information, but illumination, and while some might argue that the film is lacking in the former, it’s overflowing with the latter, and that’s what really counts.

What’s more, I believe that Morgen’s tendency to sketch over stuff like the candidates’ names was a deliberate and wise move on his part. While knowing the names of the people who ran back in ’68 is important for those who are studying the convention itself, Chicago 10 isn’t about that. Instead, Morgen re-creates the circus that sprung up around it due to the tension between the establishment powers and the counterculture forces of the day. It’s somewhat horrifying to see the two sides push each other, back and forth, until the situation comes to a bloody, fiery head on the streets of Chicago. Whether your sympathies lie with the demonstrators or the establishment (and the film is less biased towards the kids than you might think), it’s clear that it got out of hand not merely because of the massive scale of the demonstrations, but also because of both sides’ unwillingness to really talk it through instead of trying to shout over each other.

This is what makes the structure of the film so ingenious. Instead of beginning with the riots then moving into the trial, Morgen cuts between the two. It helps to reflect that the trial, as re-created in vivid animation by the film, is basically the demonstration in miniature- the establishment (in the form of Judge Julius Hoffman) views the kids with contempt, the defendants attempt to subvert his authority, the voices of reason (e.g. Bill Kunstler) are roundly ignored, and the conflict escalates resulting in the violent censuring and repression of Bobby Seale. No wonder Abbie Hoffman called it a circus- not only was it a strange spectacle (thanks to both sides) but it just keeps going around and around, in the British sense of the word.

Even if Morgen isn’t obviously biased in favor of the demonstrators, he seems nonetheless fascinated by the wave of dissent that crested in the sixties. Chicago 10 presents the events of 1968 as a double-edged sword, paying equal attention to the hope that arose in the youth that they might be able to affect change (or at least be part of something that did), and the sobering fallout that came out of the youth movement being crushed by those in power. By refusing to turn the story into an ossified period piece, Morgen asks us to consider what place dissent might have in our current situation. Much has been made of the recent winds of change, but they’ve all come from within the system, and for decades there’s been a palpable fear in our society to risk anything on the same scale as the political movements of the sixties. No longer does it seem worth the risk for people to put everything on the line for an ideal in order to take on the government. I wonder what Abbie would’ve thought of that.

Rating: 9 out of 10.


Steve C. said...

First off, all those critics complaining that Morgen doesn’t adequately lay down historical context in this movie are high.

Yes. What the fuck movie did they see? The haters can keep their fiber/homework docs for all I care.

Paul C. said...

Precisely. First they decry all-exposition, no-style documentaries as being uncinematic, then they turn around and pan one that avoids all the usual traps of the form. Make up your mind, critic buds.