Chicago 10

| March 9, 2008

They say those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it, but what of those who only remember the fun parts? It was the decade that spawned Vietnam and the Civil Rights struggle, but if television and the movies are to be trusted, the 1960s was little more than the longest, grooviest party in our nation’s history–ten years of nothin’ but sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. And counter-culturalism? Man, that was just the theme of the night, the costume you had to wear to get in the door. Wrapped in the warm comfort-blanket of nostalgia, films like last year’s Fab Four musical Across the Universe reduce the spirit of an era–all its radical ideas and progressive ideals–to empty-headed kitsch, a series of cultural signifiers divorced of their context and significance. Baby-boomer hacks are twisting history into tie-dyed, Flower Power cliché and a big part of the problem, sad to say, is the music. They were the rallying cry anthems of a social revolution, but what do songs like “Blowin’ In the Wind” or “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” evoke today but misty-eyed affection for a retro-cool past? Through misuse, repetition, and wholesale absorption into the pop-culture lexicon, these once-relevant protest tunes have been stripped of their power, their message and their meaning. The minute Paul Simon starts crooning about the sound of silence, the accompanying images melt into a photo-book montage and the audience disappears into a pleasant, thoughtless, nostalgia-tinged reverie.
Chicago 10, Brett Morgan’s arresting mix-tape time-warp of a documentary, shatters that daydream of the ’60s with the squealing shock waves of Tom Morello’s guitar. Commencing with the punk-metal fury of Rage Against the Machine’s “Wake Up,” the film announces itself not as wistful remembrance of a “better time,” but as a topical account of how freedom fighters can become political prisoners in a culture of fear and ignorance. If that sounds disturbingly relevant to our current political climate, then welcome to Morgan’s wavelength, a frequency on which the director broadcasts contemporary dissent by way of symbolic parallel. It’s music–not those moldy Super Sounds of the ’60s, but the righteous, riotous tones of Generations X and Y–that links a tumultuous Then to our fucked-up Now. Hearing the Beastie Boys, Eminem, and Zach de la Rocha spit verses over footage of the ’68 protests and the police brutality they inspired, one can glean a polemical inquiry from Morgan’s jagged, music-video approach: forget the flowers, where have all the activists gone?
As Chicago 10 reminds us, we had them in spades once. Legions of protesters descended upon the Windy City in the summer of ’68, coinciding their massive demonstration with the Democratic National Convention. Led in part by Yippie activists Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, the people were there to peacefully voice their opposition to the Vietnam War. Mayor Daley and his police force begged, violently and vehemently, to differ. When the teargas cleared and the damages were assessed, it was not the aggressors held responsible, but Hoffman, Rubin, and six others, who were charged with “conspiracy to incite riots.” (Lump in the two defense attorneys, and you have an even roster of ten, hence the title). To Morgan, these men were counter-cultural superheroes, courageous rabble-rousers with a taste for the theatrical, and Chicago 10 marches loudly and proudly to the beat of their drums. Eschewing both the distant reverence of a Ken Burns history lesson and the fashion-parade posturing of a 60s throwback party, this mixed-modes collage is postmodern filmmaking at its most excitingly accessible–a documentary with the stirring passion of a punk-rock protest song.
Relying entirely on archival footage and cartoon dramatizations–no talking heads here, thank you very much!–Morgan splinters time and space, cutting back and forth between the state-sanctioned riots and the travesty of a trial. One minute, we’re in the streets, watching in horror as angry cops storm Grant Park, swinging their batons to the punishing strains of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs.” The next, we’re in a courtroom, watching in more horror as Black Panthers leader Bobby Seale is bound and gagged for demanding he be allowed to represent himself. At times, it’s like two absorbing films woven effortlessly into one: an eye-opening, you-are-there document of the chaos in the city, and a jaw-dropping “Law and Order” farce. It’s the latter that provides Chicago 10 with both its underdog ethos and its narrative backbone. Using real courtroom transcripts and a choppier version of Waking Life’s rotoscope technology, Morgan recreates the infamous trial–a miscarriage of justice perpetrated by biased, reactionary conservatives–as a series of epic showdowns between the feeble fascist of a judge (voiced by the late Roy Scheider) and the Yippie firebrands (voiced by, among others, Dylan Baker and Mark Ruffalo). These crudely animated vignettes are funny and appropriately infuriating in about equal measure.
As with The Kid Stays in the Picture, Morgan’s last pop-doc triumph, Chicago 10 is built mainly around a cult of eccentric personality. At the center of the action–the trial, the protests, and the movie itself–is Abbie Hoffman, the self-proclaimed anarchist and counter-cultural icon, voiced in the courtroom scenes, with conviction and modulated sarcasm, by Hank Azaria. It’s Hoffman’s subversive, prankster spirit that fuels the film, his face and voice that keeps popping up throughout, on tape and celluloid, in newsreel footage and radio conversations. (Azaria’s imitation is so spot-on that it feels like just another authentic recording.) Morgan gets Hoffman, in so much as he’s down with the man’s rude and clever antics, his razor-sharp wit, and his ability to transform a witch-hunt trial into deliriously irreverent Theatre of the Absurd. What’s missing, of course, are the Big Ideas behind the buffoonery, the very principles the Yippies were fighting and being steamrolled for. Morgan lets Abbie rant and rave, on the stand, in the streets and in the clubs, but rarely does he zero in on the real philosophies and ideologies of his hero. Like the Che Guevara we all see on t-shirts, Morgan’s Hoffman is more symbol than man–a rebellious cipher-saint, as vaguely sketched as his cartoon counter-part.
Chicago 10 values the romantic rhetoric of revolution more than the ideas that drive it. In a way, it succumbs to its own brand of nostalgia: a yearning for the good ol’ days, when folks took to the street, joined hands and raged against the machine. His is an uncomplicated tribute to a decade of change, yet by resisting immersing us in the politics of ’68–the specific sources of Hoffman’s outrage–Morgan is also keeping the door between Then and Now wide open. With a new, unpopular war in full swing, police brutality on the constant rise, and the government as oppressive as ever before, one would be hard-pressed to write Chicago 10 off as hermetically sealed, ancient history. Like most great protest songs, it works both in specific context and as a more general call to action, a one-size-fits-all Fuck You to the powers that be. It’s dubious as a time capsule, but totally effective as agitprop. Now, whether it has dorm dwellers stealing Steal This Book or just giving that old copy of Evil Empire a spin remains to be seen.

About the Author:

Jon Bastian Jon is a playwright and screenwriter who lives in Los Angeles, where he has been currently appearing in Flash Theater LA when not working for Cesar Millan to keep his dogs rolling in kibble.
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