Thursday, 13 March 2008

'Chicago 10' offers compelling footage, but its revisionism can be distracting


In August 1968, thousands of anti-war protesters went to Chicago to celebrate a Festival of Life as a counter-activity to the Democratic National Convention. The city's refusal to grant the necessary permits for this gathering resulted in protests, and in violent attacks on the protesters by police.

Following the August riots, eight defendants were tried for conspiring to cross state lines with the intent to create various disturbances in the city. With Black Panther Bobby Seale separated from the rest of the group and tried individually, these defendants became known as The Chicago 7.

Now, 40 years later, documentarian Brett Morgan ("The Kid Stays in the Picture") has made a film called "Chicago 10," restoring Seale to the mix, and adding defense attorneys William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass, apparently because they received sentences for contempt.

Making the seven into 10 is only the beginning of Morgan's revisionism in his transformation of history into what might be called speculative allegory.

Music, an essential ingredient of the '60s revolution, is the first thing Morgan changes. We see the MC5 performing in the park, but it is Rage Against the Machine that we hear. In another scene, police escort a group of protesters from a rally to the accompaniment of rap music. Morgan may imagine that by changing the soundtrack he is making the events relevant to young people today, but it is a transparent sleight of hand that is unlikely to fool anybody.

What makes "Chicago 10" an important film, however, is the wealth of visual material Morgan has collected. Images from the Chicago riots have been used in earlier films, most notably Haskell Wexler's "Medium Cool," but never has such an enormous amount of footage from so many diverse sources been available in one place.

Morgan's decision to animate the trial segments is justifiable: Cameras were forbidden in the courtroom. The animation is preferable to out-and-out dramatization, which would have conflicted with the accompanying footage of real people outside the courthouse. The actors performing the voiceovers -- particularly Roy Scheider as Judge Hoffman -- do justice to the original tones and cadences of the trial transcripts.

There is plenty in "Chicago 10" to annoy those who lived through the period. The content selected for the courtroom scenes serves only to accentuate the outrageousness of the trial. (For example, Allen Ginsberg recited several poems during his testimony for the defense, but the one chosen for the film is an erotic poem having nothing to do with his participation in the protest.) Other witnesses are noticeably absent -- such as Phil Ochs, who had more to do with the planning of the protest than some of the defendants.

On other occasions, the film veers from the time frame of the convention and its aftermath to include such parenthetical material as Mayor Richard Daley's order to shoot all looters on sight during the riots following Martin Luther King's assassination. Morgan probably is suggesting a precedent to Daley's use of blind force in response to public chaos, but he does not make it clear that such an insinuation is intentional.

Yet there are many moments of historical force here, such as a clip of Walter Cronkite declaring "the Democratic Convention is about to begin in a police state." With its scenes of tear gas rolling into Lincoln Park accompanied by the cries of a random victim of police brutality desperately singing "We Shall Overcome" as she is forcefully shoved into a police wagon, "Chicago 10" is a timely reminder that dissident youth once were viewed by the government as enemies of the state. In 1968, as the cameras rolled, one of the slogans echoing through the brutalized crowds was "the whole world is watching." Morgan's collection of these images forces us to keep watching, and recognize this as part of our very recent history.

It also is a reminder of a line from one of the many songs Ochs wrote in response to the events of Chicago: "They teach you in the classroom that it can't happen here. But it has happened here."

1 comment:

Daniel G. said...

"The animation is preferable to out-and-out dramatization, which would have conflicted with the accompanying footage of real people outside the courthouse."

Hmm, in some ways this is true, but if it was clear that is a dramatization I don't know what it would have conflicted anymore than the animated characters did. I still enjoyed the animation, though.