CHICAGO 10 — Brett Morgen, USA, 2008, 8
I have liked courtroom procedurals since watching “Crown Court” on Scottish TV daytime as a 7-year-old boy (I’m not sure I quite realized it was fictional at first). I still count ANATOMY OF A MURDER and WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION as personal favorites. A trial is naturally dramatic — it sets out a conflict in explicit terms, with defined protagonists in the Anglo-Saxon adversarial system, and a defined trajectory with a definite payoff, even in a “Scottish verdict.” And the courtroom is a kind of elemental “stage” on which to play through the conflict,¹ like a ring in boxing movie.
So CHICAGO 10 was aiming in part for my sweet spot. It mixes re-creations from the trial of eight despicable 60s radicals with the four days of the 1968 Democratic Convention they tried to disrupt, and some of the radicals’ contemporaneous extra-court activities as celebrity defendants. That stuff is mostly live footage, but some is animated — e.g., Abby Hoffman apparently went on a comedy tour, and he clearly had some ability in that field, kind of a poor man’s Lenny Bruce joking about his own trial. CHICAGO 10 is even the second time around for me in terms of a re-creation of the trial in question — I remember vaguely seeing the made-for-HBO CONSPIRACY: THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 8 in the late-80s.
Morgen’s movie takes a couple of stylistic gambles and they both pay off rather handsomely. The first is obvious from the illustrations I use: CHICAGO 10’s trial recreations are animated in the same kind of fauvist/rotoscope look that Morgen also used (much more sparingly) in 2002’s THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE. If the very concept of using cartoons to re-create a trial turns you off a priori as A Violation Of Documentary Purity … well, go moon over Wiseman (more on this later). But to the rest of us, this was a brilliant choice. First of all, several of the people involved (Abby Hoffman, Tom Hayden, Jerry Rubin and William Kunstler) are well-known even today. But because a cartoon can never look that realistic, it avoids “celebrity mimickry” as a measuring stick for the performances. Second, this particular trial was a circus anyway, with the defendants, Hoffman and Rubin especially, openly saying they wanted to turn it into street theater. Making the trial a literal cartoon seems like the perfect mordant judgment.
The other gamble Morgen makes, and it’s won him plenty of grief from the never-trust-the-over-30 crowd from 40 years ago, is to give little in the way of specific context and so-called “historical analysis.” (Here is a typical bit from Todd Gitlin, criticizing the film for not mentioning either the Robert Kennedy assassination or the eventual outcome of the 1968 election.) Instead, Morgen plunges right into the convention and mostly just shows the street riots as they happen from contemporaneous footage. But dour old hippies aside, Morgen is right on with the move for a couple of reasons. First … it liberated me from having to do mental battle with the tendentious liberal-stroking mythologizing we would likely have gotten about the great hope RFK represented and how “the kids” were so idealistic, blah-blah-blah … glub-glub-glub. And second … really folks, historical context is what books and magazines and the History Channel are for. Feature movies worth showing in a theater provide an emotional or artistic experience, not a factual primer.² Mike has been on a kick about this sort of bone-headed criticism since he saw the film first at the 2007 Sundance fest:
What makes Chicago 10 such an arresting experience is that Morgen truly doesn’t give a damn about providing historical context. He’s filmmaker enough to assume that you already know the pertinent details—and that if by some chance you don’t know them, you shouldn’t be learning them from a goddamn movie. Instead, he offers something far more valuable: a fully present-tense experience, one that comes as close as a 90-minute feature possibly can to conveying, for those of us too young to have been around or to remember (I was in diapers [this pic is me in the winter of 1967-68, VJM] ), what it must have felt like to watch it unfold.
Mike then goes on to quote Morgen making the same point in an interview with Salon critic Andrew O’Hehir:
For anybody who’s younger than 50 or 52, it takes this moment of history that we’ve heard about but have a limited knowledge of, and allows the audience to do what film is uniquely suited to do—experience it. There are an insane amount of books and films and plays and radio shows about those events, and the one thing I thought was missing was something that allowed me to experience that chaos first-hand.
I see movies like No End in Sight, and I have a hard time even calling them movies. I think they’re essays, and they’re incredibly valuable documents. But I’m happy that film didn’t win an Oscar, because I just didn’t feel it was cinematic. If people voted for that film, they were voting for the politics of the film. Too often in nonfiction, most of us don’t take advantage of the full breadth and width of what film has to offer. I’m trying to deviate from broadcast journalism.
To name just one effective style choice that would never be permitted in broadcast journalism, Morgen uses his score’s intensity and tempo to amp up the suspense and tension before the inevitable confrontation on the last night of the convention. It builds and builds until the first clash, like Eisenstein used Prokofiev’s score to build up to the Battle on the Ice in ALEXANDER NEVSKY (yes, I do mean that comparison, though in terms of cinematic style, not the intrinsic merit of the music).
But ultimately, Morgen made the most valuable point later in that same Salon interview, and it’s ultimately why this movie worked for me.
It’s not like you can do a balanced portrait of that trial! Now, if you think the yippies were jerks, you can certainly make that argument from watching my film.
Exactly. And that’s tied to why Morgen is so effective in giving an experience — of both the riots and the trial. In case it isn’t obvious, my reaction to Chicago’s blue-helmeted finest going upside hippie heads was to exhort them to club the rest of them too, or even shoot. My favorite moment was an old interview from 1968 in which a black woman was asked and noted that “whites are always saying colored people riot, and they’re doing it themselves.” When asked whether she had any sympathy for the rioters, she thought for a second and said “no.” I was the only person laughing with approval in the DC theater at that.
Whatever might specifically be said about my reactions substantively, it is a legitimate reaction to “the experience,” as we know from the time. After all, the great anti-Communist Richard Nixon did in fact win in November by, among other things, running against the Chicago (and other) rioters. My viewing notes are filled with descriptions of moments where CHICAGO 10 does something other than worship at the feets of the poor victims. Here are some excerpts:
Adoration before the Che [Guevara] icon … “we’ll terrify the war machine,” i.e., provoke … public fornication … “we are the second American Revolution” … flying the VC flag [the DC audience was annoying me by laughing at unsympathetic interviews from 1968 calling them Communists … um, they were] … “our role in this court is to destroy its authority” … “we are the people” D says … D sez “we believe the power of the people is a permit” i.e. they are above the law … hammer and sickle on signs …
Clearly from the Salon interview, Morgen is a conventional “progressive” — and that’s responsible for his missteps near the film’s end, when he starts to get a bit exhortatory … power to the people and all that, plus his score goes all mournful when the cops give the hippie rioters what they deserve. But he had the integrity to make a film rather than an encomium or a Moore-like lie. I don’t know if Morgen would like this comparison, but CHICAGO 10 belongs in the tradition of TRIUMPH OF THE WILL as a powerful experience of the kind that can even sweep along someone who isn’t already in agreement with the film’s and film-maker’s specific political agenda.
¹ And yes, I have a soft spot for “canned theater” too on many of these same bases.
² This is sort of what Hegel meant by saying that philosophy should avoid the desire to be edifying.
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