Bring All Your Friends, Your Kids and Your Wife
Chicago 10 is filmmaker Brett Morgen’s stab, not at supposedly dry historical document but at revivifying an August event of 1968 that capped a year of unhappy war, assassinations, massacres, riots, a clenched-fist Olympics gesture, and social and campus unrest on both sides of the Atlantic. Chicago got its nose bloodied during the 1968 Democrats’ presidential nominating convention, and Morgan hopes his documentary will serve to “resonate with kids today, to have them experience it firsthand.”
The theme is the squaring off of right-minded men and women against the machine, the American credo of unarmed grass roots individuals confronting corrupt powers that be, and unmistakable parallels with contemporary wars, politics, greed and, at this very moment, the election process. As flypaper for the target audience that little notes nor long remembers the past, the music track is not easy time-setting Barry McGuire, Edwin Starr, CCR or Sergeant Barry Sadler, but in its majority anachronistic rap and reggae from Rage Against the Machine, the Beastie Boys, Eminem.
It was decided to use no distancing narrator or surviving elderly interviewees for the three-year project, since there was a surplus of actuality footage in 180 hours of 16 mm alone, plus in excess of half that in audio and many tens of thousands of stills. Understandably of uneven quality in grainy back-and-forthing color and b&w, this material appears from start to finish in brief clips that might be confusing but do add up to a mosaic overview of incidents in the midst of orchestrated chaos.
A problem involved the fact there was no visual record for what turned out to be the centerpiece of the convention -- unmentioned is the selection of Humphrey and Muskie, eventual losers to the GOP Nixon-Agnew ticket -- and the many thousands of mostly young whites who had mobilized at the abolition of student deferments and come to demonstrate in Hizzoner Richard J. Daley’s Windy City. This was the following year’s conspiracy trial presided over by Judge Julius Hoffman, in which the U.S. brought charges of crossing state lines with intent to incite riots against representative high-profile anti-Vietnam War activists. Initially the “Chicago 8,” then “7”, and finally “10” when their two lawyers were included and cited for contempt, these disparate leaders of a loose confederation of pacifists, Yippies, S.D.S., a co-founder of the Black Panther Party, and others, were in their day either international icons or else “evil, professional extremists,” largely unknown to today’s generation.
No visual recording devices allowed in the courtroom, and current interviews and dramatic recreations ruled out -- the latter because of dissonances between participants in real footage and modern actors playing them -- defendant Jerry Rubin’s (voice of Mark Ruffalo) characterization of the proceedings as a “cartoon show” was the germ of a solution.
2D drawing discarded, an animation technique called motion capture technology was decided on as effective and economically doable. The result resembles the interpolated retroscope of A Scanner Darkly, where animators traced over live-action digital filming. Voice-over professionals were also eliminated, in favor of the fashionable cartoon feature reliance on famous larynxes, and politically like-minded actors agreed to lend their talents for nominal reimbursement.
With a “post-modern type of landscape” that aligns the ‘Sixties with today’s decade, the film pretends to some innovative documentary hybrid, a narrative film of disparate elements in complete yet non-linear progression. With rare exceptions, such attempts to make history or literature “relevant”-- as though they were “irrelevant”-- to generations not drawn to either, are failures, for they dumb down yesterday to address today, distorting what is instructive and memorable in the past. Moreover, this particular one so breathlessly wears its political leanings on its sleeve, that it lacks even the confidence to let speak for themselves the images of police and national guardsmen clubbing and tear gassing unarmed demonstrators in American parks and streets. Insult to injury, the voicing of, among others, Roy Scheider, Nick Nolte, Debra Eisenstadt and Hank Azaria (Judge Hoffman; Prosecutor Thomas Foran; undercover Mary Ellen Dahl; Abbie Hoffman and Allen Ginsberg) is so exaggeratedly smarmy or free-spirited that the whole vehicle itself, and what it would say about courage and hope, is reduced to the level of television cartoons.
Among acknowledgements for this opening night presentation at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, are two musical clips from Medium Cool. It is symptomatic of current taste that the intractable Haskell Wexler's shocking super-realistic 1969 “fiction and so-called reality” is relatively unknown; those who want Chicago 1968 are advised to look it up on DVD or video and take a pass on Chicago 10.
(Released by Roadside Attractions and rated “R” for language and brief sexual images.)