The Whole World Was Watching

March 5, 2008

"Chicago 10," which opened in theaters a few days ago, is one of the most exciting movies ever made about any aspect of the 1960s. It is also among the most frustrating; for it turns out that excitement is only just so much of a virtue in a documentary film. Sensation minus context is desensitizing. And in a number of ways "Chicago 10" marks an almost complete triumph of visual intensity over historical memory.

Yet it is also the product of some impressive digging in the video archives. Much of the footage in it was shot by television crews roaming the streets during the Democratic National Convention in August 1968. Thousands of people had gathered in Chicago to protest the Vietnam war, by any means necessary; and thousands of cops marched in formation to prevent them from doing so, also by any means necessary. Guns were not actually fired in the process, which is something of a miracle. In one harrowing scene, a group of demonstrators taunts the police, challenging them to shoot.

You see Walter Cronkite on the evening news (a sober and avuncular anchorman, like nobody now in broadcasting: the living voice of the middle of the American road) comparing Mayor Daley’s city to a police state. There is a shot of a placard in the streets of Chicago saying “Welcome to Prague.” For this was one of those moments in history when the whole world was not just watching but, it seemed, performing from a common script. At the same time as Chicago was turning into an armed camp, Soviet troops were busy putting down Czechoslovakia’s experiment in reforming its own regime.

The confrontation in Chicago between the protesters and the forces of law and order is chronicled, day by day; and the tensions build up to a frenzy when the police go on a rampage. One unnamed and seemingly apolitical Chicagoan describes sitting in a bar, minding his own business, when the cops stormed in, making everybody leave under the threat of being pounded senseless. Anyone with long hair did not get a choice in the matter.

The street scenes are intercut with animated sequences based on transcripts of the government’s prosecution of those it accused of organizing the demonstrations. This is not the first time the court case has been put on screen (both the BBC and HBO have done so in previous decades) nor will it be the last, since a film called "The Trial of the Chicago 7" is in production this year. That title is something of a misnomer, since the Black Panther Party chairman Bobby Seale was the eighth defendant until his case with severed from that of his alleged co-conspirators. In "Chicago 10," the figure is bumped up to include the two lawyers who represented Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Seale, et al. -- since they, like the defendants, were cited for contempt of court.

As hyperkinetic eye candy, “Chicago 10" is as good as it gets. A soundtrack with Eminem rapping his fantasy of an anti-Bush insurrection is, I suppose, one way to make history come alive. Likewise with turning the courtroom antics of the revolutionaries look like something out of a video game. But the mash-up between archival footage and music-video aesthetics has the effect of stripping the events out of any sort of historical context. In making their work as up-to-date as possible in style and overtone, the movie makers seem never to have asked whether they might also be doing a disservice to the past.

All the fast cuts and visual tricks here might be justified by reference to the presumed demands of Today’s Youth, with their supersaturated yet shrinking attention spans. But if kids born in the 1990s really are the intended audience, why give that quick shot of the sign reading “Welcome to Prague” without any explanation for it? (My apologies, of course, if it turns out that Today’s Youth are completely up to speed on postwar Eastern European history.)

How is it that the film never mentions that student protests in France a few months earlier led to a general strike that almost brought down the government there? The “May events” in Paris were still on many people’s minds as the summer wound down; they help to make sense of what might otherwise look like plain craziness, at times, in the streets of Chicago. But no hint of the outside world ever breaks into any frame of the film. It revisits the past in an almost isolationist, if not solipsistic way -- quite as Tom Brokaw did in a recent TV program that treated the year 1968 as if it had unfolded almost entirely within the United States. (The convulsions in Paris, Prague, and Peking that year were dispatched in about two minutes.)

In the case of "Chicago 10," the perspective is shallow as well as narrow. Events are not simply yanked out of the past and detached from their contemporary global significance.They are shown without concern for long-term causes or effects. Incidents and images are presented without any reference at all to a larger narrative in which they might have some meaning. No effort is made to discuss the effects of the Chicago protests and the conspiracy trial in American politics. And that really takes some doing.

When we talk about the “culture war” now, the expression is usually just a very tired metaphor. But what happened outside the Democratic convention was an early battle in it, and a very literal one.

The turmoil gave many people a sense that the whole country was hurtling towards a much greater showdown. That prospect has dimmed for the protesters who marched in the streets, then, but it never really did for the “silent majority,” as the winner of the presidential campaign later that year put it.

In his bookChicago ‘68 -- first published 20 years ago by the University of Chicago Press, which is now reissuing it -- David Farber, now a professor of history at Temple University, quotes a position paper that Richard Nixon wrote as a candidate: “The first right of every American, to be free from domestic violence, has become the forgotten civil right of the American people.”

Obviously Nixon did not mean freedom from having your head massaged by a policeman’s billy club. The Republican candidate’s complaint was that the government was abdicating its responsibility to protect the individual’s right to be left in peace. “Instead,” writes Farber in his paraphrase of Nixon’s argument, “that state has pledged itself to a policy of inclusion, a policy that insists that the state has the right to intrude in local affairs and order private citizens to accept the rights of other citizens -- the blacks, the Latinos, the poor, the protestors -- to intrude on their privacy. Such a policy, Nixon is implying, naturally leads to a situation in which certain citizens would intrude violently into other people’s lives, marching and sitting in an taking over streets and even burning and destroying private property.”

The upheaval in Chicago consolidated that feeling. But it also added something else -- an element still lingering in the mix of resentments that fuels so much of American political culture. “Chicago 10" exists because there were so many TV cameras in the streets. And it’s clear that the police gave members of the press extra special attention -- beating them with the gusto they would otherwise have reserved for, say, student radicals carrying the Vietcong flag. Sympathy for the police and contempt for the news media were, for the “silent majority,” two sides of a common rage.

“Both stem from a mistrust of disembodied authority,” writes Farber. “Both feelings come from a suspicion that some outside, elite power has taken control of what should be commonsensical and local.”

A better movie would have found some way to portray that suspicion, and to address how much of it is still in the air, four decades later -- a legacy that has outlasted any dream in the streets that year.

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