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Nixonian Tumult Remembered in Chicago 10

The Democratic insurgent is the most charismatic candidate since RFK, and the party’s convention could be the most convulsive since the debacle in Chicago. The Vietnam War has returned in the personae of Johns McCain and Rambo. George Romero, whose Night of the Living Dead remains the definitive celluloid expression of ’68, is back with Diary of the Dead—the end of the world on MySpace and YouTube. And here to mark the 40th anniversary of the tumult that brought Richard Nixon to power: Brett Morgen’s Chicago 10.

Thirteen months after Hubert Humphrey was nominated for president in a hall ringed with barbed wire and surrounded by National Guardsmen, amid four days of violent clashes between Chicago police and anti-war protesters, the government charged eight political activists—Dave Dellinger, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Seale, Jerry Rubin, and Lee Weiner—with crossing state lines as part of a conspiracy to incite riot. Their carnivalesque trial, which ran from late September 1969 into February 1970, resulted in five convictions (later overturned) and citations of contempt that included defense lawyers William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass—hence Morgen’s “10.”

Arguably the greatest media spectacle of the High ’60s, the convention telecast included ample street violence—
demonstrators chanting “The whole world is watching” as helmeted cops bashed their brains. Scarcely a year later, the event was replayed in Haskell Wexler’s innovative docudrama Medium Cool and Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago—not to mention the most elaborate of these re-creations, the Chicago Conspiracy Trial, produced by Nixon himself (though Chicago 10 barely mentions him). The trial ran for nearly five months and enjoyed an immediate afterlife: The Tales of Hoffman, a 300-page sampling of the trial record, was published as a mass-market quickie a month after the proceedings ended.

If the convention was a tragedy, the trial was a farce. Revisiting events at once overly familiar and impossible to imagine, Morgen’s impure mix of documentary footage and rotoscopic computer animation is unrelenting Sturm und Drang. Chicago 10 has a deliberate and irritating absence of context but a full appreciation of antics—as when the Yippie defendants Hoffman and Rubin appeared in judicial drag, and, forced to disrobe, Hoffman revealed a Chicago police uniform underneath. These shenanigans were equaled only by those of his 74-year-old namesake, Judge Julius J. Hoffman, who sustained prosecution objections and overruled those of the defense at a ratio of perhaps 100 to 1. Taunted throughout, most powerfully by Black Panther co-founder Seale, the judge rarely failed to take the bait. (What goes around . . . : Nine years earlier, Hoffman had ruled in favor of the literary magazine Big Table, charged with obscenity for publishing excerpts from Naked Lunch.)

Moving back and forth between the riots and the trial, the movie delivers ample tumult with no more historical perspective than if produced in 1970. In a sense, it’s the belated realization of the trippy guerrilla flick that Hollywood exile Nicholas Ray tried to make at the time—a mélange of 16mm, Super-8, and documentary footage mixed with a studio re-creation of the trial where the Conspiracy, as they were called rock-band-style, played themselves.

Morgen cuts back and forth and sometimes splits the screen between police riot and political trial—the courtroom is introduced with a fanfare blast of heavy metal. Most of the music is post-’60s, if sometimes covers of period classics—another strategy to make the action more “timeless.” All of the trial is animated—albeit less expressively than in Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly—and much of the documentary material has been reworked. (The hapless Abbie Hoffman biopic, Steal This Movie, was a similar mishmash, but Chicago 10 has great immediacy.) Some news footage is filmed off the television screen. Among other tidbits, Morgen, who was born the year Chicago exploded, has unearthed a local TV report on neighborhood kids playing “cops and protesters.” So much media attention was focused on the convention that even the rawest vérité footage has a powerful theatricality. The police dramatically perform their job; news reporters and demonstrators are both acutely aware of their imagined world-historical role.

For the Conspiracy, the trial was not just a show trial but the greatest show on earth—a real-life movie that would galvanize the youth of America, if not the galaxy. One of Ray’s assistants recalled that Hayden, Hoffman, and Rubin “saw themselves as potential James Deans.” Morgen concurs. His previous documentary, The Kid Stays in the Picture, fawningly celebrated producer Robert Evans, and Chicago 10 is no less glamorizing: There’s more than a bit of A Hard Day’s Night and Don’t Look Back in its presentation of the most garrulous, Abbie (Hank Azaria), and his sidekick, Jerry (Mark Ruffalo).

Abbie, who also does stand-up shtick, is the movie’s stellar wise guy, as Seale (Jeffrey Wright) is its heroic victim—but, now as then, the most fascinating performance is that of the fussy, name-mangling, imperious little judge. Introducing The Tales of Hoffman, Dwight MacDonald characterized Julius Hoffman’s courtroom manner as “arrogant without dignity, wisecracking without wit, a combination of Torquemada and a Borscht-circuit tummeler.” Ray hoped to cast Groucho Marx in the part; here, the late Roy Scheider captures Hoffman’s mix of querulous confusion and bizarre equanimity.

In his history of the trial, John Schultz noted that “the struggle for the laugh and to suppress the laugh [were its] principle forms of aggression and unification.” But Abbie’s pranks were dwarfed by Julius’s judicial outrages, culminating in his denying Seale the right to represent himself and then, rattled by Seale’s protests, ordering him gagged and shackled. This image of a black man in bondage was agitprop beyond even the Yippie imagination. Although it occurred relatively early in the proceedings, Morgen understandably holds it back for the climax—intercut with the madness of the convention’s final day, police running amok as hell breaks loose in downtown Chicago.

However authentically chaotic, Chicago 10 is insufficiently frenzied. For all its shock value, the trial was not the only game in town. During those months, a half-million anti-war demonstrators marched on Washington and were tear-gassed on the Mall, Seymour Hersh broke My Lai, the Rolling Stones played Altamont, and Leonard Bernstein threw a party for the Panther 24 (inspiring Tom Wolfe’s term “radical chic”). America was introduced to new personalities: the Weathermen, Lieutenant William Calley, Charlie Manson, and (as embodied by George C. Scott) George Patton. From the perspective of the Conspiracy Trial, the most dramatic event occurred a few days before the defense began its case: Chicago police stormed the apartment of the charismatic local Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and shot him dead in his bed. Could the threat have been more obvious?

It was too much to take in then and is all but incomprehensible now. According to the trades, Morgen’s deliberately ahistorical treatment is a dry run for Steven Spielberg’s planned Trial of the Chicago 7—to be scripted by Aaron Sorkin, with Sacha Baron Cohen and possibly Will Smith as Abbie and Bobby. Schindler’s List gave the Holocaust a happy ending, and Saving Private Ryan reduced World War II to a single mission, so why not recast the inexplicable convulsions of the late ’60s in terms of personality? From bloody tragedy to savage farce to starstruck myth.

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Judgment Days

The Democratic insurgent is the most charismatic candidate since RFK, and the party’s convention could be the most convulsive since the debacle in Chicago. The Vietnam War has returned in the personae of Johns McCain and Rambo. George Romero, whose Night of the Living Dead remains the definitive celluloid expression of ’68, is back with Diary of the Dead—the end of the world on MySpace and YouTube. And here to mark the 40th anniversary of the tumult that brought Richard Nixon to power: Brett Morgen’s Chicago 10.

Thirteen months after Hubert Humphrey was nominated for president in a hall ringed with barbed wire and surrounded by National Guardsmen, amid four days of violent clashes between Chicago police and anti-war protesters, the government charged eight political activists—Dave Dellinger, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Seale, Jerry Rubin, and Lee Weiner—with crossing state lines as part of a conspiracy to incite riot. Their carnivalesque trial, which ran from late September 1969 into February 1970, resulted in five convictions (later overturned) and citations of contempt that included defense lawyers William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass—hence Morgen’s “10.”

Arguably the greatest media spectacle of the High ’60s, the convention telecast included ample street violence—demonstrators chanting “The whole world is watching” as helmeted cops bashed their brains. Scarcely a year later, the event was replayed in Haskell Wexler’s innovative docudrama Medium Cool and Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago—not to mention the most elaborate of these re-creations, the Chicago Conspiracy Trial, produced by Nixon himself (though Chicago 10 barely mentions him). The trial ran for nearly five months and enjoyed an immediate afterlife: The Tales of Hoffman, a 300-page sampling of the trial record, was published as a mass-market quickie a month after the proceedings ended.

If the convention was a tragedy, the trial was a farce. Revisiting events at once overly familiar and impossible to imagine, Morgen’s impure mix of documentary footage and rotoscopic computer animation is unrelenting Sturm und Drang. Chicago 10 has a deliberate and irritating absence of context but a full appreciation of antics—as when the Yippie defendants Hoffman and Rubin appeared in judicial drag, and, forced to disrobe, Hoffman revealed a Chicago police uniform underneath. These shenanigans were equaled only by those of his 74-year-old namesake, Judge Julius J. Hoffman, who sustained prosecution objections and overruled those of the defense at a ratio of perhaps 100 to 1. Taunted throughout, most powerfully by Black Panther co-founder Seale, the judge rarely failed to take the bait. (What goes around . . . : Nine years earlier, Hoffman had ruled in favor of the literary magazine Big Table, charged with obscenity for publishing excerpts from Naked Lunch.)

Moving back and forth between the riots and the trial, the movie delivers ample tumult with no more historical perspective than if produced in 1970. In a sense, it’s the belated realization of the trippy guerrilla flick that Hollywood exile Nicholas Ray tried to make at the time—a mélange of 16mm, Super-8, and documentary footage mixed with a studio re-creation of the trial where the Conspiracy, as they were called rock-band-style, played themselves.

Morgen cuts back and forth and sometimes splits the screen between police riot and political trial—the courtroom is introduced with a fanfare blast of heavy metal. Most of the music is post-’60s, if sometimes covers of period classics—another strategy to make the action more “timeless.” All of the trial is animated—albeit less expressively than in Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly—and much of the documentary material has been reworked. (The hapless Abbie Hoffman biopic, Steal This Movie, was a similar mishmash, but Chicago 10 has great immediacy.) Some news footage is filmed off the television screen. Among other tidbits, Morgen, who was born the year Chicago exploded, has unearthed a local TV report on neighborhood kids playing “cops and protesters.” So much media attention was focused on the convention that even the rawest vérité footage has a powerful theatricality. The police dramatically perform their job; news reporters and demonstrators are both acutely aware of their imagined world-historical role.

For the Conspiracy, the trial was not just a show trial but the greatest show on earth—a real-life movie that would galvanize the youth of America, if not the galaxy. One of Ray’s assistants recalled that Hayden, Hoffman, and Rubin “saw themselves as potential James Deans.” Morgen concurs. His previous documentary, The Kid Stays in the Picture, fawningly celebrated producer Robert Evans, and Chicago 10 is no less glamorizing: There’s more than a bit of A Hard Day’s Night and Don’t Look Back in its presentation of the most garrulous, Abbie (Hank Azaria), and his sidekick, Jerry (Mark Ruffalo).

Abbie, who also does stand-up shtick, is the movie’s stellar wise guy, as Seale (Jeffrey Wright) is its heroic victim—but, now as then, the most fascinating performance is that of the fussy, name-mangling, imperious little judge. Introducing The Tales of Hoffman, Dwight MacDonald characterized Julius Hoffman’s courtroom manner as “arrogant without dignity, wisecracking without wit, a combination of Torquemada and a Borscht-circuit tummeler.” Ray hoped to cast Groucho Marx in the part; here, the late Roy Scheider captures Hoffman’s mix of querulous confusion and bizarre equanimity.

In his history of the trial, John Schultz noted that “the struggle for the laugh and to suppress the laugh [were its] principle forms of aggression and unification.” But Abbie’s pranks were dwarfed by Julius’s judicial outrages, culminating in his denying Seale the right to represent himself and then, rattled by Seale’s protests, ordering him gagged and shackled. This image of a black man in bondage was agitprop beyond even the Yippie imagination. Although it occurred relatively early in the proceedings, Morgen understandably holds it back for the climax—intercut with the madness of the convention’s final day, police running amok as hell breaks loose in downtown Chicago.

However authentically chaotic, Chicago 10 is insufficiently frenzied. For all its shock value, the trial was not the only game in town. During those months, a half-million anti-war demonstrators marched on Washington and were tear-gassed on the Mall, Seymour Hersh broke My Lai, the Rolling Stones played Altamont, and Leonard Bernstein threw a party for the Panther 24 (inspiring Tom Wolfe’s term “radical chic”). America was introduced to new personalities: the Weathermen, Lieutenant William Calley, Charlie Manson, and (as embodied by George C. Scott) George Patton. From the perspective of the Conspiracy Trial, the most dramatic event occurred a few days before the defense began its case: Chicago police stormed the apartment of the charismatic local Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and shot him dead in his bed. Could the threat have been more obvious?

It was too much to take in then and is all but incomprehensible now. According to the trades, Morgen’s deliberately ahistorical treatment is a dry run for Steven Spielberg’s planned Trial of the Chicago 7—to be scripted by Aaron Sorkin, with Sacha Baron Cohen and possibly Will Smith as Abbie and Bobby. Schindler’s List gave the Holocaust a happy ending, and Saving Private Ryan reduced World War II to a single mission, so why not recast the inexplicable convulsions of the late ’60s in terms of personality? From bloody tragedy to savage farce to starstruck myth.

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Dr. Feelgood

“We’re Americans. We go into other countries when we need to. It’s tricky, but it works.” So declares Michael Moore in the midst of his new documentary, Sicko. Moore may be riffing on the war in Iraq, to name only our most recent intervention, but he’s actually referring to U.S. citizens crossing the border into Canada for cheap meds and free health care.

There hasn’t been a comparable joker in the left-wing deck since Abbie Hoffman went underground. But while Hoffman played the media, Moore uses it to play fast and loose. Still, Sicko, which had its world premiere last month at Cannes (where mainstream Moore is romanticized as the subversive maker of celluloid samizdats), shows America’s preeminent cinemuckraker in a seriously polemical mode. The Weinstein Brothers, who produced and are co-distributing Sicko, might have ripped off the title of one of their greatest hits and called it Scary Movie.

Sicko’s opening gross-out features a guy suturing his own wound—but, as Moore points out, this movie isn’t about him or the 50 million other Americans without health insurance. It’s about the 250 million Americans who do have coverage—like the 79-year-old guy working in a supermarket to maintain his prescription-drug benefits. The movie’s first half-hour is a virtual sideshow: Step right up and see the medically bankrupt couple forced to live in their daughter’s basement trophy room, the woman whose insurance carrier told her that she failed to get an emergency ambulance “pre-approved,” the employee who lost her benefits because she didn’t report an ancient yeast infection as a preexisting condition.

Annotating these and other, more ghastly human-interest stories, Moore—who for much of Sicko is narrator rather than participant—adopts a tone dripping with treacle and sarcasm. He’s the P.T. Barnum of human misery who, going back to Roger & Me, has never been one to let details interfere with a good story. And yet, as Moore builds his case that health insurance in America is essentially a profit-making enterprise based on bilking the afflicted, the cumulative effect of this material is devastating.

Expert witnesses are called. Dr. Linda Peeno tearfully testifies that in fulfilling her mandate as an HMO medical director, she’s withheld services that have cost lives. Politicians are produced—not just Bush, always available for some idiotic comment, but even Hillary Clinton, whom Moore dresses down with the fury of a jilted lover, pointing out that, after the debacle of her 1994 bid for universal health coverage, she is now the No. 2 recipient of HMO donations.

After demonstrating the state of health care in America, Moore visits those industrial societies that enjoy universal coverage—Canada, Great Britain (where even an American nincompoop who threw out his back trying to cross Abbey Road on his hands gets free hospitalization), and, above all, France. This love letter—fawning enough to add the suffix “phant” to the movie’s title—inspired a smattering of embarrassed applause at Cannes. But really, it should embarrass us. When Moore jokes that the wonders of the French health-care system were “enough to make me put away my Freedom Fries,” he’s obviously thinking about the health of the body politic rather than his own.

As filmmaking, Sicko sometimes resembles an infomercial for Ozark real estate and elsewhere demonstrates a Kenneth Anger-like flare for vertical montage—as when Moore mischievously uses a jolly harvest hymn from the Stalinist musical Cossacks of the Kuban to sovietize our own marching firemen, heroic teachers, and indomitable mail carriers. In any case, it’s as a rhetorician that Moore is most original and effectively demagogic. (In his most shameless stunt, the filmmaker “anonymously” bails out an anti-Moore website, paying the proprietor’s medical bills.)
Are Bush and Giuliani the only ones allowed to dial 9/11? Cleverer than either, Moore plays that card himself. In an already notorious PR provocation, he rounds up a crew of volunteer emergency workers with untreated respiratory problems and, in answer to some C-SPAN bragging about the excellent health care available to Gitmo prisoners, organizes a flotilla to the one place on “American soil” with free universal health care. The expedition never gets closer than the edge of the base, but they do get to experience the wonders of Cuban medicine—$120 inhalers for five cents, free dental implants, a people’s hospital of cathedral-like splendor—complete with fraternal lecture from Che Guevara’s daughter.

Sicko has the clearest agenda of any Moore film, albeit one that dares not speak its name. Is there a more vivid image of human garbage than the spectacle of a Los Angeles hospital dumping indigent patients on skid row? What manner of system is this? If the American health-insurance industry is Moore’s unspoken metaphor for Capital (feeding vampire-like on human labor), Cuba is his unconvincing socialist paradise. Dr. Moore reveals all manner of symptoms—but is it impossible for him to diagnose the disaster we live without offering another sort of drug?

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Edit Me!

Whip-smart media theorist McKenzie Wark is no yippie anarchist (too much Marx, McLuhan, and tenure in him for that), but his provocative new book in progress G4M3R 7H30RY (futureofthebook.org/ gamertheory) does give him at least one thing in common with Abbie Hoffman: Not since Steal This Book has a book’s radical packaging so threatened to upstage its radical content. In Wark’s case, though, the power of the packaging is more than title deep. In collaboration with the Institute for the Future of the Book, Wark is launching G4M3R 7H30RY as a “networked book,” opening it up online for extended comment and conversation before it finally goes to print. This is no Wikipedia—Wark’s text stands inviolate amid the surrounding clatter of discussion—but it has a similarly collaborative flavor and has already attracted a lively community of kibitzers offering everything from nitpicking copyedits to wholesale conceptual critique. In an age of the hyperlink and the blogosphere, there has been some question whether there’s a future of the book at all, but the warm, productive dialogue that’s shaping G4M3R 7H30RY may well be it.

Then again, if G4M3R 7H30RY‘s argument is right, books may well have to cede their role as the preeminent means of understanding culture to another medium altogether: the video game. Wark sets out here on a quest for nothing less than a critical theory of games (the book’s leetspeak title, for those who’ve never laid a finger on an Xbox, translates to “gamer theory”), and the mantric question he carries with him is “Can we explore games as allegories for the world we live in?” Turns out we can, but the complexity of contemporary games is such that no one mind is up to mapping it all, and Wark’s experiment in collaborative revision may be the best way to do the exploring.

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Funny Money

You’ve seen them at rallies. You’ve seen them at demonstrations. Now you can catch that most theatrical of protest groups, the Billionaires for Bush, in a place both unlikely and inevitable—a theater. Through April 15, the Billionaire Follies, the performing wing of the organization, is presenting Spring Bling!, a weekly satirical revue at the Ace of Clubs.

If there’s a heaven for Yippies, right now an angel named Abbie Hoffman has a big smile on his face. The Billionaires are his foremost stepchildren, as savvy as they are hilarious in their public demonstrations, tailored to draw media and public attention to the twin disasters of Bush’s defense and social policies. Their performances are the stuff of cartoons: every Billionaire some variation on Thurston Howell III or Lovey, decked out in tuxedos and evening gowns, golf clubs and martini glasses in hand, to remind the most apathetic citizenry in history that their leaders really don’t care about them.

The Billionaires started turning up around the turn of the millennium at WTO and World Economic Forum protests in Seattle and New York, and during the 2000 election (when they were known—innocently, in retrospect—as Billionaires for Bush and Gore). In 2004, with a war on and the stakes higher than ever before, the group’s membership and visibility escalated geometrically in the hoopla surrounding the ill-conceived Republican National Convention in New York. Since then, the streets have been quieter, but that doesn’t mean the Billionaires have gone away.

Now that we are between elections, the Follies are one of the organization’s more visible arms. Composed of equal parts professional performers and enthusiastic amateurs, the feisty troupe presents political comedy sketches and song parodies at fundraisers and rallies. Following the 2004 election, they presented a show called Dick Cheney’s Holiday Spectacular. The 2005 incarnation at the Ace of Clubs was such a hit that the venue asked them back, and thus was the current extravaganza born.

For a group famous for taking their shenanigans out to public spaces, it would seem to be a reversal of strategy to make the public come to them. But Billionaires national co-chair Elissa Jiji (a/k/a Meg A. Bucks) says, “Our job is to catch them wherever they are. We can also help to politicize people who just like funny satire—not everyone who comes will already be an activist. And an important part of our mission has always been to help fight despair. No brand ever wanted to lose its brand identity more than Billionaires for Bush.”

Melody Bates (a/k/a Ivy League-Legacy), artistic director of the Billionaire Follies and national co-chair, concurs: “There is a sense of reward and productiveness in what we do. I love the way people feel excited and not downtrodden at the end of our performances. That’s when it feels really successful.”

To lighten the hearts of progressives and energize the fence-sitters, the Billionaires have put together a revue featuring the Halliburton Dancers (led by choreographer DJ MacDonald, a/k/a Seamus Lee Rich), sketches starring host George W. Bush (played by David Bennett, a/k/a Robin N. Steelin), and a dozen or so songs, like the hilarious “The Real Dick Cheney,” based on Eminem’s “Slim Shady,” devised and delivered by Mark Silverman (a/k/a Doctor DeBooks). Audiences get to play games like “Pin the Brain on the President” and “Target Practice With Dick Cheney.”

Spring Bling! is a labor of love on the part of its all-volunteer cast, which ranges from pros like the show’s director, Mahayana Landowne (a/k/a Bella De Ball), to a lawyer and a math professor. Like the proverbial musical in a barn, it is the product of donated rehearsal space, hand-me-down costumes, and a goofy dream. And the best part is audiences can sleep soundly knowing the admission price is going to a good cause—the Billionaires.

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Dear Abbie’s Esquire

Gerald Lefcourt made his name as a lawyer for the 1960s counterculture; Abbie Hoffman dedicated his classic Steal This Book to Jerry Lefcourt, Lawyer and Brother. The prominent New York defense attorney’s roster of former clients includes people like Hoffman, Harry Helmsley, Sly Stone, Sid Vicious, the Black Panthers, and Hunter S. Thompson. Right now, he’s representing Murder Inc. hip-hop moguls Irv and Chris “Gotti” Lorenzo.

I know now you’re representing Irv Gotti, but in the past—as early as the late ’60s—you were already getting involved with representing various musicians. I heard you represented Sly Stone. Well, it was unfortunately his down period when he would not show up to concerts and be the subject of mammoth lawsuits. And I represented him for six or eight months, and it was too difficult to deal with for me. [Laughs] He was just out there at that point.

And Sid Vicious? Well, Sid was charged in criminal courts here. I didn’t represent him long, because he ended his life before I could really do anything. The worst thing I probably did for him was to get him out on bail, because that led almost directly to what occurred [his death from an overdose].

Because he was celebrating? Celebrating, or carrying on, or whatever.

You’ve been representing Russell Crowe in the phone-throwing case. In what way is it different representing a movie star? It’s really not very different. It’s about media attention. And they all have to be dealt with the same way when you have a high-profile situation. The prosecutors react to high-profile situations in very different ways, so your job is to try to find the common thread of what makes sense, and what’s just in a particular situation. High-profile cases get different attention.

You’ve said that Abbie Hoffman was your favorite client. What made Abbie different from the rest of the people you’ve worked with? He was inspiring. He was shockingly brilliant, and had an understanding of government and our system, and what it took to move it. And he was a mentor. He was older than I. As a matter of fact, when we did sit down and met, we spent the night talking, and when the sun came up, he said, “Let’s make a pact. I will change society and make a revolution, and you keep me outta jail.” [Laughs] And I believed he could.

You never charged him anything. No. I was part of his movement. And my role was a little different, but I was very much a part of his movement. And that’s the way he was. He organized people.

You were good friends with Hunter S. Thompson, too. It was probably very hard for you to deal with the news a couple of months ago. Yeah. I went out for the memorial; it was quite an event. It was like, seven hours of drinking and speechifying, and more drinking, and speechifying, with the likes of Johnny Depp and Sean Penn and Jack Nicholson and all of the people that were close to him, and that he was affected by.

Did the protests of the last few years remind you at all of the ’60s? A little bit. One of the ones that reminded me a little bit of Abbie was that group Billionaires for Bush. That’s sort of an Abbie type notion.

If Abbie was still alive today, what would you want to say to him? I would say to him what all of the people who knew him loved him for: “What shall we do?” And he would know. He would know. He was a phenomenal leader; he always analyzed it and dealt with it, and dealt with it in a way that was funny and interesting—in an effective way.

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Trick or Treason

The author of I’m Gonna to Kill the President wants you to know that merely uttering the name of his play is a federal offense, so he’s helpfully tacked on the words “A Federal Offense” to the end of the title. Such subtlety is characteristic of this cheerfully sophomoric satire—an act of lowbrow political sedition that believes the only thing funnier than a ribald Bush joke is the same ribald Bush joke told over and over. Call it beating a dead elephant: With all the RNC-inspired art in the city this week, IGKTP isn’t bound to cause much of a stir, but it does manage to land a few well-timed punches amid all the jokey shadowboxing.

A brief prologue introduces us to Skip, an Abbie Hoffman-like relic whose attempt to blow up a Washington, D.C., restaurant goes awry (his girlfriend gets blown up instead). Skip flees to New York, where he befriends Fifi, an alienated NYU co-ed searching for meaning in a Starbucks universe. Old radicalism meets new, and Skip and Fifi embark on an adventure that takes them from the NYU dorms to a public bathroom in Kmart, back to Washington, and ultimately to Guantánamo Bay. From time to time, a giant green monster (symbolizing “mass media”) appears onstage to gobble up supporting characters and regurgitate them as compliant consumers.

The cast dives into this mess with the spontaneous verve of a top-notch improv troupe (too bad the actors’ names have been blacked out CIA-style on the program). But for all the manic energy on display, the best parts of the play come before and after the formal action. Before: The public must call the above telephone number for directions. A man with a Texas drawl tells you to wait on 10th Street between avenues A and B, from where you’ll be whisked away to a “secret location”—très Dick Cheney! And after: Without giving too much away, let’s just say that the onstage inanity comes to a shockingly abrupt end. Rest assured, you won’t be laughing as you exit the theater.

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Happy Hacking

A long time ago, in a reality far, far away, a certain legendary hippie freedom fighter lobbed a cunning little think bomb at the publishing industry of his day. The bomb was a book, a bestselling how-to manual for the author’s fellow revolutionaries, loaded with practical tips on copping dope, constructing Molotov cocktails, incapacitating riot police, defrauding record-of-the-month clubs, and otherwise hastening the downfall of the Pig Empire. Incendiary stuff for sure, and no doubt the 30-plus publishing houses that rejected the manuscript (before the author finally published it himself) did so well-advised by their own freaked-out legal departments. But probably nothing advocated in the pages of the book rattled publishers as much as the advice framed, famously, in its title. In an era when the book business could still barely admit it was a business—let alone contemplate the overthrow of its 300-year-old business model—Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book dared it to do both.

Three decades later, Sam Williams’s Free as in Freedom—a long-overdue (if somewhat undercooked) profile of legendary hacker-freedom fighter Richard Stallman, creator of the nonproprietary GNU operating system and founder of the burgeoning free-software movement—poses roughly the same challenge, and in much the same way. The differences, however, are both striking and illuminating.

In place of Hoffman’s tongue-in-cheeky title, for instance, this book offers a rather more substantial invention of Stallman’s: the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.1, seven pages of dead serious legalese appended to the text and granting general permission to more or less steal the bejesus out of it—i.e., to “copy and distribute the Document in any medium, either commercially or noncommercially, provided that this License, the copyright notices, and the license notice saying this License applies to the Document are reproduced in all copies.” And while 30 years ago such terms would have been an even harder sell than Hoffman’s manuscript was, Williams seems to have had little trouble convincing O’Reilly & Associates, Inc., a well-established computer books publisher, not only to release Free as in Freedom under the GNU license but also to provide a free online version of the text as well.

How the world’s political economy came to accommodate such a book is, in a loose sense, just what the book is about. More precisely, its subject is Stallman, a virtuoso computer programmer who in 1983 set himself the selfless task of building an entire Unix-like operating system (the name GNU stands, with typical hacker wit, for “GNU’s Not Unix”) and dedicating it to the public domain. Soon thereafter he invented the radically nonproprietary form of copyright license (sometimes called a “copyleft”) under which GNU was to be released. And the rest is technological history. Half-finished for years, GNU was effectively completed in the early ’90s, when Finnish hacker Linus Torvalds picked up the ball and created the GNU-compatible, copylefted Linux operating system. Beloved of hackers (who like its open-hooded tinkerability and general libertarian vibe) and of major tech companies like IBM and Sun (who like the economics of having thousands of hackers working round the clock, for free, to improve their software), GNU/Linux has spread fast enough to become a credible threat to the Microsoft hegemony.

Scruffy of beard and long of hair, brilliantly obsessive, unnervingly intense, and given to such charming, geekish eccentricities as eating his split ends in public and ending every conversation with an earnest “Happy hacking,” Stallman is a character, and the book tries fitfully to be the character study he deserves. Much is made of the “crushing loneliness” of Stallman’s classic nerd-boy youth and of the likelihood that he suffers from the high-functioning form of autism known as Asperger syndrome (or more trendily as the “geek syndrome”). More than anything else, Williams suggests, it was his acute difficulty finding connection with other human beings that made Stallman a crusader against intellectual property. The almost edenically collaborative world of MIT programmers was the first and only real community Stallman knew, and when he woke up to the essentially anti-collaborative nature of the commercial copyrights that were beginning to invade that world in the early ’80s, he got to work like a man whose home is on fire.

Or so the story goes, and though in Williams’s telling it bogs down far too frequently in technical details, it’s not a bad one. Compelling or not, though, one man’s psychodrama does not a political-economic sea change make. Stallman’s crusade matters, in the end, not because his passion has made it matter but because the history of intellectual property has at last reached a crisis of epochal proportions. Just as the printing press begat the age of copyright, so now the computer portends a new tectonic shift in the relationship between ideas and markets—but exactly what kind of shift? Will we get the anarchic free-for-all dreamed of in the philosophies of Napster and its irrepressible progeny? Will we get the corporate police state portended by draconian copyright legislation aimed at capturing for media robber barons the vast new realms of profit in digital distribution?

Or will we get what Stallman has made his life’s mission to give us: a well-tended intellectual commons amid the increasingly fenced-in realms of intellectual property? Only time and the complex, fast-moving politics of technology will tell, and therein lies the real drama of Stallman’s story.

Unfortunately, as with Stallman’s personal life, Williams only fitfully succeeds at getting the drama across. If you’re looking for a better understanding of the political stakes involved in the free-software debate, for a clearer sense of how its outcome will transform not only technology but culture in the broadest sense of the word, you’re better off looking elsewhere (Lawrence Lessig’s lucid and penetrating The Future of Ideas would be a good place to start). In one key respect, though, Free as in Freedom conveys uniquely what Stallman’s fight has been all about. By copylefting his book, Williams offers a concrete glimpse of how literary creativity might work in a world where everyone took at its word the proposition even Abbie Hoffman only took half seriously. Free as in Freedom may disappoint, but since anyone can steal this book, rewrite it to his or her taste, then post it back to the Internet, sooner or later someone may do just that. The author as we’ve known him for the last several centuries dies his final death, reborn as a perpetual collaborator. And while this may not satisfy the average freedom fighter’s idea of utopia, to this reviewer it feels like the next best thing to heaven: a world in which there are no bad books, only rough drafts.

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Multiple Maniacs

The much maligned “Sixties” refer less to a precise decade than to a chunk of time lasting a dozen years or so when, for a host of reasons ranging from the threat of World War III to the saturation of TV to the proliferation of LSD, it seemed as though America’s social and psychic reality was up for grabs.

At least, that was the fantasy. The hapless Abbie Hoffman biopic Steal This Movie! attempts to depict this heady moment, just as John Waters’s infinitely cannier, if only marginally more successful, Cecil B. DeMented allegorizes it. Waters grasps the essential dilemma. The ’60s resist filmic representation in part because of the era’s delusional quality—more than a few who lived through it imagined themselves the protagonists, or the directors, of an ongoing movie.

It’s this impulse that Waters celebrates in Cecil B. DeMented—a satire of his own early movies like Multiple Maniacs, wherein dedicated bands of social-outcast “life-actors” launched outrageous guerrilla attacks on bourgeois reality. The media-savvy, hippie rabble- rouser Hoffman was himself one such life-actor—showering the New York Stock Exchange with dollar bills, nominating a pig outside the 1968 Democratic Convention, blatantly theatricalizing the Chicago Seven trial—and it’s sobering to think that, if the veils of illusion were parted in the cosmic scheme of things, he might actually have been the star of something as badly directed, shot, and acted as Steal This Movie!

Seen without sentimentality, Hoffman was an unstable, self-promoting, highly perceptive, and genuinely funny individual whose manic temperament was magically in accord with the national mood from 1967 through 1970.Producer-director Robert Greenwald, best known for the camp debacle Xanadu, presents him in a historical vacuum, using the perspective of 1977 as a vantage point, with then fugitive Abbie telling his story to a lunkhead alternative press reporter he’s designated for the task. The flashbacks and interviews with, among others, Hoffman’s wife, Anita (Janeane Garofalo, given a real role for a change, albeit in a fake movie), are at once inflated and pitiful. Everything is a sort of spontaneous efflorescence—Abbie brawling with undercover cops at the Free Store, staging grotesque hippie soirees in the East Village, sliding around in the mud with Anita as preparation for the Yippie demonstrations in Chicago.

Crude and physically overbearing where the actual Hoffman was puckish and slight, Vincent D’Onofrio appears to take the film’s title literally—although he doesn’t steal the movie so much as squelch it. The actor guards each scene like a junkyard dog, obnoxiously smirking and swaggering through a world of cutouts. Meanwhile, the filmmakers emphasize his character’s hysterical paranoia. D’Onofrio’s blunderbuss performance obliterates whatever wit and charm Hoffman had. To her credit, Garofalo seems embarrassed.

At once simple-mindedly didactic and utterly chaotic, Steal This Movie! is interspersed with fake headlines and botched history (“Nixon elected in landslide,” one newspaper reports on the extremely close 1968 election), and thanks to the primitive Gumpery of the montage, even the newsreel footage looks like a cruddy restaging. The most authentic aspect is the cluttered mise-en-scène of the Hoffman loft, with its Salvation Army sofas and Indian fabrics. Confusingly, the screenplay suggests that Hoffman was the main target of the illegal FBI and CIA domestic intelligence operations that were widely written about during the early and mid ’70s and even the subject of Senate hearings.

There are facts here—the infiltration of the antiwar movement by police provocateurs, the gagging of Bobby Seale at the Chicago Seven trial—that deserve reiteration. But the film’s educational impulse would have been far more effectively served by a documentary. As it stands, Greenwald’s barely coherent mishmash discredits itself. When it comes to misinterpreting the ’60s, Ronald Reagan couldn’t have done a better job. The final scene even offers its own redemptive “Morning in America” aspects.

Thanks to the successful lithium program promoted by Anita and Hoffman’s underground consort (Jeanne Tripplehorn), a scrubbed and glowing Abbie makes a final Capraesque courtroom speech—complete with twanging folk guitar—to a new generation of activists. For a moment, I imagined I was watching the socialist realist hagiography that might have been made by the least talented member of the Hollywood Ten had Abbie been martyred and George McGovern elected president.


John Waters began his career as a quasi-underground director whose shoestring productions satirized hippie tolerance even as they exploited it. Thus, Cecil B. DeMented is both a parody of and a tribute to the ’60s that proclaims, “Power to the people—perish bad cinema.” Would that it were so.

A cult of Baltimore-based guerrilla filmmakers led by the eponymous tousle-haired punk (Stephen Dorff) infiltrates a charity benefit premiere and kidnaps the guest of honor, overripe Hollywood diva Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith). Honey is held captive in their secret movie set and forced to act in DeMented’s “outlaw sinema”—a movie that will destroy the mainstream. The contradiction between the cult’s high-minded anticommercialism (“We believe technique to be nothing more than failed style”) and low-minded taste for gossip and innuendo (asking Honey about “Mel Gibson’s dick and balls”) is resolved with the invocation of Andy Warhol.

Less grandiose than his alter ego, Waters is content to take potshots at the current system. The DeMented gang desecrates a biography of David Lean, shoots up a theater showing the “director’s cut” of Patch Adams, battles Teamsters to disrupt the filming of Gump Again with Kevin Nealon in the title role, and takes refuge in a friendly porn theater. Honey, ultimately made up to resemble Waters’s first diva, Divine, is tricked into launching a terrorist attack on the Maryland Film Commission luncheon and consequently considered to have joined the gang. Although the cult has a Yippie-like appreciation of the media and uses a few Manson Family formulations, this is Waters’s version of the ’60s-ending Patty Hearst story. (Indeed, Patty herself has a celebrity cameo.)

The movie is disappointingly flat, but at least it’s not mawkish. Where Steal This Movie! delivers a final insult by ending with a sappy blast of Crosby, Stills, and Nash (“Rejoice, rejoice, we have no choice”), Cecil B. DeMented has the grace to send the audience out with a piece of Waters-written rap that brags, “We ain’t got no budget. Fuck keeping it clean. Ain’t nobody putting us in turnaround. We ain’t recouping shit.”


An unusually rich music doc, The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack has three concerns. The first is the tradition created on behalf of the folk during the middle third of the 20th century; the second is the process by which doctor’s son Elliott Adnopoz, born in Brooklyn 69 years ago, ran off to join the rodeo, and returned as Ramblin’ Jack Elliott; the third is the attempt by filmmaker Aiyana Elliott to make contact with this elusive figure, her father.

Some people are born authentic, others achieve authenticity. Ramblin’ Jack never made the big time. (The film suggests a 1969 appearance on Johnny Cash’s TV show as his career high point.) But, true to his invented persona, he’s still doing the same thing that, back in 1961, made him the heartthrob of Gerde’s Folk City, picking and yodeling his “cowboy music”—a hipster in a battered Stetson, peering through wire-rimmed glasses with the quizzical air of a wizened yeshiva student.

A bit meandering itself, Ramblin’ Jack has a home-movie quality—and not just because of the amazing amount of old footage the filmmaker has excavated. There’s plenty of family stuff to ponder. Ancient relatives dis Jack’s overbearing parents—citing a nasty streak that one can see has been passed on. Young Elliott was expected to be a doctor, but he found himself a new father. Astonished to discover Woody Guthrie living in Coney Island, Elliott all but moved into the Guthrie household. As the ailing singer-songwriter’s last and most adoring sidekick, he would subsequently channel Woody for a younger generation of performers—including Bob Dylan, another curly-haired Jewish cowboy, who began his career by parroting Ramblin’ Jack’s nasal, faux-Okie bawl.

The filmmaker, meanwhile, is stuck with the father she barely knew. “The thing is, I can’t remember having an actual conversation with my dad,” she recalls. The sagelike advice she receives from Arlo Guthrie—another, if differently abandoned child—is that she never will. Aiyana is still trying to get her father’s attention even as he receives the ultimate Ozark recognition—a National Medal of the Arts presented by the ultimate ’60s rambling man, Bill Clinton.

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The Way We Were

If there is a classic Richard Avedon portrait, it’s not the one near the end of his latest photo book, The Sixties. The picture wasn’t even shot in the ’60s but in 1971, when its subject—and the movement—were already past their ironic prime. And it’s not in black and white, the usual choice for a photographer whose signature is the stark contrast of people posed against a white backdrop—a setup, Avedon has said, that permits his subjects “to become symbolic of themselves.” This time the shooter doesn’t determine what the symbol should be, and Avedon’s famous passion for control gives way to an almost caressing empathy. Why the anomaly? Maybe it’s because of who this person was in life and is in memory.

Abbie Hoffman’s fame rested on his personality, and politics was his only product. These intangible achievements are reason enough to consider him the emblem of a decade when style and substance merged, and the naked cry of selfhood was the spark of revolution—or so we thought. Yet Abbie, the anarch of radical hip, was also a man who
battled depression and sported many scars from close encounters with the police. (In this culminating photo, his often-broken nose bears the marks of a fresh bandage.) No wonder Avedon decided to frame The Sixties with two images of Abbie, opening with a characteristic pose—his middle finger raised to the world, his forehead blazoned with the word fuck—and closing with a portrait of the revolution artist as a man whose punch-drunk pride prefigures his suicide. “Abbie sets up the issues at the start and answers them at the end,” says Doon Arbus, who compiled the text that accompanies these pictures from interviews she conducted at the time. “There’s a heightening of passions and beliefs, and then …it kind of crumbles.”

Avedon is loath to discuss the trajectory of such an inconclusive decade. But he knows what matters most about the ’60s: “The eternal things were given permission to rise and express themselves through political convictions. There was a license to exhibit, to come forward and use oneself in the theater of protest. But what snuck through were the deeper internal problems of being a person…. When you’re thinking the book is its most political, you’re hearing a cry against loneliness.”

At 76, Avedon himself is in a culminating
moment, “struggling with what the last period of my work will be.” There are so many possibilities for an artist whose career has shat-
tered every boundary a critic could police. It’s hard to believe, in this omnimedia era, but
the line between fine and commercial art was once so rigid that, when Avedon’s work first appeared in major museums, the response was, well, let Hilton Kramer’s review of a
Whitney retrospective say it: “The ultimate capitulation to celebrity, money, and fashion
at the expense of art.” Scathing comments were directed at Avedon’s way with his subjects—intrusive and cruel, some critics cried— but their real beef was with his success in the slicks. Avedon redefined fashion photography in the postwar era, bringing light and motion
to what had been a sepulchral stateliness. What’s more, his own image (the dark-haired, darting boy) was so intriguing that Fred
Astaire appropriated it in Funny Face. Such a media celebrity was supposed to be seen but not taken seriously.

So there’s a certain logic to Avedon’s latest book. After all, the ’60s were when he burst from beneath the skirts of chic into the arena
of art. He became a bad boy simply because
his pictures bit the class that fed him, by showing the rich and powerful in states of icy insulation or desuetude. He became a prophet just by documenting the rise of superstars. But it’s his portraits of activists, artists, and just plain folks in the grip of bemusement (such as soldiers in Vietnam posing with big-haired,
mini-skirted girls) that resonate with the spirit of the ’60s. Subjectivity, sensation, a fascination with surface, a blurring of fact and fiction: These are hallmarks of postmodernism, but Avedon was present at the creation. In fact, along with Andy Warhol, Norman Mailer, and the Beatles, he was the creation.

Avedon’s big idea was to think of a photograph as “an opinion,” and portraiture as “performance.” His New Journalism of the eye intersected brilliantly with an era of insurrectionary gestures, in which persona was the measure of a person, and the self was no mere construction but something essential that showed on the surface nonetheless. The ’60s gaze—intense, libidinous, sincere as only narcissism can be—is at the heart of what makes this book compelling.

Yet, for all their insistence on radical
candor, ’60s artists understood that representing the real self is a fictive process. So, unlike the documentary photographers who preceded him, Avedon dared to direct his subjects.
“It was a collaboration, not a caught moment,” he recalls. “I wanted the image to emanate,
as if it was always there and I wasn’t, but
that comes only from being there”—and being in control.

What made this shift possible was changing equipment. “I’d been using a Rolleiflex, which meant I would look through the camera, hidden by it, and have only an indirect relationship to the person I was photographing.
I began to feel that the camera was taking the picture, and all I had to do was move in with that Rolleiflex. It was part of the snapshot aesthetic, and I wanted to slow it down.” Using
an 8-by-10 view camera forced Avedon and
his subjects not to move. “They were stuck to each other,” says Arbus. “And this kind of meeting, where the photographer and his subject were really facing each other, naked, so to speak, was a big thing.”

Does he find a similar engagement in photography today? “I’m trying to,” Avedon replies. But this is not a moment that rewards an attitude of unsparing earnestness, certainly not in commercial photography. Irony is the new sincerity, and that leaves Avedon in a weary state of suspension. “When I’ve done ironic photography,” he says, “I’m a little ashamed of it. I look back on some of those pictures, they’re my weakest work.” He may have been the fabricator of countless fictions that came to signify reality, but he still believes in the authentic self: “It’s all we have.”

For an artist who has always located himself in the moment, Avedon seems oddly out of time. He’s searching for a new place “where
I want to pay attention. At the moment, that’s what I’m struggling with, and I don’t have
any solution.”

He still takes pictures, mostly for The New Yorker, and they still compel the eye. But he’s turned his back on his greatest tactical advantage: his love affair with the present. Avedon barely even looks at magazines anymore. “There are millions of magazines,” he says ruefully, “millions of photographers.”

These days, his prodigious energy is lavished on creating a rolling retrospective of his work, in books like The Sixties. He hopes these pictures will make young people feel as he did when he first read F. Scott Fitzgerald: that sense of being present at a time when the world seemed utterly unmade.

“It’s a foreign country, the ’60s,” Avedon says. He could be talking about himself, just as he was always photographing himself—the artist materializing in his subject, the whole process full of pain, confusion, and struggle, always struggle. “Peace is a very complicated concept,” Abbie Hoffman tells Doon Arbus. “When the lion gobbles up the lamb and wipes his lips, then there’s peace. Well, I…I ain’t for that peace at all.”

That picture of Abbie—the one with the wounded, stubborn, soulful face—resonates with what the children of the ’60s, including Richard Avedon, have become. As this rememberer of things past says, “It’s the madeleine.” 


Research assistance: Jason Schwartzberg