Saturday, January 23, 2010

Review: The Weather Underground (2007)

Terrorism was on everyone'e mind this past decade. It began with the attacks of 9/11 and ended with the failed airplane bomb plot on Christmas Day 2009. The award winning documentary, The Weather Underground, is a somber look at a group of 1960s radicals that resorted to violence. Their rage at the government's persecution of the Vietnam War and frustration with ineffective anti-war movement led to go underground and "bring the war home." In time, the Weathermen hoped radicalize all young people, overthrow the government, and inaugurate a new Utopian society. A tall order indeed. The film combined narration, archival footage, and interviews with former members. At the heart of The Weather Underground is the question of how citizens should express dissent with the government and no clear answers are given. Unfortunately, the film rests on the myths of the 1960s and and a not so subtle commentary on the Bush administration (2001-2009)

The Weathermen were a splinter group of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the vanguard of the campus revolts of the 1960s and 1970s. Created in 1962 in Port Huron, Michigan, they advocated for a new "participatory democracy" and non-violent resistance to war and racism. They spoke directly to a younger generation frustrated with the complacency of their parents towards the Cold War and the struggle for Civil Rights. But it was the Vietnam War that defined them. As the war intensified and the draft calls cut into the middle class the anti-war ranks increased. Some members of SDS favored a more confrontational approach towards the government and they broke away to create the Weatherman (they took their name from the Dylan lyric from Subterranean Homesick Blues, "you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows").

Several figures from the group were interviewed and all have differing views of their past actions. Some have regrets and some do not. From 1969-1975 the Weatherman were responsible for several bombings on government buildings. In 1970, a bomb accidentally went off in Greenwich Village and killed three of its own members. After the incident the group decided to take every precaution to avoid civilian casualties, but they still considered those that disagreed with them complicit with the government. A dangerous line of thinking when one believes they have all the answers, that is a pure terrorist. As the Vietnam War slowly came to an end the Weatherman fell into obscurity.

The film did a fine job of presenting the Weathermen's viewpoint, but is lacking in historical context. They relied on the myths of the 1960s. The first myth is that most young people opposed the war, when in fact most did. More young people went conservative in the 1960s; membership in the conservative student group YAF (Young Americans for Freedom) were higher than SDS. Furthermore, the film gives a superficial depiction of the Vietnam War. It never explains why America was there in the first place, but that it was just a war that most people were against. Another flaw is its depiction of Richard Nixon, showing cherry picked clips with Nixon sounding angry and intolerant. Must every 60s themed film fall back on Nixon as the ultimate bad guy?

At the documentary's heart is the question of dissent in a democratic society. How far should it go? If you disagree with the administration in power, what is the proper course of action? There are no satisfactory answers to those questions, at least I have no answers. From a historical standpoint, America was forged in a violent revolution and rebelling against tyranny is always an admired American trait. Then there was the Civil War (1861-1865), but that was a war to prevent secession, as the South did want to conquer the North. In recent history, there was the 1995 Oklahoma City attacks by a right wing fanatic that despised the government. Dissent is only successful when it has a large following, otherwise they remain on the fringes. Acts of violence on innocent people rarely win people to your cause.

By the end The Weather Underground has the feel of a depressing class reunion. None of them seems too proud of their past actions. One former member, bar owner, Brian Flanagan, regrets his involvement with the group. He sees no honor in the use of violence to make a political point, especially in the wake of 9/11. Others remain committed to various causes and believe that violent change may be necessary. For students or anyone viewing the film, however, perhaps it is better to understand the nature of power before deciding how to dissent. Isn't the entire point of having a democracy?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Review: "The Battle over Citizen Kane"

The PBS documentary "The Battle over Citizen Kane" from the acclaimed anthology series, The American Experience is a compelling snapshot of cultural history. The show depicts the clash between the media mogul William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951) and actor/director Orson Welles (1915-1985) over the release of what is universally considered the greatest American film ever made, Citizen Kane. Both men left indelible impressions on their respective eras. Hearst is to American journalism what John D. Rockefeller was to oil, as he controlled a sizable portion of the newspaper industry for the first half of the 20th century. Welles revolutionized American theater and film in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1941, Hearst and Wells, an old man and a young man, clashed over the limits of artistic expression on the eve of America's entry into the Second World War. The film skillfully used narration, photography, and the usual talking head commentary that captures the personalities of two giants.

Hearst holds a dubious place in American history, even more so than most titans of industry. The heir to a mining fortune, Hearst used cunning and wealth to build a news empire. Early in his career Hearst championed the underdog with stories favoring immigrants, the poor, and reformers. In 1898, Hearst favored war with Spain and helped spark a war fever in the country, with outrageous stories of Spanish atrocities in Cuba and their alleged complicity in the explosion of the U.S.S. Maine. After a failed foray into politics, Hearst newspapers turned their focus to sensationalism and celebrity driven stories. In later life, he secluded himself at his Northern California mansion with his mistress, the actress Marion Davies, and held court with the Hollywood elite. The life of Hearst is a metaphor for the corrosive effect of greed and epitomized the worst of American capitalism.

Welles cuts a far more interesting and enduring figure. During his childhood in suburban Chicago Welles was told he was a genius and believed it! In the late 1930s Welles shook up American theater with topical productions of classic Shakespeare plays. For example, he placed Julius Caesar in Nazi Germany. A star of the radio as well, Welles frightened the CBS listening audience in his legendary broadcast of War of the Worlds. In 1939, Hollywood came calling and he signed a contract with RKO that gave him complete creative control. Out of this came, Citizen Kane.

Modern film goers may not be aware the film is inspired by the life of Hearst, although the character Charles Foster Kane has the attributes of other historical figures. In 1941, when word leaked out the film gave a less than flattering portrayal of Hearst, he used all his power to prevent the film from being released. Hearst newspapers were banned from advertising the film and even distributed harsh reviews. Many theaters, under pressure from Hearst, refused to show it as well. Welles threatened major lawsuits on RKO if they caved in. The film was released to generally favorable reviews, but Welles had left a bad impression on the Hollywood elite. Citizen Kane only won one Oscar for original screenplay.

Several books and articles are available explain why Citizen Kane is a great film. The study by New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, The Citizen Kane Book, remains the standard work. I would also recommend the commentary tracks on the DVD with film historian Peter Bogdanovich and the movie critic Roger Ebert. The groundbreaking cinematography and the non linear structure of the film were way ahead of its time. Welles's amazing transformation from an idealistic young man into a cold reactionary is still remarkable. Also, the film is a parable about the nature of wealth and fame in America. The film opens with Kane dying alone inside his mansion is an odd foreshadowing of the demise of future icons like Howard Hughes, Elvis Presley, or Michael Jackson.

My one qualm in the film is its downbeat depiction of Welles. After the controversy surrounding Citizen Kane Welles lost creative control over his films. Amazingly, Welles was planning on film based on the life of Christ with himself in the title role! Eventually Welles left the studio system and became an independent filmmaker - before it was hip. The film implied that his post-Kane career was a downward spiral. Critics now acknowledge later films as masterpieces as well, Touch of Evil and Chimes at Midnight. His work remains relevant and a recent film by the indy director Richard Linklater, Me and Orson Welles, is about his famous production of Julius Caesar. Overall, the is useful in telling the story behind America's greatest film.