2007 Denver International Film Festival

I’m still waiting for the long overdue announcement that the 1960s were nothing but a series of bombastic failures, but until then, we’ll continue to suffer through insane delusions like Brett Morgen’s Chicago 10, a rambling, jigsaw puzzle of a documentary of such stifling insularity that it never bothers to define the riots and protests of the 1968 Democratic National Convention as anything other than the vain fantasies of a few privileged burnouts. Appropriately, though no less annoyingly, much of the film — and all of the actual trial reenactments — are portrayed as cartoons, which worked as a stylistic device for all of three seconds before it drove me up a fucking wall. I’m not sure how the words and drama of the courtroom could have been put on film without the animation, but as it reduced the case to a colossal joke, any possible attempt to lend credibility to the events was washed away in a tidal wave of trivia. Allen Ginsburg, Abbie Hoffman, William Kunstler, Jerry Rubin, Bobby Seale, and a host of flower power celebrities “appear” as these creations (with actors like Hank Azaria lending their voices), as well as actual figures from archival footage, but no single scene fostered a larger understanding. For all we are left to believe, a few nitwits converged on the Second City, camped out in the streets, stormed the auditorium, and were subsequently bombarded with night sticks and tear gas. Interestingly, nothing I saw convinced me that the shits didn’t get exactly what they deserved.

The film’s hip, rock-fueled imagery tries to generate an us-versus-them energy (and, by implication, challenge the current generation to suckle a bit of inspiration), but the very opposite occurs: to a man, these are performance artists getting uppity about nothing in particular, and at no time did I believe that they gave two shits about Vietnam, racism, or the oppressed poor. They were showboating circus clowns, and their clever, drug-fueled wordplay masked a deep, near-pathological sense of entitlement that stood agog at the notion that the sons and daughters of the chosen few would ever be asked to ship off to war. These were media savvy kids using the power of the camera to inject themselves into history, regardless of the issue at hand, and as such were reality show contestants ahead of their time. These merry pranksters knew exactly how to generate publicity, and every gesture — from the marches to the press conferences — were cynical games using and abusing the very forces they claimed to deride on a daily basis. Even the famous chant, “The whole world is watching,” is less a rallying cry against American brutality and hypocrisy than a calculated, market-tested phrase to let everyone know that they would have their moment in the sun. The court transcripts proved this in spades, as the incessant grandstanding became mere opportunities to craft the following day’s headlines.

Moreover, the film takes great pains to avoid the central question: what on earth did these people hope to accomplish during that late August of 1968? Had the police taken it easy, or the city government been more forgiving, what would these kids have offered to the Democratic party platform? Mayor Richard Daley, for all of his political skill regarding patronage and the like, blew the one opportunity he had to expose the anti-war movement as the shallow fraud it no doubt was. Had Daley casually stepped aside and called off the dogs, the Chicago 10, along with their throng of followers, would have been at a complete loss. Without cameras or clubs with which to make martyrs, the parties of protest would have gotten bored and returned to their gated communities and college campuses. Failing that, they simply would have smoked a few joints and fallen asleep in the park. These people needed confrontation, and had no way to deal with official apathy. Sure, some segments of the vast horde might have been concerned about civilian casualties, the Constitution, or even something other than their own navels, but at the very least, the movement’s leadership was (and is) a study in sleight of hand. It was masterful, much like Andy Kaufman’s aggressive anti-entertainment, but it’s time to stop insisting that they accomplished a damn thing. The war continued, the cities burned, and, to my knowledge, unemployment and hunger still persisted. Thanks to these creeps, though, liberalism has been apologizing for their nonsense going on forty years, and it’s unlikely to ever escape the association.