By Ray Pride
If Onan and Narcissus had kids… I don’t even want to go there.
Things like Oscar “live-blogging” and the relentless quest for instantaneity by old media dipping its toe into the Internet make me wonder if we’ve even one-one-hundredth fathomed the possibilities of the worldwide Web. There are a few writers on movies, like David Bordwell, co-author of a number of the best books about how cinema functions, who’ve branched out onto the web in intriguing ways. Bordwell, recently retired from the University of Wisconsin, now writes at lavishly illustrated length about all manner of details that fascinate he and his partner Kristin Thompson. (The site is davidbordwell.net/blog/.) He writes well and long and outside the constraints of daily-hourly-Gawkerly expectations, and going long suits him. (The Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum retires this week and reportedly he’s going to make similar online ventures.)
Using one’s critical faculties to make instant judgments can be deeply gratifying, especially when you’ve been watching and writing and thinking for years, but you can’t be right every time you point or snap your fingers. Still, history’s not written in the moment. Film-festival coverage, with the advent (and credentialing) of bloggers and online resources and the latest increments of WiFi technology, seems irrationally driven toward this kind of thing. I got into a lovely heated tiff on a panel at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival about critics and the Internet when I marveled at the simple fact that a two-minute video from a panel, captured as a QuickTime file with whatever sort of camera could be uploaded to YouTube and embedded on a website within seconds. The gentleman beside me from Athens went on a roll about form and function in fast, furious Greek that left the simultaneous translator on headphones twirling. (My best souvenir from that afternoon is the Greek Web site with only a few words in English, such as a mangled quote of “Can you imagine of not everyone having an asshole” and my name.)
At Sundance 2007, I wrote a review of a movie that I hated right after seeing it. A few days later, the filmmaker whose movie I’d criticized caught sight of my festival badge and introduced himself. I quickly looked down at his badge: Ruh-roh, Reorge!
The movie is Brett Morgan’s “Chicago 10,” from the co-director of “On the Ropes” and “The Kid Stays in the Picture” (who made those films with Nanette Burstein) and director of Sundance Channel’s recent “Nimrod Nation.” “Chicago 10” continued the tradition of more-than-imperfect Sundance opening-night attractions. The fanciful documentary intercuts events on the streets of Chicago during the 1968 Democratic Convention and a re-creation of the “Chicago Seven” trial of Yippie leaders Abbie Hoffman, Rennie Davis, Jerry Rubin and others, and the film makes what still seems to me a lurid, even fatal mistake: using cheap-looking, never beautiful, merely illustrative videogame-level animation (with some motion-capture work) to capture the notorious courtroom theatrics. When you see footage of these young longhairs in all their indelicate stubbornness, especially a glimpse of Rubin in his red-yellow stripy jumper (the colors of the Vietnamese flag), you look away from the failed anime and await the next burst of history. You can’t top the real stuff in the archival snippets: glimpses from the waterfront park of the John Hancock to the north, still under construction; a pale pair of martial shadows advancing against backlit tear gas; a whip-pan on Michigan Avenue that rests abruptly upon the dazed face of a pale young man with a high forehead riven and crusted with blood from his scalp; the vast jowls of the father of the current mayor, bleating about the threat of “terrorism” and smirking, “No, a snake dance never disturbed me”; Walter Cronkite, during the Convention week lockdown, stating flatly that the events are “about to begin in a police state. I’m afraid there is no other word.”
It’s like seeing images from 1956 Budapest, except it’s the streets of the city I’ve lived in most of my adult life. The diverse, eclectic soundtrack stitches many rough transitions and boasts a few impressive passages of rangy guitar rock, as well as an ominous theme built on Philip Glass-like arpeggios as the riot builds. The voice talent is largely mediocre and unsuited, seemingly chosen for their vantage to the reflective surface of Vanity Fair’s glossy pages, including Mark Ruffalo, Hank Azaria, Nick Nolte, Jeffrey Wright, Liev Schreiber and an unrecognizable Roy Scheider mewling as the doddering Judge Julius Hoffman in one of his last roles. Almost, just almost, the fragments of historical material are pungent enough, iconic enough, to stand out against the underwhelming animation. It ain’t “Boondocks,” an accomplished feat of animation which is also far more incendiary and subversive while beguiling the eye. The press notes adumbrate what Morgen and I said to each other after our Sundance collision at an off-the-record conversation over coffee, that it’s meant to tell “the story of young Americans speaking out and taking a stand in the face of an oppressive and armed government.”
I liked that hour’s give-and-take more than the movie, but I also have a better understanding of Morgen’s hopes for getting a message of critical resistance to younger viewers and certain intentions that I didn’t quite get when I first saw the film. Will it have a message to the tens of thousands of recently enfranchised young voters teeming to the polls to vote for their chosen Democratic candidate by factors above the Republican ones? Perhaps. Doubtful. But Morgen’s intentions are sturdy.
“Chicago 10” opens Friday.