[sixties-l] Paul Krassner on 'Steal This Movie'

From: radman (resist@best.com)
Date: Thu Sep 14 2000 - 04:21:06 CUT

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    Steal This Review

    by Paul Krassner


    Mayer Vishner, a member of the overground support group: "The script
    oversimplifies the treachery of Cointelpro." The late folk singer Phil
    Ochs' brother, Michael: "A flyer has more depth."
    On the other hand, Stew Albert likes Steal This Movie, odd, because I have
    always thought of him as a stoned Talmudic scholar, serving as a source of
    objectivity and keen insight. "It's true to Abbie's spirit," he says, "his
    unwillingness to accept the world the way it was given to him."
    Stew's wife, Judy Gumbo, likes the movie, too. "It's seamless," she says,
    "the way it shows how Abbie brought political theater to American
    It's as if Stew and Judy, because they want so much for Steal This Movie to
    succeed, have superimposed a halo over it. But Stew insists: "I have seen
    this movie in four different cities and seen the reaction of hundreds of
    young people. Because of this movie, Abbie and the Yippies will become
    known to a whole new generation."
    Other old friends of Abbie-Ron Kovic, Bobby Seale and Ellen Maslow-like the
    movie, too. "Ellen likes it because her three sons saw it and now have a
    much better understanding of what their mother was about," Stew says. "I
    think I would like the movie just for this reason alone. I certainly did
    not find it boring."
    Fair enough, but the halo-effect metaphor definitely applies to
    attorney Gerry Lefcourt, who not only figures prominently in the movie, but
    is also an associate producer. He is shown on the screen defending Abbie in
    the Chicago Seven conspiracy trial, even though
    he didn't (he handled pretrial motions). In a radio interview, when it was
    implied that he was there, rather
    than deny it Lefcourt simply mentioned how many times he had defended
    Abbie. He is apparently unembarrassed that William Kunstler and Lenny
    Weinglass, who actually were the defense attorneys at the conspiracy
    trialare not even mentioned. Even worse, two of the defendants aren't in
    the movie. At a screening, I whispered, "Hey, it's the Chicago Five."
    Upon leaving the theater, I avoided producer-director Robert Greenwald,
    with whom I've had a cordial relationship, in the corridor. If he had asked
    me what I thought, I would have answered, "It made me cry." Which was true,
    only I had cried not because the film was inspiring, but because it was a
    waste. Greenwald obviously started out with idealistic intentions, but he
    remains responsible for a production that is unrelentingly void of
    character development and plot structure. The editing is choppy as cole
    slaw, and the screenplay lacks any semblance of originality. The whole
    film reeks of misinformation.
    Abbie shouts Martin Luther King's words as if they were his own"Free at
    last, great God Almighty, free at last!"and Jerry Rubin shouts Lenny
    Bruce's words as if they were his own"In the Halls of Justice, the only
    justice is in the halls!" There's a lot of shouting in this movie, perhaps
    to drown out the lies, such as the lie that Abbie's son, America, didn't
    know that Abbie was his father while he was on the lam.
    I had really hoped to like Steal This Movie better on my second viewing,
    but it was worse, not only because it does an injustice to a fighter for
    justice. It's also a terrible movie. There may be those who will appreciate
    the movie's anti-war message, the lack of hippie-bashing and Abbie's
    looking-directly-into-the-camera encouragement to protest creatively. They
    will enjoy the courtroom antics of Abbie and Jerry, wearing black judges'
    robes and, when ordered to remove them, wearing Chicago Police Department
    uniforms underneath. One young moviegoer told me, "I admit to knowing next
    to nothing about Abbie Hoffman, but his life is so unique that the movie
    held my attention."
    Greenwald originally wanted Robert Downey Jr. to play Abbie. Instead,
    Vincent D'Onofrio (also the executive producer) got the part. He's a
    half-foot taller than Abbie, and his imitation Bahston/New Yawk accent
    sounds like an unfortunate speech defect. Worse still, the Abbie that
    D'Onofrio portrays is the Phantom of the Media, an out-of-context,
    one-dimensional rabble-rouser, spouting slogans and hackneyed rhetoric.
    The movie is an unsubtle hodgepodge of attempted re-enactments of Abbie's
    Greatest Hits, throwing money at the New York Stock Exchange, levitating
    the Pentagon, protesting at the Democratic Convention, the Chicago
    conspiracy trial, saving the Saint Lawrence River, interspersed with
    Abbie's marriage and lots of clips from stock news footage to remind us of
    flower children, police riots and political assassinations. It's presented
    in flashbacks, but unlike Citizen Kane, Abbie is alive when it begins and
    alive when it ends. Yes, it's a happy romantic ending for a tragic
    unromantic reality. The audience only learns from a where-are-they-now
    subtitle in the closing credits that Abbie committed suicide in 1989.
    Abbie once told me that a group of filmmakers wanted to follow him around
    in order to produce a documentary, but he declined. I asked him why. He
    smiled and replied, "I wanna make my own myth."
    Here, we're presented with Greenwald's limited vision of Abbie's myth. He
    happened to find a copy of To America With Love:
    Letters From the Underground, a poignant collection of correspondence Abbie
    exchanged with his second wife, Anita, while he was a fugitive ducking
    15-years-to-life for a drug bust. Anita gave me an inscribed copy; Abbie
    wrote his inscription on a yellow post-it and mailed it so that I could put
    it next to Anita's inscription. Anyway, a few years ago, Greenwald optioned
    the book, plus Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel by Marty Jezer.
    Anita is portrayed by Janeane Garafolo, who sought out the part. The movie
    was made while Anita, who appears briefly in a courtroom scene, was dying
    from cancer. She had two movies in her mind at the time. In her latter
    years, she had become intrigued by the twin towers of mysticism and
    conspiracy. She read books and magazine articles about those subjects, and
    listened to Art Bell's late-night radio show. She believed there was life
    on other planets and accepted the notion of certain UFO aficionados that
    extraterrestrials have been making a movie of the earth's progress. "I
    hope I remember to ask to see that movie," she told me.
    "Somehow, Abbie will see the movie," she said, referring this time to Steal
    This Movie. She felt ambivalent about it. "When I mentioned the paucity of
    other characters, Robert [Greenwald] replied that on a low-budget film we
    just can't afford a lot of major players. This is Hollywood."
    On her deathbed, she told the Leffs that she thought Steal This Movie was
    "mediocre," yet her greatest regret was not living to attend the opening. I
    chose not to ask, "Well, if Abbie can see it from the afterlife, why can't
    Abbie would undoubtedly relish the paradoxical symbolism of the movie
    opening with Jimi Hendrix's gut-twisting version of "The Star-Spangled
    Banner," since that same song now serves as background music in a TV
    commercial for Pop-Tarts. He would fume at the minimized and distorted
    portrayal of his third wife, Johanna Lawrenson, who had been his running
    mate while on the lam. She was his main co-conspirator after he emerged
    from six years of hiding.
    Al Giordano, a friend of Abbie and Johanna, now editor of the online Narco
    News, complains that Steal This Movie erases Johanna from the '80s, "from
    the CIA-on-campus trial, for example, where she did half the work." A
    speech that Abbie gave at Vanderbilt University in real life has been
    morphed into his summation at that trial in the movie version. In real
    life, Johanna was in court; in the movie, Anita is. Because Johanna refused
    to participate in the movie, Greenwald's assistant told Giordano:
    "Well, if Johanna won't talk to us, we'll just eliminate the years that
    Abbie spent underground from the movie. We don't need the facts of the
    underground story to make this movie."
    So we get the unfactual appearance of Abbie at the "Bring Abbie Home" rally
    (two years earlier he did show up, in a manic stage of his clinical
    manic-depression, at a memorial for Phil Ochs). And the unfactual
    underground scene where Abbie and young America urinate together outdoors
    in an attempted act of scatological male bonding reminiscent of Adam
    Sandler's similar star turn in Big Daddy.
    Lest you conclude that this pisser of a scene was plagiarized, Steal This
    Movie was basically in the can long before Big Daddy was released;
    Greenwald just couldn't find a distributor. Then came the WTO protests in
    Seattle, and suddenly Steal This Movie was considered a bankable project.
    So now it's officially a Lions Gate Film. Those protesters could not have
    foreseen such ironic fallout from their demonstrations. Completing the
    circle, Steal This Movie was even screened in Seattle as a benefit for the
    Community Action Network, which had been so involved in organizing the WTO
    Greenwald orchestrated a shrewd marketing plan by staging such
    prescreenings in various cities as benefits for progressive organizations,
    Refuse & Resist, Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, the National Lawyers Guild,
    the Green Party, Pacifica's KPFK, and scheduling its opening on the day
    after the Democratic Convention. But the question remains, will
    word-of-mouth help or hurt ticket sales? Buzz is a two-way street. At one
    point in Steal This Movie, Abbie shouts, "Dull is deadly!" That maxim
    applies to the movie itself. Ebert and Roeper may have given it two thumbs
    up, but Abbie would definitely give it two middle fingers.

    Paul Krassner is the author of Sex, Drugs and the Twinkie Murders: 40 Years
    of Countercultural Journalism, just published by Loompanics; his CD,
    Campaign in the Ass, also has just been released by Loompanics. For a free
    copy of his newsletter, The Realist, send a stamped, self-addressed
    envelope to Box 1230, Venice CA 90294.

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