In keeping with the spirit of the work, I tried three times to break
into showings of Steal This Movie on its theatrical release.
Unfortunately, I was caught all three times, escaping prosecution and
possibly jail time only when Al Sharpton, in keeping with the spirit of
the work, agreed to a protest march on my behalf. Dammit, I was just
not gonna spend the three bucks on those matinee showings. I like to
think this was principle, but it may just have been an unconscious
assessment of value for the dollar.
So I waited for the video release and stole it from the local video
store. I added some comments to this list at the time the film was
being discussed last summer, but now that I^ve actually seen it, I^ll
add some more.
First off, let me say that I enjoyed all of the written versions of the
events captured on film more than I did the film itself. This goes not
only for Hoffman^s own versions (imaginative and fun, if sometimes
foolish) but also versions such as Marty Jezer^s (sympathetic, but fully
aware of both personal tragedy and political ironies).
It is not uncommon, of course, to prefer text to film, depending on the
subject. Where a film version of non-fiction is concerned, you have
only to think of The Perfect Storm to realize that film, touted as the
most realistic of media, can sometimes fail to capture real life,
especially if real events are forced into a conventional screenplay
I am sure some on this list have tried their hands at screenplays, and
are aware of the almost ludicrous level of rigidity to the conventional
form, at least as it is preached in screenwriting seminars. Three acts;
hero/villain; crisis and denouement at perfectly calibrated minutes in a
time-bound format^the old ^well-written plan^ on celluloid. Needless to
say, as some on this list commented on the release of the film, it is
hard to capture the extreme unconventionality of aspects of, say, 1967,
in this kind of format.
So one problem with the film is that, while its politics aim at the
unconventional, the structure of the whole enterprise is anything but.
That^s kind of jarring. At the same time, the use of conventional
structure is itself evidence that the outburst of energy we associate
with the period may well have been unsustainable, even without
COINTELPRO (unless you think the FBI is running screenwriting seminars,
too). I suspect even the folks on this list watch more Alfred Hitchcock
than Keneth Anger.
Going beyond structure into substance, I was also troubled, per the
above, at the film^s tendency to lay Abbie^s downfall (and,
metaphorically, the sixties?) at the hands of COINTELPRO, as if the
ideas themselves in their extreme form would have been simple to sustain
and grow in a mass society. They succeeded in watered down form of
course, adapted to mass society--hence the seventies. But as to the
honest-to-god utopian expectations created, both left/political and
countercultural . . . . well, bubbles were bursting like crazy in the
period 1969-74. I am sure the FBI burst a few of them, but that^s
hardly the whole story. As if the failure of the Kent State semester to
develop into a true student revolutionary movement the next fall was the
work of undercover agents lampooning Abbie Hoffman!
Look, I have no problem with propaganda. It will always be with us, and
it can be done well or poorly. But it ain^t art, if by that we mean
serious expression through which deeper truths, whether personal or
political, can be glimpsed. This movie may well have excited some
viewers on its release, as Stew Albert pointed out. Propaganda always
does, whether Riefenstahl^s Triumph of the Will or Stone^s JFK. But the
easy way out is not always the best way, and getting jazzed up is no
substitute for thought, nuance and ambiguity (something I remembered
only after the sixties were over!).
As Jezer^s book made clear, Hoffman^s life provides ample evidence of
real personal and political drama associated with the sixties. Jezer
captured that in his non-fiction format, irrespective of your views on
politics. I am still waiting for someone to capture these kinds of
complexities in a fictional format with any degree of success. I have
come to the conclusion that it probably isn^t possible from the
generation that lived it: too many scores to settle and too many
lingering agendas. You only have to subscribe to this list to see
that. And I don^t mean that only as a slam against unrepentant leftist
screenwriters. Imagine how bad a film written by David Horowitz would
be! In politics, polarities may work in terms of black and white. In
aesthetic matters, the opposite of a bad work is often just another bad
work that happens to be its mirror-image.
The real reason I don^t get to theatrical releases is that I have three
kids under six. I think maybe their generation will have the necessary
distance to create a real literature.
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