[sixties-l] Steal This Video!

From: Jeffrey Apfel (japfel@risd.edu)
Date: Mon Feb 12 2001 - 09:54:20 EST

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    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
    straightjacket.

    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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