Chicago ’68: finding it through film
September 26, 2007
ASPEN Brett Morgen has seen enough historical documentary films to know the standard formulas – talking-head interviews, archival footage and statistics, all aimed at a neat understanding of the event in question. But Morgen, whose filmography as director includes “On the Ropes,” a 2000 Oscar nominee about troubled young boxers, and “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” a profile of film producer Robert Evans, instinctively knew that the usual earnest, stick-to-the-facts-ma’am approach wasn’t going to work for his latest subject. For a film about the riotous, divisive 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Morgen sought a visceral way of telling the story.”I didn’t want it to read like Cliff Notes to that week,” said the 38-year-old Morgen in a phone conversation. “Most of these movies become like a capsule of the time. My goal with the film is to allow the audience to experience the events. Most documentaries, you hear what happened, you hear from people’s faded memories of these events.”A 38-year-old native of Los Angeles, Morgen wasn’t born when the convention in Chicago exploded into protests and physical retribution, capping perhaps the most tumultuous year in the recent history of the U.S.A. In making “Chicago 10,” he had in mind those like himself, who were not witnesses to the event. But Morgen wanted to give this younger audience more than something that would feel like a history lesson from the past.”It was 40 years ago, which essentially means anyone under the age of 50, very few of us had any opportunity to witness or experience this,” said Morgen. “I felt the people over 50 would enjoy the work. But my main focus was to make this history palpable to people of a younger generation. They can experience it as something new, not as history or something archaic.”That focus dictated some of the decisions Morgen made for “Chicago 10,” which premiered as the opening film at the Sundance Festival in January and shows Saturday at Aspen Filmfest. The soundtrack could well have featured golden oldies like “Chicago,” Graham Nash’s hopeful account of the drama. Instead, Morgen went with harder-edged, contemporary sounds by Rage Against the Machine, Eminem and the Beastie Boys, all of whom contributed their songs without charge. Those who want to discover what actually happened at the convention itself, and why, must look elsewhere. “Chicago 10″ takes place entirely outside of Chicago’s International Amphitheatre, where anti-war Senator Eugene McCarthy was challenging incumbent Vice President Hubert Humphrey for the presidential nomination. The film splits its time largely between the protests and the police reaction outside the hall, and the trial of the lead protesters – known then as the Chicago Seven – on conspiracy charges more than a year later. There is little examination of the underlying causes of the protests, which included the raging Vietnam War and the assassinations earlier that year of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.”I decided not to focus on what occurred in the Democrats’ hall, but on the role of the protesters,” said Morgen. “Not littering the film with the sociopolitical context of the time, it become a fable for all times.”
Morgen is pleased by his success on that point. At the European premiere of “Chicago 10,” last month at Switzerland’s Film Festival Locarno, the director fielded questions about social uprisings in China’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, in Geneva in 1998 and in Seattle in 1999. “People were projecting their own experiences onto this film,” concluded Morgen.Some of the more glaring characteristics of “Chicago 10” were not entirely by choice. Had Morgen wanted to rely on eye-witness accounts from the protesters, he would have run into the fact that four of the principals have died. Just as big a barrier to standard documentary filmmaking is that no video was made of the court trials.Substituting for witness’ reflections is actual footage and photos. Since the action – the protests and the police reaction – was in public spaces, and occurred outside the media-saturated Democratic National Convention, there was an abundance of such material. Since coming up with the idea of the film five years ago, Morgen went through some 14,000 photos, a thousand hours of film, 5,000 hours of audio and reams of court transcripts. The result is a dynamic documentary, where the events unfold in a manner resembling real time. Viewers feel, rather than learn about, the buildup of tension, the violence, the intensity the protesters brought to Chicago.Morgen could have skipped the trial aspect altogether. (All the defendants were found not guilty of conspiracy, although five were convicted of crossing state lines with intent to incite a riot. All the convictions were reversed on appeal.) But the courtroom drama – with Black Panther Bobby Seale strapped to a chair, the antagonism between Judge Julius Hoffman and defense attorney William Kunstler, and such characters as “Yippies” Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin as defendants – was every bit as compelling as the riots themselves. A live-action recreation of the trial seemed a particularly uninspired way to go.Morgen received inspiration directly from one of the defendants. Rubin (who had a midlife about-face, going from political activist to businessman and an early investor in Apple Computer) had been quoted as likening the trial to a cartoon.”The trial was kind of circuslike,” said Morgen, “so animation would be an appropriate way to frame the trial. It would ultimately create an entertaining form of documentary, which is what I was going for.”
Using the motion-capture technique (with Morgen himself providing most of the motion), “Chicago 10” features a cartoonish but also realistic recreation of the courtroom antics. Among those providing the voices were Hank Azaria, Mark Rufalo and Nick Nolte. All volunteered their services for free, said Morgen: “All of us wanted to remind people of what it means to take a stand.”Animating such a politically charged event must have come with the temptation to skew the sides into heroes and villains. But virtually all of the dialogue came directly from court transcripts. And while Judge Hoffman, voiced by Roy Scheider, seems an exaggerated caricature, with his needling personality, Morgen swears it is not.”He captured the essence of Judge Hoffman,” said Morgen. “Some people might think it’s over the top. But it’s actually a spot-on impersonation. It was important that the voice-over capture the energy of the characters they were depicting.”In the bigger picture, Morgen wanted the film to capture the energy of a moment that shook America. Talking heads weren’t going to do it. But footage of police dragging and beating unarmed protesters, combined with a cartoon courtroom, comes close.”This was a police riot. And the police went berserk,” said Morgen, noting that he was in tears on a daily basis as he went through the archival footage. “Watching them beat the crap out of women and children, pacifists. And they went bonkers on the media. You watch – by the end of the film, the media is wearing helmets.”I don’t think our generation has ever experienced anything like this. Middle-class, white America had never experienced anything like this. There were massive crimes against humanity that happened at that time in Chicago.”Aspen Filmfest presents “Chicago 10” at 9:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 29, at the Isis Theater.
Also showing this weekend at Aspen Filmfest (This is a selection of films showing in Aspen; there are also screening through the weekend at Carbondale’s Crystal Theatre):Friday: “The Monastery” (Noon, Wheeler Opera House), a documentary of a Danish octogenarian who wants to turn his estate into a Russian Orthodox monastery; “Beauty in Trouble” (2:30 p.m., Wheeler), Czech director Jan Hrebejk’s story of several generations of a Prague family struggling after the flooding of 2002: “Save Me” (9 p.m., Wheeler), a drama set inside a Christian mission for gay, addicted men; and “Control” (9:30 p.m., Isis), a portrait of Ian Curtis, the late, tormented lead singer of the British band Joy Division.Saturday: “Hula Girls” (2:30 p.m., Wheeler), a comedy about a Japanese coal-mining town’s campaign to reinvent itself as a Hawaiian-themed resort; “Half Moon” (6:45 p.m., Isis), about an aged Kurdish musician gearing up for a final concert; and “Into the Wild” (8:45 p.m., Wheeler), Sean Penn’s adaptation of the nonfiction best-seller about a young man’s tragic adventure in the Alaskan wilderness.Sunday: “Buddha’s Lost Children” (noon, Wheeler), a documentary about a former boxer devoted to saving children in Thailand’s dangerous Golden Triangle region; “Small Engine Repair” (3 p.m., Wheeler), a comedy about small-town Irish men with big goals); and “The Savages” (8:15 p.m., Wheeler), a drama of family starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney.For a full Filmfest schedule, go to http://www.aspentimes.com/film.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org