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I mentioned in class that I would be posting an extra-credit assignment. It will be worth one point on your final grade for the course, so that if your final grade adds up to, say, 89 B+, that extra point will magically transform your grade to 90 A-.
The assignment is to view a film in current theatrical release, or a recent film that has come out on DVD during the past year, and write a paragraph of 3-5 sentences in which you discuss the film in the context of the course (that is, in terms of the formal film elements, and the concepts we’ve discussed in the second half of the course, such as ideology, social context, auteurism, etc.).
You have until Monday, December 23 (at midnight) to send me your extra-credit assignment. (Send it to me by email or ELMS message).
Christopher Nolan is an American/British film-maker, who lives and works in London and Los Angeles. He first started making films (on Super8) when still a child.
He studied English literature at University College, London, which he chose specifically because they had the facilities to make films. His debut feature was Following (1998), a neo-noir thriller.
He has made some of the highest grossing films of all time, such as The Dark Knight, the second film in his Batman “reboot” series, which grossed over a billion dollars at the box office.
Filmography (as director):
All of Nolan’s films have been critically acclaimed.
Nolan has never won an Oscar for Best Director. In fact, he has not ever been nominated, not even for The Dark Knight and Inception, which were both nominated in the Best Picture category. Some consider this a historic snub.
Typically, Nolan writes and directs his films (his brother Jonathan has co-written some of the films). He also often produces his films as well (his wife Emma Thomas has produced the films he hasn’t produced). Having creative control of his films makes him an auteur.
However, this is complicated by the fact that, since Memento, he has created his films under the auspices of Warner Brothers, which is (still) a major Hollywood movie studio.
The easiest explanation for this is that he has proven himself at the box-office, and on the international award circuit, and can command any kind of budget he likes, including the huge budgets attached to Hollywood studio films.
Inception was a summer blockbuster from the summer of 2010. Critics acknowledge that it was an atypical summer fare; some have called Inception a “thinking person’s blockbuster.” Richard Corliss writes that “the picture’s main pull is not visceral but intellectual, in the style of Euro puzzle films of the past 50 years . . . but as Nolan told The New York Times, with ‘way more explosions.'”
The film made over $800 million at the box office and, as already mentioned, was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning four.
Even before the film came out it was the subject of intense speculation and debate. This is true of its “after-life” as well. Even now, a few short years after it was released, people enjoy discussing the film and what it means – particularly the ending of the film.
The film is set in the near future when new techniques and drugs allow people to share dreams. Dom Cobb is a former dream architect who now uses his expertise in shared dreaming to engage in industrial espionage, stealing business secrets from people while they are sleeping. This is called “extraction.” He is also on the run after being charged with murdering his wife.
After a failed attempt at extraction, Cobb is offered a job by a man named Saito to do the impossible: implant an idea in the mind of a competitor (Fischer), a process called “inception.” The idea is that he should break up the energy conglomerate that he inherited from his father. Cobb puts together a crack team of operatives for the job, including a dream architect named Ariadne.
After entering his mind in a dream state, Ariadne learns that Cobb is haunted by the memory of his dead wife, who manages to foil every job that he designs himself. That’s why Ariadne must design the dream, and Cobb can’t know the details.
In order to fool the host dreamer, Ariadne must design an incredibly intricate dream world with multiple layers. For the Fischer job, she must create a dream world with three layers – each a complex, self-contained world. The three layers are in fact a dream within a dream within a dream.
The main danger in dream architecture is that if it seems too real, the dreamer may confuse the dream for reality. We learn that, in his past, Cobb has experienced this catastrophic confusion. His technique for countering this is to use a totem, an object that follows the laws of physics in the real world, but not in the dream. His totem is a spinning top.
In the film, however, it is suggested that this is not a fool-proof method. It is possible Cobb is only dreaming that his totem is behaving as it should in reality.
The film poses philosophical conundrums such as:
Mark Fisher notes that in the film “there’s a shift from the epistemological problems posed by unreliable narrators to a more general ontological indeterminacy, in which the nature of the whole fictional world is put into doubt.” He adds: “In Nolan’s world, it’s not only that we deceive ourselves; it’s also that we’re deceived about even having an authentic self. There’s no separating identity from fiction.”
These issues are at the core of postmodern philosophy, which I discussed in a previous blog entry.
There are also many issues relating to psychology that are addressed in the film, such as the importance of dreams in understanding the unconscious mind and the way unconscious ideas shape the formation of the person.
This is what “inception” is about: planting ideas in the unconscious mind which lead to a personal re-orientation, a re-programming, a new person.
In the film, both Cobb and Fischer have this experience: the action within the dream becomes a kind of psychotherapy.
Leon Saunders Calvert makes the observation that “for a filmmaker within the Hollywood system, Christopher Nolan is unusually pre-occupied with psychological human states to the degree that they often act as primary theme of his films.” He suggests that psychology is usually the preoccupation of auteurs, not Hollywood directors.
Calvert has analyzed the film from an psychological (or more specifically psychoanalytical) perspective, based on ideas of Sigmund Freud, such as:
Some critics make the case that Inception deals not just with psychology, but with religion. There are a number of ways the film can be read as a religious story.
Throughout the film, characters are urged to take the leap of faith. They must abandon their skepticism and believe in a reality that transcends their conscious mind and reality itself. This is a religious impulse and imperative. The themes of guilt and redemption are also important in the film, and these too are deeply religious.
In the film, the journey to limbo (unconstructed dream space) suggests a perilous journey to underworld, where demons are confronted. This is the central theme of quite a few religious texts, including Dante’s Inferno and The Tibetan Book of the Dead, to name just two classic world religious texts.
Dreams and Film
Many critics of the film have pointed out the similarity between dreams and the experience of viewing films. According to Corliss, this is nothing new: “The idea of movie-going as communal dreaming is a century old.”
Colin McGinn argues that
movies delve into our dreaming self, that submerged and seething alter ego that emerges when the sun goes down. In the cinema we relive the life of the dreaming self. Movies thus tap into the dreaming aspect of human nature. Moreover, they improve upon our dream life. They give us the dreams we yearn for. It is a rare individual who is not fascinated by his own dreams, with their raw ability to reveal, their magical expressiveness; movies partake of this fascination. The impact of movies stems, then, at least in part, from the primal power of the dream. To be sure, the dream component of the movie experience is augmented by the special qualities of the medium, but the primary emotional hook originates in the evocation of the dream. (Qtd. in Calvert).
Jason Staples describes how Inception functions like a dream:
The construction of dream worlds for shared dreaming serves as an excellent metaphor for film itself (and ‘myth’ in general), as it involves the creation of a virtual reality, a shadow-like imitation of the real world into which people can journey together, guided by the ‘architect’ (writer/director). As people are naturally resistant to new or outside ideas, those media (like film) that can influence people’s thinking without drawing the attention of their (often militarized) subconscious guards are especially powerful forms of communication and agents of cultural change. Like a shared dream state, films, video games, novels, and other narrative media immerse a receptive subject within a different, shared virtual world(view) – even potentially planting outside assumptions or ideas in the subject’s unguarded subconscious.
But the idea of Inception as an analogy for film can be extended beyond the experience of viewing film to the business of creating film. According to this interpretation, put forward by critics Devin Faraci, Mark Fisher, and Richard Corliss:
In interviews, Nolan denies that he was trying to create an analogy in the film between dreaming and film-viewing or film-making. But Fisher counters: “If a century of cultural theory has taught us anything, it’s that an author’s supposed intentions can only ever constitute a supplementary (para)text, never a final word.”
Fisher thinks, despite Nolan’s intentions, Inception is very much about the film-making business, and not in a good way. Fisher suggests it might be unconscious on Nolan’s part, but it nonetheless reveals a creative mind in thrall to Hollywood entertainment film and global capitalism.
Inception is less a meta-meditation on the power of cinema than, more interestingly, a reflection of the way in which cinematic techniques have become imbricated into a banal spectacle which – fusing business machismo, entertainment protocols, and breathless hype – enjoys an unprecedented dominion over our working lives and our dreaming minds. . . . Inception‘s arcades and hotel corridors are on the contrary those of a globalized capital whose reach easily extends into the former depths of what was once the unconscious. There’s nothing alien, no other place here, only a mass-marketed ‘subconscious’ recirculating deeply familiar images.
Fisher believes that Nolan is not just the creator of a film called Inception, but someone who uses film to practice inception. Just as in the film inception is used for the benefit of corporate interests, it is used in the multiplex to indoctrinate movie viewers in the ideology of capitalism.
He writes: “Nolan’s films are preoccupied with . . . the lies that we tell ourselves to stay happy. Yet the situation is worse even than that. It’s one thing to lie to oneself; it’s another to not even know whether one is lying to oneself or not.”
In Marxist terminology this is called “false consciousness,” the process by which we are unconsciously socialized and indoctrinated into the values of the ruling class.
Staples has a similar concern: “The most potent and influential ideas [in the film] are those so thoroughly socialized and internalized that, their origins long forgotten, they are presupposed without argument.” What Staples is writing about is ideology, which we have been discussing all throughout the second half of the course, beginning with Far From Heaven.
Critics like Fisher and Staples argue that the process of “false consciousness” is at work in the film, in the same way that inception works. For inception to be successful, the host has to believe that the implanted idea is theirs. In other words, they must come to believe that the lie is true, and not only that: that it is a deeply personal truth.
According to Fisher, “in Inception, as in late capitalist culture in general, you’re always in someone else’s dream, which is also the dream of no one.” It is the dream of capital, and those who control capital.
I would suggest this is particularly true of the violence in the film. Viewers consume shocking amounts of violence in the film without thinking about it because it is entertaining in itself and part of a story that is written in such a way to make the violence seem inconsequential (it’s all just a dream). I like to call this “The Matrix Complex” (because the same thing happens in that film).
Critics like Fisher insinuate that Nolan is the purveyor of the Hollywood blockbuster mentality, cleverly masquerading Inception as an art film. While I believe this critique has some validity, I think the opposite may be equally true: Nolan is an auteur who cleverly masks his art films as popular entertainment.
That is the main reason I chose Inception as the last film in this course. Nolan is a master of film technique, an auteur; he is prescient in his grasp of the zeitgeist; and he understands how to insert “big ideas” into his film without seeming pretentious. But he does all this in Hollywood, which is quite an accomplishment. It is something that the online film critic Eileen Jones would applaud, and hold up as a shining example of what Hollywood film studios can accomplish, as long as they embrace their own pro-business aesthetic and refuse to slavishly follow the standards of European art film.
Inception: Thought for Food
Richard Corliss says of Inception:
Though the plot is really one giant hallucination, it’s an experience that doesn’t blow your mind so much as challenge it. Viewers will have to work to keep up with all the shifting perspectives and layers of deceit. Inception is like the coolest, toughest final exam – or like the dream of one, in which you’re suddenly in class and you realize you didn’t prepare for the big test. This is a movie that you’ll wish you had crammed for.
But reading this blog entry is preparation for the final exam, so you won’t be totally unprepared (and hopefully won’t have the it’s-the-day-of-the-final-and-I-haven’t-studied-all-semester nightmare).
Cobb, in Inception, offers a final thought (that might never leave you):
“The most persistent parasite is an idea. Once it takes root in the brain, it’s almost impossible to eradicate.”
University of Maryland
* * *
Leon Saunders Calvert, “Inception: Film, Dreams and Freud,” Offscreen 15.5 (May 31, 2011).
Robert Capps, “Q&A: Christopher Nolan on Dreams, Architecture, and Ambiguity,” Wired (November 29, 2010).
Richard Corliss, “Inception: Whose Mind Is It, Anyway?”, Time (July 14, 2010).
Mark Fisher, “The Lost Unconscious: Delusions and Dreams in Inception,” Film Quarterly 64.3 (Spring 2011).
Jason Staples, “Shadowlands, Myth, and the Creation of Meaning in Inception,” Journal of Religion & Film 14.1 (April 2010).
For our last class in this course, on Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010) and the future of film, I was most interested in discussing two things:
1. How your experience of watching Inception now compares/contrasts with your experience of watching the film the first time. (That is, if you’ve seen it before).
2. How you think Inception represents the future of film (as industry and pastime).
Since we can’t meet in class tonight, please write a short paragraph (3-5 sentences) on ONE of the two topics above.
For #1, I basically want to see what you’ve learned – and learned to notice – in watching films during the semester. That is, in Inception
For #2, I want to know what you think of Inception in the context of the assigned reading for this week, the last chapter in your textbook, entitled “Cinema as Industry: Economics and Technology.” That is, how does Inception – in its formal construction and in its themes – embody current conceptions of film-making as a business, and in the way it utilizes technology? More specifically, how is Inception a blockbuster, and how is it not?
Please post your paragraph on your personal blog, and I’ll read it there.
The first films were documentaries. Louis and Auguste Lumiere, the French brothers credited with the invention of the cinema, called their short films “actualités.” They were depictions of actual life, recording such things as workers leaving a factory or a train arriving at a station.
However, even in these early films, some of the human figures acknowledge the camera, and are sometimes characters in rudimentary narratives – as in The Waterer Gets Watered (1895). I also noted, in class, the subjective nature of the camera. Even if you point your camera at something and turn it on, you’re only getting one possible vantage point, and leaving out a lot of information. Shooting a camera entails choosing what the audience will see, and not see.
So, from the very beginning of film history, the line dividing the objective from the subjective, the factual from the fictional, the real from the artificial, has been blurred. This is still true, perhaps even more so, in film today, as I explain below.
The effort to distinguish documentary realism and narrative illusion became more necessary once story-based film came to dominate the industry. Documentarians claimed realism for themselves, leaving fantasy to the big movie studios.
We see this in the ethnographic films of Robert Flaherty, in the 1920s. However, critics now question Flaherty’s realism. Your textbook authors write:
Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), about the Inuit people in Canada, and Man of Aran (1937), about the Aran Islanders off the west coast of Ireland, are voice-of-authority documentaries organized by intertitles that explain the activities depicted. In his zeal to valorize what he considered the blissfully primitive cultures of the Inuit and the Aran islanders, however, Flaherty misrepresented the cultures he intended to document (290).
The example they give in the textbook is when Nanook (or Allakarillak, his real name), “feigns awe at the sight of the gramophone,” something which Nanook had actually seen before (290). Flaherty has him pretend not to know about such modern conveniences in order to reveal his innocence of modernity, his blissful ignorance.
I gave a couple other examples in class. Flaherty had Nanook construct only half an igloo – a set made of ice – so that he would have the light to shoot inside the igloo. The way the film is shot, the half-igloo appears to be whole. Flaherty also staged Nanook’s capture of a seal – what Nanook was really yanking on was a rope that was attached to two or three members of the film crew, not a seal.
When all this came to light, exposed in films like Nanook Revisited, some critics concluded that it was difficult if not impossible, even in documentaries, to separate what is real and true from what is imaginary and false. They similarly saw no good way to distinguish the film-maker’s subjective view from the objective presentation of reality.
Towards Postmodern Documentary
One prominent response to this situation was to embrace fictionality and subjectivity in the documentary. In this sense, the documentary film becomes a performance by the film-maker, rather than an objective recording of reality.
Errol Morris was one of the first film documentarians to do this. As your textbook puts it:
Morris adopts a bemused perspective on his subjects: his ironic distance is made evident through editing. He juxtaposes images of one subject with interviews with another, so it seems as if the people he interviews are making comments about the lives and work of other people. . . . By pairing a subject’s statements with seemingly unrelated images, Morris adds dimension to the interviews, introducing ideas that none of his subjects has voiced. Morris gets at one truth by allowing the interviewees to tell their own stories yet his editing encourages the audience to make unusual connections. (284).
Michael Moore, the director of Fahrenheit 9/11 (which won the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2004) is a film documentarian that you’re likely more familiar with. Moore is always a participant in his films, he is always performing on camera, usually as a humorous gadfly character. Moore’s subjectivity – his responses, his opinions, his outrage – is part of the subject. Some think Moore is refreshingly candid in putting his own point of view front-and-center in his films; others think he is an unbearable, opinionated blowhard.
Morris and Moore were early practitioners of postmodern documentary, a form of documentary that has become popular – largely because of film-makers like Morris and Moore.
Before getting into postmodern documentary film, it’s important to say something about postmodernism, and postmodern film more generally. For our definition of postmodernism, we go to Margaret Wertheim, of the Faith and Reason program on PBS.
A general and wide-ranging term which is applied to literature, art, philosophy, architecture, fiction, and cultural and literary criticism, among others. Postmodernism is largely a reaction to the assumed certainty of scientific, or objective, efforts to explain reality. In essence, it stems from a recognition that reality is not simply mirrored in human understanding of it, but rather, is constructed as the mind tries to understand its own particular and personal reality. For this reason, postmodernism is highly skeptical of explanations which claim to be valid for all groups, cultures, traditions, or races, and instead focuses on the relative truths of each person. In the postmodern understanding, interpretation is everything; reality only comes into being through our interpretations of what the world means to us individually. Postmodernism relies on concrete experience over abstract principles, knowing always that the outcome of one’s own experience will necessarily be fallible and relative, rather than certain and universal.
Postmodernism is “post” because it is denies the existence of any ultimate principles, and it lacks the optimism of there being a scientific, philosophical, or religious truth which will explain everything for everybody – a characteristic of the so-called “modern” mind. The paradox of the postmodern position is that, in placing all principles under the scrutiny of its skepticism, it must realize that even its own principles are not beyond questioning. As the philosopher Richard Tarnas states, postmodernism “cannot on its own principles ultimately justify itself any more than can the various metaphysical overviews against which the postmodern mind has defined itself.”
This can be broken down further. Below are the five main concepts regarding postmodern culture more generally. Postmodernism
In terms of aesthetics, postmodern works of art are characterized by
It should be evident that fiction films would have less problems with postmodernism, as defined above, than documentary films. Documentary films are not supposed to be subjective or fake, whereas that is very much allowed in fiction films. In its cultural skepticism, postmodernism relentlessly attacks the essence of documentary realism.
Postmodernism and Documentary Realism
Representing the postmodern perspective, Krystin Arneson writes of documentaries:
Like photography, documentaries are a representational medium: They record and occasionally reconstruct the everyday reality viewers typically cannot experience themselves. Because photography is an indexical sign signifying truth, audiences understand the documentary, a moving photograph, to signify truth also. However, they are able to make the distinction between the everyday reality presented by documentaries and the fictive reality of cinematic films.
But the documentary’s version of reality is not as innocent as it presents itself to be. Because of the perceived indexical truth-value of the film, the audience is drawn into an everyday reality that seemingly doesn’t need questioning. There is a sense of co-presence between creator and viewer that gives the viewer the sensation of being both here, now, looking at the image and there, then, looking at what the image represents or evokes.
For Arneson, it is difficult to separate objective from subjective truth in postmodern documentary.
As a human document dealing with not only the hard facts but also the social and personal aspects of the theme, the documentary is a representational, recorded version of the everyday created through [the directors] personal interpretations of what he or she chooses to place in front of the camera lens. The informational value is mediated through the perspective of the person making it, and it is presented as a mixture of emotion and information (Stuart Hall, Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices [Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1997], 83)
This mediation, or personal interpretation of the topic, is influenced by any number of factors: preconceived attitudes, biases, and what story they hope to get out of the filming. Frederick Wiseman, a documentary maker himself, writes of the impossibility of objectivity in representation: Any documentary made in no matter what style, is arbitrary, biased, prejudiced, compressed and subjective. Like any of its sisterly or brotherly fictional forms, it is born in choice – choice of subject matter, place, people, camera angles, duration of shooting, sequences to be shot or omitted, transitional material and cutaways (Toby Miller, Technologies of Truth: Cultural Citizenship and the Popular Media, ed. Michael Renov, Faye Ginsburg, and Jane Gaines [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998], 225). No matter how objectively a filmmaker approaches a topic, they will always be filtering the topic through their personal lens - not just the camera’s.
Subjectivity, and therefore a departure from the real, is thus introduced in the documentary as soon as the filmmaker makes a decision on how the everyday should be represented. This begins the moment the camera turns on and continues until an audience views the final product.
Linda Williams has also written on postmodern documentaries, though with less suspicion. In an analysis of Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line (about someone’s wrongful conviction for murder) and Claude Lanzmann’s monumental Shoah (about the Holocaust), Williams focuses on the
low-budget postmodern documentary borrowing many features of the fiction film. My goal . . . is to get beyond the much remarked self-reflexivity and flamboyant auteurism of these documentaries, which might seem, Rashomon-like, to abandon the pursuit of truth, to what seems to me their remarkable engagement with a newer, more contingent, relative, postmodern truth—a truth which, far from being abandoned, still operates powerfully as the receding horizon of the documentary tradition. (312)
The lesson that I would like to draw from these two exemplary postmodern documentaries is thus not at all that postmodern representation inevitably succumbs to a depthlessness of the simulacrum, or that it gives up on truth to wallow in the undecidabilities of representation. The lesson, rather, is that there can be historical depth to the notion of truth – not the depth of unearthing a coherent and unitary past, but the depth of the past’s reverberation with the present. If the authoritative means to the truth of the past does not exist, if photographs and moving images are not mirrors with memories, if they are more, as Baudrillard has suggested, like a hall of mirrors, then our best response to this crisis of representation might be to do what Lanzmann and Morris do: to deploy the many facets of these mirrors to reveal the seduction of lies. (325).
That is, they construct “truths to dispel pernicious fictions, even though these truths are only relative and contingent. While never absolute and never fixed, this under-construction, fragmented horizon of truth is one important means of combating the pernicious scapegoating fictions that can put the wrong man on death row and enable the extermination of a whole people. (325).
Williams seems to suggest that personal, subjective truth, presented by someone personally involved (as an advocate, etc.), is better than no truth at all. Pure moral relativism, the absolute denial of objective truth, leads to paralysis, whereas engagement in the issue gets us a little closer to the truth.
Chicago 10 as Postmodern Documentary
Chicago 10 is generally recognized by critics and reviewers as a postmodern documentary (as defined above). Jim Emerson writes that the film
bursts with Yippie-ish irreverence and political fervor. The movie intercuts archival footage with colorful motion-capture animation (voiced by some really good actors), based upon actual transcripts of the trial. These play, quite intentionally, like countercultural Looney Tunes, with Hoffman the Younger as the Tasmanian Devil and Hoffman the Elder as Elmer Fudd. . . .
The irreverent attitude of Chicago 10 is in synch with the times it portrays. Giddy, funny and sometimes nightmarishly absurd, it’s an apple-cart-upsetting performance piece shot through with blasting music from Eminem, the Beastie Boys and Rage Against the Machine [and let’s not forget “War Pig,” performed by Black Sabbath, during a key juncture of the film]. As an activist documentary with a contemporary agenda, it doesn’t pretend to be “objective” (whatever that means), but to find inspiration in the passion and irreverence of its heroes.
Chicago 10 is “irreverent” and “doesn’t pretend to be ‘objective’.” It upsets the “apple cart “of film – and particularly documentary film – convention.
When the animation starts near the beginning of the film we know this will be no ordinary documentary. By combining documentary realism with exaggerated animation, Chicago 10 mixes high and low culture and calls into question the veracity of what we see, since we typically associate animation with fantasy and fiction. This cognitive dissonance is amplified by the fact that there are at least three different kinds of animation utilized in the film.
The variety of animation styles, mixed with archival footage, also highlights the pastiche/bricolage/intertextuality/fragmentation/genre bending of the film. It is edited together in a seemingly sloppy, slap-dash manner, which is not poor work but rather the film-maker’s attempt to use the deconstruction of film form as a way to challenge the authorized version of reality, which passes itself off as universal, objective truth.
Chicago 10 is fragmented in its form. It is also fragmented in its narrative. You are no stranger to fractured narrative. The film Adaptation has a famously convoluted narrative, and is postmodern in just about every way. But, again, fiction films are allowed to play around with narrative (even in Hollywood films), whereas documentaries are meant to reflect the real, without bias or a subjective viewpoint. The best way to interrogate this is to present a historical narrative that jumps around in time, and refuses to privilege one account over others. This is what Morgen does in Chicago 10.
Relatedly, Chicago 10 is self-referential. Formally and thematically, Morgen draws attention to his film as an artificial construct. He makes visual “jokes,” he “winks at the audience.” The best example of this is early on in the courtroom when Abbie Hoffman blows a kiss towards a juror and the “camera” follows the kiss to its destination, on the juror’s cheek (which the judge according to the transcript, tells the jury to disregard). The mimicry of live-action cinematography in fiction films is common in animated films, but here, in a documentary, it is meant as an ironic commentary on film-making.
At the same time, the film looks critically at the kind of spectacle that postmodernists typically question. In the film, it is Abbie Hoffman who examines the topic, in the form of political theater. Hoffman argues that politics is nothing more than “theater and magic.” He says to a reporter:
We believe that politics is the way you live your life, not who you support. It’s not in terms of rallies or speeches or political programs. It is in terms of images and in terms of transforming people’s lives.
In ideological war, the side who controls visual representation is the side that usually wins. Hoffman and his Yippie cohorts understood this very well, which is why they managed so successfully to dramatize the protests at the Democratic convention, and the trial itself, on their own very colorful terms. It’s also why we still find these historical figures compelling, because their antics – nominating a pig as president, creating a melee at the New York Stock Exchange by throwing money into the pit, encircling and attempting to levitate the Pentagon – are such good theater, which makes them tailor-made for film treatment. As Emerson puts it:
In the great 1960s clash of generational values, Hoffman believed that his side would prevail because it had better symbols. As he framed it, the comedic/dramatic faceoff was between peace, love and freedom on one hand, and war, repression and oppression on the other. When you look at it in those terms, it’s hard to argue with him.
In the end, Morgen’s documentary follows the template of the postmodern advocacy documentary described by Williams. Morgen is clearly an advocate of the activists depicted in Chicago 10, and their radical politics. Though he uses postmodern techniques, it seems very likely that Morgen did not intend to cast suspicion on the actions or even the ideology, of the anti-war counterculture.
Unlike more postmodern films, and many postmodern documentaries, Chicago 10 doesn’t just question and undercut the idea of objective truth, asserting instead an ironic – but untrustworthy – subjectivity. Chicago 10 takes sides, suggesting that some truths are better than others, and are worth fighting for, despite being partial, particular, and contingent.
University of Maryland
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Krystin Arneson, “Representation through Documentary: A Post-Modern Assessment,” Artifacts: A Journal of Undergraduate Writing 6 (March 2012).
Jim Emerson, “Review of Chicago 10,” rogerebert.com (February 28, 2008).
Margaret Wertheim. “Postmodernism.” Faith and Reason. PBS. December 11, 2013.
Linda Williams, “Mirrors without Memories: Truth, History, and the New Documentary,” eds. Brian Henderson and Ann Martin, Film Quarterly: Forty Years – A Selection (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999). http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft5h4nb36j/
There are quite a few controversial aspects to Chicago 10. Here are some of the controversies that you might focus on in writing your critical argument paragraph for this week.
Make the case that the use of animation in Chicago 10 was artistic and appropriate given the material discussed and the cultural moment (the United States in 1968).
Make the case that the use of animation in Chicago 10 was NOT artistic or appropriate given the material discussed and the cultural moment (the United States in 1968).
Make the case that Chicago 10 shows that the Vietnam war, racism, and capitalism (and by extension anti-war, anti-racist, and anti-capitalist activism) were inter-related in important ways.
Make the case that Chicago 10 (particularly in the treatment of the white defendants compared to the treatment of Bobby Seale) reveals the racial and class-based fault-lines in American society in 1968, and in the peace movement
Protest as Street Theater
Make the case that Chicago 10 shows the effectiveness of satirical street theater in protesting social injustice
Make the case that Chicago 10 shows how the hijinks of the protest organizers in Chicago confused matters and were counter-productive
News Media and the Vietnam War
Make the case that Chicago 10 shows how the news media (particularly on television) were vital participants in the protests against the Vietnam War, exposing the violence of the war and the authorities’ violent reaction to peaceful protest
Make the case that Chicago 10 shows how the news media (particularly on television) abandoned objectivity, leading to more, rather than less, violence in the world and in American society.
Comparison to Other Course Films
You might also write an argument in which you compare/contrast the depiction of the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s in Chicago 10, with similar depictions, in EITHER
Brett Morgen is a writer/director/producer of documentaries. His first feature-length documentary, Ollie’s Army (1996), featured the former Marine and conservative pundit, Oliver North (of Iran-Contra infamy).
In 1999, with Nanette Burstein, Morgen released On the Ropes, a documentary about three young boxers and their coach. This film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary, and won a number of film awards, including the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, the Directors Guild of America award for best documentary, and the same award from the International Documentary Association.
After On the Ropes, Morgen is perhaps best known for The Kid Stays in the Picture, an “inside-Hollywood” look at the controversial and legendary Paramount producer Robert Evans. This film was nominated for twelve minor film awards, winning four.
Morgen’s latest documentary was Crossfire Hurricane, a television documentary about the fiftieth-anniversary tour of the Rolling Stones. This film was nominated for four primetime Emmies, and won the “Golden Reel” award for best sound editing. (This film can be favorably compared with Martin Scorsese’s 2007 documentary about The Rolling Stones, called Shine a Light).
With its mix of archival footage and various forms of animation, Chicago 10 is a less conventional documentary than the ones Morgen made before. The film was generally well reviewed, though it was panned by some of the bigger media outlets and has not garnered the kind of awards that Morgen has previously won. There were mixed reviews on Morgen’s use of animation in the film.
At Time Out, Ben Kenigsberg writes that
this unclassifiable cine-essay from Brett Morgen . . . burnishes the Chicago Seven trial with an iGeneration makeover. Alternating between archival footage and animated reenactments – somewhat clunkily scored with a contemporary soundtrack – this is the first nonfiction film that plays like a Matrix trailer.
Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle has a different take on the film. He concludes:
In the end, the truest thing that can be said for “Chicago 10” is that, though Morgen did just about everything he could to make his movie unwatchable, the story was interesting enough to fight him to a draw.
The film chronicles the creative provocations of anti-war activists at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 in Chicago, and the police push-back. Two of the defendants, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, were members of the newly-formed activist group, the Yippies. The Yippies were well known for their political street theater, which took on monumental proportions in Chicago during the convention. Other defendants, such as Rennie Davis and David Dellinger, represented the slightly more mainstream peace group, the National Mobilization Committee, or MOBE. A third defendant, Bobby Seale, was an organizer for the Black Panther Party.
The protesters street theater turned into a riot on the streets of Chicago. It is generally acknowledged now that it was Mayor Daley’s police who created the riot, not the protesters. But arguably this is exactly what the protesters wanted, since it showed quite concretely the lengths the authorities were willing to go to maintain order and perpetuate a repressive status quo based upon war and profits.
When they went on trial, the leaders of the protest at the Democratic convention in 1968 brought their theater out of the streets and into the courtroom. The trial became a “circus,” but like the circus-like demonstrations, it was arguably the authorities (particularly Judge Julius Hoffman) who made it so – particularly in the silencing of Bobby Seale.
Chicago 10 and the Counterculture
Earlier in the semester, when we viewed Apocalypse Now, we discussed the American counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, which was characterized by newer, looser conceptions of “sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll,” and, eventually, anti-war protest. I posted a blog entry in which I argued that Apocalypse Now shows the “dark side” of the counterculture, reflecting the moral exhaustion the followed the conclusion of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal (which forced the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974).
By contrast, Chicago 10 shows us the vibrancy (and sense of humor) of the student-led peace movement in the United States circa 1968. In this sense, Chicago 10 is more like Jean-Luc’s Godard’s Weekend, from 1967, than Apocalypse Now – though Godard is somewhat critical of his student revolutionaries, whereas Morgen is quite celebratory.
Still, though in Chicago 10 we see the American counterculture through rose-colored, psychedelic glasses, there is a hint of dark times to come. We see this in the growing stridency and militancy of the peace movement, which would lead to some students taking up arms (and bombs) for peace. Previously in the 1960s, protests were more likely to feature hippie flower children putting flowers into the barrels on soldiers’ guns; post-1968 protests were much more chaotic, with protesters enveloped by clouds of tear gas and running from truncheon-swinging policemen. Indicative of this is the violent tactics of the protesters in Chicago, and the ubiquitous use of the “p” word (“pig”) in reference to the police.
Chicago Ten and Seven
As I mentioned in class, if you’re looking for historical background on the film, you’ll want to search for “the Chicago 7,” not “the Chicago 10.” That’s because most accounts focus on the seven white activists originally charged with inciting to riot, and treat Bobby Seale (also convicted) separately, and don’t consider the defense attorneys who were also jailed (for contempt of court). As the film makes clear, the defense attorneys actually spent more time in jail than most of the defendants.
Morgen is right to consider Bobby Seale as one of the ten – despite not being one of the main organizers of the protest, and being separated from the rest of the defendants – since his horrendous treatment (being denied the right to defend himself, dragged out of the courtroom, and later gagged in the courtroom) is one of the more controversial aspects of the trial.
University of Maryland
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Ben Kenigsberg, “Review of Chicago 10,” TimeOut (February 26, 2008).
Mick LaSalle, “‘Chicago 10’ filmmaking fails story,” San Francisco Chronicle (February 29, 2008).