"Chicago 10": Brett Morgen's conventional wisdom

Now, as far as I know, unlike the ill-fated “The Signal,”  “Chicago 10”  is still  in the theaters. So I can run the lengthy phone interview I conducted with the director, Brett Morgen. And it’s a good thing, because I think this part animated, part archival recreation of the events leading up to the anti-war demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 and the subsequent trial of the “ringleaders” provides some useful services.

First of all, even though we’ve got the unpopular war and the frustrating Presidential campaigns just like in 1968, we’re missing a key element -- the draft. So not a lot of people going to march out in the streets and get clubbed and tear gassed this time. But that’s no reason why we can’t relive some of the spontaneity and funky fun of those Yippie protests, which, as Morgen points out below, was part of the reason he made the movie. Maybe a video game might be the next step? Just tossing out ideas.

And secondly, and this might be tiresomely theoretical, “Chicago 10” brings up some key issues about the nature and function of documentary. Is this medium supposed to show us the truth, i.e., “objective” reality, or “the truth,” as in, this is how I see it? Morgen, as he points out emphatically, is a this is how I see it kind of guy. And a real lapel grabber -- Bill O’Reilly will have his hands full if he ever tangles with Morgen on Fox. 

PK: Last night you had a panel discussion with a screening of the movie--how did that go?

BM: It was great. It was with Paul Krassner [one of the co-founders of the Yippie movement]’s always entertaining, Jeremy Schick from the MOCA here in L.A. and Aaron Sorkin who is writing the  adaptation of the Chicago 10 [ which Steven Spielberg might direct. Or might not.]

PK: And the topic you were discussing was the comparison between 1968 and 2008…

BM: Art in the age of activism.

PK: Yeah. I was watching the movie and thinking about the similarities between this year and 1968 with the war and so forth. And I was wondering what the likelihood of anything remotely like those events happening now might be. Any thoughts?

BM: I feel like more people are better schooled in that than I am.

PK: So you don’t foresee any kind of rioting in the streets or anything like that?

BM: One of the things that I think is important is, well,  it looks like Obama is going to be the Democratic candidate and obviously both Democratic candidates have a pretty strong anti-war platform. However, I think it’s important for people who are against the war, or whatever your cause, is to go to the Democratic convention--and the Republican convention -- and let your voice be heard. I mean, that’s basically what the conflict in Chicago came down to -- the protesters feeling was, “Look, if you’re going to have a national convention, you then need to expect there will be protesters. That’s what happens -- we get together once every 4 years and it’s a time for people to come together in whatever movement they are in and raise their voice so hopefully, you know, send a signal to the delegates inside who are writing the party platform. And in Chicago, they basically said, “We’re not going to let the protesters come.” And it was like, if you’re going to have a national convention in your town, you’re going to have protesters.

PK: Were you an activist protesting the war yourself?

BM: Well, I sort of go back and forth with my movies. I mean, I think “On the Ropes”  is a pretty socially conscious film -- which is funny, because I set out to make an entertaining movie about boxing and I ended up making a movie about the judicial system. With “Chicago 10,” last night Aaron Sorkin and I were talking about activism in film and art and we both agreed on one point, which is, my first goal is to entertain -- because, I think, without that you’re not only preaching to the choir but you’re preaching to empty air. I’m not an activist per se, you know, I’m not the most politically sophisticated person. The reason I got inspired to make [“Chicago 10”] is that what was happening with the war was a moral issue, as much as it was a political issue.  

PK: Now this is the war in Iraq you’re talking about, right?

BM: Correct. I felt a sort of moral imperative to do something in whatever way I could and one of the things I wanted to do was make a movie that’s rooted in ‘68 but that’s really, ultimately, about today. I think any artist who is making a portrait of a time that predates them -- that piece of work is usually more reflective of the time they’re writing it in than the time they’re writing about. I certainly think that’s true with “Chicago 10” -- as you notice, there’s very little context in the year ‘68. The movie is more of a parable or fable for all times. There’s a war going on, there’s opposition to the war and there’s a government trying to silence the opposition. It’s an age old story. When I did the European premiere  for the film this summer I was asked numerous times by journalists, “Were you making a film about Tiananmen Square?” “Were you thinking of Seattle when you made this film?” I think part of the reason they were thinking that is because you can sort of project any of those stories onto the screen.          Ultimately, since the 1960s have been so heavily documented in both books and films. It sometimes feels like anyone who was alive in the 60s has written a memoir. So, I didn’t really feel the need to make another historical document about 68 -- I wanted to make a film that was very much steeped in mythology and I approached this film as such, same as I did with “The Kid Stays in the Picture.”History has become this dry, empirical exercise in facts and dates--very academic. I wanted to try to do something more akin to what Truman Capote was doing with history. When I was in college I heard a lecture from Ken Burns. His  filmmaking I have very little in common with in general, but Ken was saying that since the beginning of man --- and that’s a terrible sentence, but so what -- stories were  always done in the oral tradition. They were passed down from generation to generation and each generation would enhance the story and make it their own. In the process, those stories became mythologies and folklores. Well, that’s pretty much what “Chicago 10” is -- it’s a retelling of these events through the filter of today and I tell audiences that if they don’t know the history of Chicago, you should read a book. If you want the experience of Chicago, though, I think my film is uniquely suited for that. I think the problem with a lot of historical documentaries  -- even a film such as “No End in Sight”  -- could easily have been done in book form. They’re not really exploiting or taking advantage of the breadth and width that cinema has to offer and having explored the entire canon of work about the 60s the one thing I felt that I could add was something uniquely cinematic, using the full breadth and width of the sound design, which we spent a year on, and creating this montage, this visceral experience. We can try to capture the energy and experience. That’s why I call the film “experiential” cinema, because rather than learn about facts or watch people talking about what happened, you actually get to experience what happened in a very visceral and immediate way. 

PK: Nobody reads books these days, anyway.

BM: [laughs]

PK: You’re either going to see the movie or go online, or something.

BM: That’s true.

PK: …or watch Fox News.

BM: The other thing I’d like to add, Peter, is -- going back to context to a moment -- if you were around during the 60s, or you were schooled in the 60s, then you are going to bring all that history with you to the film. You know about Bobby Kennedy, know about McCarthy, know about McGovern and you can brign that with you. If you’re not schooled in it, then you don’t really know what you’re missing and you can experience the film on its own terms. I think that’s the difference between the way a really young audience experiences the film versus people who are active at the time. And we’ve had tremendous responses from both groups. We did some focus groups with the film and some of our highest marks were from high school kids and college kids, who would say things like “It’s so great that this is the vision for my generation--it made these images relatable to me.” Or, well, “I’m so glad I didn’t have to look at my grandparents talking to the camera.” Or, one of the best lines I heard was, “I feel like I finally understand my parents.” And with the Boomers, people who were active at the time, you know -- to quote Tom Hayden [a Chicago 10 defendant] at Sundance, “I don’t know how someone who wasn’t alive at the time could have gotten it so right, because what you’ve done is really captured that energy of the moment and unleashed it today.” He went on to say that a lot of histories and books about the 60s tend to intellectualize something that was rather organic  and this film really tends to capture the energy. He said, “Look, there’s stuff you didn’t put in that I would have if I was making a film about my experiences with Chicago -- you know, Bobby Kennedy and whatnot.”

But, you know, everyone is going to have their own film. When I first started to talk to survivors of Chicago, the conversations would usually begin with, “Oh, I’m so glad you’re making this movie -- I’ve had this in my head for four years. Here, let me tell you the movie you should make.” I sort of felt like -- you know what? I’m going to take all of this media -- all of this primary media that we spent three years collecting, exhaustively. It’s 1200 hours of film and 14000 photographs and 500+ hours of audio. And make my own conclusions and make my own portrait, the way that someone paints a picture of George Washington crossing the Delaware River. That person wasn’t there -- it’s their interpretation of their events. I was just speaking with a journalist about Steven Spielberg doing the adaptation of the film and isn’t it weird that it’s Spielberg since, and this is the journalist’s words, “when I think about Spielberg in the 60s, I think of the hiding out at Universal.” And I said, well, you know -- it’s sometimes best to have an outside perspective on things. You know, there’s two schools of thought. You can either do the Chicago experience from the autobiographical perspective of someone who was incredibly involved in the movement, or you could sort of do what I did and approach it with fresh eyes, which I think adds some value in a certain way.       

PK: You said in the panel discussion that “the distinction between fiction and nonfiction in films is totally archaic.” Isn’t that kind of a dangerous position because one of the things that got us into this war was that we couldn’t make the distinction between fact and fiction?

BM: Absolutely. There’s actually a line from my film that I wanted to get in there from Allen Ginsberg, when he says, “Politics had become theater and magic, it’s a manipulation by the media through imagery to seduce the country into believing in a war that doesn’t really exist.” When I was reading those transcripts, and this was shortly after Colin Powell was testifying in front of the United Nations, it was like -- there it is. I think that we have a covenant as artists or journalists with our audience -- and it’s important that when you read the “New York Times,” and you understand how they’re going to editorialize it so you understand how to absorb or read that information. But you know that there’s a difference when you read a story in the “New York Times” versus the “New York Post.”

 I’m talking about art here, I’m not talking about history or journalism. What I was referring to in that panel is that truth exists in fiction and truth exists in nonfiction. Truth is not singular -- we have have different ways of seeing things. Anyone who sees a Michael Moore film and thinks that they’re getting an absolute, objective truth is  sadly mistaken. And they should know that based on the conventions on the style of filmmaking -- he’s making an entertaining movie. And as such, he’s going to take certain license. I felt liberated by the fact that I was approaching this as mythology. I don’t think anyone can look at this movie and not get that -- it’s animated for Christ’s sake. It’s pretty blatant.

When we did “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” we used the line -- “there’s 3 sides to every story: your side, my side and the truth”--and that was our attempt to create a covenant with the audience and let them know that this was not the “objective truth” that you are about to experience. We follow that up by opening the film with some red curtains that tell you you’re in a theatrical environment, but those curtains open up and you’re in the backyard of a man -- a real backyard of the real subject. Basically, what we’re saying is that this whole man’s life is theater -- and, you see, that was our covenant with the audience. As a result, I didn’t fact-check a word about what [Robert Evans] said. I’m not a journalist. I tell stories. I’m particularly interested in mythology--you learn a lot from these sort of myths. I think there’s a lot you can learn about Chicago from this film but it’s certain not some sort of objective--I don’t believe, as an artist, in any objectivity of my world.      

PK: But you’re not saying that the facts are distorted or changed in the movie?

BM: Well, what facts, Peter?

PK: Well, you said that you compiled thousands of hours of  video and other primary sources.

BM: But, but, but, but, Bobby Seale had a very different experience than Tom Hayden who had a very different experience from Abbie Hoffman. Let me tell you something interesting -- early on in the film, when I did my first cut, I invited some organizers who were in Chicago to screen the film. After the screening, one of them said to me: “Listen, I love the movie -- you totally captured it, but I take a huge issue with something you did with the film.” And I asked, “what’s that?” And she said, “Well, Sunday night -- the Festival of Life -- there was no rioting that night. It was peaceful, it was beautiful -- you’ve destroyed it. You’ve taken this Black Sabbath music, all this tear-gas -- it never existed. That didn’t happen until Monday night.”[ pause] She was totally wrong, Peter.   

PK: She was wrong that it didn’t happen?

BM: She was wrong in that it didn’t happen- -- but in forty years, her memory had created a revisionist take on what had happened. I knew that it had happened because I was immersed at that point in the research and had every government report and they all talked about the Sunday night riots -- including the slates on the news cameraman’s film, which had a date and a time on it. So she, thought, in her mind -- she could have passed a lie detector test -- that there were no riots that night when there were.

PK: Yeah, but there is an objective standard that YOU can rely on which is the archival film and the reports... 

BM: …I don’t know why we’re talking about objectivity in cinema. I mean, I just don’t understand that.

PK: I just mean, I think that part of the problem with the way the country’s going is because people don’t believe there is any objectivity.

BM: But that’s a problem not with a filmmaking. I think you’re confusing journalism with filmmaking.

PK: Ok, but there is a tradition in documentary filmmaking that it is a kind of journalistic...

BM: Well, I’m trying to smash that sort of belief for the last 10 years. That might have been the case, but that’s not where we’re going now.


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