Thursday, April 8, 2010

The times, they have a-changed

Steal This Movie is the second cinematic representation of Abbie Hoffman, the self-described "long-haired revolutionary freak," I've seen in the last two years. While Robert Greenwald's movie is basically the biopic of the infamous hippie/yippie, Hoffman also appeared as the most prominent character in Chicago Ten, a rotoscoped documentary recreation from director Brett Morgen, in which his character was voiced by Hank Azaria. I slightly prefer Azaria's characterization to that of Vincent D'Onofrio, but then again, Azaria has made a career with his malleable voice.

It's not the last Hoffman movie we're likely to see, either. I read on wikipedia that Sacha Baron Cohen had been cast as Hoffman in Steven Spielberg's The Trial of the Chicago Seven, though I can find no evidence of that film on either of their IMDB pages. (The movie itself does appear, with a projected 2012 release date, but has no talent attached.) I'd like to see that one. Maybe Hoffman would bring a bag of his own poop into the courtroom, or try to "freak out the system" by acting like a gay fashion reporter.

Watching these two representations of the late 1960s "yippie" movement -- a more radical, activist offshoot of the hippie movement, founded by Hoffman and several others -- reminds me just how much times have changed. Oh, not in the obvious ways we always talk about, like the fact that we have the iPad now, and back then, we only had Maxi Pads. But a change in the actual philosophy about activism.

Specifically, I was struck again last night by the fact that the liberal protesters were demonstrating against a Democratic ruling party. That's right -- Lyndon Baines Johnson, the president they were labeling a "war criminal," was a Democrat. Not only that, but he was John F. Kennedy's vice president and successor. And when Mayor Richard Daley in Chicago arrested numerous youth protesters in 1968, leading to the trial alluded to above, not only was he a Democrat (from one of the country's most famous Democratic families), but they were protesting the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Can you imagine something like that happening today?

Can you imagine, for example, a group of latter-day flower children organizing a rally against the government of Barack Obama?

And it's not like Obama hasn't done anything to potentially deserve it. To be clear, I'm totally in his corner, but not all of his policies have been what liberals thought they would be. In fact, by sending more troops to Afghanistan, Obama could theoretically wear the title "war criminal" in the minds of the most radical peace activists out there.

But you will never see it. And that has everything to do with how partisan this country has become.

Back then, it didn't matter what political party The Man was affiliated with. If The Man was sending people off to war, he was bad. Which is as it should be, if you think about it.

But today, it seems like we hold our tongues in criticizing our president, in deference to the bigger picture. And there's no coincidence in my using the word "our." Today's liberals really do feel ownership over Barack Obama, and rightly so -- in a way, he's their/our biggest victory ever on a national political level.

In more ways, however, Obama is basically a centrist, as eager to maintain widespread support (more cynically) and help the greatest diversity of Americans (more charitably) as he is to please the liberals who helped elect him to office. That should and probably does piss some liberals off.

But will they protest him? Not hardly. Any perceived weakening of Obama, which protest would seek to create, would give the conservatives inroads to taking control back, to returning this country to the stagnation of George W. Bush. And there's an enemy now that's even greater than Bush, personified by Sarah Palin and her Tea Party. Strangely, they are now the protesters, shouting moronically at public meetings about health care, even if they don't understand what they're shouting about. While traditional hippies are now The Man.

I guess The Man is defined only by what opposes your own way of thinking. But that's what interests me so much about the late 1960s: There were really three groups, the most radical of which considered both the others to oppose it. Hoffman and his yippies certainly weren't trying to effect change in the White House, at least not in the sense of changing the political party in control. Surely, they must have known they would be even worse off with a Republican, and sure enough, Richard Nixon was what they got. Nixon almost immediately surpassed LBJ in all the things they hated about the government, but ironically, they probably helped put him in office.

It's strange to think that liberals are, at their core, believers in big government, yet historically, liberals have also been the government's most outspoken critics. Politics are defined by such apparent contradictions. I love to think about the idea of free speech, and how both Democrats and Republicans champion it as they see fit. Democrats support free speech in terms of a person's right to burn the flag, but they oppose it when it comes to non-politically correct language. Republicans are pretty much the opposite of that.

Vance, this is a movie blog. It seems to me you're writing about politics.

Am I? It's true. But bringing it back to movies, I'm thankful that I saw both Chicago 10 and Steal This Movie, because before seeing these movies, I didn't really understand who Abbie Hoffman was. In Chicago 10, I learned about him in the context of the famous trial of him and his fellow protesters, which turned into a circus. In Steal This Movie, I got more of an appreciation of what came after that, when Hoffman went underground, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder (a factor in his eventual suicide), and became estranged from his young son, named america with a lower-case A. (As a side note, I was tickled to see Michael Cera playing the 8-year-old version of america. Cera was technically 12 at the time the film was released in 2000, but he's such a pipsqueak here that it's hard to believe Arrested Development was only three years ahead in his future.)

And without those movies, I may not have realized just how much the times have, indeed, a-changed.


Mike Lippert said...

Yes, I like this movie too but it feels sort of minor next to Chicago Ten but maybe that's because I like courtroom movies better than biopics. Nice write up. I liked how you used the movie as a springboard into a personal political debate. Hoffman would have been proud.

Vancetastic said...

Thanks Mike. Reading your blog, I thought you would have learned your lesson about ever daring to refer to a film as "minor" ... don't you know that every film out there is "major," in somebody's eyes?? ;-)

Indeed, I found there to be something a little limp about Steal This Movie, but enjoyable nonetheless.