That 70s Now

Filmmakers draw lessons for today from American radical history

Russ Little spares no emotion whendenouncing the state of American government and its divisive commander in chief: "The country is totally out of control. It's being run by criminals. It's being run by total right-wingers who have no respect for the Constitution or anything else. I couldn't believe this guy got re-elected!" Though he may sound like a Democrat carping about the events of 2004, Little is actually explaining the opinions of his younger self, appalled at the re-election of Nixon in the early '70s. It's only one of many parallels to contemporary events that emerge in Robert Stone's Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst, which is largely built around interviews with Little, a former Symbionese Liberation Army member, and his SLA colleague Mike Bortin.

The '70s has provided ample amounts of gritty chic and ironic glamour to '00s pop culture: Witness the big-screen resurrections of Charlie's Angels and Starsky & Hutch, hairstyles largely intact. But independent filmmakers are digging past gags to investigate the politics of a bygone America that looks increasingly like our own, complete with Middle East conflicts, massive protests, political terrorism, and the re-election of a Republican president during a messy, morally questionable war. Filmmakers Bill Siegel and Sam Green visited territory similar to Stone's with last year's The Weather Underground. Shola Lynch's Chisholm '72: Unbought & Unbossed, a portrait of the first African American woman to run for president, saw a limited release in September and will air on PBS in February 2005. Niels Mueller's reality-based drama The Assassination of Richard Nixon, hitting theaters later this month, fictionalizes the little-known story of a disgruntled salesman who hatched a plot to hijack an airliner and fly it into the White House. Even Canadian art-pornographer Bruce La Bruce tackled the subject with The Raspberry Reich, a triple-X spoof about European hipsters who eroticize terrorist revolutionaries like the SLA and the Baader-Meinhof gang.

Despite the resemblances to today's headlines, most of these projects were conceived before 2001. "I've been fascinated by the whole interaction between terrorists and mass media for some time," says Stone, who began seeking interviews with SLA members as early as 2000. "On 9-11," he recounts, "I was about 200 yards away from the World Trade Center. All of a sudden, there were like 20 cameras surrounding me. So here I was, not only in the middle of a terrorist attack, but also in the middle of this media feeding frenzy. I think I went even further examining the role of the media in the SLA's story because of that. So when I look at the film now, I see constant subtle references to what's going on today."

Mueller, who finished writing his script for Assassination in 1999, reports that viewers of his film have frequently seen connections he didn't intend. "Since Bush has been in office we're involved in this odd war, where the reasons for the war keep shifting. The fact that the country is now as polarized as it was in the '70s is something that many people talk about. I always thought the film was relevant and had an element of social commentary to it, but I do understand that people are seeing more of a mirror of today's society than we had originally planned."

How the history of American radicalism should be portrayed remains controversial. Stone is skeptical of Green and Siegel's approach. "It's like the Weather Underground rewriting their own history. It could definitely leave the impression with young people that this was a legitimate form of protest. My film is quite critical of the extremes to which these groups went, and of political terrorism as a useful tactic."

Green disagrees. "The Weather Underground were pretty out-there but in many ways they were normal people you could identify with," he counters. "But the SLA were so crazy. [Stone's] movie ends up pathologizing radical politics and in that sense it's unfortunate, because right now I think that's a bad thing." One could interpret Assassination as doing the same. And none of these films comes close to the romantic spirit of non-American works like The Dreamers or The Motorcycle Diaries. For Americans, dissent remains an anomaly begging for an explanation.

 
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