Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Chicago 10

With the national political conventions looming, the DVD release of director Brett Morgen's documentary on the trial of the Chicago Eight, titled "Chicago 10," seems appropriate – once again the country finds itself involved in an unpopular war and the sitting president is not seeking re-election.

In 1968, a protest aimed at the Democratic Convention in Chicago arranged by members of the Yippies and other groups opposing the war in Vietnam went from a media circus to bloody confrontations with police.

Following the protest much of which was seen live on television some of the organizers were charged with crossing a state-line to incite a riot: Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Lee Weiner and Bobby Seale. These men became known as the "Chicago Eight." Later, Seale's trail was separated from the rest and the group was redubbed "the Chicago Seven."

The film's title refers to the original eight defendants and their two lawyers. Although the group was not convicted on the charges, all were sentenced for contempt by Judge Julius Hoffman. These contempt sentences were later overturned.

Morgen's film seeks to recreate the events leading up to the protest through archival footage and reconstructed scenes. The bulk of the film, though, centers on the trial of the eight people who were accused of planning the civil disturbance.

What makes the film unique is Morgen's use of animation for the re-enactments. Normally, documentaries either use contemporary interviews with participants or observers to fill in the gaps or stage re-enactments with actors.

While the animation itself could have been more polished there was more traditional cel animation used as well as computer generated imagery (CGI) it is significant that animation was chosen for this purpose. It's rare that a commercial American film would use animation in this way. From an animation point of view, I was disappointed in the crudeness of the CGI footage. With CGI as the new favored medium of the art form, audiences demand much more "realism" that what this film's CGI offered. It was serviceable, though, and was used to depict the courtroom scenes.

What struck me about the event was how Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, two of the key Yippie organizers, saw how comedy and satire was part of their strategy in planning the protest and then their reactions in the courtroom. In hindsight, their almost absurdist approach seems at odds with the seriousness of what the anti-war movement was all about.

I would have loved to see archival follow-up interviews with either of them both died well before the film's production to re-assess whether or not this tactic ultimately worked to question the validity of the war and to shorten its duration. I did not see a finished version of the DVD release, so perhaps material of this nature will be included in the extras.

The documentary's focus is defined to the protest in the street and its evolution. There are very few references to the Democratic race culminating at the convention a race that was marked by the murder of Robert Kennedy nor is there any mention of how journalists were treated while covering the convention. I think for many people seeing the film today who did not live through that time, a wider context would have better served the material.

These criticisms aside, the film provides some interesting links to our nation today, as noted by one of the defendants in the case, Bobby Seale, and Paul Krassner, an acclaimed writer who was part of the planning of the protest, but who was not charged with any crime.

Both men spoke with me about the film and the protest.

Seale, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party, said the film's history of the protest was quite accurate, but the movie didn't show that Judge Hoffman had him manacled and gagged for as many days as he actually was. Seale wanted to represent himself and Judge Hoffman refused the request. Ultimately, Judge Hoffman had Seale chained to a chair in the courtroom and silenced with a gag.

Seale recounted that the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution gave him the right to represent himself.

"I had that right," he said. "For seven weeks the judge and I went round and round."

Seale, who is now a lecturer, author and barbecue expert, believes American society has changed since 1968. He's reminded that people were murdered during the civil rights movement in the 1960s. He noted the number of African-Americans elected to public office has increased, but believes there is much progress to be made.

One of his concerns is the erosion of free speech in the last 10 years with the advent of "free speech zones" fenced off areas at public events where protesters are allowed to gather.

When Seale lectures at colleges today, he knows that the young audiences don't know about the Black Panthers and what the group was attempting to do. He said he gives an hour-long speech followed by an hour of questions and answers.

"When I'm introduced there is polite applause," he said. At the end of his speech, though, he receives a standing ovation.

Seale is currently working on another book, one that describes his time in jail.

Krassner is also seen in the film and said he liked the film.

"It captured the flavor and the emotions we felt," he said.

Krassner has been known as one of this country's premiere satirists and commentators. The founder and editor of "The Realist," a political and social commentary publication that figured prominently during the counter culture movement. Krassner, like Jonathan Swift before him, used savage cutting edge satire to make political observations.

He writes today for publications such as the Onion in its A.V. Club section, the Nation and High Times.

In 1966, he also became well known for publishing after the death of Walt Disney a poster titled "The Disneyland Memorial Orgy," in which the pantheon of Disney characters are seen in various illegal, unethical and inappropriate behaviors. Amazingly, Krassner was not sued then, a fact he attributed to a report he heard that lawyers for Disney thought a suit would only give the artwork more public attention.

He now has a colorized version of the poster on sale on his Web site and still is awaiting legal action.

He wrote several of the scenes in the film and did use some creative license. He explained that in one scene he substituted a joint for a cigarette because he "wouldn't want to send that message [that tobacco is OK.]"

He said that 1,200 people a week die from complications due to smoking tobacco while the worst byproduct from smoking marijuana is people "raiding the neighbor's refrigerator."

He also noted that in one scene poet and political activist Allen Ginsberg is seen levitating while meditating also an example of the freedom of animation.

The use of animation also allowed the filmmakers to use audio of Abbie Hoffman's telephone calls to a radio host in New York City and provide a split screen image between Hoffman speaking at a phone booth and the host in his studio.

Krassner had hoped to supply his own voice in the animated sequences, but was unable to do it because of scheduling conflicts.

Comparing America in 1968 to today, Krassner said, "In my lifetime this is the worst I've seen."

"It's a challenge to be happy in these times," he added.

When asked who was the worst president Lyndon Johnson, who escalated the war in Vietnam, Richard Nixon, who trampled on the Constitution, or George W. Bush Krassner replied, "That's the easiest question I've been asked my whole life, including my pre-natal period George Bush."

© 2008 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

Monday, August 11, 2008

Interview with Michael Sporn

I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Sporn earlier this summer when I was on a business trip to NYC. Sporn is a guy who I admire because he has been able to acheive success as an independent animator – a road that isn't very easy to hoe.

Sporn doesn't strike me as pretentious, but he exhibits something lacking in pop culture today: taste. It's refreshing to see work that doesn't involve fart gags or boogers. It's also great to see animated productions that don't stop every five minutes for a song by some aging rock star.

Sporn is also a great commentator on animation through his blog and I find his blog a must-read.

For many people, animation is broken into nice little categories. There are the big feature films that are much heralded from Disney or Dreamworks. There's the stuff for kids and television that always seems to be searching for something innovative to copy. There are the anime productions from Japan and those non-Japanese productions that clearly try to imitate them.

And then there are animators like Michael Sporn. Sporn is one of a relatively small group of independent American animation producers whose subject matter and techniques put this productions in afar different category: art.

Now by saying that I don't want to scare anyone off. Two new DVDs released by First Run Features have two half-hour productions each that are truly memorable and accessible to all nearly members of the family. "The Marzipan Pig" is coupled with "Jazztime Tale," while "Abel's Island" is double-billed with "The Story of the Dancing Frog."

For anyone who enjoys animation, these two DVDs are a must for one's collection. Of the four films, the one that challenges you the most and has the lushest look is "The Marzipan Pig." With its oddly linear story, and its introduction from a candy pig that has fallen behind a sofa, the film has a dreamy, hypnotic quality. I was really intrigued with what was going to happen next.

"Abel's Island," adapted from the book by acclaimed illustrator William Steig, was a treat. A Robinson Crusoe-style tale of an urbane mouse on a desert island, it was the kind of story that, in other hands, would surely have been turned into a bloated musical of some sort. Sporn preserved the story's purity and the film is better for it.

Within animation circles, Sporn is well known. He is a two-time Emmy winner, a two-time CableAce winner and has been nominated for an Academy Award. Carefully adapting children's books to animation as well as presenting stories of social relevance in animation has distinguished his work. He was honored with a retrospective program last year at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Sporn also has one of the best blogs on animation on the Internet today. It can be read at www.michaelspornanimation.com/bios.html.

I visited Sporn in his Greenwich Village studio earlier this summer where, among other things, he discussed his first feature film, an animated biography of Edgar Allan Poe.

Originally, Sporn thought he would do six half-hour productions for HBO, but that concept didn't pan out. Instead, he is planning a theatrically released feature.

Sporn is using four of Poe's celebrated short stories to illustrate parts of his life. He said that "The Black Cat," in which a murderer is revealed by his own guilty feelings, is being used to show how Poe became guilty that he couldn't prevent the death his young wife from tuberculosis.

Poe's life and reputation has been hurt for years with false impressions and assumptions, much of which came from a biography written by a man who swore to get revenge on Poe, Sporn noted.

As is the case with any independent film, the production's pace has been dictated by the availability of funding. One of Sporn's animation mentors, Tissa David, has worked on the film and there is a 10 to 15 minute demo reel.

Sporn cast up and coming British actor Hugh Dancy as the voice of Poe and said the actor did a "brilliant turn."

Sporn admitted he was concerned about the end of the film, which uses one of Poe's lesser-known books that critics have dubbed as one of the first science fiction novels. The book addresses what Poe thinks God is and Sporn described it as "almost an epic poem." He said it is very positive and uplifting.

"I wasn't sure it was going to work," he said. With Dancy's reading of the piece, though, Sporn added, "I knew I had a perfect ending."

Other cast members include Alfred Molina and Dianne Weist, both of whom perform multiple roles.

One point of interest in Poe's life that fascinates Sporn is how the author died. Poe had gone to the train station to travel from Baltimore to Philadelphia, but never made it to his destination. Instead he was found in a coma in Baltimore in clothes that didn't belong to him. Sporn said there is one theory that Poe had been involved in a common voter fraud scam at the time of voting multiple times in different polling places. This part of Poe's life might make it into the finished film, he said, with Weist as Poe's mother-in-law telling the story.

With financing in hand, Sporn said the film should take a team of three animators about 14 months to complete.

While computer technology will play a hand in the production, Sporn is not rushing to embrace the latest trend in animation: computer generated images (CGI).

He cited "Kung Fu Panda" as a CGI film that could have been "graphically more interesting" than what it was if it had been done with traditional animation forms.

Of the legion of CGI animated features, he said, "Everything looks like a Viewmaster."

He admitted he is rarely impressed by animation today and said that CGI is great for special effects animation such as fields of grass waving in the wind.

While he said the career he has chosen "is really hard at times," he noted that both PBS and HBO have been great supporters of his work.

He added with a laugh, "I've nothing to complain about."
© 2008 by Gordon Michael Dobbs