Chicago 10, Brett Morgen 2

Everybody knows what a terrific motion picture “Chicago,” winning the Oscar and all a few years back. But who knew it’s been made into eight sequels already? Where was I when this happened? We’re already up to “Chicago 10” already and having seen the movie, I don’t see how it ties in. At least it doesn’t have Richard Gere tap dancing. Let’s see if the director Brett Morgen can  fill us in.

          He’s kind of in the middle of a thought, something about the illusion of objectivity in documentary which accounts for the animation in this film, if not the godawful production numbers in the original…

BM: [LOUDLY]…So, I think in this idea--when I got into documentary filmmaking in 1991, I came in as a filmmaker--not as a journalist or a historian. I love  research and I love the process of doing that but ultimately I have yet to make a film where I think I have to make an objective thing. I think it’s dangerous to be talking about this sort of thing at this day and age that all nonfiction and journalism is subjective--and if you want to be honest you need to somehow insert Brecthian elements into the work, or some self-referential elements into the work to have an awareness of the subjectivity in order to be really honest about it. By animating the trial in Chicago, it becomes clear that this is representational and it’s not supposed to be some sort of fact. I’m sure you can tell you got me excited because this is an issue I feel is very dear and near to my heart.

I went to Hampshire College and the reason I got into documentary was in 1987--I had always wanted to be filmmaker, I went to the only junior high school in America at the time that offered a curriculum in film, you know we were into the French New Wave at 14--and I got to Hampshire college and I wanted to make alternative fiction films and I took a class called Ethnographic Film taught by an anthropologist named Leonard Glick and it was sort of a survey course trying to define, “what is documentary?”--a question I still ask myself today, 20 years later--but in the course of that class we saw Lumiere, then Direct Cinema, onward to Robert Gardner and also Ross McElwee. There was a film we saw in that course called “The Nuer”  by a filmmaker named Hilary Harris, which was--in essence--a montage of a tribe in Africa. Now, at that time in ethnographic film, you’d also see these movies--something like “Yammama collecting water” and it would be 48 hour footage of a African tribe collecting water in order to achieve some sort of objectivity. What Hilary Harris tried to do was create an aural and visual montage that gave you a sense, a very subjective, interpretation of who these people were. I remember telling my professor that through that film I had a much deeper understanding of them. I could smell them in a way I couldn’t in those objective films. It was that moment I decided to take off on this journey that I’ve been going on.

PK: Well, I saw this movie with a bunch of geezers like myself and one of the biggest criticisms was the soundtrack, because everyone remembers the greatest hits of the 60s, and maybe it’s because the music was so interconnected with the politics of that time that we couldn’t understand why you chose not to go with…

BM: Because it’s not a movie about 1968. I don’t know how to be clear about that.

PK: That aspect of 1968 is sort of mythological, as you’d put it: you’ve got the politics and the culture fused as one.

BM: Yeah, but my interpretation of it--let me say this, I thought that by using contemporary music over images that are almost forty years old it brought the past into the present the way that wouldn’t happen if I used Buffalo Springfield at that moment. I think the music of the 60’s has become so clichéd.

PK: Like it’s being used in SUV commercials?

BM: Exactly--it no longer has that impact that it had at the moment. It would ultimately alienate a young audience, which I’m trying to get at with this film. So what I like to say is I didn’t want to use the soundtrack of my parents generation--I wanted to use the soundtrack of my generation. There wasn’t music in 1968 that, to me, would capture the energy --what was I going to use, Phil Ochs? I mean, after Chicago, music got a little angrier and a little darker. I feel like I’ve seen that film before, Peter, and I wasn’t going to make that film. Certainly, I open myself up for criticism in doing so--and it would have been a lot safer to use traditional music of the era. For every Boomer that I alienate, I believe that I’m engaging a younger audience. I just talked with some girl who couldn’t have been more than 20 from George Washington University who told me that the music made the film for her. So, I think that it’s somewhat generational. I think that the history of the 60s is so heavily documented and recorded that we don’t need to be precious about it. No needs to worry that I’m going to fuck it up because it’s already recorded. So, let me do my interpretation of it. It’s like taking Shakespeare and adapting it to modern times. Now, I will be the first to tell you that when I saw “Marie Antoinette,”  I hated her use of the music. It’s because her performances and script were so stylized to point out how personal and contemporary it was--I got that from everything else in the film, I didn’t need it from the music as well. When you’re dealing with archival imagery, however--the only way I was able to modernize it was through sound design and score. So you take that scene with the Beastie Boys and it doesn’t seem forty years old anymore.  

PK: Well, you do include a postscript saying what happened to the various outcomes of the trial. The historical outcome, you could argue that this whole thing contributed to the election of Richard Nixon because…

BM:{interrupts]…once again, you’re talking about it as a historical film about 1968.

PK: But if you’re going to engage people in the spirit of revolution you should also let them know what the consequences could be.

BM: Ok, but Peter, you know I got in this argument with Todd Gitlin. He said “you need to put a postscript on that says that 59 million Americans watched the riots in from of the Hilton and Nixon won by 500,000 votes, the war went on for seven more years.”

PK: I think that sounds good.

BM: Well, let me tell you something--what you saw in 1968 on TV is not what the audience is seeing in my film today. I saw every news report from Chicago from all three networks and I’ve seen every movie made about Chicago. I can absolutely assure you, with total confidence, that what the country saw on TV was single-camera footage of riots. Maybe they would run 40 seconds at a time. There was an electrical deficit in Chicago that week and the media had very limited availability to film that week so each network would send one or two cameras out there. That’s what America saw. What I have been able to do is reconstruct those riots using source material from over 40 different sources to give perspective on them that if it had been broadcast to the world at the time, I don’t think public support would have swayed towards Daly. So, at the conclusion of my film, how would that statement resonate? I mean, I would sit there thinking--that’s outrageous? How could America possibly support [Chicago Mayor] Daley after the images I just presented to you? Well, they didn’t see those images. The movie, as I said, there’s no postscript. It’s very much presented as myth or fairy tale. If my goal was to depict  1968, then yes--you’re absolutely right. But I’m tryign to draw parallels to contemporary life. One other thing I’d like to add--when I talk about the legacy of Chicago--I think it’s still being written today. If you go online you can read some blogs from a college screening. There were dozens of kids at that screening that were completely inspired by Abbie’s actions to become a little more active in how they engage with politics. The legacy is still being recorded today as far as I can tell. 

PK: You say you don’t want to make a film about 1968, but you have to admit that the 60s are pretty hot in cinema right now. You have “I’m Not There,” "Across the Universe.” It seems like there’s a nostalgia or a rebirth of the 60s in people’s consciousness.

BM: I totally concur, but what you’re now saying is that--you use some examples, but I think they’re more postmodern than anything. I think what we’re now doing. The generation that was active in the 60s have documented their time well. I think what’s interesting now--my generation, like with Todd, are able to put their stamp on it and draw whatever parallels we want. This film, if anything, will make more people interested in this history. When I was in film school in 1988 and we were watcing John Ford’s “The Searchers” and kids were laughing at certain anachronisms. Things that were so unintentionally funny--kids were laughing at how dated things were. I mean, I didn’t want kids to see this film and laugh at the bell-bottoms and some of the fashion elements that are dated. People were wondering why I didn’t put Judy Collins’ testimony in the film and the marshal gagging her after she sang. That was such a strong image in 1968. My fear of putting that in the film today, however, would be that the audience would applaud the marshal for gagging Judy Collins. It’s all context--that song is not the anthem of kids today. It feels a little dated. The equivalent would be a song like Eminem’s “Mosh” and they can relate. And I don’t want to dumb the film down to the audience. I grew up thinking that people in the 50s didn’t have sex until I met Bob Evans. 

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