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1968: in the year that saw Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy assassinated, the US Democratic Party assembled for their annual party convention in Chicago, to prepare for Lyndon B Johnson’s next electoral run. The anti-Vietnam war movement prepares, too, and activates the “MOB” and “Yippie” forces to celebrate and demonstrate in Chicago, too. After massive riots, the supposed leaders of the anti-war and civil rights movements are brought to jail for conspiracy and malconduct.

Am I the best audience for the film? Don’t know, but it needs to be said that the events around that party convention (probably perfectly well known to every American my age) is something I have been completely ignorant about. I have to use the film’s depiction of it to assess the magnitude of the event, and what I saw was a mid-sized turmoil, not really completely out of bounds, but surely sever enough on both police and demonstrator sides as to stir up emotions AT THE TIME. There has been worse after, I suppose, albeit maybe not in the context of the Vietnam war, where demonstrators had a love and peace attitude after all, and were often too stoned to fight properly with the police forces. Plus, as you could learn in the film, Allen Ginsberg had this method of pacifying everybody by singing the oooommmmhhh.

The film mixes documentary footage with paint-over animation “Scanner Darkly”-style. This is being used in particular for the courtroom scenes, allowing to include courtroom footage based on the protocols even though cameras were not allowed at the time. The altogether 10 people that ended up sentenced (including two of the lawyers for misconduct in court) are what the film is about, and the core focus is on Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, two prominent figures, pop stars maybe, of the anti-war movement at the time, and two outspoken critics of warmongers, police state, US fascism and some other niceties.

It is easy to understand how the political and civil establishment could not cope with these people (even interviewees in the black districts of Chicago cannot find words of sympathy for the hippie demonstrators getting beaten up by the anti-riot squads). While today, one could think of tolerant and relaxed anti-escalation strategies, learned in decades of political demonstrations and sports-related security drills, in 1968 the understanding of such group behaviour was different. Kicking some thousand people out of Chicago’s parks at 10 pm, because that’s the park’s closing hour, would only create the unrest the police then would have to sort out, of course, but then again, that’s the park’s closing hour and everybody knew it all along, didn’t they…

As a film, this works pretty well, it is a thrilling and entertaining run through the events building up to the party convention and the related demonstrations. It is slightly anti-climatic, because the actual “events” do not look that severe from today’s perspective, but the reason for making the film must have been reading the court protocols, where the anti-war, pro-civil rights, anti-establishment battle continued and the defendants, state attorney, judge and the media staged their respective after-shows to exploit the situation as best as they could.

Not a very sympathetic glance at US history, all in all, but an enlightening and entertaining one!

Background on the 1968 Party Convention and on Allen Ginsberg

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