Multiple Maniacs

The much maligned "Sixties" refer less to a precise decade than to a chunk of time lasting a dozen years or so when, for a host of reasons ranging from the threat of World War III to the saturation of TV to the proliferation of LSD, it seemed as though America's social and psychic reality was up for grabs.

At least, that was the fantasy. The hapless Abbie Hoffman biopic Steal This Movie! attempts to depict this heady moment, just as John Waters's infinitely cannier, if only marginally more successful, Cecil B. DeMented allegorizes it. Waters grasps the essential dilemma. The '60s resist filmic representation in part because of the era's delusional quality—more than a few who lived through it imagined themselves the protagonists, or the directors, of an ongoing movie.

It's this impulse that Waters celebrates in Cecil B. DeMented—a satire of his own early movies like Multiple Maniacs, wherein dedicated bands of social-outcast "life-actors" launched outrageous guerrilla attacks on bourgeois reality. The media-savvy, hippie rabble- rouser Hoffman was himself one such life-actor—showering the New York Stock Exchange with dollar bills, nominating a pig outside the 1968 Democratic Convention, blatantly theatricalizing the Chicago Seven trial—and it's sobering to think that, if the veils of illusion were parted in the cosmic scheme of things, he might actually have been the star of something as badly directed, shot, and acted as Steal This Movie!

"Rejoice, rejoice, we have no choice": D’Onofrio with fellow life-actors in Steal This Movie!
photo: David Milne
"Rejoice, rejoice, we have no choice": D’Onofrio with fellow life-actors in Steal This Movie!

Details

Steal This Movie!
Directed by Robert Greenwald
Written by Bruce Graham
A Lions Gate release
Opens August 18

Cecil B. DeMented
Written and directed by John Waters
An Artisan release

The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack
Directed by Aiyana Elliott
Written by Elliott and Dick Dahl
A Lot 47 release
Film Forum
Through August 29

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Seen without sentimentality, Hoffman was an unstable, self-promoting, highly perceptive, and genuinely funny individual whose manic temperament was magically in accord with the national mood from 1967 through 1970.Producer-director Robert Greenwald, best known for the camp debacle Xanadu, presents him in a historical vacuum, using the perspective of 1977 as a vantage point, with then fugitive Abbie telling his story to a lunkhead alternative press reporter he's designated for the task. The flashbacks and interviews with, among others, Hoffman's wife, Anita (Janeane Garofalo, given a real role for a change, albeit in a fake movie), are at once inflated and pitiful. Everything is a sort of spontaneous efflorescence—Abbie brawling with undercover cops at the Free Store, staging grotesque hippie soirees in the East Village, sliding around in the mud with Anita as preparation for the Yippie demonstrations in Chicago.

Crude and physically overbearing where the actual Hoffman was puckish and slight, Vincent D'Onofrio appears to take the film's title literally—although he doesn't steal the movie so much as squelch it. The actor guards each scene like a junkyard dog, obnoxiously smirking and swaggering through a world of cutouts. Meanwhile, the filmmakers emphasize his character's hysterical paranoia. D'Onofrio's blunderbuss performance obliterates whatever wit and charm Hoffman had. To her credit, Garofalo seems embarrassed.

At once simple-mindedly didactic and utterly chaotic, Steal This Movie! is interspersed with fake headlines and botched history ("Nixon elected in landslide," one newspaper reports on the extremely close 1968 election), and thanks to the primitive Gumpery of the montage, even the newsreel footage looks like a cruddy restaging. The most authentic aspect is the cluttered mise-en-scène of the Hoffman loft, with its Salvation Army sofas and Indian fabrics. Confusingly, the screenplay suggests that Hoffman was the main target of the illegal FBI and CIA domestic intelligence operations that were widely written about during the early and mid '70s and even the subject of Senate hearings.

There are facts here—the infiltration of the antiwar movement by police provocateurs, the gagging of Bobby Seale at the Chicago Seven trial—that deserve reiteration. But the film's educational impulse would have been far more effectively served by a documentary. As it stands, Greenwald's barely coherent mishmash discredits itself. When it comes to misinterpreting the '60s, Ronald Reagan couldn't have done a better job. The final scene even offers its own redemptive "Morning in America" aspects.

Thanks to the successful lithium program promoted by Anita and Hoffman's underground consort (Jeanne Tripplehorn), a scrubbed and glowing Abbie makes a final Capraesque courtroom speech—complete with twanging folk guitar—to a new generation of activists. For a moment, I imagined I was watching the socialist realist hagiography that might have been made by the least talented member of the Hollywood Ten had Abbie been martyred and George McGovern elected president.


John Waters began his career as a quasi-underground director whose shoestring productions satirized hippie tolerance even as they exploited it. Thus, Cecil B. DeMented is both a parody of and a tribute to the '60s that proclaims, "Power to the people—perish bad cinema." Would that it were so.

A cult of Baltimore-based guerrilla filmmakers led by the eponymous tousle-haired punk (Stephen Dorff) infiltrates a charity benefit premiere and kidnaps the guest of honor, overripe Hollywood diva Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith). Honey is held captive in their secret movie set and forced to act in DeMented's "outlaw sinema"—a movie that will destroy the mainstream. The contradiction between the cult's high-minded anticommercialism ("We believe technique to be nothing more than failed style") and low-minded taste for gossip and innuendo (asking Honey about "Mel Gibson's dick and balls") is resolved with the invocation of Andy Warhol.

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