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!
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.
Less grandiose than his alter ego, Waters is content to take potshots at the current system. The DeMented gang desecrates a biography of David Lean, shoots up a theater showing the “director’s cut” of Patch Adams, battles Teamsters to disrupt the filming of Gump Again with Kevin Nealon in the title role, and takes refuge in a friendly porn theater. Honey, ultimately made up to resemble Waters’s first diva, Divine, is tricked into launching a terrorist attack on the Maryland Film Commission luncheon and consequently considered to have joined the gang. Although the cult has a Yippie-like appreciation of the media and uses a few Manson Family formulations, this is Waters’s version of the ’60s-ending Patty Hearst story. (Indeed, Patty herself has a celebrity cameo.)
The movie is disappointingly flat, but at least it’s not mawkish. Where Steal This Movie! delivers a final insult by ending with a sappy blast of Crosby, Stills, and Nash (“Rejoice, rejoice, we have no choice”), Cecil B. DeMented has the grace to send the audience out with a piece of Waters-written rap that brags, “We ain’t got no budget. Fuck keeping it clean. Ain’t nobody putting us in turnaround. We ain’t recouping shit.”
An unusually rich music doc, The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack has three concerns. The first is the tradition created on behalf of the folk during the middle third of the 20th century; the second is the process by which doctor’s son Elliott Adnopoz, born in Brooklyn 69 years ago, ran off to join the rodeo, and returned as Ramblin’ Jack Elliott; the third is the attempt by filmmaker Aiyana Elliott to make contact with this elusive figure, her father.
Some people are born authentic, others achieve authenticity. Ramblin’ Jack never made the big time. (The film suggests a 1969 appearance on Johnny Cash’s TV show as his career high point.) But, true to his invented persona, he’s still doing the same thing that, back in 1961, made him the heartthrob of Gerde’s Folk City, picking and yodeling his “cowboy music”—a hipster in a battered Stetson, peering through wire-rimmed glasses with the quizzical air of a wizened yeshiva student.
A bit meandering itself, Ramblin’ Jack has a home-movie quality—and not just because of the amazing amount of old footage the filmmaker has excavated. There’s plenty of family stuff to ponder. Ancient relatives dis Jack’s overbearing parents—citing a nasty streak that one can see has been passed on. Young Elliott was expected to be a doctor, but he found himself a new father. Astonished to discover Woody Guthrie living in Coney Island, Elliott all but moved into the Guthrie household. As the ailing singer-songwriter’s last and most adoring sidekick, he would subsequently channel Woody for a younger generation of performers—including Bob Dylan, another curly-haired Jewish cowboy, who began his career by parroting Ramblin’ Jack’s nasal, faux-Okie bawl.
The filmmaker, meanwhile, is stuck with the father she barely knew. “The thing is, I can’t remember having an actual conversation with my dad,” she recalls. The sagelike advice she receives from Arlo Guthrie—another, if differently abandoned child—is that she never will. Aiyana is still trying to get her father’s attention even as he receives the ultimate Ozark recognition—a National Medal of the Arts presented by the ultimate ’60s rambling man, Bill Clinton.