FILM ARCHIVES

The Trial of the Chicago 7: ‘The Seditious Movie’

“So long as Nixon is allowed to campaign against Abbie Hoffman, so long will the Great Silent Majority continue to swell into terrifyingly Hitlerian hordes”

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films in focus

“LOVING” gets so much better as it goes along that it emerges almost in retrospect as that rarity of rarities: an intelligent and compassionate treatment of the New York-Westport merry-go-round. Throughout his career in films, Irvin Kershner has shown an unusual interest in eccentric losers stranded in natural locations. “The Luck of Ginger Coffee,” “A Fine Madness,” and “The Flim Flam Man” never quite bridged the chasm between surreal characterizations and too real backgrounds, but, with “Loving,” Kershner has found material that fully conforms to the contradictions of his style. George Segal’s commuting commercial illustrator is a kind of Charlie Bubbles character drowning in Bromo Seltzer, and at first it does not seem clear why he has begun to malfunction as a marital mechanism dedicated to making money as efficiently as possible, but suddenly the why seems less important than the how. Don Devlin’s adaptation of J. M. Ryan’s novel is deceptively elliptical in its exposition, and Kershner’s distant lensing of cramped streets creates a dangerous degree of anguished alienation in the audience, dangerous, that is, because many spectators may turn off from the protagonist before he begins making psychological contact with his predicament. Then suddenly there is one unexpected scene, and another, and still another, and, for a climax, a voyeuristic orgy of childish adultery, combining the possibilities of Marshall McLuhan, Sigmund Freud, and Lewis Carroll. Ultimately, husband and wife (Eva Marie Saint) come together with convulsive violence through mutual shame and humiliation and a shared complicity in the sweet life of suburbia. Segal and Saint are ably supported by Sterling Hayden’s Old Testament plutocrat and vulgarian, and Keenan, Wynn’s grubby agent.

Not the least of the merits of “Loving” is its acknowledgement that a man’s job is of more than passing importance in the living of his life. Indeed, making a living is often the largest part of making a life. Not that the movie should have been called “Living.” “Loving” is about loving, and the energy it requires to keep relationships in focus. George Segal’s tiredness should make many members of his generation extremely uncomfortable if not utterly uptight. “Loving” strikes too close to home.

I strongly recommend Robert Bresoon’s “MOUCHETTE” at the New Yorker. Also, Maurice Pialat’s “ME,” a stirring testament to the irremediable loneliness and alienation of a child. The film manages the difficult task of expressing feelings without fantasy, and of evoking tears without sentimentality.

FOR THE BENEFIT of readers who wish to be kept informed on where it’s at, the following press release dated March 3, 1970 is reprinted in its entirety: “Abbie Hoffman announced this morning (March 3) that he and other defendants in the Chicago conspiracy trial will attempt to offset legal expenses by making their own feature film of the trial.

“Speaking on Alex Bennett’s WMCA radio show, Hoffman said the film will be called ‘The Seditious Movie’ (‘because we’re not allowed to make seditious speeches’). It will star all seven defendants, their lawyers, and a number of ‘sympathetic’ celebrities including Dustin Hoffman (no relation), he said.

“The Yippie leader revealed that he sent a telegram to Judge Julius Hoffman (also no relation) yesterday afternoon offering the judge $100,000 to play himself in the film. The prosecutor and assistant prosecutor have also been offered money to appear.

“The picture will be directed by Nick Ray (‘Rebel Without a Cause’), Hoffman (Abbie, that is), and Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman said. It will be filmed this spring in New York on a studio set that will be an exact replica of the Chicago courtroom where the trial took place.”

The implications of such a press release strain the resources of the most speculative mind. The idea of re-enacting a judicial spectacle full of violent outbursts, poisonous prejudices, and the most lurid lapses of decorum would seem to be consistent with Abbie Hoffman’s strategy of making political realities seems as grotesquely contrived and as predictably theatrical as a Punch-and-Judy show. And who is to say that he is ill-advised to treat his predicament with such levity? Sacco and Vanzetti were much more lovable than Abbie Hoffman, but they were judicially crucified just the same. The fact is that Abbie Hoffman and his co-defendants should never have been brought to trial at all on such flimsy evidence and on such nebulous charges. And that they should be denied bail as dangerous criminals at a time when the alleged murderers of the Mississippi civil rights workers were roaming around on their own recognizance indicates the rampant hypocrisy of the American judicial system. But what galls many otherwise sympathetic souls about Hoffman is that he seems determined to exploit every misfortune to the greater glory of his own showbiz personality. Dear Abbie just won’t behave like a professional victim with sad, mournful, hangdog expressions. There is no stoicism, no proletarian nobility, no heroic dignity in this clown of a thousand costumes. There will be no revolutionary songs about Abbie Hoffman, perhaps because Abbie knows enough about history to realize that the subjects of revolutionary songs seldom live long enough to sing them.

There is a great deal of talk these days about the proper tactics for reform and revolution as if the unarmed and the outnumbered can ever prevail even with magical verbal potions from Havana or Hanoi. More likely, the white middle class radicals will indeed cash in their ideological images for the rich rewards of cultural one-upmanship while the blacks of all classes bear the full brunt of the backlash. It is hard to forget that Abbie Hoffman is at least partly responsible for making Nixon, Agnew, Mitchell, and Carswell such household words, and so long as Nixon is allowed to campaign against Abbie Hoffman, so long will the Great Silent Majority continue to swell into terrifyingly Hitlerian hordes. As I have said, Abbie Hoffman doesn’t belong in a courtroom or on the political stump. He is a creature of the theatre, the cinema, the media. He should not be tried by judges, but rather reviewed by the gentlemen of the Fourth Estate. And was it so long ago that Eugene McCarthy’s crusading children cut their hair before canvassing the New Hampshire voters? If anyone has found a better way to change conditions in America except by winning election then let that inspired innovator step forward and explain how. Somehow, I don’t see that the antics of Abbie Hoffman are improving things, but I am talking as a citizen rather than as a critic. As a critic, I am sorry that Abbie Hoffman was unable to get Groucho Marx for the role of Judge Hoffman. With Nicholas Ray at the helm, and Groucho Marx in his judge’s robes, “The Seditious Seven” might well have emerged as a mordant version of “Duck Soup.” But as for changing people’s minds and souls with a movie, forget it! Reliable observers tell me that Southern audiences give the murderous rednecks in “Easy Rider” standing ovations for blowing up the noncomformist bikers. ❖

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 22, 2020

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