Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Power To The People

The 1960s brought great change to American society. In addition to The Beatles, the Apollo 11 moon landing, and President Kennedy's hailing the arts as the foundation upon which any great society will be remembered, there were a string of shocking political assassinations, the growing foment of the civil rights movement, and the ever-increasing influence of sex, drugs, and rock'n roll on one of the first American generations to question authority.
  • The invention of the birth control pill freed women to see themselves as more independent players in the sexual arena.
  • The Stonewall riots in June of 1969 opened up the door for out-and-proud gays and lesbians to assert themselves as a part of American society.
  • Powerful acts of civil disobedience shook the American consciousness from its post-Eisenhower naiveté.
  • Plenty of seeds were planted (and spilled) that would bloom into lush pastures of sexual liberation accompanied by fierce acts of political defiance.
Accompanying much of that change was a wealth of new music and documentary footage. Three films opening in the Bay area examine specific moments in the musical and political arc that began in the late 1960s.
  • One takes place in the summer of 1969, two years after San Francisco's famous "summer of love," and marks one of the first celebrations of free music.
  • The second chronicles an event that took place in the early hours of August 31, 1970.
  • The last, and most powerful, follows a political eruption that took place in June of 1971.
Each of these films speaks volumes about how America's popular culture was affecting disenfranchised youth and disillusioned adults around the world. When placed together in the context of their times, the impact goes far beyond nostalgia.

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Ang Lee's commercial and artistic success with last year's Taking Woodstock set the stage for reexamining the phenomenon that took place near New York's Catskills. From August 15-18, 1969, the Woodstock Music & Art Festival exceeded all expectations for attendance, musical thrills, and cultural significance.

Barbara Kopple's beautiful two-hour documentary, Woodstock Now & Then, will be screened as part of San Francisco's NoisePop Festival on Saturday, February 27 at Artists Television Access (you can order tickets here). What makes the experience so special in the wake of Taking Woodstock is the chance to spend time with people who made Woodstock happen, who attended Woodstock in their youth, and who are today, at a very young age, benefiting from the legacy of Woodstock by attending the School of Rock.

Joe Cocker performing at Woodstock

Sometimes, it's especially fascinating to see how the musicians and audience have aged. To see performers like Joe Cocker, Richie Havens, Carlos Santana, Sly and the Family Stone, and Graham Nash (who recalls how Woodstock was only the second occasion that Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young had performed in public) as young musicians then -- and as goldenagers now -- is curiously sweet. To hear grey-haired, married couples reminiscing about how high they were (from the music as well as the drugs) while being able to juxtapose their interviews with archival footage of the chaos in the mud and rain at Woodstock offers a different perspective on how Michael Lang and his crew managed to pull off a major miracle.

Hearing how concerned parents kept calling in to radio stations to tell them that their panicky reports of potential violence were untrue -- and that they knew this because their children had called from a pay phone to reassure them that everything was okay -- puts a different lens on how the event was covered by the mass media.

As Michael Lang, explains:
"Woodstock occurred at a time, in America at least and probably around the world, where things were pretty dark. We were struggling to get out of this war with Vietnam. That whole decade had been filled with efforts to improving the human condition with human rights struggles, civil rights, and women's rights.
We were just first realizing that we were trashing the planet we lived on. The ecology movement was just beginning. A lot of groups at the time were turning a bit violent (out of frustration) in trying to get their message out . The government and Washington were very unresponsive and conservative and it was a pretty dark time. With the assassinations of Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, it was just a terrible time we were going through.
There was also a huge generation gap. The hippie generation was very much removed from their parents -- our parents -- in terms of the ways we thought and viewed the world. That led to a lot of fear and suspicion. I think that when Woodstock came along it was like suddenly this amazing moment of hope where this tremendously large group of people got together, had this amazingly peaceful experience, and became this community that set an example for everybody.
Joan Baez performing at Woodstock
It really demonstrated, in a practical way, that there was a better way for us to live together. I think that's why it was remembered so much. It was this moment of hope in a very dark time. I like to compare it to Obama's inauguration, which also came at a pretty dark time for America and the world. We had gotten to a place where we were kind of headed over a cliff, and were heading for another four years of that. I think one of the best qualities that Americans have is to realize something and change the direction to do the right thing. The inauguration felt like another moment of hope in a very desperate time. The spirit of the crowd during the inauguration in 20-degree weather was just a sense of joy and hope that was phenomenal."
Jimi Hendrix performing at Woodstock

Actor Francis Dumaurier describes what it was like to attend Woodstock on his first trip to the United States. Arnold Robinson talks about what it was like to attend Woodstock with his wife as a young couple. Gail Collins (who now writes on the editorial pages of The New York Times) tells what the event meant to her. Another attendee describes how, after being forced to choose between going to Woodstock or losing his low-level job, he never regretted quitting his job.

The contrast between what are now the "elders of Woodstock" and aspiring rock musicians like young Michael Hall D'Addario and Brian D'Addario is what gives this documentary such timeliness and charm. If you missed it when it was first released last summer, try to catch the Noisepop screening. It's about so much more than the music.

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Leonard Cohen Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 is a wistfully nostalgic 64-minute documentary opening at the Roxie this weekend which is notable for several reasons:
  • Filmmaker Murray Lerner's footage of Cohen's performance remained unavailable for nearly 25 years.
  • Although Cohen had been a published poet and novelist for 15 years, he was only three years into his recording career as a vocal artist.
  • Cohen was awakened at 2:00 a.m. on the morning of August 31, 1970, to play to a crowd of 6o0,000 that had become increasing unruly after festival promoters tried to erect fences to keep out young music lovers who had not paid for tickets. Cohen arrived onstage wearing his pajamas.
  • Cohen's performance came right after Jimi Hendrix's set (during which part of the stage caught fire).
Whereas Woodstock managed to bring its audience together in its attempt to foster an atmosphere of love, freedom, and free music, the threat of violence at this final concert of the original three years of musical festivals on the Isle of Wight (1968, 1969, and 1970) was temporarily quelled by Cohen's actions onstage. According to music journalist Sylvie Simmons:
"Before he sang, Cohen talked to the hundreds of thousands of people he couldn't see. He told them -- sedately -- a story that sounded like a parable and a bedtime story that worked like hypnotism and, at the same time, tested the temperature of the crowd. He described how his father would take him to the circus as a child. Leonard didn't much like circuses, but he enjoyed the part where a man would stand up and ask everyone to light a match so they could locate each other in the darkness. 'Can I ask each of you to light a match so I can see where you all are?' he asked."
Cohen's producer, Bob Johnston, recalls that:
"All those people had been sitting out there in the rain, after they'd set fire to Hendrix's stage, and nobody had slept for days. And then Leonard came out and he started out singing "Like....a....bird," singing it so slowly that everybody in the audience was exactly with him. It was the most amazing thing I've ever heard. And that's what saved that show and saved the festival!"
The concert footage is supplemented with present-day insights from Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and Kris Kristofferson (who all comment on Cohen's amazing level of self-confidence as a performer). While admitting that there were times when Cohen's lyrics didn't even make any sense, it's fascinating to see how much these three living legends remain in awe of Cohen's talent.

The author of twelve books, Cohen was -- and remains -- a multidisciplinary artist of immense talent.
This new documentary, which offers audiences a rare chance to see Cohen at a turning point in his career 40 years ago, is an indie gem that glows with the scruffiest kind of charm. Here's the trailer:

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We learn about self-censorship from an early age. As children receive repeated warnings in the form of "Don't do that!" or "Isn't that horrible?" or "That's just gross," they start to develop a sixth sense for thoughts, statements, and behaviors that will freak out their friends and family.

Whether the warnings they hear are designed to prevent them from eating dirt, touching a hot pot, or sticking a piece of metal into an electric socket, children develop a sense of acceptable versus unacceptable behavior. This sense of taboo often carries forth as they pass through puberty and enter adulthood. As people get exposed to more variations on a theme of bad behavior, their radar and level of self-censorship grow increasingly sophisticated.

What happens when a dangerous secret lies at the core of self-censorship? What happens when an individual knows that just a few inappropriate words can release a shit storm of retribution? That's when an individual discovers whether or not he has a conscience.

There are many reasons to rush out and catch a screening of The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, which opens this weekend at the Embarcadero Cinema. The primary one, however, is that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. This documentary is of particular importance to:
  • People who were born after 1960 and have no memory of the shock engendered by the publication of the Pentagon Papers.
  • People who have no knowledge of what it was like to fear being drafted and sent off to die in Vietnam.
  • People who underestimate the power of the blogosphere.
  • People who only look to Fox News for their information.
  • People who did not understand the danger of Dick Cheney's lust to establish an imperial presidency.

This thrilling documentary by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith chronicles the story of how Daniel Ellsberg learned about, examined, and helped make public proof that the United States had been carrying on an illegal war in Southeast Asia. With the help of Anthony Russo, Ellsberg began photocopying the Pentagon Papers in October 1969.

After trying unsuccessfully to convince various Senators that he had critical information they needed to see, Ellsberg turned to reporter Neil Sheehan at The New York Times. The Most Dangerous Man in America revisits a long-forgotten episode in American journalism and President Richard Nixon's attempt to undermine the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of the press.

Daniel Ellsberg in 2006

When The New York Times finally published the Pentagon Papers on Sunday, June 13, 1971, Nixon was caught off guard. He immediately tried to prevent the newspaper from continuing to publish the rest of the Pentagon Papers.

What followed was an incredible race to the Supreme Court during which, as one large city newspaper was silenced by an injunction, another took its turn publishing sections of the Pentagon Papers. Alaska's Senator Mike Gravel even read text from the Pentagon Papers aloud in the United States Senate so that it could become part of the Congressional Record.

Meanwhile, the effort to locate Ellsberg (who had gone underground) was described as the biggest manhunt since the search for the Lindbergh baby. After the Supreme Court's decision allowing newspapers to continue publishing the Pentagon Papers was announced, on July 1, 1971 Nixon told FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover:
"I wanted to tell you that I was so damned mad when that Supreme Court had to come down. First, I didn't like their decision. Unbelievable, wasn't it? You know those clowns we got on there -- I tell you, I hope I outlive the bastards."
On May 11, 1973, the trial of Anthony Russo and Daniel Ellsberg was dismissed by Judge William Matthew Byrne, Jr. because of massive governmental misconduct in the case. All charges against the two men were dropped and they were freed. The day before the trial ended, Congress voted to cut off funds for the Vietnam War. A little more than a year later, Nixon resigned from office.

The Most Dangerous Man in America contains surprising interviews with Egil "Bud" Krogh and John Dean. But perhaps the most curious piece of trivia is that, after attending Ellsberg's series of lectures at Harvard in 1959 entitled "The Conscious Political Use of Irrational Military Threats" (or "The Political Uses of Madness"), Henry Kissinger was widely quoted as saying "I learned more about bargaining from Ellsberg than anyone else."

Back when I graduated from college in 1969, I was distinctly apolitical. Gripped with a passion for theatre and opera, I left New York and moved to Rhode Island, where I had received a job offer from the Greater Providence YMCA.

The conservatives employed there were convinced that women's lib would never come to Rhode Island. After Nixon bombed Cambodia, one woman politely informed me that "He's the President and he won by majority rule, so he must be right."

Even I knew something was horribly wrong.

In December of 2006, Ellsberg was awarded the Right Livelihood Award (also known as the Alternative Nobel prize) in Stockholm. Although The Most Dangerous Man in America grips its audience like a top-notch thriller, its goal is far more serious than political exposé or mere entertainment. As the filmmakers explain:
"Our film speaks directly to the world today, as national security and the people's right to know are in constant tension. It raises questions about civil courage, following conscience, taking risks, and speaking truth to power. It challenges people everywhere who are looking to better understand the world of power and who search their own hearts for ways to take a stand and make a difference."
Currently nominated for the 2010 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, The Most Dangerous Man in America should be required viewing for anyone who follows politics. Watching this documentary was an eye opener for me: a chance to view history through the eyes of those who created it while understanding how much I was unable to grasp as it was evolving around me. Here's the trailer:

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