Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Chicago 10 - Documentary for the Rest of Us

I think a lot of people have this notion that documentaries have to be this grand, academically minded, serious undertaking. I disagree and I am happy to report, so does Brent Morgan, director of Chicago 10. I recently wrote a paper on the film, which I will paste here below, but in case you don't feel like reading a three page paper, here's the important part: Morgan uses "reenactments" of the Chicago 8 trial to tell this story...but the reenactments are done through stop motion animation and are, unlike many traditional reenactments, voiced by actors like Hank Azaria. The point I make in my paper is that, along with his use of 'modern' music (I really consider music from the 60's to be fairly modern, but you know what I mean), Morgan is trying to tell this story in a way that relates to a younger audience, one further removed from the police state that was Chicago in 1968. I also think he accomplishes it.

So, if you have time and patience, feel free to read the paper below, otherwise, I would suggest at least listening to the Terry Gross interview I my film prof said in his notes on my paper, "Best interviewer working today."

Chicago 10 For 2008

Chicago 10 tells the story of the eight men put on trial for conspiracy and incitement to riot at the Democratic National Convention of 1968, and the two lawyers who represented them in 1969. Film maker Brent Morgan used footage from both the time of the convention and the trials, editing back and forth between the two years. Because no cameras were allowed in the courtroom during the trial, the best access they had to telling the story of what went on behind those doors are the court transcripts. In some more conventional documentaries, writings from a time when cameras were not available will be read by actors while B roll footage or still photographs flick by. Morgan takes a different route. He took the transcripts and had actors Hank Azaria and Roy Scheider, among others, act them out while animators reenacted the scenes through use of motion caption animation. Rare audio recording of the trial shows that, much as film is edited in a documentary, the transcripts are sometimes boiled down or added to for audience clarification. From a cinéma vérité standpoint, this would take Chicago 10 completely out of the running for documentary status. However, ironically, in this instance the ends justify the means, in that Morgan is trying to tell this story not as an historical account, but rather as a way to create a dialogue about contemporary issues using the events of 1968 as a backdrop.
In an interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, Morgan says he “…never thought [he] was making a film about 1968…[he] thought [he] was making a film about today” (Morgan). This becomes somewhat foreshadowing, when taking into account the statement was made in February of 2008, and only a few months later St. Paul would see similar protests, riots, and police action (with legal proceedings following) at the Republican National Convention. Morgan is asking us to look at his film and relate it to our own lives, particularly the lives of a younger generation, one whose grandparents’ generation is the subject of the film. One of the ways he puts the film into a modern perspective is by using contemporary music of the early 21st Century; this is in contrast to the way many films about the sixties are made using solely the iconic songs of that era. He explains in his NPR interview that he “wanted the music to be the soundtrack of [his] audience's lives, not their parents” (Morgan). The music is meant to reach members of Generation X and Generation Millennial, sending the message that this is just as much their story as that of their parents and grandparents; that the fight for free speech portrayed in the film is still going on. The other thing that makes this choice so effective is that when he does choose to use period pieces of music, they stand out, forcing the audience to listen. This is most poignant during the footage of the march on the Conrad Hilton, in which a guest of the hotel, who happened to be a member of the British parliament, was beaten and arrested by police. As she was being pushed into the paddy wagon she began singing the epitome of civil-rights era anthems, “We Shall Overcome.” It cannot be ignored that by including this piece of footage, Morgan is highlighting the senseless brutality of the Chicago police during the riots and encouraging his audience to ask themselves if they would have spoken out against the injustice.
Another way he reaches out to contemporary viewers is through the use of animation. The idea of using animation in a serious film, be it fiction or fact, is one that some viewers may have trouble swallowing, particularly those who did not grow up with cartoons and comics as an everyday storytelling medium. If all one has seen of animation comes from Warner Brothers and involves talking animals, it becomes a confusing thing to take such a serious event and make a comic out of it. Compounding this confusion is the lack of visual education in the medium. As with any storytelling medium, one must become accustomed to its variances. Without this, the medium can be more difficult to interpret. A.O. Scott, in the New York Times, displays this kind of confusion in his review of the film in which he said, “the animation itself has a slapdash, lurching feel. More powerful are the documentary segments interwoven with the recreated trial” (Scott). One who is familiar with modern graphic novels and other motion caption animation films would be used to the “slapdash, lurching” effect that these styles can have. Morgan’s intended audience is therefore one that has grown up watching and reading various kinds of comics, giving them a sense of the ‘grammar of animation.’
Drawing connections between two eras and emphasizing learning from the past is nothing new in documentary film. However, Morgan’s goal is not simply to remind people of the past but to show them that the past is already repeating itself. By avoiding modern voice-overs or interviews, he reaches out to the audience’s subconscious through sounds and images with which they are most comfortable. The audience is made to feel that the events being shown could have taken place in any time, even our time. The message of the Yippies and MOBE was that the ends did not justify the means when it came to war, particularly the Vietnam War. But Morgan’s liberties with classical documentary style bring the audience to an end that justifies the means, showing the audience what it means to challenge your right to freedom of speech in America.


Morgan, Brent. Chicago 10 interview for NPR's Fresh Air Terry Gross. February 2008.

Scott, A.O. New York Times
—. "Semi AnimatedHistory of an Animated Time." New York Times 29 February 2008. HYPERLINK ""


Onkel Hankie Pants said...

Great paper, great insights. You may, however, forward to your instructor my insight that Terry Gross would indeed be the best interviewer around if she weren't, like, you know, sort of, a-a-a-h, inarticulate. Like, you know?

Auntie Knickers said...

We have the DVD at home now and will be watching it within the next few days. However OHP just got "Have Gun, Will Travel, Season 1" with 7 25-minute episodes of this great oater from our childhood....