One of the great principles of American jurisprudence, though not necessarily of film criticism, is a defendant’s right to confront his accuser in a court of law. I’m no accuser, but I did have some criticisms of Brett Morgen’s innovative new documentary Chicago 10, which uses archival footage and animation to dramatize the bloody demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968 and the subsequent trial of the alleged ringleaders. Since I’m an admirer of some of Morgen’s previous work, in particular his portrait of Hollywood mogul Robert Evans in The Kid Stays in the Picture (winner of the Boston Society of Film Critics’ Best Documentary award in 2002), I thought I’d give him a chance to respond to some of my reservations in the Phoenix’s version of a court of law — “Back Talk.”
I saw this movie with a bunch of geezers like myself, and one of the biggest criticisms was the soundtrack. Why use anachronistic music instead of music from the ’60s, a time when the music was so interconnected with the politics?
Because it’s not a movie about 1968. I thought that by using contemporary music over images that are almost 40 years old it brought the past into the present the way that wouldn’t happen if I’d used Buffalo Springfield at that moment. I think the music of the ’60s has become so clichéd.
Like it’s all being used in SUV commercials?
Exactly — it no longer has the impact that it had at the moment. It would ultimately alienate a young audience, which I’m trying to get at with this film. I didn’t want to use the soundtrack of my parents’ generation. I wanted to use the soundtrack of my generation. [Morgen was born in October, 1968, two months after the Democratic Convention.] There wasn’t music in 1968 that, to me, would capture the energy . . . what was I going to use, Phil Ochs? I mean, it was after Chicago that music got a little angrier and a little darker. Certainly, I open myself up for criticism in doing this — and it would have been a lot safer to use traditional music of the era. For every boomer I alienate, though, I believe that I’m engaging a younger audience. When you’re dealing with archival imagery, the only way to modernize it is through sound design and score. So you take that scene with the Beastie Boys and it doesn’t seem 40 years old anymore.
Another problem I had was that the film offers little political context. What were the issues in the convention itself, and what were the consequences of the demonstrations for the country? Despite their intentions, you could say they got Richard Nixon elected.
One of the things I wanted to do was make a movie that’s rooted in ’68 but that’s really, ultimately, about today. Chicago 10, as you noticed, has very little context in the year ’68. The movie is more of a parable or fable for all times.
Truth is not singular — we have different ways of seeing things. Truth exists in fiction and truth exists in non-fiction. Anyone who sees a Michael Moore film and thinks they’re getting an absolute, objective truth is sadly mistaken. They should know that based on the conventions and the style of filmmaking — he’s making an entertaining movie. And as such, he’s going to take a certain license. I’m talking about art here, I’m not talking about history or journalism. I think you’re confusing journalism with filmmaking. I felt liberated by the fact that I was approaching this as mythology. I don’t think anyone can look at this movie and not get that — it’s animated, for Christ’s sake. I think there’s a lot you can learn about Chicago from this film, but it’s certainly not something objective — I don’t believe, as an artist, in any objectivity in my world.
I think that part of the problem with the way the country’s going is that people no longer believe in objectivity. Isn’t that kind of a dangerous position, because one of the things that got us into this current war was that we couldn’t make the distinction between fact and fiction?
I don’t know why we’re talking about objectivity in cinema. I mean, I just don’t understand that.
There is a tradition in documentary filmmaking that is journalistic and aspires to objectivity . . .
Well, I’ve been trying to smash that belief for the last 10 years. That might have been the case once, but that’s not where we’re going now.