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Yesterday's News

Why are today's underground filmmakers looking backward for inspiration when there's a war under their noses?

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If you were in a supermarket checkout line this week you might have noticed that TV Guide features four separate covers of the Beatles in honor of their performance at Shea Stadium 40 years ago. I was born in the 60s and grew up with the Beatles, but if I see one more anniversary tribute to them with one more batch of never-before-seen photos I may puke. We have a new war and a new Nixon to deal with, and if the 60s counterculture taught us anything, it was the value of living in the here and now.

I expect this sort of lame nostalgia from the corporate media, but I've always seen the underground (whatever that is) as an antidote to all that. So what's with the Nixon-era bong smoke hanging over this year's Chicago Underground Film Festival? The political drama This Revolution is a virtual remake of Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool (1969), and the documentary Ears, Open. Eyeballs, Click. is a close copy of Frederick Wiseman's Basic Training (1971). Bound to Lose profiles the 60s folk outfit the Holy Modal Rounders, and Live Freaky! Die Freaky! parodies the 1969 Manson family murders. Even one of the festival's revivals, Captain Milkshake (1970), is a psychedelic-era story about an American soldier home on leave who falls in with a group of flower children.

To judge from this lineup, the 60s explosion of radical idealism has become a ball and chain for the current generation of underground filmmakers. The less imaginative are content to drag the ball around, though left-wing documentarian Stephen Marshall (Aftermath: Unanswered Questions From 9/11) at least makes an effort to clobber someone with it. This Revolution, his first attempt at drama, transposes the plot of Wexler's Medium Cool to last summer's Republican National Convention, and the process proves so easy you have to wonder whether the Vietnam war taught us anything at all. Wexler documented the police kicking ass during the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, then integrated the footage into a narrative about a TV cameraman (Robert Forster) who falls in love with a black woman and her young son. Marshall melds real footage of RNC protests and a fictional story about a disillusioned cameraman (Nathan Crooker), just returned from Iraq, whose cable news network sends him into the streets of Manhattan to get footage of anarchists plotting convention mischief; the romance involves a Hispanic woman (Rosario Dawson) who's been radicalized against the war by her husband's death in Baghdad.

Marshall invites ridicule by patterning his film so closely after Wexler's, but as in the earlier movie, the fusion of fiction and independent journalism adds to the complexity of a story that exposes the "news" as a narrative cowritten by the government and the TV networks. In both movies people on the street openly question the reporter's commitment to the truth, and just as Forster discovers that his bosses are sharing footage with the FBI, Crooker learns that his videotapes are being scanned by the Department of Homeland Security to target protesters. Marshall's scenario may be pure conspiracy theory, but he accurately reports New York City's campaign to stifle dissent in the name of public safety and the cable networks' eagerness to hype the radical fringe while ignoring the masses of everyday people who turned out to denounce Bush's foreign policy. This Revolution turns corny at the end, with a stick-it-to-the-man climax that suggests an old Robert Redford movie, but it's the most provocative thing I've seen so far in this year's festival.

Equally illuminating, though more of a grind to sit through, is Ears, Open. Eyeballs, Click. Director Canaan Brumley's status as an ex-navy man and civilian barber at Camp Pendleton helped him get this close-quarters document of Platoon 1141 being whipped into shape, and like Wiseman's Basic Training (which followed army recruits at Fort Polk, Kentucky), Ears, Open. is rigorously objective, dispensing with narration and talking heads to present an undiluted record of the experience. The most riveting scenes capture the drill sergeants' psychological warfare against the recruits, which is every bit as fierce as in Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, but Brumley is also admirably attentive to the numbing aspects of camp life: one long low-angle shot shows nothing but the men's feet in the shower, slapping around in cheap flip-flops. The movie originally screened at 155 minutes, then 96, and Brumley has finally settled on 115. It still feels long, but I'm sure boot camp feels a hell of a lot longer.

Sam Wainwright Douglas and Paul Lovelace's Bound to Lose, the story of the Holy Modal Rounders, never amounts to much more than an extended visit with two gray hippies hazily recalling the good old days. Peter Stampfel and Steve Weber formed the band during the New York folk craze of the early 60s, combining roots music with goofy lyrics. ("If You Want to Be a Bird," recorded after Stampfel left, can be heard in Easy Rider, and the video includes archival footage of the Rounders--with playwright Sam Shepard on drums, no less--kidding with Ruth Buzzi on Laugh-In.) Both men lived the counterculture cliche of narcotic craziness and middle-aged redemption, though Weber still looks like he could use a lift home. "I'm a hedonist," he explains as he lounges around his ramshackle farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. "Carpe diem, all that kind of stuff." So much for the wisdom of a generation. There's an interesting story in the men's long and contentious relationship, but it's buried under bull sessions with people like Wavy Gravy.

The complacency in Bound to Lose is so pronounced that watching it might make you grateful for Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, a proudly puerile clay animation that turns Charles Manson and his murderous cult into the subject of an X-rated musical comedy. Director John Roecker may have set out to offend as many people as possible--his graphic depiction of the Tate-LaBianca murders certainly did the trick for me--but I had to admire his equal opportunity cynicism: he mocks not only the Manson crazies but their jet-set victim Sharon Tate, the stunned law enforcement authorities, and the 60s zeitgeist in general (the cult takes its inspiration to kill from a loop of the Beatles' "I Want to Hold Your Hand"). Live Freaky! Die Freaky! may seem like an exercise in transgression for its own sake, but like Jim Van Bebber's gory docudrama The Manson Family, which played at the Music Box last year, it also ponders Manson's remarkable staying power as a punk icon: a live-action frame, set in the 31st century, shows a postapocalyptic mountain tribe founding a new religion based on a ratty paperback of Helter Skelter.

Amid all these acid flashbacks, a relic like Captain Milkshake can deliver a bracing sense of engagement with its time, even when it's not all that great. Produced, written, and directed by one Richard Crawford, it opened strong in November 1970, then got tied up in litigation for decades. Its psychedelic reveries now play like outtakes from an Austin Powers movie, yet it's surprisingly evenhanded in assessing both the Vietnam war and the peace movement. A soldier (Geoff Gage) comes home to San Diego to bury his stepfather, and though he defends the war out of loyalty to his platoon buddies, he's tortured by memories of the people he killed on the battlefield. The movie is plainly antiwar, but the willowy flower child (Andrea Cagan) who gives the soldier a crash course in grooviness is a spoiled rich kid, and her bearded buddy (David Korn), an antiwar leader, is smugly self-righteous.

The most striking thing about Captain Milkshake is the absence of anything quite like it among the festival's contemporary features: a drama that tries to get under the skin of a nation caught in a disastrous war. I shouldn't be surprised--the real legacy of the 60s has always been more social than political, more Velvet Underground than Weather Underground. I don't approve of building bombs, but I do think that in times like these anyone calling himself an underground filmmaker should be delivering something incendiary.

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