Independent News and Views September 18, 2000
carrigan kolb carrigan kolb The Trouble With Al - By David Moberg L.A. Confidential - By Bob Burnett From Seattle to South Central - By Juan Gonzalez A Field Day for the Heat - By Jeffrey St. Clair Throwing Away the Key - By Dave Lindorff Blinded with Science - By Karen Charman
appallometer Prague Fall - By Nick Rosen The Highest Price - By Anthony Arnove - By Dave Lindorff Appall-o-Meter - By David Futrelle
editorial flanders Editorial - By Salim Muwakkil Dialogue: Candidate Nader - By Doug Ireland and Joel Bleifuss A Terry LaBan Cartoon - By Terry LaBan
krassner Dancing in the Suites - By J.W. Mason Things Fall Apart - By Hillary Frey Homage to Gorazde - By Daniel F. Raeburn


Mayer Vishner, a member of the overground support group: "The script oversimplifies the treachery of Cointelpro." The late folk singer Phil Ochs' brother, Michael: "A flyer has more depth."

On the other hand, Stew Albert likes Steal This Movie--odd, because I have always thought of him as a stoned Talmudic scholar, serving as a source of objectivity and keen insight. "It's true to Abbie's spirit," he says, "his unwillingness to accept the world the way it was given to him."

Stew's wife, Judy Gumbo, likes the movie, too. "It's seamless," she says, "the way it shows how Abbie brought political theater to American demonstrations."

It's as if Stew and Judy, because they want so much for Steal This Movie to succeed, have superimposed a halo over it. But Stew insists: "I have seen this movie in four different cities and seen the reaction of hundreds of young people. Because of this movie, Abbie and the Yippies will become known to a whole new generation."

Other old friends of Abbie-Ron Kovic, Bobby Seale and Ellen Maslow-like the movie, too. "Ellen likes it because her three sons saw it and now have a much better understanding of what their mother was about," Stew says. "I think I would like the movie just for this reason alone. I certainly did not find it boring."

Fair enough, but the halo-effect metaphor definitely applies to attorney Gerry Lefcourt, who not only figures prominently in the movie, but is also an associate producer. He is shown on the screen defending Abbie in the Chicago Seven
Credit: Terry LaBan.
conspiracy trial, even though he didn't (he handled pretrial motions). In a radio interview, when it was implied that he was there, rather than deny it Lefcourt simply mentioned how many times he had defended Abbie. He is apparently unembarrassed that William Kunstler and Lenny Weinglass--who actually were the defense attorneys at the conspiracy trial--are not even mentioned. Even worse, two of the defendants aren't in the movie. At a screening, I whispered, "Hey, it's the Chicago Five."

Upon leaving the theater, I avoided producer-director Robert Greenwald--with whom I've had a cordial relationship--in the corridor. If he had asked me what I thought, I would have answered, "It made me cry." Which was true, only I had cried not because the film was inspiring, but because it was a waste. Greenwald obviously started out with idealistic intentions, but he remains responsible for a production that is unrelentingly void of character development and plot structure. The editing is choppy as cole slaw, and the screenplay lacks any semblance of originality. The whole film reeks of misinformation.

Abbie shouts Martin Luther King's words as if they were his own--"Free at last, great God Almighty, free at last!"--and Jerry Rubin shouts Lenny Bruce's words as if they were his own--"In the Halls of Justice, the only justice is in the halls!" There's a lot of shouting in this movie, perhaps to drown out the lies--such as the lie that Abbie's son, America, didn't know that Abbie was his father while he was on the lam.

I had really hoped to like Steal This Movie better on my second viewing, but it was worse, not only because it does an injustice to a fighter for justice. It's also a terrible movie. There may be those who will appreciate the movie's anti-war message, the lack of hippie-bashing and Abbie's looking-directly-into-the-camera encouragement to protest creatively. They will enjoy the courtroom antics of Abbie and Jerry, wearing black judges' robes and, when ordered to remove them, wearing Chicago Police Department uniforms underneath. One young moviegoer told me, "I admit to knowing next to nothing about Abbie Hoffman, but his life is so unique that the movie held my attention."

Greenwald originally wanted Robert Downey Jr. to play Abbie. Instead, Vincent D'Onofrio (also the executive producer) got the part. He's a half-foot taller than Abbie, and his imitation Bahston/New Yawk accent sounds like an unfortunate speech defect. Worse still, the Abbie that D'Onofrio portrays is the Phantom of the Media, an out-of-context, one-dimensional rabble-rouser, spouting slogans and hackneyed rhetoric.

The movie is an unsubtle hodgepodge of attempted re-enactments of Abbie's Greatest Hits--throwing money at the New York Stock Exchange, levitating the Pentagon, protesting at the Democratic Convention, the Chicago conspiracy trial, saving the Saint Lawrence River--interspersed with Abbie's marriage and lots of clips from stock news footage to remind us of flower children, police riots and political assassinations. It's presented in flashbacks, but unlike Citizen Kane, Abbie is alive when it begins and alive when it ends. Yes, it's a happy romantic ending for a tragic unromantic reality. The audience only learns from a where-are-they-now subtitle in the closing credits that Abbie committed suicide in 1989.

Abbie once told me that a group of filmmakers wanted to follow him around in order to produce a documentary, but he declined. I asked him why. He smiled and replied, "I wanna make my own myth."

Here, we're presented with Greenwald's limited vision of Abbie's myth. He happened to find a copy of To America With Love: Letters From the Underground--a poignant collection of correspondence Abbie exchanged with his second wife, Anita, while he was a fugitive ducking 15-years-to-life for a drug bust. Anita gave me an inscribed copy; Abbie wrote his inscription on a yellow post-it and mailed it so that I could put it next to Anita's inscription. Anyway, a few years ago, Greenwald optioned the book, plus Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel by Marty Jezer.

Anita is portrayed by Janeane Garafolo, who sought out the part. The movie was made while Anita--who appears briefly in a courtroom scene--was dying from cancer. She had two movies in her mind at the time. In her latter years, she had become intrigued by the twin towers of mysticism and conspiracy. She read books and magazine articles about those subjects, and listened to Art Bell's late-night radio show. She believed there was life on other planets and accepted the notion of certain UFO aficionados that extraterrestrials have been making a movie of the earth's progress. "I hope I remember to ask to see that movie," she told me.

"Somehow, Abbie will see the movie," she said, referring this time to Steal This Movie. She felt ambivalent about it. "When I mentioned the paucity of other characters, Robert [Greenwald] replied that on a low-budget film we just can't afford a lot of major players. This is Hollywood."

On her deathbed, she told the Leffs that she thought Steal This Movie was "mediocre," yet her greatest regret was not living to attend the opening. I chose not to ask, "Well, if Abbie can see it from the afterlife, why can't you?"

Abbie would undoubtedly relish the paradoxical symbolism of the movie opening with Jimi Hendrix's gut-twisting version of "The Star-Spangled Banner," since that same song now serves as background music in a TV commercial for Pop-Tarts. He would fume at the minimized and distorted portrayal of his third wife, Johanna Lawrenson, who had been his running mate while on the lam. She was his main co-conspirator after he emerged from six years of hiding.

Al Giordano, a friend of Abbie and Johanna, now editor of the online Narco News, complains that Steal This Movie erases Johanna from the '80s, "from the CIA-on-campus trial, for example, where she did half the work." A speech that Abbie gave at Vanderbilt University in real life has been morphed into his summation at that trial in the movie version. In real life, Johanna was in court; in the movie, Anita is. Because Johanna refused to participate in the movie, Greenwald's assistant told Giordano: "Well, if Johanna won't talk to us, we'll just eliminate the years that Abbie spent underground from the movie. We don't need the facts of the underground story to make this movie."

So we get the unfactual appearance of Abbie at the "Bring Abbie Home" rally (two years earlier he did show up, in a manic stage of his clinical manic-depression, at a memorial for Phil Ochs). And the unfactual underground scene where Abbie and young America urinate together outdoors in an attempted act of scatological male bonding reminiscent of Adam Sandler's similar star turn in Big Daddy.

Lest you conclude that this pisser of a scene was plagiarized, Steal This Movie was basically in the can long before Big Daddy was released; Greenwald just couldn't find a distributor. Then came the WTO protests in Seattle, and suddenly Steal This Movie was considered a bankable project. So now it's officially a Lions Gate Film. Those protesters could not have foreseen such ironic fallout from their demonstrations. Completing the circle, Steal This Movie was even screened in Seattle as a benefit for the Community Action Network, which had been so involved in organizing the WTO protests.

Greenwald orchestrated a shrewd marketing plan by staging such prescreenings in various cities as benefits for progressive organizations--Refuse & Resist, Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, the National Lawyers Guild, the Green Party, Pacifica's KPFK--and scheduling its opening on the day after the Democratic Convention. But the question remains, will word-of-mouth help or hurt ticket sales? Buzz is a two-way street. At one point in Steal This Movie, Abbie shouts, "Dull is deadly!" That maxim applies to the movie itself. Ebert and Roeper may have given it two thumbs up, but Abbie would definitely give it two middle fingers.

Paul Krassner is the author of Sex, Drugs and the Twinkie Murders: 40 Years of Countercultural Journalism, just published by Loompanics; his CD, Campaign in the Ass, also has just been released by Loompanics. For a free copy of his newsletter, The Realist, send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Box 1230, Venice CA 90294.


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