Sunday, October 26, 2008

"Have You at Long Last, Sir, No Sense of Decency?"

I was excited to see that a staged reading of "Trial of the Catonsville Nine" was slated for election eve even before I realized it's by a director I admire. And there's a chance I might even be able to go, because my in-laws have plans to steal my child next weekend.

Trial transcripts turned drama are an interesting case--you always expect a trial to be dramatic, but they don't usually live up. I've heard rumblings but don't know of any successful attempt to do anything with Brecht's HUAC testimony, which would be my top pick to see enacted. Maybe with some embellishments to make it even more "Duck Soup"-y.

Long ago, I saw a video of another Berrigan trial put to drama, "In the King of Prussia," about the Plowshares Eight, who in 1980 sauntered into a GE plant and beat on nuclear bomb parts with hammers--beating swords into plowshares--one of the few times when taking a biblical exhortation literally could rate a hell yeah from me. The video, by Emile De Antonio, was shot in two days, just before the crew were carted off the jail; Martin Sheen supported the production and also plays the judge, who becomes apoplectic each time the defendants non-ironically but certainly disruptively break into "Kumbaya." It's a quick and dirty job I wouldn't necessarily rush onto the Netflix list, but de Antonio's work (he also did films on the McCarthy hearings and the Weather Underground) is part of the roots to current political documentary making and deserves its props.

It was made in 1983, not pre-MTV but damn close, when artists were still arguing about whether video was worth anything. AFI used to be housed at the Kennedy Center, and they'd have a video festival each summer and I'd go and give myself a headache from nonstop viewing and no eating (KenCen then as now a wasteland when it comes to any nearby affordable food). Saw my first Nam June Paik installation; there was a Twyla Tharp piece with cameras mounted on the dancers that caused people to stand up and yell at her; and there were many complaints that "In the King of Prussia" was slapdash. The point was that video could capture this sort of thing in the days before the subjects would be sent up; it changed time and distribution.

I actually think that the longing-to-become-slick early-80s audience was just embarrassed by sincerity--going to jail for your beliefs was so last-decade. Such a showing today might touch off a "real Americans" vs. "domestic terrorists" cage match.

The tone taken by the Others in these last days before the election is scarier to me than the dire prediction of an "international incident." They're stirring up the ugliest, in code; Palin is sounding more like George Wallace in (overpriced) skirts every day. My comeback line, when people told me after 9/11 that I ought to move away from Washington, was: "Yes, we'll go someplace safe in the heartland, like Oklahoma." You know, you can't have a day care center in a federal building after that happened? You can't have on-site daycare. Parents, nursing mothers, have to walk out of their buildings and down the street to visit their children during the day because in Oklahoma, a clutch of our fellow Americans didn't want Their Taxes going to food and roads for Those Other People. That's just one of those tiny but breathtakingly horrible details from the act of domestic terrorism everyone seems to have forgotten.

So why am I not outraged that Bill Ayers is walking around free to eat mache and give pretentious lectures? Fair question, but you could ask it of anyone--as Dick Gregory has been doing: If we think he's an evil domestic terrorist, why are "we" letting him teach at a major university? Why didn't all these appalled people go in and bust him years ago? Gregory also adds in another factor that gives me pause, that he suspects plants inciting or even committing destructive acts, something that was common then. Um, or maybe not just then. (Paging Lucy Shoup!) The degree and intent of the damage, the times, the cause behind it, all make me want to think that one over a while more. There's a little teeny aspect of college intellectual boomers getting away with shit while farmboys don't that I don't choose to go into right now, either.

But it gets very complicated, doesn't it? If you break into a nuclear power plant to stage a pacifist protest and a security guard believes she's endangered and takes a shot and hits an employee, who is responsible for the harm? Where is the boundary between destruction of property and harm to humans? Who should be more free, a protestor or a police officer in St. Paul? Who's more endangered? Whose rights are more endangered? It's way too complicated for me. I wish I could turn on the TV and hear people debating these questions, but we're not allowed to talk about it--all we're allowed to say is "He's pallin' around with terrorists" or "He's just some schlump he knew on a committee once." We're under orders to keep it simple.

Photo: Martin Sheen in Badlands. Man, that Terrence Malik could pick 'em, could he not?

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