Last Sunday marked the quantitative halfway point of my Seattle International Film Festival adventure. It took me quite a long time walking around in the rain on Capitol Hill to realize that the "Broadway Performance Hall" is located on the campus of Seattle Central Community College; it wasn't until I saw the line of early-bird pass-holders that I realized I'd been obliviously and repeatedly passing my destination by. As I sheepishly joined my fellow second-class-citizen ticket holders in the segregated ticket holders line, I started noticing that Seattle Central's campus offers a much more collegial feel than that of my school of choice, North Seattle Community College. with its tended lawns and red brick buildings, SCCC has a very urban-academic look and feel that's very similar to Portland State's downtown campus. Conversely, the hopelessly suburban NSCC, with its impenetrable fortress of gray concrete, its dungeon-like outdoor staircases, and its Byzantine rat-maze passageways, feels like the punitive holding pen for high school dropout miscreants that most community colleges are probably presumed to be by those who've gone to "real" schools.
The film was Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst, a documentary by Robert Stone. My exposure to some of the finer pop culture of our time- the films of John Waters, some of which have costarred Ms. Hearst, Network, Black Box Recorder's "Kidnapping an Heiress"- have led me to cultivate a strong interest in the strange little cultural/political episode where a nation watched, bemused and horrified, as a little girl who exemplified the cream of the American Dream spat at them, via recorded messages, the propaganda of The Symbionese Liberation Army, a ragtag group of malcontents who, in the wake of the Vietnam War and the intransigent Nixon presidency, were intent upon finding something to make armchair America wake up, pay attention, and maybe even do something about a seemingly endless wave of violence, injustice, and economic depression/oppression. Their infamous plan: Kidnap the progeny of a dynasty that controlled a significant portion of the money and media of the machine.
Stone uses very little present-day footage- mostly just a couple of videotaped interviews with surviving ex-members of the SLA who, though they offer some insight and context, seem like annoying hippie burnouts. These interview subjects come off quite differently than the SLA members we see and hear in the archival footage comprising most of the rest of the film; Stone has masterfully edited it all together chronologically to form something resembling a plotted narrative, and because he includes footage of Vietnam and Nixon and sets up the SLA story as one of disillusionment with the failure of the peace-and-love hippie movement to alter the course of atrocity America seemed intent on, the SLA people come off like desperate, idealistic kids who've taken a radically misguided course of action because the more reasonable methods of protesting and talking had had no effect (a speech by Nixon in which he proudly boasts that he won't pay a bit of attention to the masses of antiwar Americans was, to me, as chilling as anything the SLA had to say).
Hearing Hearst denounce her family's way of life and taunting them when their provisions for the poor- an SLA condition for her release ("The food you were giving out didn't seem like it was the kind of food we used to eat at our house")- was like the first time I heard "God Save the Queen"- a rush of truth with a healthy dose of bile from having been held back for so long (all of Hearts's voice recordings were later alleged to have been coerced). There an almost Hitchcockian mythology to Hearst's transformation from bubbleheaded, apolitical California blonde to beret-wearing bank-robber with a gun and a confrontational ideology. I hope the word "glamor" doesn't trivialize what's represented by a placid, compliant young woman disappearing into the pinko underworld that, in the context of her upbring and social status, is truly a trip through the looking glass, and emerging as something that exposes, undermines, and intimidates the silly world and people she came from.
Simply put, the kidnapping and transformation of Patty Hearst is, on its surface, a powerful symbol of weakness becoming strength, of blindness becoming clear sight, of lazy mindlessness becoming hard-nosed intelligence. Who really knows, or will ever know, whether Hearst was an opportunist or chameleon who believed the bobbing and weaving succession of the things she said as she said them, or was actually "brainwashed" by the SLA, or some jagged combination of the two? These are questions for one person- Patty Hearst- to ponder. For the rest of us, the mythology of what happened, and the disturbance it represents to another, more dominant and destructive mythology, is what maintains the relevance of the whole anomalous event.
The film itself was, for its purposes, a success- some of the stylistic choices seemed a little too VH-1, but then again, VH-1 stole and mangled documentary style from the documentarians). It was very noticeably to me much of the audience wasn't up to taking it all in. There was a lot of derisive snickering, which I find fairly intolerable coming from ironically superior indie brats, but it was positively teeth-gnashing coming from the suburban-middle-class, SUV-driving film-fest contingent (the ones who are participating in the Cultural Activity designated by the Seattle Times as The Place to Be), who apparently had come to revel in the long-ago defeat of a force that had tried, in their clumsy and misbegotten way, to challenge exactly the presumptuous, arrogant mindless-American attitudes these people had brought with them. It might be easy to laugh at the ineptitude of the SLA, their strident, overearnest idealism, the language they used (the audience seemed to find "fascist insect" a real howler), but I was very irritated by the amazing glibness of these reactions, as if the kidnapping of Patty Hearst and the SLA's demand that a crumbling nation wake up and take care of its people were some fictionalized episode of retro-chic nostalgia, as if we've gotten beyond all that crazy stuff and can laugh now, Bush administration and war in Iraq be damned. It was the worst kind of stereotypically myopic Generation X response: "Remember those cheesy Brady Bunch lunchboxes we had? Remember Leif Garrett? Remember our laughably shitty TV shows? Remember our parent's divorces? Remember Patty Hearst, the SLA, and the anger and frustration of a country ripped apart by war, with a complacent silent majority smugly crushing the efforts of those who cared about this country, its people, and the world? Remember the national mood of doubt, despair, disillusionment, and crisis? Isn't it all just a blast-from-the-past scream? Aren't we somehow magically above it all now?"
The accusations made by the SLA leaders and members- of systematic racism, sexism, economic injustice, and warmongering- were (and are) inarguably true, and the snarky laughter of a bunch of exotica-seeking conformist hypocrites at a film festival can't erase the what Stone's film doesn't exactly have to strain to reveal to those of us actually paying attention: What created these misguided American guerillas is precisely the penchant of the comfortable American middle class for ignorantly blissful, self-serving amnesia of the sort that allows one to laugh derisively at those who see the hypocrisies and contradictions of public policy and social norms and are willing to make an effort to expose them. In the same way a Communist sympathizer is not a Communist, I would never join or actively support a group like the SLA, with its very dubious, reckless, and ultimately unconsciencious tactics. I do, however, sympathize; I've felt the same kind of impatience and anger they felt. It seems impossible to me that any intelligent, principled person could be either capable of cheering their criminal activities or incapable of understanding what motivated them.
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