Always on Trial for Just Being Born

Revisiting 1960s tumult in art and politics--and seeing what lasts


The 1960s remain a volatile mixture of sacred birthplace and hallowed battleground, both Jerusalem and Gettysburg for our national politics and culture. The decade's reach is long, its grasp immense, alternately a continuing mystery needing unraveling or an ongoing problem requiring a solution.

As music, art, racial and sexual relations, and citizens' relation to the state all percolated and mutated in that decade, the resulting cultural and political heat weakened certain bridges across cultural divides. Whether the decade's tumult created those divisions or just illuminated them, they are still often read as defining America in our red/blue era. For one example, the '60s legacy led Andrew Sullivan to the mad expediency of declaring that only a Barack Obama presidency can reconcile the dueling meanings of that decade, the era when Baby Boomers' passions and concerns began their long march through all American's institutions.

Two 2007 films explore different aspects of that decade. One, I'm Not There, revisits its artistic and cultural tumults through exploring the character of its greatest pop avatar, Bob Dylan—a man who recently told novelist Jonathan Lethem, with some humor and much truth, "you're talking to a person who owns the Sixties. Did I ever want to acquire the Sixties? No. But I own the Sixties… I'll give 'em to you if you want 'em. You can have 'em."

Another, Chicago 10, revisits '60s political tumult through a half-documentary, half-animated telling of the saga and trial of the gang popularly known as the Chicago 7, antiwar leftist radicals tried for, among other things, crossing state lines to the 1968 Chicago Democratic Party convention with "the intent to incite, organize, promote, encourage, participate in, and carry on a riot and to commit acts of violence in furtherance of a riot." The movie, written and directed by Brett Morgen and produced by Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, tips its titular hat to eighth fellow defendant Black Panther Bobby Seale, who was mistreated and removed from the case before its conclusion, and to two lawyers also tossed in the pokey for defying the diktats of Judge Julius Hoffman.

The two movies considered together inadvertently help make the case that what remains most compelling about the '60s was the art and particular human strivings, not the decade's confusing radical politics that, while fighting brave battles against real tyranny, simultaneously attempted to subsume the personal in the political in its own totalitarian style.

In I'm Not There writer/director Todd Haynes isn't deliberately mythologizing the 1960s, or attempting to take sides in any culture war, or smooth over any historical problems. He's trying to understand and represent a man, a body of work, and a series of shifting public images. He does so marvelously. I've never been a fan of Haynes' previous movies—too mannered and insufficiently human, or at least simultaneously tendentious and unsophisticated about its humanity. When I heard the initial scuttlebutt about his approach to a Dylan biopic—casting multiple actors, including a woman and a black child, to play aspects of Dylan—it sounded like a goofy gimmick.

But Haynes correctly saw this casting innovation would capture Dylan as nothing else could. As author of an essay exploring and celebrating Dylan's essential inauthenticity, I should have realized that any attempt to tell one story about him, to embody him in a single way, would fall short.

Dylan meant so much to so many because he could mean and be more than one thing, be simultaneously a symbol of experiential rebellion or social conscience, or simply a crafter of lovely, haunting, and rousing music and words. The movie ends with a long focus on a Dylan harmonica solo, sounding after all you've seen fresher and deeper and more expansive and gorgeous than it ever has before. That delivers most of the meaning the movie and its Dylans embody: trust the sound, the art, not the medium and certainly not the "message."

This idea was Dylan's strength as an artist and cultural force. It also led to his career's greatest crisis. That crisis is the center of I'm Not There, if a movie this disjointed, phantasmagoric, and bizarre (yet, every second of the way, gripping and connected) can be said to have a center. Mid-'60s Dylan, mostly portrayed here by an excellent Cate Blanchett, was on his own perpetual trial from his own early fans, who loved what they saw as the "authentic" values of man-of-the-people folkie Dylan and hated how he betrayed those values—Dylan was famously condemned as "Judas" by a British fan on his first electric tour—for electric rock and amphetamined quasi-Beat word-drunk ramblings.

Both Blanchett's Dylan and Ben Wishaw's—known as "Rimbaud" in the movie (none of the films Dylans are named "Bob Dylan," or even Robert Zimmerman)—are on Kafkaesque trial for unspecified crimes against the people. They are, as Dylan sang, trying their best to be just like they are, while everyone wants them to be just like them.

Haynes's Dylans live out not just the unique problems of the celebrity artist-prophet whose gravity attracts more attention than his mass can bear, but also, in a personal-not-political manner, hits on other '60s culture war signifiers such as the hazards of drugs (nearly killing Blanchett-Dylan) and modern sexual-gender mores (destroying the family of '70s Heath Ledger-Dylan) and the spiritual malaise of simply secular politics (with Christian Bale's combo of early '60s folk-Dylan and early '80s preacher-Dylan). But throughout, from a young black Dylan riding the rails and self-mythologizing to old outlaw Dylan living the myth of an American West betrayed, the movie casts Dylan and the 1960s as an adventure in art, expression, and the power to choose one's own identity.

Chicago 10, meanwhile, takes a more standard documentary approach to telling a '60s story approximately as iconic as Dylan's, in some ways the fable of those who stayed on the path that the politicized early '60s Dylan might have taken if he'd remained "relevant" to the concerns of the People. This movie has its own artsy stunt—it combines documentary footage of the Chicago 10 and the Chicago riots they were accused of inciting with animated dramatizations of the trial, with dialogue from the court transcripts.

The animation is in the distracting (to someone of my generation, who was already remembering the '60s in the '70s, man!) computer video game style, and while the director promises a fresh approach to the '60s documentary genre, it mostly spooled off like a pretty classic one, including "War Pigs" playing over scenes of cops clearing protestors from Lincoln Park in ominous darkness harshly broken by ugly lights. Roy Scheider's voicing of Judge Hoffman, meanwhile, comes across as a hideous amalgam of an overfed supercilious Dickens villain, Droopy Dog, and Gollum. Hoffman's treatment of Bobby Seale—binding and gagging him in court and refusing him his chosen self-representation—was indeed a nightmare of judicial unfairness. These guys were undoubtedly right about one thing: They could not get a fair trial in America.

What the movie does best is remind us, vividly, of how gnarly the U.S. government could get when faced with a serious show of dissent. While it's about fighting against a war, it starts to feel like a nihilistic war movie itself, one cops vs. kids skirmish after another with any point or reason lost in the tense conflict. Without overbearing omniscient narration, the movie makes you understand subtly why some of the draft-age kids might want to fly the Viet Cong flag. Why shouldn't they do whatever they can to jab impotent disrespect at the U.S. government, which was, after all, trying to enslave them at gunpoint to fly overseas and become a trained killer?

The Chicago 10 as characters, though, even the "stars" Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, come across as smaller than the Dylan of I'm Not There, lacking universality—they remain politicized to the end. There's only one role for them—whether human or cartoon, the level of depth and complexity is the same. They have wit, to be sure, and bravery, and a winning ability to not be cowed. And they are facing a trial far more harrowing and less metaphorical than Dylan ever did.

But in their embrace of a communal/communist politics, even as they tapped correctly into a classic American revolutionary tradition to justify their actions, as historical figures they have little to offer other than (justifiable) rage and a revolutionary mission whose ultimate end is no better than the "system" they fought against. The Dylan movie never needs to make a hero out of Dylan; it merely needs to make a human, many humans, from him. Chicago 10 needs heroes for its villains (Judge Hoffman and the orc-like cops), and heroes are always more vulnerable than humans.

As dueling icons of the '60s, Dylan and the Hoffman/Rubin gang represented alternate possibilities for how to remember what that decade meant. Hoffman was born, he told the court, in 1960. And in the same metaphorical sense, he and his companions died as the '60s died, as the immediate energizing of Vietnam sputtered out, as the death-wish at the heart of their sort of totalist political antinomianism became manifest in bombs and self-destruction, as most Americans realized that while they didn't want war, they didn't want the whole country turned into a commune either.

The Chicago 10's spirit of dissent against tyranny was brave and apt; their championing of a politics that were in key ways more of the same or worse, was neither. Dylan for his part bore the burden of "'60s consciousness" in a way that didn't require agitating or fighting the world, merely working continuously as a skilled American bard of experience, pleasure, and even occasional wisdom, living out humane values that tend to ensure that bards mean more to more people, and for longer, then off-target dissidents, however brave. Whatever seemed controversial or strange about Dylan in the '60s context does not seem so anymore—he's firmly ensconced in any American pantheon. The Hoffman-Rubin gang's bravery still seems brave; their own politics seems fortunately antiquated.

Senior Editor Brian Doherty (bdoherty@reason.com) is author of This is Burning Man and Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement.