New Social Mov(i)ements
Battle in Seattle & The Port Huron Project, Dir: Stuwart Townsend/ Mark Tribe, Now Playing
There is a new wave in agitprop, but it’s familiar to the old timers. Referencing, conjuring, sentimentalizing, and recreating the passion of the New Left and eco-warriors, performance artists and marquis actors are engaged in a frenzied effort to get viewers to aim higher. Defining the end points of the continuum of fine art/popular culture, performance artist Mark Tribe’s Port Huron Project and actor cum Charlize Theron paramour cum director Stuart Townsend’s Battle in Seattle highlight every (should be) obvious parallel between today’s wars and corporate oligarchies and those of yesterday.
Battle in Seattle—Townsend’s directorial debut —presents a loosely historical, fictionalized account of the protest against the World Trade Organization that shut down that city in December 1999. The protests introduced most people to the WTO, A vastly powerful, deeply corporate, and often anti-democratic global economic institution. In The Port Huron Project, Mark Tribe offers a series of re-enactments of civil rights and anti-war speeches from the 1960s and ‘70s.
Both films are characterized by an intense nostalgia for revolution, and both strain for a cultural moment that hasn’t quite arrived. They both made me cry. I cry a lot these days, and most people think that’s fair, what with the financial collapse and global warming and the way governments keep starting wars they’ll never finish like I keep picking up Finnegan’s Wake.
All throughout Battle in Seattle I broke down into these big shaky cries that seemed to disturb the people sitting in front of me. People who kept looking back at me but never asked if I was okay. These people made me suspect that even though Battle is ably conceived, well paced, easy to watch, and offered a perspective which almost never gets aired in America, it must fail on some level.
Transfixed by the love song to activism they were watching, clapping at the triumphant moments on screen, my fellow audience members couldn’t muster the energy to speak to someone right next to them who was obviously near breakdown. I can’t blame them for it. Today’s problems explode on the scene quickly, and as we learn be outraged in a kind of shorthand, we abbreviate our compassionate responses, too. Corporate greed is heartbreaking.
It’s nice to see the impish utopia of Battle in Seattle’s world of solidarity lived out among a group of social justice, environmental, and animal rights activists. The film strives to be conventional in its plot, casting, and pacing. But Townsend delivers fresh, accurate portrayals of how people did manage to block major intersections using only carabineers, steel piping, and their own bodies. And he provides a concise overview of the WTO and resonant moments of the zeitgeist of a pre-Patriot act America.
Battle in Seattle is being sold on star power and stunt casting. An actor with name of face recognition appears in almost every big role. Andre Benjamin (Outkast), Joshua Jackson (Dawson’s Creek), Ray Liotta, Charlize Theron, Woody Harrelson...No matter what your taste, there’s someone in Battle in Seattle who, when they appear on screen, you will say, “Oh, I like them.” It’s a testament to what an ostensibly dilettante director can produce. Townsend brought all those actors together, and he got them to perform with a lot of heart.
Townsend pulls much of the form of his film from Medium Cool—the revolutionary 1969 merging of drama, documentary, politics, and media theory —that utilized the events of the 1968 Democratic National Convention to indict a complacent America and amoral media in the depressing march of history. Battle’s a categorically weaker film than its predecessor, capturing an incredible historical/cultural instant with dignity and power but stretching the credible at every other turn, but it still merits the comparison. Watching the two films might indeed prove Marx’s adage that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy the second as farce.
The Port Huron Project, too, conjures Medium Cool. Using speeches that could be mistaken for words of today, Tribe asks, as Cool’s director Haskell Wexler did, whether neutral disinterest is a moral choice. “What in fact has the war done for freedom in America?” A dreamy-eyed actor asks, quoting a 1967 speech by Students for a Democratic Society president Paul Potter: “It has led to even more vigorous governmental efforts to control information, manipulate the press, and pressure and persuade the public.” Point taken: dreamy eyes make everything sound more convincing, and not much has changed since Potter urged us to name the system that controls us.
Both The Port Huron Project and Battle in Seattle offer guilt trips of the highest order, and we should learn a thing or two hundred from the anti-war icons of the Vietnam era, and the thousands of protesters who stopped 1999’s World Trade Organization. But if politically engaged filmmakers keep focusing on how little ground has been won, will we lose sight of how much ground has been lost?
Environmental, human, and animal rights organizations proliferate the FBI’s list of “domestic terrorist organizations” and preemptive police repression resulted in nearly one arrest for every 12 protesters at the recent Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. It's these examples that call up the best lesson from Medium Cool: we owe the world a film about today.
The opinions expressed by Walter Matthau are his own and do not represent the views of the editors of the Brooklyn Rail or Sarahjane Blum.