Stages and Screens (2008)
I wrote the essay below, STAGES & SCREENS, in 2008, forty years after the Chicago events, but before the full force of honest reportage could be contemptuously dismissed as “fake news”, a frequently repeated act that contributed to the upheavals in American society during, and notably after, the Trump years. For Trump, the presidency was indeed a bully pulpit, the stage on which he performed the part of cult leader. He is a conman by trade, a trickster who belongs on a theatrical stage, not that of real life. It says much about American society that he could move into the White House surrounded with all the adoration rendered to what passes as a television screen hero.
The very words “stages” and “screens” contain a dangerous ambiguity. Something that is “staged” can be an actual event, or one that pretends, as in a theatrical performance, to be reality, demanding a willing suspension of disbelief. The Gulf of Tonkin “event”, where “Tonkin ghosts”, false radar images, were both staged and screened; and the non-existent “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq, which, through the stagecraft of Secretary of State Colin Powell, involved the false interpretation of images that found their way onto television screens throughout the world, were examples of staging and screening that led to the deaths of millions of people, and massive social disruption in Vietnam and the Middle East.
A screen means something onto which an image is projected. It is perhaps the most powerful artefact of the last century and this. The projected image can be a true reproduction of reality, or something that has been created to resemble reality, however superficially, in order to persuade, amuse, propagandize. A screen also means something that conceals something else, something that the screener does not want us to see, whether too painful or too accurate - the screener decides. The verb “to screen” can also mean a search, most usually for some detail about an individual, whose revelation will somehow inform the person doing the screening. It has a double entendre in the specious sense that it can both hide and reveal at the same time.
STAGES & SCREENS: CHICAGO ’68 TO ABU GHRAIB (REFLECTIONS IN A REARVIEW MIRROR
1968 was the year of political upheaval.
Behind the Iron Curtain, there was the Prague Spring, in Paris, there was le joli mai.
In the United States, Martin Luther King was murdered, followed by Robert Kennedy.
The Youth International Party – the Yippies – under Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin flexed their muscles in campuses and on the streets - and then in August there came the Democratic National Convention in Chicago…
What remained of an American Left united with a disaffected youth to protest a Democratic Party that seemed loath to address the real malaises of America: racism, poverty, and the unending war in Vietnam.
In Chicago, it began with marching and chanting, and ended with blood on the grass and gas in the streets.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… Or so we thought. I am looking back at it now as through a rearview mirror, when then I saw a fair part of it through the viewfinder of a film camera – which excludes more than it shows. Which, so often these days, is the point.
Looking back, 1968 was a truly amazing year. In January, the Tet offensive marks the beginning of the painfully slow end for America in Vietnam. It is followed by the Mai Lai massacre in March. That same month, the astonishing announcement by President Johnson that he will not run again in the presidential election set for later that year. This leaves the way open for Robert Kennedy’s candidacy.
In April, Martin Luther King is assassinated. That same month feels the first stirrings behind the Iron Curtain that comes to be known as the Prague Spring, the next month is shaken by the winds of political discontent on this side of the Curtain with the student uprising in Paris.
Early in June, Bobby Kennedy is murdered.
At the end of August, anti-war protests in the United States reach their climax with the demonstrations at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, and their brutal suppression by the Chicago police on the orders of Mayor Daley.
In November, Nixon is elected president, ensuring the continuation of a criminal war. It is worth looking back at those days not simply out of historical curiosity, but because of what they teach us about our present, which is deceptively so similar. What most concerns me is the differences – lessons learned and unlearned, new developments, not least, technological: the Facebook and Twitter revolution.
At that time, I was working in New York as a freelance cameraman, on assignment for different organizations, among them Canadian Broadcasting’s Weekend under Richard Nielsen, BBC, Swedish Television, Australian TV. I was able to cover political events chosen by a variety of producers and to initiate subjects myself. This gave me the opportunity not only to observe and record, but also to play some small role in the anti- war movement, to which I was deeply committed. Looking back now, I see the anti-war struggle as a shifting kaleidoscope of different stages and screens.
Traditionally, a stage is a proscenium where rehearsed actions are performed and prescribed texts repeated, invariably before an audience. Heavy in ritual, the sites could be an ancient Greek amphitheatre, a medieval church, an Elizabethan platform. A chosen place at a chosen time, it is static, people come to see it. But theatre, in the sense of a performance, can have a much broader interpretation. It can happen virtually anywhere – in the street, in a railway station, in the classroom, in a park, in a court of law. It can move from location to location. It does not have to have a script, it can be largely impromptu, depending on the wits of the protagonists. It can find its audience, rather than have the audience come to it. The audience does not have to know that it is witnessing theatre, but it does to a certain degree have to be captivated. The “willing suspension of disbelief” does not have to apply, since the audience does not necessarily distinguish what it is witnessing as performance (as in a mass demonstration), especially if it occurs in a “live” situation.
An event can more clearly be discerned as performance after it is mediated through the camera. That is, when it is recorded and put on screen for the public to view. The screen may be a cinema screen or a television screen, or even more commonly these days, a computer or iphone screen.
Superficially, a screen reveals a story. This does not appear to be problematic if we are projecting a set form, a fiction film, a ritual, for example. There we can assume a willing complicity on the part of the viewer. But with a documentary, even though it appears on the same screen as a fiction, there is a difference. The translation of the event from a living spectacle into a framed record via the camera inevitably involves selection – out of a myriad possible images and interpretations of a particular situation, these are the ones that you see, those chosen by the cameraman. It is these images that now in the mind of the viewers stand for the original events which they have not witnessed. All else is omitted. At the heart of this process, there lies this ambiguity: while the film image has the power to disseminate the event to a far wider audience than in a theatre, we do not know what has been lost in the process. So that I now have to invoke other meanings of “screen”. One meaning - especially relevant in this post-9/11 era - is the examination of someone or something to assess its suitability for a particular purpose, or even to determine guilt. This is analogous to the process of editing, and involves aesthetic, social and political decisions. It can have devastating consequences when the result of the screening leads to some kind of punishment without trial, for example, preventative detention.
There is yet another meaning of the word “screen” that makes the whole process of viewing ambiguous, even topsy-turvy, and that is “something that prevents you from seeing”. In this case it is not what is behind the cinema or television screen that you are prevented from seeing, but what is left out from what you see on the screen and also what you are prevented from thinking about because you are concentrating on those inexorably moving images that force the eye to follow rather than allow the brain to reflect. These images are subversive because they imply “this is all you need to know about this particular sequence of events”. Again, it invokes a suspension of scepticism; but, unlike in the theatre where we know that what we are looking at is not “reality” (although this does not necessarily mean that we do not accept it as if it is), documentary, for its success, must be accepted as a record of reality.
Here is an egregious example of double-screening: in 1967, I filmed at an event held at the Roundhouse in London billed as the Dialectics of Liberation and the Demystification of Violence. Organized under the auspices of anti-psychiatrist R.D. Laing, it was a two week gathering of intellectuals and political activists who broadly speaking challenged the status quo. Speakers included Herbert Marcuse, Allen Ginsberg, Stokely Carmichael, Paul Goodman - American figures were prominent. My attention was drawn to this event by a friend, Roy Battersby, who was filming there as part of a documentary he was making for the BBC. I managed to persuade PBS station Channel 13 in New York to let me do a documentary on the Dialectics. Unfortunately, when Battersby’s film was viewed - screened - by the senior producer at the BBC, it was seized, never seen again, disappeared from history - because it contained footage critical of the American war in Vietnam. Ironically, my film, Anatomy of Violence, was shown on PBS in the United States, with no such censorship. Mine was screened on television, Battersby’s was screened from viewing. Mind you, PBS might not have been so receptive a year later.
The 1960s – USA
When I moved to the States late in 1967, I was immediately thrown into the political ferment of the time. Working on documentaries for Swedish Television, I was fortunate to be able to film Martin Luther King before his assassination. The loss of that great voice left a void in the anti-war movement and widened the gap between black and white in America. It made it natural for some African-Americans to turn to violent resistance, which was easier for the authorities to handle than King’s pacifism. Listening to King’s late speeches now, I am depressed not only by the enormous loss of this greatest of Americans of the last century, but by the sense that everything he said then about American society is applicable today. The difference is that then the anti-war movement did get significant coverage on the television screen, unlike today, when it is suppressed. The exit of King from the stage left it free for the clowns. These were the Yippies, a political phenomenon that was sui generis. They were so fresh that no-one could have foretold them. The genius of the Yippies lay in their Chaplinesque antics, their ability to sneak behind authority and kick it in the pants. Although the Youth International Party claimed to aspire to “overthrow” the current regime, they had no discernible political programme beyond challenging the status quo and expanding the gap between the established older generation and a younger generation that was tasting unprecedented sexual freedom and indulging freely in drugs. This was a generation that was moved by the horrors of the war in Vietnam, but even more by the fact that they, because of the draft, could be called upon to fight that war, and risk being killed. It was this inchoate mass that Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin wanted to spur to action, principally to end the war. Their method was not Marx, but the Marx Brothers.* And they had an intuitive grasp of how to exploit the media, especially television. Intoxicated by the power it invested in them, Abbie, with full justification claimed “We are living TV ads, movies!” They moved to seize the screen by their antics in the street.
My first direct encounter with the Yippies was the Grand Central Station Yip-In. On March 22, at midnight, upon Abbie’s summoning, a crowd of six thousand, almost exclusively young people out for a rave, streamed into Grand Central Station to celebrate that most political of events, the spring equinox. It was a cavort threatening only in the number of balloons released, but suddenly we were in the middle of a police charge, ruthless as it was efficient. Filming, we were not touched by the police, but other reporters were clubbed indiscriminately. It is the first time I had witnessed police brutality of this nature.
I do not recall how the Grand Central Yip-In was reported on New York television. I was shooting for Swedish television at that time, covering the counter-culture scene. This included different forms of resistance, like street theatre enacting an attack on a Vietnamese village, draft card burnings, parties for young men refusing induction, a rally against the war in the bandshell of Central Park, the extremist Weathermen training in karate. I was covering an anti-war play being performed by the brilliant Bread-and-Puppet theatre in the open forum of a Greenwich Village church when the performance was interrupted by the announcement that President Johnson was not going to seek a second term. The church erupted in ecstatic joy at an event that seemed to bring the end of the war much closer. (We were deluded.) It was a rare moment, the intersection of reality and the theatrical experience – like the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
Such events were not covered by the establishment media.
The multifaceted resistance developed its own outlets in hundreds of more or less radicalized magazines and broadsheets, many of them giving at least as much time to sex and drugs as to challenging the war. These are the names of some of them, chosen from literally hundreds: The Rat, East Village Other, The Movement, Hard Times, The Resistance, New York Free Press, The Realist, Other Scenes, Challenge, Politicks, Spartacist, Evergreen Review, Ramparts – I riffle through their crumbling pages now, and I am amazed at the ferment they represent, some of it at a surprising intellectual level. The Liberation News Service fed items nationally that were picked up by the underground press. This was still a society that got much of its news in print form, but this decade of the ‘sixties would see the bias turn towards the visual image. It was also the early years of cinema verité and there was a growing number of independent filmmakers. In 1968, some of these coalesced around a collective called Newsreel in New York (there was also California Newsreel on the West Coast). Borrowing equipment and using donated raw footage, Newsreel set out to capture events that would be ignored by the established media. The results were rough, but that gave them immediacy, the appearance of gritty reality. They were shaped by dedicated but impecunious groups working towards a shared political goal.
In those days in the States, there was a nationwide network of film clubs, churches, student organizations, trade unions willing to show these films. The commodity was 16mm film prints, which meant that you had to have a group in order to be able to pay the shipping and rental costs; it also meant that group-screenings led to discussion, to solidarity, and perhaps to action. Newsreel’s films were definitely intended to be agitprop tools. (The guerrilla filmmaking look, most obvious in the use of the hand- held camera, would eventually be adapted by mainstream cinema for its own purposes. Just as the world of advertising would co-opt the very word “revolution” to sell products.) At one point, Newsreel even invaded Channel 13, New York City’s National Educational Television station, duly recording the event on film.
The Resistance (alternatively, “The Movement”) could be divided into three main groups, one of which, the Black Panthers, stood apart from the other two. The other groupings were predominantly white. The divisions between these two were not clear-cut, they often interacted. One was Mobilization Against the War (MOBE), which one could characterize as those who followed the Martin Luther King (Gandhian) method of peaceful resistance, but one that was by no means passive. It was liberal, but included Leftwing elements, and was often religiously inspired. It relied on mass demonstrations, resistance to the draft, symbolic acts like that of the great Catholic activists the Berrigan brothers, whose Ploughshares Movement broke into a nuclear missile facility, hammered on the nose cones of two nuclear missiles, poured blood on documents and offered prayers for peace. A distinctive kind of Theatre of Blood.
The other was the Yippies. Their method was also the symbolic act, but unlike the Ploughshares Movement, it did not demand self-sacrifice – the Berrigan brothers spent many years in prison, their own martyrdom. I do not want to suggest that Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman did not lay their bodies on the line, they were both brutally beaten by the police on different occasions, but their genius lay elsewhere. Filming Jerry Rubin strutting on the stage of Rutgers University, audaciously framed by an American flag (see the Hollywood film Paton), it was clear that he was a stand-up comic in the great Yiddish tradition. Rubin and Hoffman were both highly articulate, but it was the audacity of their actions that seduced the cameras and headlines and made them household names. There was their flair for provocative costume. When summoned before the House Un- American Activities Committee, Rubin appeared dressed as a
Minute Man from the American Revolutionary War, an inspired way of both reminding the public that its democracy was born in violent revolution, and at the same time implying that HUAC was as repressive as George III. On another occasion, he appeared in Indian war paint. As a defendant at the trial of the Chicago 7, he appeared dressed as a guerrilla. Hoffman wore a shirt made from an American flag; it was torn off him by guards – all captured on camera.
The strategy of the Yippies, conceived in the early hours of 1968 at the same time as they formed the Youth International Party, was a major challenge to the Democratic National Convention, that year to be held in Chicago in August. It is daunting to look in the rearview mirror and at the way ahead at the same time. In 2008, as I was writing this, there was another election, with another Democratic National Convention. The stakes were as high as they were 40 years ago, with the United States bogged down in an unwinnable racist war. There was one Democratic contender closely aligned with the decision to go to war, and another who promised to end it. Again, anti-war protests were planned, and again, the local authorities were trying to suppress them.
In Chicago in 1968 there were two main stages. One was the convention centre inside the Amphitheater, where the selection of the Democratic contender for president would take place, dutifully transferred to the television screen by the television triumvirate that commanded the airwaves at that time, CBS, ABC, NBC. The other stage was outside - the streets and parks where the anti-war movement could assemble and voice its protest. In the normal course of things, as far as the media were concerned, the main attention would be on the Convention, anything that happened outside would be a sidebar.
Mobilization Against the War and the Yippies petitioned the city for permission to demonstrate. Mayor Daley responded in this fashion: “…we reject those who will burn our flags or desecrate those things that have always been great to all the people who have come to this great country.” This suited Rubin and Hoffman very well, since they knew that confrontation would attract the attention of the media more surely than a peaceful demonstration. They threw down the gauntlet in typically mock-heroic style: “The Democratic Party represented Death. So the Yippies decided to hold a festival of Life”. What followed during that week in Chicago can be seen as a struggle by the two stages – the Convention and the streets – for control of the television screen, that is, access to the world outside Chicago. Inside the Amphitheater, the ritual of the anointing of the Democratic presidential candidate, with unwritten scripts to be followed. With Mayor Daley as host, everything was supposed to go smoothly and decorously, “the fair city of Chicago” was supposed to glow for the assembled guests.
Outside, a freer stage was deployed, in Lincoln and Grand Parks, with gatherings of Hippies and peace-activists, free concerts, workshops, the promise of drugs and sex – what the Yippies termed “an alternative life-style”. MOBE’s protesters were there in force, mostly students, but what particularly goaded Mayor Daley was the Yippies. Cast in the role of the straight man by the comic genius of Rubin and Hoffman, Daley played it to the hilt. The Yippies spread the word that they were going to lace the town’s water supply with LSD – Daley sent guards to protect the reservoirs; the Yippies tossed out the offer that they would call the demonstrations off for payment of $100,000, it was publicized and denounced as blackmail. What is abundantly clear is that Daley had no sense of humour. He, backed by thousands of his fellow-citizens and millions more throughout the United States, detested these anarchic descendants of the unwashed Hippies, and Daley moved to clean them out.
What followed was captured by the cameras of the establishment media, but by independents also. From these latter, the most telling documentary of what happened in Chicago would have to be Bill Jersey’s Seasons Change (later known as America Against Itself). (The Chicago Police Riots were also well covered for Swedish Television by my dear friend Staffan Lamm.) With all the brutality they had displayed against American veterans against the war when they paraded in Chicago earlier in April, the police set out to break the protesters, quite literally. Bill Jersey and his other cameramen, in the midst of the attacks, capture the savagery of the Chicago police department. In Seasons Change, the vindictively beating police, the bloodied heads and dazed features of the demonstrators offer incontrovertible evidence: this was clearly not something that was being staged. A range of victims describe how they were punched and kicked and maced, and subjected to arbitrary arrest, followed by false police testimony when they were arraigned. The police made one great mistake: they attacked news reporters also, which naturally antagonized them. Marking their awareness of how this was playing on TV, the demonstrators took up the chant of “The whole world is watching!”
The Democratic delegates saw them being beaten at night from the windows of the Conrad Hilton Hotel where they were staying, and carried the memory into the Convention. All captured on camera, there were protests from the floor, security guards expelled delegates and hassled Dan Rather, who drew a comparison between what was going on outside and taking place inside. Mayor Daley felt control of the Convention slipping out of his grasp. When Senator Ribicoff protested against “Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago”, Daley – whose instincts were akin to those of fellow-Chicagoan Al Capone – can be seen mouthing anti-Semitic obscenities at Ribicoff. In a malapropism that might have been scripted by Rubin/Hoffman, he would defend his praetorians with the statement, “The policeman isn’t there to create disorder - the policeman is there to preserve disorder”.
In the next act, the National Guard marched into town, bayonets fixed. In a sequence that tellingly revealed the true nature of Daley’s “disorder”, Walter Cronkite showed on television a gang of gas-masked Guardsmen, screaming in near hysteria, poking grenade-launchers through a car window to force a housewife, who had innocently driven up the road they were blocking, to back up. Daley defended himself to Cronkite: “The television industry didn’t have the information I had to which those reports and intelligence on my desk that certain people planned to assassinate the three contenders for the presidency, that certain people intended to assassinate many of the leaders, including myself.” The Director of Public Information for the police department went on the offensive: “People sitting in their homes across America know it, people in taverns watching television know it, these people are revolutionaries bent on the destruction of the government of the United States of America, they’re a pitiful handful, they have almost no support, but by golly, they get the co-operation of the news media”. Attack the messenger. There was no doubt that the invocation of the conspiracy of the media was shared by many Americans. In Jersey’s documentary, a man-on-the-street opines, “I think our news media is hurting our image all over the world, it’s causing a lot of trouble because it’s so slanted”. There was a widespread awareness of the importance of television in presenting an image of the United States to the world, and a sense that this needed to be controlled. People refused to believe what they were seeing on television, or alternatively, they approved of the conduct of the cops. When a clean-cut student nurse who had been arbitrarily arrested related to her friends what had happened, they told her that “I didn’t belong down here… I should have stayed home and watched TV.” It is a revealing statement, because the people she was talking to did not want her to watch the police brutality on television, but the usual pabulum that lulled the brain. Underlying this a popular sense that the role of television is not to inform or to instruct, but to entertain.
Rubin and Hoffman sought to seize the TV screen with their brand of chutzpah, which included mocking the system and the system’s personalities. Their ingenious antics could get them flash time on the news, and they could get onto talk shows and make outrageous pronouncements. But I am doubtful that this changed the politics of many of the viewing public. They were far more effective among the young, predominantly students. After Chicago, out of Bill Jersey’s Quest Productions stable (Bill was always generous in the loan of equipment and facilities) came the group film portentously titled “The Official Statement of the YOUTH INTERNATIONAL PARTY”, which told the story of Chicago through a frenetic montage of scenes of sex and drug orgies lifted from the D.W. Griffith Intolerance intercut with Yippie activities, and presenting the Chicago police as the Keystone Cops. It is often brilliant satire, distilling the essence of Yippie high-spirited anarchism. Together with Seasons Change, it squeaked onto television, on New York’s Channel 5, an independent station. Otherwise, its distribution was mainly through Newsreel, disseminated largely to the converted. **
The one area where the anti-war message might have had a deeper effect was in the Conspiracy trial that followed a year after the Chicago events. Among the Accused were Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, and MOBE leaders Dave Dellinger, Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis – as a kind of malicious afterthought, Black Panther Bobby Seale was also indicted, although his only contribution to the Chicago protests had been a brief visit to make a speech. Unfortunately, although this was a perfect forum, there were no TV cameras allowed in the courtroom to reveal what was said, or the slow-witted incompetence of the judge, or the symbolic actions of the Accused (on one occasion, Rubin and Hoffman came to court dressed in judge’s robes; when ordered to take them off, they did so – to reveal police uniforms underneath), or the disgraceful gagging and binding of Bobby Seale when he demanded his right to free speech – none of this was caught on camera. What did get televised was interviews with Rubin and Hoffman outside the court, where their entertainment value was prized by the newsmen, to the neglect of more serious messages from the MOBE leaders. (The trial and the events that led up to it have now been documented in the excellent video released in 2008, The Chicago 10, out of Public Road Productions, which includes animation for the courtroom scenes.) After August, police violence against protesters found a response from the extremist Weathermen, who sought violent confrontation, which was duly televised. American television always has room for violence (“If it bleeds, it leads”). There were more campus protests and Black Panther activity, some of which I chased for Canadian Broadcasting’s Weekend. At the end of 1969, American television came under attack from the Nixon administration, which had a chilling effect. CBS News withheld from broadcast film of the testimony of veterans detailing American atrocities in Vietnam. (The GI anti-war movement was shown in Newsreel’s Only the Beginning at the time, and was much more fully documented in the 2007 release, Sir! No, Sir! which showed how widespread the movement was.)
Reported on television or not, seismic rumblings continued through the next few years, with literally thousands of student protests. The apex was undoubtedly the shooting of students by the National Guard during a protest demonstration at Kent State University in Ohio, which gave fresh impetus to the anti-war movement. But by the time the war ended, fatigue was taking its toll, and it was probably also weakened by the abolition of the draft. The year of Chicago was followed by the year of Woodstock, a great and greatly sentimentalized gathering of youth at the upstate New York popular music festival (about 8 miles from my house at that time). There was an unrecorded but significant incident at Woodstock, where Abbie grabbed the microphone to make a political statement at a performance by The Who, and was beaten off the platform by Pete Townshend wielding a guitar. The symbolism of the political activist being made voiceless by an icon of popular music is an almost too-rich metaphor of the preference of the masses – especially the spoiled and lumpen youth – for entertainment over politics. The moment became even more poignant when Hoffman later excused his action by saying it was the result of being high on drugs. It was probably true.
It might be a close call to say whether the Yippies’ grabbing of centre-stage was a coup that weakened the anti-war movement by drawing attention away from the moral stand of MOBE. I can only testify that to see them in action was to be made conscious of the power that they exerted over that student generation – which was, after all, seriously threatened by the war. Their style was appreciated outside the political arena - after Chicago, both Rubin and Hoffman received proposals to work in advertising. Hoffman and Rubin could choose their own platforms, and through their audacity guarantee an audience for whoever recorded them for imaging on screen. This was their strength and their weakness, because when they ceased to be amusing, or when the media tired of them, they could no longer be effective. The ending of the war deprived them of their engine. When the Feds finally grabbed Hoffman, it was not for his political activities, but the stupid and banal one of dealing drugs. He went underground for nine years. Jerry Rubin found his way to Wall Street, working in the stock exchange where 15 years before he had caused an uproar by burning money before the horror-stricken eyes of the traders. But the war was over, and that seemed to be a decisive enough victory.
In fact, the struggle for control of stages and screens had only just begun. At the beginning of this reflection, I wrote of the Vietnam era: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Or so we thought.” It was the worst of times because we were in the middle of an atrocious war. It was the best of times because in spite of the absence of a united front in the anti-war movement – a weakness made worse by the hundreds of agents provocateurs and undercover agents – there was an invigorating solidarity against the war which eventually had an impact. It was not the worst of times because there was still some access to the various screens. That would change.
After the ‘sixties and early ‘seventies, there was less and less television space for reporting of serious issues as the United States rapidly transformed itself into the first amusement society in history. News, documentaries, did not attract advertising revenue – talk shows, celebrity gossip, entertainment in all its manifestations, did. The unorthodox stages selected by the anti- war gadflies of the ‘sixties morphed into “reality” television, where the “impromptu” was in fact highly manipulated. The size of the audience became the decisive factor in programming. The thousand new channels of opportunity, so much anticipated by the independent community, simply turned out to be a thousand screens of entertainment, most of it numbingly repetitive, imitative.. Anything that seriously questioned American hegemony or infallibility came to be suppressed as too controversial, denigrated as unpatriotic. Funding for public broadcasting was cut back, and, now dependent on advertising revenue, PBS had to behave with the same deference towards the business structure as the commercial stations.
Starting after Chicago and the Vietnam War, through the gradual control of information by restricting and spinning its flow, together with the take-over of much of the media by businesses that shared a rightwing agenda, most prominently Rudolph Murdoch’s Fox Television, voices and images of dissent other than the hysterical and downright vicious Right, faded to black. At the same time, lessons from the reporting of the Vietnam War were learned by the military. Free access by reporters to combat zones, from Grenada through Panama and Gulf War I, came to be restricted, culminating finally in the invasion of Iraq where “embedded” journalists could only operate under conditions favourable to military propaganda: the military now controlled the screen. Stages in these theatres of war might give the appearance of live reportage, but they were guided by an unwritten script and unseen editors.
Eventually, control of the news by the military would also mean the deliberate targeting of reporters and organizations deemed hostile, most notoriously in the case of the attacks on Al Jazeera – bombing, killing of employees, seizing of reporters. An example of screening out “with extreme prejudice”. *** In another staging, with a propaganda brilliance not seen since the Second World War, the military co-opted the media into turning the vicious attack on Baghdad into a virtual video game, with an adolescent delight in explosions audible in the voices of the television commentators as they watched the high tech weaponry wreak its havoc. The very real actual human death and suffering were screened out.
Yet in numbers, the anti-war movement in the States was as large as in the ‘sixties, and mobilized much earlier, well before the Iraq war started. It deployed mass protests, it produced the eminently courageous Cindy Sheehan, but it has largely been denied access to the corporate media. The Iraq and Afghanistan Wars’ Winter Soldier testimony, offered in March of 2008 by veterans who had witnessed and committed atrocities there, received no screen time on the orthodox media. Many events, many stages, pre-empted screens. When you have media controlled by people like Murdoch, there is no need for the administration to exercise censorship or even to acknowledge an opposition. Denied any access to television, the banner of “speaking truth to power” would be picked up by Michael Moore, who assumed the persona of the irrepressible investigative reporter, with roots in an all-but-defunct American Left. Not as helzapoppin’ zany as Rubin and Hoffman, Moore still relies strongly on humour to get his message over: responding to the claim that the prisoners in Guantanamo had excellent health oversight, Moore’s attempt to enter Guantanamo with a group of Americans denied adequate health care at home in the United States was a brilliant coup-de-théâtre. Moore has the rare gift of creating political entertainment that actually makes money, and this earned him outlets on world cinema screens – even in the United States. His Oscar award speech was one of immense moral courage. He is a force to be reckoned with. Other documentaries and fiction films have followed, with uneven political impact, and often with the moral ambiguity of placing the plight of American servicemen at the centre of the story, and thus avoiding discussion or presentation of the civilian holocaust caused by the war.
Intriguingly, while what we thought of as mass outlets have been closed down, a new medium has opened up, in the internet. Nothing has been so damning of American SS behaviour as the photos from Abu Ghraib prison. This pornographic collection reveals hitherto bridled sadistic impulses giving free rein to a perverted creativity. The bored guards turned easily to torture, certainly encouraged by their superiors, but then they added a dimension not foreseen by these superiors - they turned this torture into a form of obscene art. They piled up bodies, twisted and mangled them, converted them into devastating images of martyrdom in an effort to create grotesque tableaux vivants.****
More – many pictures feature the sadist masters or dominatrices within the frame. They were not shy of claiming authorship, indeed, it was essential to their artistic sensibility. (These photos resemble nothing so much as photos of proud big-game hunters posing with their feet on the heads of slaughtered animals.) These trophy pictures were exchanged among friends as exhibits of clever invention. It was inevitable, in America’s image- driven culture, that they would find their way onto the internet. And eventually, their currency was too common to conceal from their very high superiors, who were thrown into a panic. For what had happened here was subversive of all the image control that they had exerted from the beginning of the invasion of Iraq. There was now this whole stratum of licensed torturers who not only enjoyed to torture (and what torturers do not?), but who invested in future vicarious enjoyment by recording what they had done. To illustrate the impact of this, let me take you back into the corridors of Abu Ghraib. Now, virtually every prison in the United States has surveillance cameras placed in strategic locations. I have no doubt that this was the case also in Abu Ghraib, in fact, I believe I can see them clearly in some of the pictures.
The purpose of these cameras is of course to record everything that is taking place before the lens in order to ensure security. So those corridors were already stages before the guards started performing their series of one-act plays. There can be no doubt that the torture that was taking place in those corridors was recorded, and it is scarcely credible that the prison authorities did not know from the cameras, if from no other source, what was happening. It has been an astonishment to me that no-one, to my knowledge, has ever mentioned their existence, or demanded to see the tapes from those cameras – which by now must have been destroyed. So what we had in the fear-stained corridors of Abu Ghraib was a double screen, a kind of play within a play: the master camera recording a wide-angle view of the Grand Guignol performances dreamt up by the S&M dramatists. These master cameras recording a non-stop unedited documentary about the making of the tableaux vivants. The surveillance cameras not merely recording, but capturing the images for those guards in the prison’s command centre who had oversight of the bank of surveillance monitors, and who constituted an unseen audience watching several screens, perhaps even with several performances going on at the same time to choose from. And then, another audience in the corridors, consisting of those other guards in place who watched the grotesque performances stage- managed by their fellow guard-dramaturges. But it didn’t end there. Those who took the carefully contrived snap-shots would then seek another audience by sending them to friends via the internet, their personal vanity only being exceeded by their stupidity. For naturally those friends would pass them on to their friends, in ever-widening circles of acquaintance, until they were available on an infinite number of screens on the vast social network.
The nefarious and secret enactments in Abu Ghraib had spun out of the careful control constructed by the CIA, the military, and the administration. These vicious mementoes sensationalized a change that had been taking place over the last decade, the passing of the recording of events from the most significant (9/11) to the most banal, into the hands of everyman and everywoman. Even if the whole world is not watching all of the time, some of the world is watching some of the time. In the rearview mirror, I can scan the past, Chicago ’68 to Abu Ghraib in the first years of this century. If you are driving, it behoves you to check your rearview mirror frequently. What is behind you is not just history, it may catch up with you, even intersect and crash into you. More chance of disaster if, as you drive, you are also operating an i-pod with its screen showing you revolution in Tunisia or just the latest downloaded movie. There is a promiscuous democratization of the medium, where every location can become an immediate stage instantly transferable to thousands of screens in a manner that seems to defy control. I can only guess at what the myriad enmeshed screens of the internet mean politically in the stage-to-screen battles of the future. But that is the inexorable road ahead.
* Despite the fact that Hoffman had studied under Marcuse.
** In correspondence, Bill Jersey writes to me: “Perhaps the worst moment was when I gave all of my tapes- from my Chicago shoot - much stuff with Abbie et al - to Doug Leiterman (who moved back to Canada) - to transfer to 16mm. His assistant put them in the recycle pile - and they all were erased. Doug and Beryl Fox his associate were deeply apologetic. But paranoia was rampant in 1968 and a number of the “collective” said it was no accident.” Of course, this would not have been done deliberately by Leiterman/Fox.
*** As I was writing, so far in 2008, 8 Iraqi newsmen have been killed, at least one claimed to have been killed by American sniper fire.
****The tableau vivant was an invention of the 19th century. It was a form of upper class entertainment, usually performed in the home by family and guests, which involved dressing up in fancy costume and posing, behind a curtain, to resemble a famous painting. The curtain would then be drawn to reveal the “living picture”, to the applause of the onlookers. There is a fascinating modern variation of this in Canadian photographer Jeff Walls’s “cinematic graphic” photographs, which “re-create” photos never taken.