The New Left and Me part 2

a couple of documentaries

Frank Portman
11 min readMay 7, 2019
Death the the fascist insect….

A few weeks back I posted some stuff from my old, decrepit, ruin of a blog concerning the Baader-Meinhof gang and the often subliminal — though sometimes quite unsubtle — impact of radical chic ’60s politics and terrorism on my own Bay Area upbringing. The reason for, or at least the commencement of, my interest is explained in that post. It’s something I’ve read and thought about a lot and written about here and there over the years. And since part of the raison d’être for this Medium account is to rescue and preserve some of the contents of the old, dysfunctional blog, here’s another installment, comprising ad hoc “reviews” of a couple of documentaries: Sam Green’s and Bill Siegel’s 2002 film, The Weather Underground; and Robert Stone’s 2004 documentary, Guerilla: the Taking of Patty Hearst.

As with the Baader-Meinhof post, I find that, fifteen years later, my perspective has changed slightly. For whatever reason, I no longer find it so outlandish, so mystifying and hard to fathom, why and how a cohort of smart, privileged young people might descend into madness and delusion as these people assuredly did. I say “for whatever reason” because I’m not sure I can “unpack” it without a lot more thought. One factor, though, has to be the phenomenon of our current internet, exemplified by twitter, which reveals on a daily basis how large numbers of people can descend into madness and ideological mass psychosis as a routine matter, and how they can dip in and out of it as the mood and need strikes them, being nice, reasonable people one moment and becoming monsters in the next. It’s plain to see, as through a window: how easy it is for paranoid ideological hostility to erupt into meatspace; and how it’s so commonplace for the old trope of “man’s inhumanity to man” to flare up; and how people who engage in these flare-ups can feel so cool and satisfied to be a part of such “communities.”

Whether or to what degree the twitter dynamic exacerbates or indeed causes this phenomenon, or simply reveals in sharper relief an innate characteristic of humanity heretofore less visible I cannot say. I realize now that I was writing rather naively in a comparatively “settled,” stable time and environment, or so it seemed. Delusional or not, naive or not, it was easier to view domestic political violence and the behavioral patterns underlying it as an oddity from the distant past, horrifying yet risible. Well it’s still horrifying and risible. But it no longer seems quite so distant. So it goes, I suppose.

Shifting Gears: The Weather Underground, 2002 film

I tried to practice and work out some of my keyboard parts yesterday, but I was in crash mode and really couldn’t concentrate. I knew the thing to do was relax, but I couldn’t figure out how. So I did a pretty weird thing: I went to see that Weather Underground documentary, which was playing at the cinema I pass on my way to pick up the mail in Berkeley.

What a strange, disjunctive experience. In the context of what I’ve been doing for the past couple of weeks, I mean. [This was written in the midst of recording the Yesterday Rules album in August, 2003 — ed.]

It’s a well-made documentary, though it would have been far more interesting (to me) if the film-makers had challenged the WU alumni to do a bit of self-analysis and to examine why such smart, privileged, educated people found it appropriate and ethically unobjectionable to turn to evil and terrorism, and, on occasion, blithely to contemplate and countenance mass murder; and why some of them, as it seems, still cling to shreds of these crazy ideas that they still refer to as “ideals.” (I’m referring to self-analysis beyond the “Viet Nam just drove everybody crazy” cliche that is invoked repeatedly throughout the film.) Presumably this was in the interest of neutrality, and there’s something to be said for that. Yet Todd Gitlin has some appropriately stern and challenging comments, and it would have been interesting if the documentarians had presented them to, say, Bernardine Dohrn as she strolled past her old houseboat safe house in Marin.

There’s a hint towards the end that a more confrontational approach might have yielded results, when Mark Rudd tentatively attributes his reluctance to discuss his radical activities in a personal way to his being, to a degree, ashamed of them. And to his having difficulty sorting out which elements he should and should not be ashamed of. It’s the barest allusion, but for me it was the most interesting and affecting moment in the film.

Some of these people, though, have no shame. Bernardine Dorhn and Bill Ayers are every bit as loathsome, narcissistic, arrogant and unrepentant on screen as in print. In the film’s most irritating contrivance, a smug, smirking Ayers strolls down the Chicago street that was the scene of the “Days of Rage” debacle, reminiscing about his glory days with baseball bat in hand. Nice.

Others, like Naomi Jaffe, present a more engaging, tasteful demeanor, yet still seem disinclined to consider, perhaps unable to grasp, the fact that there may be some connection between the theory and practice of random “revolutionary” violence. For Jaffe particularly, urban terrorism seems to be not so much a moral problem as a peripheral accoutrement of a wondrous, self-actualizing opportunity for personal growth: we thought a worldwide, reality-transforming revolution was happening, and we owed it to ourselves to “be a part of it.” And even though we were wrong about the revolution part, we still “got a lot out of the experience.” “I’d do it again,” she says. “If I didn’t have a baby and a family, of course.” Self-actualization takes many guises, and whether it inheres to urban terrorism or middle class motherhood is merely a matter of choice and circumstance. Such superficiality, such unreflective solipsism is the very essence of what makes “‘60s people” so profoundly irritating to all of us non-’60s people. Most of the ones you meet, however, don’t have quite so much explaining to do as these characters.

I’m pretty sure most of the folks in the theatre (around 30, which was a pretty good crowd for a 2pm matinee) found these bromides more persuasive than I did. There’s one point where Mark Rudd says that Americans are “taught from an early age” that people who commit random acts of violence against others outside of a “state-sanctioned context” are either criminals or insane. His manner and tone conveyed his belief that this, despite the inchoate misgivings mentioned above, was regrettable and unfortunate, an unjustified mis-attribution of the notion of criminality and insanity. And I heard murmers of agreement from the audience. I think I was the only one who said “well, duh!” I hope it wasn’t too audible.

[Original post is here.]


So I saw the Patty Hearst film yesterday (Guerilla: the Taking of Patty Hearst.)

It’s not really “about” Patricia Hearst, nor really even the history of the SLA, though the SLA story is sketched out. The focus is more on the times and the media and the swirl of hype surrounding the kidnapping.

The contemporary footage, much of which has apparently never been shown before, is stunning. Viewing it was an odd experience for me. This story was my first-ever news/media obsession, when I was a little kid. (The Zodiac killer and the Manson Family also had a pull, but I was too young to follow those deliberately as they happened.) Seeing it all played back on a big screen, 30 years later, felt very strange indeed. For some reason, the images of the Chronicle headlines and articles, many of which I had clipped and saved in a scrap book as a kid, were as arresting as the film footage. Quite apart from the content or “message” of the movie, I was mesmerized by the sensory experience. I remember trying to find Symbionia (?) in the encyclopedia and in the atlas, realizing it wasn’t a real place, and thinking that it was the sort of thing that little kids might make up and saying to myself “wow, these people are crazy.” I suspect that was quite a common Bay Area experience for people of my generation.

It is interesting to compare this film to last year’s Weather Underground documentary, which I wrote about here.

Like the directors of the WU film, the director of Guerilla stands back from his subjects and lets them tell their own stories. His presence is barely felt. There are two lengthy interviews with SLA alumni running throughout the film. These guys, like many of the Weather People in the other film, stumble clumsily in one case, glibly in the other, through the events, with the customary rather desperate-sounding appeal to their generation’s vaunted “idealism” and distaste for the Vietnam war that is thought to exculpate, or at least to mitigate, even the most inane and horrifying notions and actions. But it isn’t the content per se of the interviews with the SLA alumni that is so fascinating. Rather, it’s their mere presence. The director simply displays them, juxtaposing the display with actualities that are variously grim, insane, comical, appalling, absurd. The result is a silent, fairly devastating irony that builds slowly and exponentially. It is quite a powerful technique, and, I think, the appropriate one.

Russell Little, an early SLA member who was convicted of the Marcus Foster murder and later acquitted on retrial, was more or less a spectator to the Hearst affair, observing the unfolding developments from his prison cell. He speaks almost as a fellow voyeur, as one of “us” rather than as one of the participants. Every time he appeared on the screen, I couldn’t help thinking: that guy is lucky he was caught before he had a chance to participate in any further “actions”. He would most likely have gone on to perish in the LA fire-shootout if he hadn’t been in custody. (The SLA had naively imagined some kind of prisoner exchange — that was supposedly one of the motivations for kidnapping Hearst in the first place.)

Little is a more or less engaging personality, and seems marginally less dim-witted than the other one, Michael Bortin. Still, while I shared Little’s astonishment at the breath-taking idiocy and pointlessness of his comrades’ activities, in the end I found the jovial lack of seriousness or regret just a bit unseemly, coming from an actual participant. Yes, they were young and their “idealism” was in the end not all it was cracked up to be, they were swept up with the “spirit of the times” and so forth. That explains the mustache, maybe. It’s a poor excuse for murder, though.

Bortin, interviewed before his guilty plea in the Myrna Opsahl case, maintains the pretense of innocence, saying, ludicrously, at one point “I don’t know if Emily or Patty or Kathy was involved” in the shooting and adding that he wouldn’t be surprised if they’re lying, since they’ve been spreading lies about him all along. The film’s epilogue, featuring footage of Bortin’s final hedging apology for the “accident” in court, is perhaps the crowning irony.

In his interview, he blames everything on dad and Nixon, too. His participation beyond just being Idealistic he regards as largely accidental. When Patty Hearst and the Harrises arrived in Berkeley seeking help after the LA shoot-out, he says, there were around 200 sympathetic doors they could have knocked on — it just happened that they knocked on his. He says he wasn’t impressed with their intelligence, and that they didn’t have a “fingernail’s worth of charisma between them.” Nevertheless, he decided to join them and become a pseudo-political terrorist himself, because, you know, opportunity had knocked. (He may have been new to the SLA, but he was in fact no terrorist ingenue: he had already served jail time in connection with a foiled plot by the “Revolutionary Army” to blow up UC Berkeley campus buildings — the evidence collected from the Berkeley garage where he and his associates were caught also included detailed plans for the kidnapping and assassination of Robert McNamara.)

Bortin, Bill Harris, Kathy Soliah, Emily Harris

It all boils down to a notably slow-witted iteration of one of his generation’s favorite arguments: hey, you had to be there.

The directorial detachment in the Weather Underground film goes much further, in that the film allows the self-justifications of those participants who wish to exculpate themselves to stand as they are without even a subtle comment. It was an effective technique as well, though much of the irony had to be supplied from information not included in the film. The contrast between the WU alumni and their varying accounts is certainly fascinating, and editorial comment might have diluted it. Still, no effort is made to burst the Big Chill bubble among those who wished to keep it alive (Ayers, Dohrn, Jaffe), not even just a little, which is in the end a bit frustrating. Watching Guerilla, you really realize how much the WU film left out. What I’m getting at is, I’d love to see the Guerilla guy do a Weather Underground documentary. I think his is the better approach.

There seems to be a general sense, among sixties people and their partisans and among counter-culture romanticizers in general, that the SLA is a different sort of animal than the Weather Underground. In fact, sometimes the criticism of the SLA, which can be quite scathing and relentless even from those who profess to see merit in the whole hippie revolutionary “trip”, seems on some level to be motivated by a desire to cast the WU as a “better class” of ‘60s terrorist. I’m no expert by any means, but I have done a lot of reading on the subject and lived through a bit of the aftermath in one of its hotbeds, and it seems to me that the similarities between the three major American 60s-terrorist-cult groups (the Manson Family, The Weather Underground, and the SLA) are more impressive than their differences. For some reason, in some quarters, the WU get credit for being more legitimately “political,” even though their “political” rhetoric made no more sense than that of the SLA, and their actions were every bit as pointless. Of the three groups, the Weather Underground is the only one to have explicitly and unreservedly endorsed and supported the other two. The attempt to deny this kinship is rather fascinating in its own right.

What strange times they were, though. The film includes the footage of Kathy Soliah’s speech at “Ho Chi Minh Park” — now known as People’s Park, a Berkeley institution — in which she, looking and sounding a bit like Bernardine Dohrn, excoriates the “pigs” and salutes the SLA’s armed struggle. As she finishes, a voice is heard to exclaim: “right on!” Heavy.

Anyway, Guerilla is a mesmerizing, engrossing experience. Great movie.

[Original post is here.]