Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Steal this movie!

Abbie Hoffman visiting the University of Oklahoma to protest the Vietnam War, c.1969. Photo by Richard O. Barry. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
In 1971 Abbie Hoffman published a guide, full of Hoffman's puckish wit and wickedly illustrated by R. Crumb, for people who wanted to live for free and to resist and subvert the cultural, educational, and military-industrial machinery in the US that was producing the war in Vietnam. "Steal This Book," as Hoffman wrote in the book's introduction, "is, in a way, a manual of survival in the prison that is Amerika." Those involved knew what to do because they were part of the organization leading the act-up style resistance movement. But not everyone could stand at the beating heart of the movement. For those who couldn't, Hoffman wrote a book, and his first piece of advice was embodied in its title: STEAL THIS BOOK.

Last night I watched a movie inspired by Hoffman's book. The movie successfully dodges the problem of how-to books made into films. In 1969 the book EVERYTHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX (but were afraid to ask) came out. The book was a candid FAQ on human sexuality in a time when American culture was just beginning to acknowledge openly that human sexuality existed.
The book contains hundreds of questions and answers on every conceivable aspect of human sexuality. Woody Allen bought the rights and made a movie containing not so much the book as the popular and provocative title. and he riffed off only a few questions in the comprehensive FAQ. The result frames a hilarious series of satirical sketches in a movie that was even more successful than the best-selling book.

The film STEAL THIS MOVIE! uses a similar technique to Allen's. Although the book captures Hoffman's puckish voice and humor, a movie centered on the how-to of the book would have had cut-and-dried didactic feeling of a high school indoctrination flick. Instead, the story focuses on Hoffman's gritty life as an organizer, trickster, and a mocker of the sanctimonious and pompous people who exploited his generation to fight a shameful war in Vietnam.


Hoffman is well known as a co-founder of the Yippies, who used creative guerrilla theater to encourage people to question the authoritarian grip that led the US into a war in Vietnam. (Hoffman and other anti-war protestors were intuitively right about the egregious nature of the Vietnam war, though it was not yet known that it was obscenely risking boys' lives to protect the American heroin supply, a fact that still needs to be discussed even more than Hillary Clinton's email.) In 1968 the Yippies went to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago to hold a festival that would provide a kind of karmic counterbalance to "the Convention of Death" inside the International Ampitheater. Although the Yippies had planned a peaceful festival of theater and music, Mayor Richard Daley feared they would disrupt the war mongering in the hall, so he sent his police force in riot gear to gas and club the Yippies in their heads. Prominent participants in the ensuing riots, including Hoffman, were arrested for crossing state lines to incite rioting, and this group became known as the Chicago Eight then the Chicago Seven as Bobby Seale was separated to be tried separately. The Chicago Seven mocked the judicial farce in the courtroom, spawned excellent journalistic appeal. The trial received national coverage, often on the front pages of major newspapers. The defendants were found guilty, but the verdict was successfully appealed.

"Hoffman was arrested August 28, 1973 on drug charges for intent to sell and distribute cocaine. He always maintained that undercover police agents entrapped him into a drug deal and planted suitcases of cocaine in his office. In the spring of 1974, Hoffman skipped bail, underwent cosmetic surgery to alter his appearance, and hid from authorities for several years, abandoning his family in the process" (Wikipedia). Hoffman lived as Barry Freed in a private resort along the St Lawrence River, for which, despite his low profile, he campaigned to keep clean. After seven years on the lam, exhausted by paranoia and maintaining a cover, Hoffman turned himself in but received only a year's sentence, of which he had to serve only four months.

STEAL THIS BOOK was probably the only best seller not to make a profit because most people did indeed steal this book. Bookstores often refused to carry it, but it nevertheless became a cult classic. The movie is available on Amazon Prime for a few bucks, so last night I checked out the trailer. Sometimes Amazon's movies don't have proper trailers, so instead they show two or three minutes from the movie. The trailer started at the beginning of the movie with the production company logo, the actors' credits, crew credits, right down to the director. Then came the whole movie. This "preview" included the whole movie at no charge. Now I realize few people are so fastidiously honest that they would stop watching after three minutes and refuse to take advantage of the malfunctioning machinery of on-demand trailer watching. But oh gentle reader, I did not stop. I did not even hesitate. I stole this movie. (Hint: if you look carefully in a common way, you might find a way to steal this book even now.)