Movie Review By Casey McCabe
The trick to analyzing the 1960s — a task Baby Boomer America never seems to tire of — starts with the simple observation that the decade encompassed 10 years. A time that stretched ironically enough from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Richard M. Nixon. That collage we all have in our heads (twirling hippies, napalmed jungles, chaos in the streets) inevitably accompanied by Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth," is pop culture shorthand. The time capsule images that say so much more than words.
Then again, sometimes they don't. Sometimes they miss the whole point. And that's the basic premise of the new documentary "Rebels With a Cause." In this revisiting of the well-prodded decade, filmmaker Helen Garvy has chosen to follow the straight and narrow, adjectives that rarely describe the Sixties. Narrow, in that the story focuses exclusively on the role the Students for a Democratic Society played in the unfolding drama. Straight, in that Garvy believes the firsthand witnesses can speak perfectly well for themselves, which her 28 interview subjects do for most of the film's 110 minutes.
"Rebels With a Cause" is highly personal project. Garvy herself is a former SDS member who briefly appears on her own camera and literally provides her own narrative voice. Objectivity, she seems to suggest, is overrated. This is clearly a documentary with an agenda. But as oral histories go the film is invaluable. And in its slow, deliberate way it also grows on you. Garvy's interview subjects include such figureheads as Tom Hayden, Todd Gitlin, Bernadine Dorhn, Carolyn Craven and a slew of equally engaging and articulate SDS veterans. Garvy interweaves their recall of events in a linear history the SDS; from a small but audacious group of students enlisting in the fight for civil rights, to the grassroots political wildfire they sparked, to the overwhelming influence of the Vietnam War, and finally to the friction, factionalism and frustration that led to the disbanding of the SDS before the decade was even over.
And here Garvy and her subjects face the most daunting of post-Sixties questions: what's the legacy? Garvy may have stacked her court. It's worth noting that her subjects, now approaching their own sixties, look great. I mean really stunningly good. Without benefit of makeup and diffused lighting, they may be the most healthy looking group of late middle aged individuals on screen today. And as Garvy reveals in an epilogue, these particular children of the Sixties remain socially active today. What's equally hard to ignore is that much of what seemed dangerously rebellious in 1962 has been absorbed in today's political mainstream. For what it's worth, that's a legacy most of us can live with.
© 2000 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 11/22/00
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