Rad, bad, & dangerous to know

Films rarely take up radical causes. The result can be a mix of Karl and Groucho Marx.

By Ty Burr, Mark Feeney, and Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / September 6, 2009

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The revolution is once more being screened. Opening Friday is Uli Edel’s critically praised “The Baader Meinhof Complex,’’ which dramatizes Germany’s violent Red Army faction of the late 1960s and ’70s.

Since the cinema is at once the most personal of art forms and a vast commercial enterprise, films about the radical left are rare and varied, from mawkish Hollywood tales to unstinting Maoist deconstructions. American filmmakers have tended to mine the era for human drama, even when dramatic engagement is beside the point. Europeans favor theory, however abstruse and humorless.

The great radical movie - one that invites us in and connects the dots - may have yet to be made, but it’s not for lack of trying. (Maybe the rarely seen “Milestones,’’ from 1975, screening at the Harvard Film Archive on Sept. 26, will be it.) Meanwhile, we rate some of the contenders; four fists is as radical as we have seen.


With these two landmark works of agit-art, Jean-Luc Godard announced that narrative was a bourgeois contrivance and the cinema a weapon of revolution. “Chinoise’’ features actors playing students discussing radical theory; it’s a great time capsule and more critical than you’d think. The masterful “Weekend’’ simply envisions the end of the Western world, snarled in an infinite traffic jam.

BANANAS (1971)

“A revolution is not a dinner party,’’ Mao Zedong famously wrote. He didn’t say anything about a laff riot, though. In “Bananas,’’ Woody Allen heads off to Latin America in romantic pursuit of Louise Lasser. Becoming involved in a local guerrilla movement, he ends up revolutionary leader of the country. Allen, with his beard and combat fatigues, could be Fidel Castro - assuming Fidel joined the Friars Club. Who needs Annie Hall when you’ve got Gus Hall?


Not a radical movie? That’s the point. When Al Pacino’s bank robber gets the crowds on his side by shouting “Attica! Attica!’’ he’s proving both how everything was political by the mid-1970s and how genuine radicalism had become co-opted by radical chic. In its backhanded way, that one scene marks the death of the ’60s.

NETWORK (1976)

Oh, the Ecumenical Liberation Army. So committed to assassinating news prophet Howard Beale (Peter Finch). So committed to negotiating a lucrative deal for its prime-time television show: “The Mao Tse-Tung Hour’’! These Black Power-ish radicals might be cutthroat negotiators, but showbiz can cheapen any cause. As the group’s no-nonsense leader, played by the great Laureen Hobbs, laments, “The Communist Party’s not going to see a nickel of this . . . until we go into syndication!’’ Word.

REDS (1981)

Easily the most problematic movie about radicals. On the one hand, there is the sweeping real-life love story of journalist John Reed (Warren Beatty) and his future wife, Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton), as the Russian Revolution swirls around them. The film’s so big-budget tame that Beatty, who also directed, screened it at the White House for an approving Ronald Reagan. On the other hand, “Reds’’ has actual, honest-to-God (oh, all right, honest-to-the-dialectic) radicals in it, like George Seldes and Scott Nearing. It’s hard to get more radical than that.


Director Paul Schrader gives us America’s Most Famous Kidnapped Heiress a.k.a Tania the urban guerrilla. The superb Natasha Richardson rides Hearst’s trajectory from a pampered Berkeley 19-year-old to a bereted bank-robbing member of the leftist Symbionese Liberation Army, the radicals who kidnapped her. It’s part black comedy about race, class, and privilege, part psychological thriller. Did she really have no idea what she was doing? Schrader unequivocally did.


Sidney Lumet’s drama, based on Naomi Foner’s Oscar-nominated screenplay, neatly captures the late-’80s take on ’60s radicals: flawed boomers led astray by their own ideals. Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti are very good as ex-campus guerrillas living underground in suburbia; River Phoenix, in one of his best mainstream roles, plays their very confused son.

PANTHER (1995)

Hot off “New Jack City’’ and his mostly-black western, “Posse,’’ Mario Van Peebles, working with dad Melvin, brought us an epic that managed to make the Black Panther Party seem like a bunch of grad students on poetry-slam night at the campus coffeehouse. It was righteous. But it was also stagy, like watching a movement’s greatest moments turned into a flashy movie of the week.


Mary Harron’s sneaky, cheeky portrait of Valerie Solanas (Lili Taylor), the Factory hanger-on who, one evening in 1968, pumped a bullet into her mentor-tormentor Andy Warhol. The movie evenhandedly views Solanas as tough, funny, insightful, and bonkers - her anger toward men fueling both homicidal rage and a guerrilla feminism that continues to echo today.


In Spike Lee’s indignant satire, the radicals in question - a nitwit hip-hop outfit called the Mau Maus - kidnap the star of an appallingly popular minstrel entertainment hour and threaten to execute him during a live webcast. They owe a small debt to the Ecumenical Liberation Army of “Network,’’ but Lee’s rendition is sad as well as harshly funny: They have no idea what they’re doing.


More irreverent lark than full-blown masterpiece, this John Waters farce gives us some deliciously bad rap and R&B numbers and a radical filmmaker whose guerrilla outfit (the Sprocket Holes) kidnaps a Hollywood star (Melanie Griffith) and, among other unprintable acts, forces her to star in their new budgetless feature. Needless to say, she comes down with an awesome case of Stockholm syndrome. You, meanwhile, might come down with a Patty Hearst flashback. Hell, Hearst might, too. She’s in the film!

CHICAGO 10 (2007)

Turning the transcripts of the landmark 1968 court case into an animated documentary reenactment may be a tad theatrical - but Abbie Hoffman would approve. Hank Azaria provides the voice of the Yippie prankster and Roy Scheider plays Judge Julius Hoffman, cluelessly turning the 10 activist defendants into counterculture martyrs. What happens to Bobby Seale (Jeffrey Wright) is still shocking to behold.

CHE (2008)

Nobody saw Steven Soderbergh’s four-hour epic. It wasn’t a biography of Che Guevara, per se, but a meticulously staged thesis about why revolutions don’t always work. Part of the reason, Soderbergh argues, is that Guevara thought of military strategies as being somewhat interchangeable. He had a one-size-fits-all attitude about revolution. And as his estate would discover in the decades since his death: That works better with T-shirts.

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