Lost in the Movies: The Weather Underground

The Weather Underground

"You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows."
-Bob Dylan, "Subterranean Homesick Blues"

"We're against everything that's 'good and decent' in honky America. We will burn and loot and destroy. We are the incubation of your mother's nightmare."
-"J.J.", member of the Weather Underground, as relayed in The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage

"Dig it! First they killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them, then they even shoved a fork into the victim's stomach. Wild!"
-Bernardine Dohrn, member of Weather Underground, wife of Bill Ayers, on the Charles Manson murders

"They knew they were crazy...Terry [Robbins] and Billy [Ayers] had this Butch Cassidy and Sundance attitude-they were blessed, they were hexed, they would die young, they would live forever, and at their most triumphant moment they would look over their shoulders, as Butch and Sundance looked back at their implacable pursuers, and say more in admiration than in dread, 'Who are those guys?' I believe they thought they looked cute, and that everybody would know it was basically a joke. The next minute, they were lost in it and couldn't get out."
-Carl Oglesby

"You don't need a proctologist to know who the assholes are."
-Popular saying amongst Students for a Democratic Society

Ah, the Weathermen. Who'da thunk we'd still be talking about them in a 2008 presidential election? But thanks to Bill Ayers, once a member of the defunct left-wing terrorist group, now a Chicago education reformer who has crossed paths with Barack Obama, the only domestic terrorist group to take its name from a Top 5 hit on the Billboard charts has become a household name again. The Weather Underground, an excellent 2002 documentary, is a decent starting point for anyone curious about the group; though somewhat sympathetic to the radicals (you won't find that Manson quote anywhere in the film) the upshot is that it solicits interviews from many of the Weather big shots. This offers a look into the group and its history which veers from funny to scary to pathetic, but is never less than fascinating.

Indeed, the possibilities for compelling stories in this material are endless. The film begins by thrusting us into the midst of late-sixties tumult. The Vietnam War has been raging for years, the nonviolent civil rights movement has given way to black militancy, and the student Left - at the height of its power - splits into different factions. One of the most notorious is the Weathermen, and at first they seem to be something of a joke, striking the Marxist-Leninist pose half-ironically as if they can't quite convince themselves that privileged white students are somehow equivalent to Vietnamese guerrillas. They declare a desire to "bring the war home" but while Asian hamlets are being napalmed, they hold orgies in order to "smash monogamy" and destroy any last semblance of bourgeois conservatism.

At what point does the self-indulgent revolutionary play-acting become real? The exact turning point is hard to determine, but by early 1970 at least one faction of the Weathermen was building bombs with the intention of killing people. A crossed wire prevented what would have been the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil (the bomb, studded with nails, was intended for a dance at Fort Dix) and the Greenwich Village townhouse went up in smoke, along with three Weatherpeople. As former SDS president Todd Gitlin (who also appears in the film, comparing the WU to Hitler, Stalin, and Mao) mercilessly puts it in his book: "The best to be said for the Weathermen is that for all their rants and bombs, in eleven years underground they killed nobody but themselves."

It was actually after the townhouse explosion that the group officially went underground, declaring that they would go out of their way to destroy only property, not people, from now on. Throughout the early seventies they planted bombs, including in the Capitol and the Pentagon, sent out manifestos, and even sprang Timothy Leary from prison. In 1976 they showed up in an Emile de Antonio-Haskell Wexler film, Underground, which is depressing to watch now. With the camera shooting the back of their head, they drone monotonously about how the revolution is closer than ever, sounding bored with their own ideas. One by one, they re-emerged into a changed world, and the footage of Bernardine Dohrn emerging in 1980, shot on video with everyone dressed in early 80s fashion, has the shocking quality of Rip Van Winkle.

This vibe was cultivated in the excellent 1988 Sidney Lumet film Running on Empty, about a family that is still in hiding 20 years after a botched bombing left a man blind. Though the movie ups the ante on the violence its protagonists had committed, it also portrays them as liberal humanists and loving parents. What's missing is the obvious fanaticism of the Weather Underground, their love of abstract theories and militant slogans and revolutionary stardom. Also missing is the cold, almost zombielike trance they eventually slumped into, evidenced in Underground...it's hard to shake the impression that if most of these radicals had ever attained power they wouldn't have been planting flowers and humanizing communities but rather sending their enemies into gulags or re-education camps (or worse). But that may give them too much credit; as they swing from one emotional extreme to another, they hardly seem to know where the hell they're headed. One Black Panther, regarding their buffoonish random violence with disbelief, berates their organization as "Custeristic."

All this makes for a great story, with swings from romantic revolutionary fervor to choking paranoia to that cold, empty morning when unemployed college graduates realize that a decade has passed them by and they are sitting on a park bench, pretending to be revolutionaries and getting absolutely nothing done. There's something humorous in this realization and at times The Weather Underground suggests a sublime black, and bleak, comedy. Sometimes the humor is broad parody - when one Weatherwoman whines about cutting her hair after her comrades had just blown themselves up in a botched bombing, you can't believe your ears. At other times we approach sharp satire - some of the slogans have to be heard to be believed and the image of wimpy white college students psyching themselves up to be street fighters is priceless. And occasionally the humor has a poignant edge (Mark Rudd emerges from hiding and his father says, "he's 30 now, too old to be a revolutionary.")

There was always an incredible tension in the countercultural left, exacerbated in the Weather Underground, between the sense of personal liberation and political duty. To what extent was the revolution a pose, a game that a bunch of privileged romantics were playing until the rules evaporated and as Oglesby says, "they couldn't get out"? The film does a good job showing the serious context of the times, including the shocking brutality of Vietnam, and the crippling sense of shame that one's own country was responsible for this brutality; also the violence unleashed on black Americans, and the guilt of white middle-class kids who realized that they could never, ever experience the same share of desperation. But, scored as it is with Aphex Twin electronica, The Weather Underground doesn't quite capture the joyousness of that time, of what it must have been like to be young and feel that the world was transforming around you, crystallized in rock 'n' roll and a youth culture which made the transition from teenage rebellion to political revolution seem like a natural progression. Many of the Weathermen saw themselves as rock stars, and the film touches on this when Todd Gitlin notes the Bonnie and Clyde vibe that some of the revolutionaries cultivated.

As a result, intoxicating experiments with drugs and sex were all wound up with street violence and the romance of the doomed outlaw. There's a mystical aspect to all of this - as ludicrous as it sounds, the recollection of a car barrelling down a highway while tripping radicals conducted an orgy within is oddly captivating. One can see how impossible it may have been to separate the fun from the serious, the excitement from the responsibility - there's the sense that the radicals themselves were never really sure where one stopped and the other began. An antecedent to their confusion is Godard's great La Chinoise, a vibrant piece of Pop Art in which the Mao-spouting student revolutionaries play-act at revolution and then seem to regard their own violent actions with disbelief. Revolution as performance art, or vice-versa, I suppose, but the charm ends where the damage begins.

Had another bomb detonated at the wrong time, had someone not received the message to evacuate a building, there could easily have been more victims of Weather violence. And meanwhile, what did their bombing achieve? If anything it furthered the dissolution of a viable antiwar movement, encouraged the government to crack down on the Left, and soured public opinion against "those radicals." Some of the Weather veterans realize this, and their recollections drip with regret. Mark Rudd, now a math teacher at a community college, admits that he feels more confused than anything else when looking back on those years. He's ashamed that he succumbed to violence, but remembers the rage that drove him and the knowledge that something terrible was going on in the world, and acknowledges that he still doesn't know what to do with that.

Ayers, Dohrn, and most of the others come off as unregretful. Some of them have gone on to professional success in academic circles, and still spout leftist rhetoric while leading comfortable bourgeois lives. Others speak nostalgically of the past and seem to regard it as a big fun adventure. Probably the most likable interviewee is Brian Flanagan, a New York City bar owner who seems remarkably unlike the typical Ayers-type aging leftie, and more like the working-class guys that the Weather Underground initially sought support from. Flanagan acknowledges that "the war made us crazy" and regretfully speaks of how one can do terrible things when one thinks one is in the right. When asked why he left the organization, he shrugs and says "it wasn't fun anymore" and that he missed his girlfriend. After all the grandiose glorification, the honesty is refreshing.

Brian Flannagan is also present in one of the many surreal passages in the film: a clip from his appearance on "Jeopardy." To these bizarre mixtures of pop culture, outsider politics, and political reality, one can now add the cast of "Saturday Night Live" dancing with Eskimos and a man in a giant moose costume while the vice presidential nominee raises the roof to shouts of, "You say Obama, I say Ayers! Obama! Ayers! Obama! Ayers!"

It's a crazy world we live in, no?

UPDATE (11/14): Not sure if anyone's still reading this post, but since the picture's on the sidebar now it's a possibility. I'd just like to point you to this fascinating article from Chicago Magazine. It's about a physical altercation between Flanagan and a Chicago lawyer during the Days of Rage which left the lawyer crippled for life and Flannagan charged with attempted murder (he was acquitted). It briefly mentions Ayers near the end.

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