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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

DVD Review: Berkeley In The Sixties

I’ve been fascinated by the 1960s since I was in my early teens. First, admittedly, it was the music, particularly the San Francisco bands and the British invasion. And then I became interested in some of the politics. (I’m truly happy to have been born in the same city as Abbie Hoffman.)  I’ve seen many documentaries about the 1960s, and have read extensively about the period, sucking up as much information as I could. And yet Mark Kitchell’s Berkeley In The Sixties presents a lot of footage I’d never seen before.

The documentary opens with a bang. It opens with footage from a demonstration in May of 1960, with the police turning the hoses on the protestors and dragging them down flights of stairs, all to the sound of Little Richard’s “Keep A Knockin’.” The demonstration was a protest against the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the film gives us footage inside the hearing where one witness says to the committee, “If you think I’ll cooperate with you in any way, you are insane.” How wonderful is that?

John Searle, one of the demonstrators, says (in one of the film’s many interviews): “Now the whole thing might have died down except for the fact that the committee made a film.” This was something of which I was unaware. And this documentary shows us a bit of the film, Operation Abolition, which I’d never seen. That film worked against the committee’s wishes and intentions, and actually radicalized many people, who then went to Berkeley.

And that’s the documentary’s opening. Just in those opening moments I’d seen new footage and learned a few new things about the 1960s, which of course set my expectations very high for the rest of the film. And those expectations were met.

The film documents the protest movements at the University of California at Berkeley, including the civil rights movement, the freedom Of speech movement, the anti-war movement, and the women’s liberation movement, and does an excellent job of showing how they were all related.

There are many interviews with those that were involved, including Susan Griffin (a SLATE member), Mike Miller (founder of SLATE), Michael Rossman, Jack Weinberg, Jackie Goldberg and Bobby Seale. What’s wonderful is that the film includes footage of these folks from the 1960s. For example, we see footage of Jack Weinberg in 1964 in the back of a police car, while demonstrators surrounded the car so it couldn’t leave. That’s actually some amazing footage, with a microphone set up on top of the police car so that people could address the crowd. Jack says he ended up sitting in that police car for thirty-two hours. We also see footage of Jackie Goldberg being interviewed in 1964 regarding the Free Speech Movement.

Again, as interesting as the interviews are, it’s often the archival footage that makes this documentary so strong. There is footage of that bastard Ronald Reagan attacking the Berkeley movement when running for Governor of California. There is some strange footage on a bus tour through San Francisco, with the bus driver reading from a script while driving. Geez, that’s a bit dangerous, as he points out the hippies. There is some great footage of the Grateful Dead performing “Viola Lee Blues” (I’m a huge fan of their music, so I particularly appreciated this scene).

The footage outside the induction center is incredible, and includes some stuff I’d never seen before. Also incredible is the footage of the helicopter spraying a peaceful demonstration while the cops (in gas masks) don’t allow the protestors to leave. That is some of the most angering and disturbing footage I’ve seen, and once again, it’s footage I had not seen before. What’s great is that this documentary doesn’t give just brief snippets, but allows the footage to play for a while. One of the protestors expresses the impotence they felt: “I don’t think we stopped one inductee…I don’t think we made one bit of difference that day.”

And that’s another thing I really appreciate about this film – the candidness of those interviewed about their own shortcomings and those of the various movements. The film celebrates the victories, but gives a more rounded and honest account.

Special Features

The DVD contains a lot of great bonus material. First, there is a lot of archival footage, labeled “Archival Gems.” These are unedited archival clips that were not used in the film. Each clip is preceded by a short description. Most of this stuff is great, including a shot during the Free Speech Movement Victory Celebration that is actually really funny. There is a shot of a Hells Angels press conference, in which Sonny Barger speaks against the anti-war demonstrators and confuses “guerrilla” and “gorilla.” I love the shot of Ken Kesey being interviewed at the entrance to the bus, Furthur. The bit with Robert Mitchum surprised me, as I never knew he was insane. He says, “If they don’t learn, kill ‘em. If they won’t be peaceful, kill ‘em.” Holy moly. The bit with Ronald Reagan didn’t surprise me at all, as the more I learn about him, the more I understand he was completely despicable, through and through.

The special features also include several deleted scenes, including more with that bastard Ronald Reagan who says in a speech, “They are a small minority of beatniks, radicals, and filthy speech advocates have brought shame on a great university.” He then goes on to rail against a dance and rock and roll and so on. It’s weird. The deleted scenes also include more from the interview with Bobby Seale, who talks about how they chose the name Black Panthers. And there is more footage from Chicago, 1968, including some news footage I’d never seen before. The deleted scenes also include the film’s original ending.

There is also a photo gallery, as well as the original theatrical trailer.

Berkeley In The Sixties was directed by Mark Kitchell, who more recently directed a documentary on the history of the environmental movement, titled A Fierce Green Fire  (which has also been released on DVD through First Run Features). Berkeley In The Sixties was released in 1990, and released on DVD in December of 2002.

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