Berkeley In The Sixties

[Produced and Directed by Mark Kitchell, 1990]




The Sixties Counterculture changed the landscape of American life in a dramatic rupture of the 1950s middle-class ethos. There were two historic movements that fused into the counter-cultural values that challenged the materialism of dominant society. The eruption of the Civil Rights Movement in the mid-1950s along with the rise of the New Left out of the anti-communist repression of the McCarthy Era provided the political narrative. The eruption of the psychedelic avant-garde, itself heir to a radical arts tradition in the American Left, provided the cultural narrative. Both these traditions—the radical political and avant-garde cultural—fused into the Sixties Counterculture that would lead to social movements in the coming decades—Civil Rights movements, Black Liberation, Women's Liberation, Gay Liberation, and the Environmental Movement (as overarching constructs). Numerous offshoots of specific variety and cross-pollination sprung out of this vast shift in social consciousness, such as the American Indian Movement, Black Panther Party, the Chicano Movement, food conspiracies, back-to-the-land commune movement, the personal computer movement, Bioregional movement, ecology action groups, local food (and whole food) movements, community gardens, sexual freedom leagues, feminist consciousness groups, women's (and men's) support groups, the yoga movement and spread of Eastern philosophies, anti-imperialist movements, anti-nuclear (weapons and power) campaigns, recycling programs, LGBTQI alliances and support groups, the underground press, underground film, underground bands, etc. (Not to mention all the forms of popular culture as the new fashions and tastes were inevitably co-opted by the capitalist mode.)

The film seen here encapsulates this history of fusion in the political and cultural realms. Berkeley In The Sixties tells the story of the spontaneous uprisings and revolts in early-to-late 1960s Berkeley that formed the narrative which would play out throughout American society in the coming period. It is now almost three decades since this film was produced (and 50+ years since the events depicted). As a historical document, it deserves wide recognition for its authenticity, veracity, and continuing relevance for understanding the ongoing "culture wars" that continue to be fought in the United States. It is especially relevant today, since the presidential election of 2016, for the perspective it provides looking back on a time when the Establishment (FBI, HUAC, and local police, most notably) carried out a concerted campaign to destroy the New Left and the Sixties Counterculture. The determination and spirit of those who resisted are perhaps more relevant today than in 1990.

In addition, we have a film review by that inveterate dialectician, R. G. Davis, the founder of the San Francisco Mime Troupe — one of the original seed-planting groups in the Sixties, whose offshoots inspired and fomented revolution throughout the decade. Davis is not a fan of this film, and states clearly his reasons why. It is not radical enough in his view. Perhaps, but the film should be watched without any bias in mind. Then come back and read Ronnie's critique. [—ed. 2017-02-16, updated 2018-12-21]

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A film: Berkeley In The Sixties

Produced and Directed by Mark Kitchell, 1990. Running time: 2 hr 20 min


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Film Review by R. G. Davis

[originally published in: Film Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Autumn, 1990), pp. 58-60]
Berkeley in the Sixties
Produced and directed by Mark Kitchell.
Cinematography: Stephen Lighthill.
Editor: Veronica Seiver.
Kitchell Films, 2600 Tenth Street, Berkeley, CA 94710.

As a a participant in radical work in the sixties, I found this film better than I had feared it would be. Though it is structurally a simple-minded documentary, alternating talking heads with historical news footage, it's filled with enough memories to make initially appealing sense. Only upon a second look, and a listen to the sound track, does it become clear that it is also a musically literal, cinematically linear, and timidly liberal interpretation of the sixties.

The opening section, taking us from the first protests against the House Un-American Activities Committee's visit to San Francisco through Mario Savio's famous speech during the Berkeley campus Free Speech Movement, exaggerates the role of Berkeley students in the San Francisco events; San Francisco had had a strong old left for decades, in both labor and civil rights areas, and it was these people and their children (through SF CORE) that were mainly responsible for the first auto-row and hotel-discrimination actions. The narration by Susan Griffin, with text by Griffin, Kitchell, and Steve Most, is guilty of historical hubris here.

Nonetheless, the first 25 minutes of the film makes a sound connection between the southern Civil Rights experience and the northern campus civil-liberties issues of the FSM. The climax of this liberal, pre-radical section comes after Mario Savio is seen delivering his impassioned declaration:

We don't mean to be made into any product, be they the government, industry, or organized labor. . . . There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; you can't even possibly take part, and you've got to put your bodies on the gears, upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop, and you got to indicate to the people who run it or who own it—that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.

The radical feeling of Savio's words is immediately undercut by Joan Baez's warbling of "We Shall Overcome'' as we see students lethargically walking up a staircase. Sit-in shots and demonstration shots, along with speeches by UC President Clark Kerr lead to the apex of the film's interpretation of this period: philosophy professor John Searle's recalling, "So when the faculty marched out into this cheering mob of students, we knew that that was it. We had achieved everything we had set out to achieve in FSM." To which Griffin's voice adds "Victory in our struggle for civil rights and free speech made us confident that we could change the course of history.''

From this juncture onward, the film takes as its implicit task the dissecting of the radicals, the elimination of the Communists, and the ignoring of major figures in the Berkeley and Bay Area political scene who do not fit into the neat picture of campus protest. Searle (now a dean) considers that "the radicals had no program, vision, concrete program" while Ruth Rosen (now a professor) believes "we were beyond the Cold War." A student observer named John Gage (now a corporate executive) serves as a kind of audience identification figure who felt "We were too far from the Newport Beach people I wanted to reach." By the end of the film the straight guys and gals come out ahead, all clean and tidy; there are no reds, no gays, no hippies, no freaks, no Trots. The film's timid proposition is that the system can only be fiddled with from within.

True, radical organizer Frank Bardacke is allowed some time on screen for less sanitized views, with a small assist from Jack Weinberg, but they are quickly buried under the "reasonableness" of the liberals' considered opinions. Omitted are major figures of the non-liberal left: Bettina Aptheker, influential Communist on the FSM steering committee; Bob Scheer, Vietnam War activist who ran for Congress; Ann Weils, feminist and communist, who organized troop-train stoppages; and well known figures including Michael Lerner, Jerry Rubin of the Vietnam Day Committee, Robert Hurwitt, even Ron Dellums (now Berkeley's congressman and then a radical city council member). There is no reference to the important role of KPFA-FM, which did broadcast the revolution, nor to the underground paper The Berkeley Barb, another critical institution of Berkeley in the sixties.

All of the above do not fit into the cast of scrubbed-up student activists, nor were they engaged only in civil liberties issues, and most important, none was above or beyond the Cold War. Most of the omitted figures supported the victory of the Vietcong. The ''Wild in the Streets'' activists though they could "bring the war home," and to some extent they did, but the only aspect of this that figures in the film, through Bardacke, was the attempt to close the draft board offices in neighboring Oakland.

The film's music is a further evidence of a tepid interpretation of the events chosen; it too eradicates any traces of the radical wild or chaotic in favor of a kind of liberal musical tourism. There was adventurous music in the sixties (Riley, Reich, Oliveros, Sobotnick, Sender, et al.) but all Kitchell and his academic advisors give us are sound-track pop, folk, and rock 'n' roll tunes that "illustrate" the visuals. The final lines by Griffin carry the authority of voice-over:

Having gained the freedom to see the world freshly and the ability to act for change, we carried what we learned into the rest of our lives, from personal issues to planetary concerns, we continued to explore the potential for change. And, as we watch activists for human rights and democracy around the world challenge the powers that be, we know that each generation has the chance to make change and that no generation can do it alone.

This statement, accompanied by the singing of good old safe Pete Seeger, could have been made by Jimmy Carter—or Gus Hall, for that matter, longtime head of the US Communist Party—both of whom were regarded as enemies by the New Left and by militants of every color: red (native American), black, brown, and white.

Where The Big Chill was Hollywood's corporate put-down of the rambunctious sixties, Berkeley in the Sixties is the academic liberals' interpretation without intellectual insight. (All of Kitchell's "advisors" were University of California faculty members: Leon Litwak, Todd Gitlin, Troy Duster, Ruth Rosen, Reginald Zelnick.) And while some might be thankful that they didn't try to support their simplistic sociological approach with deconstructive or semiological jargon, they could have used the more handy and historically appropriate cultural critique of the Frankfurt School (Marcuse, Adorno, Horkheimer-not to mention Leo Lowenthal, who still lives in Berkeley).

The radical objective of an historical analysis, after all, is to assess the past in order to understand successes and failures and sources of present conditions—to inform present and future actions. This film merely celebrates the very institutional and thought structures that the majority of "the movement" rebelled against. The sixties were far more disruptive than this film suggests. Not only were the students ready to break out, so were composers, painters, theater people, artists of all kinds along with young people of many colors who decided not to be tracked into jobs, home, and apple-pie roles. The period generated the women's movement, midwifery, alterative education projects, the environmental movement. Capitalism got its lumps, and the "brightest minds" were staying clear of the corporations. The rebelliousness and rejection of so many institutions and accepted rules of law and order were breathtaking and chaotic, sometimes downright messy and stupid. But it is a big mistake to elevate liberal campus civil liberties issues above resistance, bringing the war home, and other challenges to corporate society. In a country where selfishness and greed have become terminally entrenched, the sixties deserve honest remembrance as a time of mockery, love, sharing, nonconsumerism, and antiwar militancy, along with some adolescent chaos. Not an easy subject for a film, admittedly, but Berkeley in the Sixties is like a corpse on a life-support system. It's well preserved and brain dead.

R. G. Davis

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