Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Charlie Siskel's AMERICAN ANARCHIST tracks the life and times of a notorious author

How bracing, how very nearly shocking it is to see a documentary these days that seems simultaneously old-fashioned (in its decision to simply sit and film its subject quietly and honestly) and somehow quite modern in the way that the filmmaker is willing to allow us to see his modus operandi so fully and thus decide for ourselves whether it is truthful to the situation at hand and fair to its subject. 

This is indeed the case with AMERICAN ANARCHIST, a new documentary directed by Charlie Siskel (shown at left, who gave us the excellent Finding Vivian Maier) about and starring a certain William Powell (not the late "Thin Man" actor), whom we meet in current times at age 65 but who, in his youth at age 19 (as shown below), wrote a book that, initially, he had a difficult time getting published. Once it was, however, sales took off and, in the nearly half-century since, the book has seldom been out of the public eye or that of our news media. That tome is The Anarchist Cookbook, which details the need for revolution and then shows you how to do it, including everything from bomb- and poison-making to the manufacture of illicit drugs. Think of it as a kind of D-I-Y guide to the violent overthrow of, well, you name it.

Conceived and written in the early 1970s during the height of the anti-Vietnam protests and soon after the vicious police/government retaliation against protesting hippies and yippies, for anyone around the 76-year-old age of TrustMovies, it will be easy to understand, even appreciate, the motivation for the writing of such a book. The results of it, however, have been and still remain something else. By now, The Anarchist Cookbook has been connected to violent mass killings everywhere from Columbine to Aurora and many more incidents nationally and internationally, as filmmaker Siskel points out again and again to Author Powell.

Siskel seems to want Powell (that's he, above, in recent times, as photographed for the documentary) to somehow "own up" more fully, as both Powell and his wife keep pointing out. And the man does "own up," but with difficulty and clearly with guilt. His deep brooding and quiet sadness is something the movie captures as well as I've ever seen in a documentary, and this is part of what makes American Anarchist, despite the movie's rather simple-minded title, such a rich and moving experience. Watching and hearing Powell as he tries to explain his actions then and his feelings now, (along with his deeper understanding of the complexities of life) proves an engrossing and transfiguring experience that alone makes the movie a must-see.

Siskel barrels right into things, seeming to begin his interview in media res, and only slowly reveals who this man is and why his story is so important. As the documentary rolls onward we get details of Powell's life as a child (below), a young man and young adult, and then even more details in his older age as a teacher and educator abroad. Powell's history leaves little room in our mind for misunderstanding how The Anarchist Cookbook came about.

We meet his current wife, who proves a thoughtful and helpful woman, and also learn quite a bit about that infamous book. Powell notes in passing that he has not re-read the book since he first wrote it, and also makes clear that he did not try out all, or even most, of the "recipes" included therein. He cribbed many of them untested from where he found them.

Siskel explores, together with Powell, the hypocrisy of the latter's receiving royalties off the publication of the book, even after such time as he publicly rejected its content (which he has done at least twice). Yet despite the damage that the book has done --  due more to those who've read and followed its dicta than to Powell himself -- its author has clearly grown and matured into a kind, loving and productive man. Even so, his authorship has followed him wherever he has gone, resulting in his being fired or asked to resign from various teaching/education jobs along the way.

What may be most impressive about this documentary, however, is the fact that Siskel allows us to see and hear his sometimes abrasive, pushy questions, along with Powell's and his wife's responses to them. The moments between the words being spoken are often as telling as what we finally hear. Whatever Siskel may feel about Powell's guilt and responsibility, he allows us to make up our own mind.

Near the film's end we learn that Powell's second work was a novel titled The First Casualty about the assassin, barely out of boyhood, whose murder of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand began World War I. At the time he wrote the novel, Powell admired this young man who had, he tells us, the courage of his convictions. The final question asked of Powell by Siskel is whether the author identifies with this assassin. Powell ponders this, but does not answer.

We can answer for him, however, and most of us will agree on No. Powell wrote a book. He did not perform the actual deeds (hell, he didn't even try the recipes). Yet experiencing this remarkable documentary brings us up close -- about as close as we've so far been taken --  to the guilt and possible redemption of another in a manner that makes it ours to wrestle with, as well.

American Anarchist -- from Gravitas Ventures and running 80 minutes -- opens this Friday, March 24, Look for it in San Francisco at the Roxie Theater, in the Los Angeles area at Laemmle's Monica Film Center, in Detroit at Cinema Detroit, in Winchester at the Alamo Drafthouse, in New York at the Cinema Village, in Santa Fe at the Jean Cocteau Cinema, in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center, in Jacksonville at the Sun-Ray Cinema, in Atlanta at the Atlanta 14, in Orlando at the Universal Cineplex 20, in Phoenix at the Arizona Center 24, in Houston at Studio 30 Houston, in Kansas City at Studio 28 KC, in Denver at Highlands Ranch 24, in Dallas at the Mesquite 30, and in Toronto at the Kingsway Theater. And if you're not near any of the above, the doc will also be simultaneously available On Demand.
One way or another, see it. 

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