Monday, October 26, 2009

Universal Disturber

[Because this documentary on William Kunstler will begin its theatrical run with openings in fourteen cities next month, I'm moving this post up from this summer.]

Since about 1960, I have spent a portion of every summer in the Grand Traverse Bay region of Northern Michigan. To the usual fare of beaches and cherry products was added five years ago an annual film festival, founded and still propelled quite vigorously along by the documentarian Michael Moore. “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe,” will not, I’m afraid, be my most memorable moment from this year’s festival. That honor will doubtless go to yesterday’s midnight screening of “Dead Snow.” (Official motto: “If You’re Going to See Only One Norwegian Nazi-Zombie Movie This Year, Why Not Make It ‘Dead Snow’?”) Still, the documentary of one of America’s most famous radical lawyers, directed by Sarah and Emily Kunstler, his two daughters from his second marriage, is well worth seeing during its theatrical release this fall or on PBS’s “POV” next year. For anyone like me, who has only seen iconic, shaggy haired images of the man, the home movies of a close-cropped Kunstler, clowning for the camera like any other suburban Dad, is worth the price of admission. I suspect even those who followed his career more closely would find revelations in the footage from inside Attica, the dramatically abrupt conclusion of one of his jury summations, or his dispassionate analysis of the ideological power of the word “legal,” from one of his public addresses.

For all the film’s strengths, it left me with more questions than answers about Kunstler’s radicalization. After the showing, Emily Kunstler spoke of radicalization, with reference to two lesser figures in the film, a juror from Chicago Seven trial and a prison guard grievously wounded at Attica, as a discrete and almost inelastic event: the undeniable reality of an injustice suddenly confronts a person at rest, who then careens in a radical direction. My recollection of the film–I attended without intent to blog and did not take notes–was that the film made much the same claim for Kunstler himself, with the moment of impact being the binding and gagging of Bobbie Seale in the Chicago Seven trial. I don’t doubt that Kunstler experienced it as a visceral revelation of the potential and the danger of treating the criminal justice system as political theatre and that his lawyering changed accordingly. But Kunstler himself elsewhere described his transformation “from a liberal into a radical” as a more extended process from the 1960s into the 1970s. What’s more, the film presents tantalizing suggestions that the young Kunstler had an emotional preexisting condition that would make radicalism, as practiced by the student left, irresistible. His love of poetry and a war story related in the film suggest a person who could not abide a prosaic life. The youth movement’s shattering of social conventions must have attracted him at least as much as the legal claims the activists generated. The Kunstler sisters do not hide this side of their father: to the contrary, they share with us their father’s awkward attempt to impress the woman who would become their mother by boasting of a quite unimpressive countercultural exploit. Admittedly, it’s difficult terrain for offspring to negotiate, but a fuller view of the emotional roots of Kunstler’s “greening” would help convey to a new generation why he was such a compelling--and disturbing--figure in American legal history.