AMERICAN ANARCHIST (2016) review
written by: Charlie Siskel
produced by: Charlie Siskel
directed by: Charlie Siskel
runtime: 80 min.
U.S. release date: October 15, 2016 (Chicago International Film Festival) and March 24, 2017 (limited)
“I can remember writing that and I remember thinking that is a cool turn of phrase. I was pleased with that at the time. Now I think it’s absolute rubbish, but at the time it sounded really good to me.”
William Powell seems, on the surface at least, a fascinating subject for a documentary. A cursory search of his name will reveal that he’s the author of the infamous early 70s how-to book “The Anarchist’s Cookbook,” and has since disassociated himself from the tome. This would seem an interesting subject, until you dig a bit deeper and see that Powell has more or less done a thorough job of disavowing his only printed book. In this editorial from The Guardian, Powell insists that the book’s premise is flawed and attempts to expiate himself of the numerous school shootings with which the book has been associated.
Enter documentarian Charlie Siskel (“Finding Vivian Maier”) – nephew of the late film critic Gene and a former pupil of Michael Moore – who seems intent on getting a much more earnest atonement from Powell, this time on camera. This really seems to be the only ace up his sleeve, and his constant hectoring of Powell makes up the core of “American Anarchist.” It will come as no surprise to anyone who sees this film that its director was a producer on Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine,” because it essentially takes a scene from that film and expands it to feature length.
The climax of Moore’s film finds the filmmaker paying a visit to Charlton Heston’s home and press-ganging him into an apology for, essentially, ignorance to his influence on certain kinds of people. It’s that film’s most flawed sequence, and when writ large – as it is here in “American Anarchist” – it only illuminates how that confrontational style is ineffective as cinema. Siskel remains off-camera, however, leaving the 65 year-old Powell to sweat it out under the lights as Siskel pesters him into reading inflammatory passages he wrote at age nineteen.
Things calm down a bit once Powell’s wife enters the film and becomes a voice of reason. Letting her husband have his say without Siskel trying to trap him, but also holding Powell accountable to the fact that his book has done real damage to society. She’s the only one providing any sort of balance, but even she is naturally inclined to side with her husband in certain matters. Eventually, when this relationship no longer benefits Siskel, he pushes her aside to focus back on his mark.
The film’s opening twenty or so minutes are its best, as Powell gives historical context for the conditions that led him to write the book. His stance at the time was that the government couldn’t be trusted, and they already had access to all of these various recipes – so to speak – so why shouldn’t the people?
His thoughts may have been on global benefits, but he was actually in the throes of isolationism. It’s interesting to note that Powell’s current philanthropic ventures support inclusion, a clear reversal from his isolationist standpoint earlier in his life.
Powell’s life narrative is quite an interesting subject, and shows how human beings mature with age. Powell’s youthful indiscretions, however, have had some horrific consequences on humanity. Also, despite seeming like a counterculture icon, Powell proclaims that the book has cost him more than its earned him. There’s a natural connection between Powell and J. Robert Oppenheimer, and that Guardian editorial I posted above is his “I am become death, destroyer of worlds.” It’s a real shame that this particular story runs counter to the director’s agenda.
Another credit on Charlie Siskel’s cv is producing the television program Tosh.0, where a comedian makes fun of people who did humiliating things on the internet. Not wholly unexpected from someone who thinks that shaming people on film is entertainment. Siskel might benefit from trying to place himself in his subject’s shoes, rather than sitting off camera and lobbing grenades. It could only help to make things a bit more dramatic than they are right now.