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Herbert Marcuse's 3-Dimensional Hippopotamus: An Interiew with Documentary Filmmaker Alexander Juutilainen

Alexander Juutilainen is the producer/director of the acclaimed documentary Herbert’s Hippopotamus. This video told the story of Herbert Marcuse’s role in student activism while a Professor at the University of California, San Diego and the virulent response of California politicians and residents. Juutilainen was born in Finland and is of Finnish and Greek/Macedonian descent. He grew up primarily in Denmark and moved to San Diego in 1992 where he began the project on Marcuse.

At a time when the fear and turmoil found in the U.S. is perhaps greater than it has been since the 1960s and equally full of contradictions–continuing fear of terrorism, patriotism fostering a lust for war, collapsing trust in corporate accounting–it seems appropriate to reflect on the role of academics in social protest. Or maybe more important, what are the limits of their role? Can they only follow along while a movement takes place outside their reach? Does the University campus remain an important center of social activism? These are some of the questions that framed the interview that follows.

Gabriel Noah Brahm & Paul Mason Fotsch: Many people who see Herbert’s Hippopotamus ask why you did not include interviews with other friends, activists and philosophers who knew Marcuse. How did you decide who was relevant to interview or include in the film?

Alexander Juutilainen: It is most often a mixture of the story you choose to tell and your resources. Since I chose to have Marcuse’s philosophy and life be exemplified by the political turmoil generated by his presence at the University of California and amid the socio-economic landscape of San Diego and Southern California, it obviously made some people more relevant to my story than others.

You also have to remember that this documentary was made on a shoestring budget. It was made with the support and help from many people and sponsors and on a budget that was under a fourth of what such a documentary for broadcast normally would cost. Making a documentary is a very practical undertaking and in many ways closer to making sculpture or carpentry. Even if a specific person or some footage may be relevant and interesting for your piece, the question is always if you can afford to conduct such an interview or afford to license the specific material. As I began doing research, a majority of archival footage I managed to uncover was from the years 1968 to 1971. The footage was very interesting, it was donated to the project, and nobody had seen it for 30 years. Finding this resource naturally influenced who I would interview.

I wish that I had had the funds or resources to interview people such as Jürgen Habermas, who visited Marcuse in San Diego, or Leo Lowenthal. There is also some interesting footage of Marcuse with Stokely Carmichael and Angela Davis from the Dialectics of Liberation conference in London from 1967. I know it exists. I know it’s interesting. But, then you ask yourself why do I want to show Marcuse in London during the documentary? Is this event central to your story? Even if it is, how much trouble and expense do you want to put into getting it? These dilemmas are much more true for an independent filmmaker than a huge television station.

GNB/PMF: Given that you made the documentary independently, how long did it take?

AJ: On and off, working occasionally on other jobs, about five years.

GNB/PMF: What inspired you to make a film about Marcuse in the first place?

AJ: Marcuse is commonly regarded as one of the major philosophers and influential social critics of the Twentieth Century. I had come across his writings in Europe as a student of philosophy and also later during my studies in Modern Culture and Communication Arts. Actually, the fact that Marcuse had been teaching at UC, San Diego was one of the few things I knew about the University before I arrived in San Diego in the early 1990s, and I therefore expected some sort of recognition at the place. But after my arrival, I noticed a peculiar absence and lack of any trace and was instead faced with numerous and often, I realize now, completely fabricated stories about Marcuse and student protests, Ronald Reagan’s attempt to fire him, Angela Davis, the American Legion, etc. I felt that something truly traumatic had happened to the institution called the University of California, and I decided to explore it further. So, the project slowly grew in dimensions and scope.

A major turning point was the archival research I undertook. I knew that the media had covered the events surrounding Marcuse. But the question was, did the clips still exist? And if they did, where were they? I was fortunate because newsreels were still shot on 16mm film in the late 60s. If these events had happened some years later, they would have been shot on videotape and most likely recorded over or lost today. This doesn’t mean the research was an easy process. I remember a specific archive bringing me the newsreels from the year 1968. They rolled in 30 boxes, each box containing 200-300 rolls of film, the clips randomly tossed into the box, not cataloged, and often without even a clip name. It took some assistants and me over two months to view, clean, repair, catalog, and transfer the material. The lucky outcome was that much of the footage was donated to the documentary in exchange for my restoration work. So, after going through the same procedure in different archives and tracking down people involved in the whole ordeal, I ended up with over 50 hours of newsreels, interviews, stills, and audiotape.

The question was now which story to tell about Marcuse. I could have told many stories, but I thought the material leaned towards focusing specifically on his life in San Diego. I found it both intriguing and ironic that he spent his later years in San Diego, California – a town and a state that in many ways exactly stood for the things he had criticized so intensely. San Diego was in the late 60s a booming Southern Californian community, a conservative and affluent suburban society centered around a navy base where the prosperity was largely based on the military industry. San Diego became the metaphor for the paradise of the postwar consumer society. I thought it would be interesting to see what had happened when a person such as Marcuse plunged into this community teaching students critical theory about the affluent society.

GNB/PMF: Some might find a philosopher’s involvement in sixties activism to be a somewhat unusual topic. How is a film about Marcuse important today?

AJ: I see the importance in two ways. First, the story about the political struggles surrounding Marcuse and the student movement seems in many ways so distant from the daily activities of students today. Many students have told me that they were simply not aware what was happening on their campuses thirty years ago. Secondly, I think Marcuse had something important to say about the advanced industrial society or postwar consumer society that we in many ways still live in. His analysis of the specific historical situation that occurred in the postwar societies of the Western World during the 50s and 60s changed the formulation of a relevant philosophy of protest.

Marcuse is important because of the contradiction he found inherent to the affluent society that San Diego exemplified: it appeared to satisfy our immediate needs, appeared to “deliver the goods”, and appeared to be the ultimate sign of progress while at the same time it depended on consumption of waste, planned destruction, and the military industrial complex. Furthermore, and more importantly, he asked the question: what is the nature of political protest in a totally managed or administrated society?

Earlier revolutions and social unrest in the Twentieth Century were based on basic needs not being delivered, such as lack of food, low wages, not enough land for farming, etc. That was not the case anymore. So much so, that the working class even had been co-opted. What to do? Marcuse’s search for new agents of social change directed him to certain marginalized groups that were excluded from the system of abundance–the outsiders and the outcasts–such as certain ethnic minority groups, students, and later on women. While some might say that these conditions have changed somewhat or that political groupings have become more complicated, the search for such new agents of change still remain. Especially with less and less participation of the average citizen in the political process because of growing mistrust to politicians and government, the decrease of an independent critical media, the globalization of power and ownership, and the corporate scandals currently happening in the US, the question is still relevant. How do we engage each other in a critical philosophy of protest as citizens today?

GNB/PMF: To engage people in critical thought a philosopher must in some way connect with the audience. One of the paradoxical moments in Herbert’s Hippopotamus comes near the end when Marcuse is asked if he thinks that student activists understood One Dimensional Man. His response is to grin and say, “That I do not know”. This indicates the problematic nature of presenting complex theoretical concepts to a general population, and yet you have received criticism for not exploring Marcuse’s theories in greater depth. How do you respond to these criticisms?

AJ: There is no way that you can explain the depth and complexity of the writings of a philosopher such as Marcuse in 56 minutes. It’s just not possible. You probably cannot even do that in a 56 minute lecture.

Also, I think some of this criticism is based on certain notions and expectations of scholarly and literary work that do not correspond well to the distinctiveness of the audio-visual medium. Film and video making is about arranging concrete elements of sound and images into some meaningful whole. In the classical dramatic sense this arrangement is based on how people act and react and not what people say and tell you. Filmmaking is an experiential medium more than a conceptual medium – it is not about presenting ideas only. Robert Richardson once said that literature deals with making the significant (the ideas) visible while film often tries to make the visible significant. If you don’t have these concrete elements of visuals and sound, you simply don’t have a film. You might have something else such as a slide show, a lecture or a radio show with illustrations. A documentary cannot and should not be a book, a Ph.D. dissertation, or high prose in literature. It’s none of those. The audience knows it. They find such programs pretentious and condescending.

I wanted to make Marcuse a real human being and not present a bundle of philosophical concepts that while interesting in a philosophical treatise seldom make good documentary material. I wanted actual events–such as Marcuse’s participation in a student sit-in, or him breaking the silence in the silent protest, or taking a walk on the beach every morning, or challenging the Playboy Magazine interview–to be concrete examples of his persona and thinking as a philosopher. If you know Marcuse’s writings it is not difficult to see how his actions relate to his philosophy. As a filmmaker I wanted to give the viewer the experience of a historical era that was influenced by Marcuse’s philosophy illustrated through his actions and student protests. If you want the conceptual depth and complexity of Marcuse’s writings, read his books.

GNB/PMF: Does this mean that one cannot present philosophical ideas and critical theory on film or video?

AJ: No – I think you can. And some are very good at it–such as Resnais, Godard, Kluge, and more recently filmmakers such as Rea Tajiri and Kidlak Tahimik. But, the question is always the filmmaker’s degree of voice. In documentary you always risk placing yourself in a position of authority overtly or covertly. I am not in the position as a filmmaker to demonstrate the true and quintessential Marcuse. I didn’t want to make a documentary with underlying nostalgic music and with grandfatherly and reassuring voice-over telling the audience about the true character of Marcuse as the greatest American in the history of Western philosophy. I cannot do this. Another criticism I often hear in the same vein is that “You did not get the essential Marcuse”–after which I am presented with a lecture about his essence. While I do not mind discussing Marcuse and his philosophy with anyone, at the same time I do think that such an approach is contrary to Marcuse’s philosophy. When I asked Angela Davis a similar question about what the single most important contribution of Marcuse had been, she gave me the answer I deserved. It would not give justice to the complexity and depth of Marcuse’s thinking to ask for any single essence. He always had the ability to change and adapt to the given new historical situation.

GNB/PMF: In Europe philosophers and academics seem more successful in reaching a general audience than in the United States. You note in your film how strange it is to have philosophers like Davis and Marcuse discussed in the news. Do you agree that there is less regard for academics in the U.S.? Is this part of an “anti-intellectual” bias?

AJ: I’m not sure the anti-intellectualism you are speaking about originates only from the cultural differences between Europe and the U.S. Yes, many European countries–such as France–do teach subjects such as philosophy already in primary school. But, I think we should also look for the origin of this resentment elsewhere.

I think we should ask if this antagonism really is against intellectuals or against academic experts. During the production of Herbert’s Hippopotamus I read with great interest Russell Jacoby’s book The Last Intellectual. Following Jacoby’s analysis, I think it is fair to describe Marcuse as belonging to a generation of intellectuals that saw themselves having the responsibility and obligation to publicly engage in social and cultural issues without answering to anyone – meaning without submitting to any authority. For me the central phrase here is to publicly engage. Great intellectuals from this generation such as Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, C. Wright Mills, Umberto Eco, and others wrote dense philosophical work as well as more accessible novels, theater plays, newspaper articles and reviews. They wrote in an informed but common vernacular. How much they succeeded in engaging a large public is another question, but at least the attempt was there.

Where is the new generation of intellectuals today? The answer by Jacoby is very depressing. Nowhere. Today the general public’s perception of intellectuals is altogether different. Intellectuals are for the most part seen as academic experts who create a body of incomprehensible and perhaps radical work only to be understood among experts themselves. The intellectuals as such “experts” are perceived as technical specialists that are dragged in front of the camera to articulate academic or scientific knowledge. But, the term “expert” has a tone of authority that is far from Marcuse’s philosophy of liberation. I think it is this form of authoritative intellectualism that the general public is reacting against. This activity is quite different from the life of an intellectual such as Sartre, who besides writing philosophical texts also wrote theater plays, novels, was a cultural critic for newspapers, imprisoned for being a member of the French resistance, and participated in the May ’68 events. You might object and point to people such as Susan Sontag and Noam Chomsky who are writing for a wider public today, but as much as I admire their work, they can hardly be classified as belonging to a new generation.

GNB/PMF: Certainly there are contemporary popular writers who do work that is meant to be thought provoking, although it is unclear whether they would be called intellectuals. Many of them are investigative journalists such as Robert Caro, Eric Schlosser or Barbara Ehrenreich.

AJ: I do not exclude that intellectuals can and have been operating outside academia. Umberto Eco has written many newspaper articles that have later been published, and Susan Sontag has recently created a very interesting debate in the New York Times about the concepts of courage and cowardice in relation to the 9/11 terrorists highjackers. Also, remember that the Frankfurt School was not functioning as a university institution in the traditional sense, and that Marcuse himself was working for the OSS (the department preceding the CIA) during WWII. Many intellectuals have done their work outside the university.

GNB/PMF: But might the term intellectual also be applied to writers on the right who get significant publicity such as David and Abigail Thernstrom or Lynn Cheney? These writers even have academic credentials. The term “critical intellectual,” someone who challenges power structures and champions the marginalized, might be more appropriate to draw a parallel with Marcuse. On the other hand, what about a writer like Michael Moore (also a documentary filmmaker) who has had great success skewering the powerful? We probably would not call him an intellectual, but we would certainly call him critical, so is the “intellectual” or “academic” piece even necessary?

AJ: I do not see how constructing the term “critical intellectual” is going to achieve anything. Are there intellectuals who are not critical? Not in the way that I think of such activity. Also, how does your concept of being a “critical intellectual” differ from how I have been talking about it? How are “critical intellectuals” challenging power structures and championing the marginalized differently? The questions where and how you go about being an intellectual are important to me, so I would carefully inspect or challenge such a notion without these indications.

If writers on the right confront illegitimate social structures and oppressive ideology without submitting to any authority and in the broader public sphere they might be considered intellectuals. Certainly the right has been better in engaging the general public in America during the 1990s on issues such as criticizing the state or “big government.” But, my experience is that such writers at the same time advocate other forms of authority such as duty to your country, a strong military, or a powerful police state that at the same time leaves private enterprise with the absolute right to accumulate wealth. In those cases I do not think the term intellectual is appropriate and should not be applied. However, as I have already said, I do not see how academic credentials are necessary to generate intellectual endeavors.

GNB/PMF: You seem to believe that academia is in part responsible for the lack of critical public dialogue today. Near the end of the film you comment that many of the 1960s activists wound up in the university as teachers and that this is ironic in some sense because academic freedom today means only the “freedom to be academic.” What do you mean by this?

AJ: I saw the whole range of events leading up to Marcuse’s forced retirement as foreshadowing what was generally to become of academia. As soon as Marcuse broke out of his Platonic role as a university professor and publicly engaged on issues regarding the Vietnam War, he was forced out by the university institution itself under pressure from Governor Reagan. Since the emergence of Reaganism on a national level, and in Congress, the universities have become the last refuge in an increasingly hostile environment, but at the same time they have also become more comfortable. Moreover, they now perpetuate strictly academic communities. Increasingly papers, books, and journals are written only for academic seminars and conferences. The problem is not that university professionals have deserted the public today, but that they have not sought it in the first place. I see many reasons for this. Campuses have moved from urban centers to suburbia, students from urban coffee shops and streets to campus cafeterias and suburban malls. Universities have become more isolated from the rest of society and developed into professional and interdependent enclaves. Academic freedom is mainly exercised within this context, and this is all quite different from Marcuse’s era. I say all this at the same time as I regularly teach at a university. I admit being part of the problem, but that doesn’t mean that it does not exist.

GNB/PMF: At the same time, the documentary seems to have a wide audience in Universities. Undergraduate students find it fascinating. They love the image of Marcuse and identify with his struggle against the UCSD administration, the Vietnam War, and consumer society. They say they feel inspired by the film, and their reactions during it–of laughter and booing and so forth–suggest a clear identification. Students are still attracted to Marcuse. What do you make of this? And what do you make of the fact that many of them then take out their cell phones to call their friends and tell them about it while getting into the SUVs their parents bought them?

AJ: Considering how many people today use cell phones and drive SUVs from all groups of society, I am not sure what to say about your observation. Didn’t the rebels in Chiapas use computers? My immediate answer would be that if Marcuse’s philosophy is disseminated through cell phones let it be so. But, if your question addresses if it is possible to read and understand Marcuse in the backdrop of middle-class values and lifestyles, then I would answer that the student movement and the New Left in the 60s very much consisted of affluent sons and daughters from the middle-class. What is remarkable for me was their attempt, despite their backgrounds, to break through the confined university life, reach out, and coalesce with other groups in society with different class, ethnic, or cultural backgrounds. This sense of compassion for fellow citizens and the effort to find mutual understanding and support among communities seems to be missing and not really on the agenda in our culture today.

GNB/PMF: But what about “The Great Refusal”? Weren’t we supposed to refuse something? Are fancy cars and expensive gadgets things we’re now supposed to accept, from a Marcusean perspective?

AJ: The Great Refusal is not just a refusal of everything. It is a concept that is related to when non integrated groups of outsiders or outcasts in an affluent society bring about a total social upheaval. It is a revolutionary and somewhat erotic term that is influenced by Rosa Luxemburg and the surrealist writings of Andre Breton. In this respect I think focusing on cell phones is beside the point. I do not think cell phones are luxury items in the same way they were even 5 years ago. Cell phones are cheaper and even have practical and useful applications in today’s world. Cell phones are widely used in South East Asia and Europe much more than the U.S. In countries such as Italy and Finland, 70% of the population use cell phones, and in some developing countries cell phones are preferred over traditional phone lines because of the country’s poor infrastructure. Definitely there are certain trades such as carpentry, road construction, forestry, even filmmaking, where cell phones make the work much easier. I doubt that they are expensive gizmos only.

If your observation indicates that cell phones are unnecessary gadgets because of their inherent and planned obsolescence, then your assessment is more pertinent. But, then we also have to put into question the use of DVDs, digital cameras, microwave ovens, portable CD players, and computers. If you want to talk about a critical approach to emerging technologies, the planned obsolescence of computer operating systems and hardware technology is much more outrageous in my mind. But, does this mean that we are not going to use computers? This would even make on line journals such as Politics and Culture impossible. Instead we have to talk about the whole socio-economic system that promotes and perpetuates certain uses of technology.

The overall refusal to play the game, not to be constantly available via pagers and cell phones, refusing to be checked and analyzed all the time via computer, bank tellers, and various plastic cards, to protest such unnecessary repression and instead find alternative and more constructive or compassionate uses of your time and energy is closer to Marcuse’s critical philosophy. Protesting the U.S. military involvement in countries abroad and the current suppression of basic civil liberties has the potential to change much more in our present society than refusing to use cell phones on university campuses. Such a notion of the Great Refusal is much more meaningful and also more practical to me.

As for the response of students to the film, it is rewarding that the documentary has been used, and still is used, in college campuses as a means of sparking discussions about education and campus activism. I am pleased that younger students find Marcuse interesting today, and I hope it will lead them to explore his ideas and analyze the purpose of their education. At the same time, my concerns are if this interest you describe reflects critical thinking and awareness of political and cultural issues or just an entertaining flashback. If I failed as a filmmaker it is not with regards to the people I chose to interview, but whether I managed to evoke insight and understanding in the viewer rather than nostalgic curiosity. We are now in a different historical situation where student protests do not have the same social impact as then.

By the way, I was nearly slaughtered for saying this during a screening at UC, Santa Barbara most likely because I was showing the documentary to a group of activists. The audience there felt that I romanticized the 60s student movement and put it up on a pedestal. But, I am not sure who is really romanticizing what. In the 1960s the student movement did achieve concrete results though perhaps in its own self destructive way. I do not see that today. I do not see one million students protesting nationwide today. I do not see an organization such as SDS with 200,000 members. I do not think it has the same effect anymore. The university has adapted to activism and found successful ways to counter it. Campuses are built with less open spaces to where students can hold demonstrations; this is no secret. Tuition has sky rocketed and the students are under harder financial hardship. Society today is also more fragmented. A new historical situation requires a new political strategy, and I sense that merely re-introducing student protests without considering the present situation can be not much more than a romantic move. On the other hand, nobody predicted that the affluent middle-class children of the 50s would take the streets in the 60s in protest. So who knows?

GNB/PMF: Then what do you think of the global justice movement? After the massive demonstrations in Seattle, there have been significant protests at meetings among global economic leaders in cities throughout the world. Linked to this, on campuses students are protesting sweatshop production of university t-shirts and demanding living wages for service employees.

AJ: I have great respect and admiration for the work of today’s global justice movement, and it might gain in strength, but I do not see this movement as a student movement per se. Besides, the student movement of the 1960-70s was a global student movement. The campus activism that you speak about definitely has its function, but it just does not compare to the social turmoil related to the student activism of the 1960s. You don’t have a Daniel Cohn-Bendit or Rudi Dutschke traveling across borders to support protest against sweat shop productions in the US. You don’t have the Governor sending in the National Guard to university campuses. The social unrest in France during May ’68 included hundreds of thousands of students in coalition with 10 million workers in a national strike that basically paralyzed the country. You don’t have a president Lyndon Johnson being faced with the difficulty of continuing the war in Vietnam without losing control of the population because of anti-war protests. The sense of diverse representation is perhaps stronger, but I do not see any major coalescing of groups.

GNB/PMF: But isn’t there a potential for alliances that cross classes in a way that might not have existed in the 1960s because the student body is more diverse today? More students of color and students with working class backgrounds now have access to the University. These first generation college students probably have a stronger connection to those outside of academia.

AJ: The potentials for creating new alliances might be greater, but where are these new alliances? Because you have access to an institution of higher education does not mean that you automatically become a student activist. Maybe the university is no longer the place to carry out political protest. Maybe such political activity is better outside the university. You also seem to assume that because you have a working class background or are a student of color that you automatically have access to the general population of activists outside the university itself. I don’t think these relationships are so straightforward. The Mormon Church is also more diverse today, but that doesn’t mean that critical theory and social activism is advocated from there.

Besides, the economic pressure of high tuition is especially hard on students today. I can feel the increased strain on students and constant demands to perform, a situation which is different from the time I was a student. I think the university has changed in character and is more of a career training center than a place to experiment and propose alternative human interactions while criticize social structures. I’m afraid I can’t be more jubilant about the current situation on university campuses. I’m not saying that the potential is not there, or that it could not happen again, but that it is not happening today.

Gabriel Noah Brahm and Paul Mason Fotsch are members of the Santa Cruz Editorial Collective of P&C.

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