Film Review: Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst (dir by Robert Stone)

“Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people!”

— Patty “Tania” Hearst

2004’s Guerrilla is not the first movie that I’ve reviewed about the kidnapping of heiress Patty Hearst.  Previously, I took a look at Abduction, a grindhouse film that was released while Hearst was still missing, and 1988’s Patty Hearst, which was based on Hearst’s own book about her ordeal.  However, Guerrilla is different from those two films in that it’s a documentary and it features interviews with people who actually knew Patty and her kidnappers.

It’s a strange and complicated story, the type that you would probably be dismissed as implausible if not for the fact that it actually happened.  In 1973, Oakland school superintendent Marcus Foster was gunned down in a parking lot.  Because Foster was the first black man to held the position of superintendent, it was originally assumed that he had been gunned down by a racist paramilitary group.  However, a neo-Marxist group known as the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) soon took responsibility for the murder, claiming that Foster had been tried in a people’s court and sentenced to death for his crimes.  (Foster’s “crime” was apparently trying to introduce ID cards in Oakland schools.)

Who were the SLA?  They were a small group of self-styled revolutionaries.  Though their leader was a black, escaped convict named Donald DeFreeze, the other members of the SLA were white and largely middle class.  They enjoyed sending out portentous political announcements and they went out of their way to try to portray themselves as being a highly disciplined and regimented military organization.  Donald DeFreeze changed his name to “Field Marshal Cinque.”  According to the interviews in Guerrilla, most of their fellow radicals viewed the SLA as being a joke.  (One contemporary expresses his disappointment in meeting the SLA and discovering that they were all very boring and middle class.)  No one could understand the logic behind murdering Foster, who was viewed as being a progressive educator.

If not for what happened in the months after Foster’s murder, the SLA probably would have faded into the same obscurity that has swallowed up so many activist groups.  After two members of the group were arrested, the SLA retaliated by kidnapping Patty Hearst.

At the time that she was abducted, Patty Hearst was a nineteen year-old student at Berkeley.  She was also the granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst, the publishing magnate whose life famously inspired the film Citizen Kane.  With the entire world now watching, the SLA announced that Patty would be executed unless the Hearst family arranged for every poor person in California to receive $70 worth of food.  As is portrayed in cringe-inducing detail in the documentary, the Hearst family actually attempted to meet the SLA’s demands, just to watch the food distribution program descend into chaos.  As for the SLA, they were not impressed by the Hearst family’s effort.  Even more tellingly, Patty was not impressed.  In a recording sent to the press, Patty complained that her family hadn’t made enough of an effort and assured everyone that the SLA was treating her in accordance to international law.

Shortly afterwards, the SLA released another recording.  In this recording, Patty announced that she had been given the option of either returning to her family or joining the SLA.  She had decided to join the SLA and take the new name of Tania.  Soon, Patty Hearst was robbing banks and declaring “death to the fascist insect.”

Was Patty sincere in her conversion or was she brainwashed?  That’s the question that Guerrilla explores, while leaving it to the audience to decide for themselves what was actually going on in Patty’s mind.  Though Patty is not interviewed in the film, we do get to hear the recordings that she made during her time with the SLA.  We listen as she goes from being a sacred abductee to a self-declared “urban guerrilla.”  Listening to her dull, flat voice, you get the feeling that she didn’t have much of an individual identity before she was kidnapped and she had even less of one after she converts to the SLA cause.  When she talks about how much she loves the other members of the SLA, she sounds like an actress giving a bad audition.  Before she was kidnapped, she was a Hearst.  After she was kidnapped, she was a revolutionary.  At no point do you get the feeling that she was ever just Patty.

It’s an interesting story and Guerrilla is a fascinating documentary, one that explores how idealism can sometimes be just as dangerous as cynicism.  It’s also a film that explores how the kidnapping of an heiress received more attention than the murder of a teacher.  It’s interesting to note that, while the other members of the SLA eventually ended up either dead or in prison, Patty Hearst ended up getting a full pardon from Bill Clinton.  It’s hard not to feel that the story would have been much different if the SLA had kidnapped Jane Smith instead of Patty Hearst.

Film Review: Patty Hearst (dir by Paul Schrader)

The 1988 film, Patty Hearst, is based on a fascinating true story.

In 1974, newspaper heiress Patty Hearst was a 19 year-old student at Berkeley who was kidnapped from her apartment by a group of self-styled leftist revolutionaries known as the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA).  The SLA was led by a charismatic escaped prisoner who called himself Field Marshal Cinque and who announced — via messages that Hearst read into a tape recorder — that Hearst was being held hostage in the name of social justice.  The police and FBI spent several months unsuccessfully searching for Hearst until one day, the SLA released an audio tape in which Hearst announced that she had now joined the SLA and would now be known as Tania.  Hearst was soon robbing banks and went from being a hostage to a wanted criminal.  When she was arrested in 1975, Hearst claimed to have been brainwashed by the SLA and people still debate whether she was a sincere revolutionary, a calculating criminal, or a victim.

(From what I’ve read about the Hearst kidnapping, I guess the modern day equivalent would be if Kendall Jenner disappeared and then resurfaced in Portland, setting cars on fire with Antifa.)

What can said for sure is that, after being arrested and convicted of bank robbery, Patty Hearst was sentenced to 7 years in prison.  Hearst served less than three years before her sentence was commuted by President Jimmy Carter.  Twenty years later, another President — Bill Clinton — gave her a full pardon.  Needless to say, the rest of the SLA did not receive a pardon or, for that matter, even a commutation.  The majority of them, including Field Marshal Cinque, died in a fiery explosion that came at the climax of a gun battle with police.  The rest were arrested, convicted, and ended up serving their full sentences.  Of course, while the majority of the SLA came from middle and upper middle class backgrounds, only one of them was the heir to a fortune.  When she was arrested, Patty may have given her career as being an “urban guerilla,” but ultimately, she was the granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst.

(Regardless of whether you believe Patty Hearst was brainwashed or not, it’s an undeniable fact that it’s easier to be a revolutionary when you know you won’t face any serious consequences if the revolution eventually fails.  If the members of the SLA were around today, they could just spend their time on twitter, retweeting John Fugelsang’s thoughts on Jesus.  But, in 1974, there was no twitter…)

Based on Every Secret Thing, Hearst’s own account of her kidnapping and subsequent life as a fugitive, Patty Hearst opens with the heiress (played by Natasha Richardson) being kidnapped and held prisoner by the SLA.  For the first fourth of the film, we see everything exclusively through Patty’s eyes.  She spends her days locked in a dark closet that’s so tiny that she can barely stand.  Whenever the door is opened, shafts a bright light flood both the closet and the screen, blinding not only Patty but the audience as well.  At first, Patty cannot even see the faces of the people who have kidnapped her.  All she knows are their voices.  Whenever that door opens, neither Patty nor the viewer knows whether she’s going to fed, berated, comforted, or raped.  All four of them happen to her, several times over the course of her time in that closet.  It’s harrowing to watch, all the more so because Natasha Richardson gives such an empathetic and bravely vulnerable performance as Patty.  When Patty is finally allowed to leave that closet, the audience is almost thankful as she is.  And, when Patty gets out of the closet, the look of the film changes as well.  It goes from being darkly lit to almost garishly colorful.  Patty’s entire world has changed.

The first part of the film is so powerful that it’s not surprising that the rest of Patty Hearst suffers by comparison.  Once Patty gets out of the closet and declares her allegiance to the revolution, she becomes a bit of a dead-eyed zombie and the focus naturally shifts to the rest of the SLA.  Ving Rhames gives a powerful performance as Cinque, the head of the SLA.  Cinque may be a passionate revolutionary but he also has a dangerous messianic streak.  Even worse, the film suggests, is Cinque’s lieutenant, Teko (William Forsythe).  Teko claims to be a revolutionary but ultimately reveals himself to be as much of a misogynist as those who he claims to oppose.  (Today, Teko would probably be one of those guys arguing that it’s okay for him to use the C word because he’s an “ally.”)  Whereas Cinque has no doubt about his revolutionary commitment, Teko always seem to be trying to prove something to everyone, especially himself.

Ultimately, Patty becomes almost a bystander to her own story.  For a time, she is the most famous bystander in the country.  Though the film is sympathetic to Patty, Natasha Richardson plays her with just a hint of ambiguity.  Ultimately, Patty comes across as someone desperately searching for an identity.  Since she is not sure who she ultimately is, it’s easy for Patty to become an “urban guerilla” and it’s just as easy for to her go back to being an heiress.  By the end of the film, it’s obvious that Patty is just as confused by her life as everyone else.

Patty Hearst was directed by Paul Schrader, who is best known for writing the scripts for such films as Taxi Driver and Rolling Thunder.  (Among Schrader’s other directorial credits: Blue Collar, Hardcore, American Gigolo, Cat People, and The Canyons.  Needless to say, he’s had an interesting career.)  In many ways, Patty Hearst is probably more relevant today than it was first released.  Considering that our culture is currently dominated by people pretending to be revolutionaries and celebrities famous solely for being famous, Patty Hearst feels rather prophetic.

Watching this film and experiencing Patty’s transformation from vapid heiress to brainwashed political activist to briefly notorious celebrity, I realized that we now live in a world of Patty Hearsts.

The Daily Grindhouse: Abduction (dir. by Joseph Zito)

Before I went on vacation, I searched through my film collection and I found a banged-up VHS tape that I had ordered off of Amazon a while back.  I had been inspired to order the tape because it contained a movie based on a true crime case that I was oddly obsessed with at that time.  However, as is typical with my obsessions, I had pretty much lost interest by the time the movie actually showed up on my doorstep.  Hence, that tape sat unwatched until last week when I finally curled up on my couch and watched it.

Released in 1975, Abduction is an example of the “Ripped-From-The-Headlines” genre of grindhouse filmmaking.  These films specialized in taking sordid true stories and giving them an even more sordid cinematic interpretation.  They were often advertised as the film that would tell you “the shocking true story!” or “the story that they don’t want you to know.”  Despite a disclaimer at the beginning of the film that informs us that any resemblance to anyone living or dead is “purely coincidental,” Abducted tells us “the shocking true story!” behind the kidnapping of Patricia Hearst.

In 1974, newspaper heiress Patty Hearst was a 19 year-old student at Berkeley who was kidnapped from her apartment by a group of left-wing revolutionaries known as the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA).  The SLA was led by a charismatic escaped prisoner who called himself Field Marshal Cinque and who announced — via a messages that Hearst read into a tape recorder — that Hearst was being held hostage in the name of social justice.  The police and FBI spent several months unsuccessfully searching for Hearst until one day, the SLA released an audio tape in which Hearst announced that she had now joined the SLA and wanted to be known as Tania.  Hearst was soon robbing banks and went from being a hostage to a wanted criminal.  When she was arrested in 1975, Hearst claimed to have been brainwashed by the SLA and people still debate whether she was a sincere revolutionary, a calculating criminal, or just a weak-willed victim.

One of the more fascinating aspects of the Hearst case is that, a year before Hearst was kidnapped, a book called The Black Abductor  was released.  The Black Abductor tells the story of an heiress named Patricia who is kidnapped by a group of left-wing revolutionaries led by a charismatic escaped prisoner and who eventually decides to join with her violent captors.  No one was sure who actually wrote the book (though it was credited to a “Harrison Chase”) and the FBI apparently investigated whether or not the book had been used as a blue print for the actual kidnapping.

(I actually have a copy of the Black Abductor.  I found it in the nostalgia section of Half-Price Books, mixed in with the usual collection of detective novels, westerns, and tv novelizations.  I squealed a little when I recognized the title and wow, did I ever get the strangest look at the front register when I paid for it.  The book itself is actually pretty boring.)

Abduction, probably in order to avoid a lawsuit from the Hearst family, is officially based on the novel Black Abduction and not the kidnapping of Patty Hearst.  That said, the movie (which was released after Hearst had robbed her first bank but before she was arrested) is totally about the kidnapping of Patty Hearst.

In Abduction, Hearst is called Patricia Prescott and her father is no longer in the newspaper business.  Instead, he’s a real estate developer who is planning to destroy the ghetto and replace it with high-income housing.  Patricia (played by Judith-Marie Beragan) is kidnapped and her older boyfriend is beaten up by a group of revolutionaries.  Patricia is held prisoner in a barren apartment and, in a disturbingly clinical scene, is raped (and filmed) by both the group’s leader (an escaped prisoner, of course) and a female member of the group.  Scenes of Patricia being slowly brainwashed are intercut with scenes of a brutal FBI agent beating up liberal grad students and Patricia’s parents (played by Hollywood veterans Leif Erickson and Dorothy Malone) obsessively watching video tapes of their daughter being sexually assaulted.

Abduction is one of those low-budget, relentlessly sordid films that really can’t stand on its own as a work of art but, never the less, remains a fascinating portrait of the time that it was made.  In true exploitation fashion, the film is deliberately made to appeal to both sides of the cultural divide.  When the FBI agent played by Lawrence Tierney is seen smirking as his partner smacks around a smug leftist, the filmmakers are both appealing to the paranoia of the liberals and providing wish fulfilment for the right.  By the same token, when Patricia stands in a doorway with a smoking shotgun in her hands, it’s an image that’s calculated to be empowering, erotic, and frightening all at the same time.   Like many grindhouse film, Abduction might not be a great (or even good) film but as a reflection of the psyche of the times that produced it, it’s an invaluable document.

Poll: Tell Lisa Marie What To Watch Next Sunday

So, guess what I did earlier today?  That’s right — I put on a blindfold, a stumbled over to my ever-growing DVD, Blu-ray. and even VHS collection and I randomly selected 12 films!

Why did I do this?

I did it so you, the beloved readers of Through the Shattered Lens, could once again have a chance to tell me what to do.  At the end of this post, you’ll find a poll.  Hopefully, between now and next Sunday (that’s August 21st), a few of you will take the time to vote for which of these 12 films I should watch and review.  I will then watch the winner on Sunday and post my review on Monday night.  In short, I’m putting the power to dominate in your hands.  Just remember: with great power comes great … well, you know how it goes.

Here are the 12 films that I randomly selected this afternoon:

Abduction From 1975, this soft-core grindhouse film is based on the real-life abduction of Patty Hearst and was made while Hearst was still missing.  Supposedly, the FBI ended up investigating director Joseph Zito to make sure he wasn’t involved in the actual kidnapping.

Aguirre, The Wrath of God From director Werner Herzog and star Klaus Kinski comes this story about a Spanish conquistador who fights a losing battle against the Amazon.

Black Caesar In one of the most succesful of the 70s blaxploitation films, Fred Williamson takes over the Harlem drug trade and battles the mafia.

Don’t Look Now Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie are a married couple who attempt to deal with the death of their daughter by going to Venice, Italy.  Christie quickly falls in with two blind psychics while Sutherland pursues a ghostly figure in a red raincoat through Venice.  Directed by Nicolas Roeg.

The Lion In Winter From 1968, this best picture nominee stars Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn as King Henry II and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine.  Taking place on Christmas Eve, Henry and Eleanor debate which one of their useless sons will take over a king of England.  This film is also the feature debut of both Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton.

Logan’s Run — From 1976, this sci-fi film features Michael York and Jenny Agutter as two future hedonists seeking Sanctuary and instead finding Peter Ustinov and a bunch of cats.  Filmed in my hometown of Dallas.

Lost Highway — From director David Lynch comes this 1997 film about … well, who knows for sure what it’s about?  Bill Pullman may or may not have killed Patricia Arquette and he may or may not end up changing into Balthazar Getty.

Mystic River — From director Clint Eastwood comes this film about murder, guilt, redemption, and suspicion in working-class Boston.  Starring Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon, and Tim Robbins.

Naked Massacre — From 1976, this stark film is something a grindhouse art film.  It takes the true life story of Chicago mass murderer Richard Speck and transfers the action to Belfast.  Also known as Born for Hell.

Night of the Creeps — From 1986, this film features alien slugs that turn an entire college campus into a breeding ground for frat boy zombies.  Tom Atkins gets to deliver the classic line: “Well don’t go out there…”

PetuliaConsidered by many to be one of the best American films ever made and one of the definitive films of the 60s, Petulia tells the story of a divorced doctor (George C. Scott) who enters into an odd relationship with Julie Christie.  Directed by Richard Lester, this film also stars Joseph Cotten, Richard Chamberlain, and the Grateful Dead.

What Have You Done To Solange? — From 1975, What Have You Done To Solange is a classic giallo that  features dream-like murders, disturbing subtext, and one of the best musical scores of all time.

So, there’s your 12 films.  Vote once, vote often, have fun, and I await your decision.

Voting will be open until Sunday, August 21st.