William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe

The film presents the sisters' struggles with their dad's seeming loss of principle and his use of courtrooms as dramatic stages to "stand up" to oppression.

William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe

Director: Emily Kunstler, Sarah Kunstler
Cast: William Kunstler, Len Weinglass, Margaret Ratner Kunstler, Tom Hayden, Daniel Berrigan, Ron Kuby
Rated: NR
Studio: Arthouse Films
Year: 2009
US date: 2009-11-11 (Limited release)

"Dad's clients gave us nightmares," narrates Emily Kunstler. "He told us that everyone deserves a lawyer, but sometimes we didn’t understand why that lawyer had to be our father." Speaking for herself and sister/co-director Sarah, Emily here lays out the conundrum embodied by William Kunstler. Dynamic, charismatic, and apparently infinitely passionate, he was also drawn to controversy and celebrity, taking cases that made headlines. But the hubbub that seemed to buoy him made his daughters worry -- for their safety but also for their father's moral bearings.

Sarah and Emily try to sort through this relationship in William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe. Structured as their quest to understand their father's choices, how he came to his beliefs and whether he lost sight of them, the documentary also evokes an era when systems might be challenged and even changed. A one-time liberal lawyer who was "radicalized" during his defense of the Chicago 8 in 1968, Kunstler took on a variety of clients, from the doomed inmates at Attica to the American Indian Movement representatives who occupied Wounded Knee, from John Gotti to Yusuf Salaam, one of the 1989 Central Park Jogger defendants. Over footage of Yusuf walking from the courtroom, tall, slender, his fade now dated, Emily remembers, "The defendants were not that much older than me or Sarah, but it felt like worlds away." That distance was exacerbated by the many public condemnations of the "Wolf Pack." "Everybody hates those kids," says attorney Ron Kuby. "I don’t want to understand him, I want him punished," Ed Koch piles on.

This case is a kind of tipping point in the documentary, for Kunstler's "obsession" with Salaam would prove worthy, at least in terms of justice. In fact, the kids convicted of rape that year were later proved innocent, and the legal system, so entangled with media and public hysteria, was exposed as wrongful. "I was very recognizable," Salaam says now, "I was always on trial." Emily frames the issue in explicitly personal terms: "I realized it was never about justice for dad," she says, "He saw a kid who was convicted by the community and by his daughters." Her father, she sees now, was instructing her every day of her life.

Like an essay designed to show what they've learned, the daughters' film rehearses the most famous cases as lessons. When her father told her, as he did more than once, that "all white people are racist," Emily concludes, "He meant that we are blind to the depth of our own prejudice and that as long as there is prejudice, there can never be any such thing as a fair trial." This sobering premise shaped Kunstler's career through various turns, beginning with the case that "radicalized" him, as Emily puts it. It was 1969, and Kunstler was 50 years old when he agreed to defend the Chicago Eight, accused of inciting a riot at the Democratic National Convention. With co-counsel Len Weinglass, Kunstler found in this "trial without rules" a new way to conceive the courtroom. As Judge Julius Hoffman's day-to-day conflicts with defendants escalated -- to the point that Bobby Seale was famously bound and gagged in the courtroom -- Kunstler "would grow his hair long, experiment with drugs, and be sentenced to four years in prison for contempt of court," Emily recalls.

The ground for Kunstler's change had been laid before, even when he seemed a more conventional figure. After a stint in the Army and law school on the GI Bill, he was a member of the ACLU in New York City when he was called to defend Freedom Riders in Mississippi. Julian Bond remembers, Kunstler "gloried in appearing in these courtrooms. He saw it as a real challenge and leapt to the challenge." He was also, Emily says, moved by the sight of the protestors taking risks, young men sitting at a lunch counters in a Jackson bus station, knowing they might be arrested or abused. She says, "My father told me he learned an important lesson that day, that all the talking in the world meant nothing. Only actions have meaning."

The actions he took going forward included defending Daniel Berrigan in 1968, when he and eight other activists broke into a draft board in Catonsville, Maryland and burned the draft cards of young men about to be sent to Vietnam. The protest and the trial that followed, Emily narrates, "taught dad that a courtroom could be used for a moral purpose and to believe in a power greater than the law." Further education resulted from the Chicago Eight Conspiracy trial (during which Fred Hampton was murdered by the Chicago police), as well as Kunstler's efforts to negotiate with the doomed inmates at Attica in 1971. That this episode turned out so badly -- at least 39 people were killed, including guards and inmates -- troubled Kunstler, who saw in it the predictable consequences of racism, the fundamental unfairness of a legal and penal system that regarded whole populations as inferior and expendable. "To this day," Emily notes as she and Sarah visit the memorial to fallen officers at the prison site, "There is no mention of the 32 prisoners who lost their lives."

Crushed by this outcome, Kunstler was somewhat healed by his experience at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Called in to defend Russell Means and Dennis Banks, Kunstler urged celebrities like Harry Belafonte and Marlon Brando to support the defendants publicly, then argued successfully that the FBI suppressed evidence, among other things. "Wounded Knee helped make him whole again," Emily asserts, even as her film turns to the cases that made her doubt her father's sanity, including his defense of Larry Davis, who killed six policemen in the Bronx, and El Sayyid Nosair, who murdered controversial Rabbi Meir Kahane the Jewish Defense League founder Rabbi Meir Kahane.

While Kunstler's daughters (and friends and colleagues, the film implies by selected interviews) could accept and even understand most of his "causes," they were less sanguine when he defended Nosair. "I remember hearing my parents argue behind closed doors," says Emily, before cutting to her mother, Margaret Ratner Kunstler, for confirmation: this case brought death threats and risk to the family. That family is only sparsely represented here, in snapshots and home movies showing the girls with dad, the girls with a dog. Mostly, the film presents the sisters' struggles with their dad's seeming loss of principle, premised on his loss of faith in the legal system, and his use of courtrooms as dramatic stages to "stand up" to oppression. Their emotional complications remain unresolved, which makes the film more compellingly messy than the usual biography.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

Keep reading... Show less

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

Keep reading... Show less

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.