Greetings again from the darkness. If only the young had a monopoly on ignorance and poor judgment. As William Powell’s wife states during this film, all adolescents do dumb things, but they don’t all write it down and publish it. Such was the case with 19 year old Mr. Powell who, at age 19, wrote “The Anarchist Cookbook”. It was published in 1970 and has since sold more than 2 million copies.
Charlie Siskel (Gene’s nephew and director of Finding Vivian Maier) conducts an extended and in-depth interview with the 65 year old Powell in an attempt to discover what motivated him to write the book, how it has affected his life, and how he feels about it now. Siskel pulls no punches with his questions, with one of the first being, did Powell ‘advocate a violent overthrow of the government?’ Powell’s proclamation that it was not intended as “a call to action”, leads us to believe he was either quite naïve as a 19 year old author, or has spent the last four decades rationalizing his original intent.
In the late 1960’s the counterculture uprising included monumental movements: Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, and Gays. For an insightful 19 year old to write a book for like minded individuals – the liner notes state it’s “not a book for children or morons” – and claim the only choice for real men is revolution, well, it’s understandable that his work and the corresponding stigma has followed him through life.
It’s a fascinating interview with a man who professes remorse (“which is different than regret”) and somehow seems to be caught off-guard with the “laundry list of associations” to his book: Columbine, Oklahoma City bombing, Aurora theatre massacre, Gabby Giffords shooting, and numerous other bombings, shootings and atrocities against humanity. Mr. Siskel was a producer on Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, so he pushes hard for insight during this part. Powell is very self-reflective and measured in his responses during the final segment … even as he states “I didn’t do” those evil things. He does acknowledge some responsibility, and states that while everyone has ‘skeletons in the closet’, his skeleton is in print through 2 million copies and easy internet access.
At one point he labels his own work as “over-the-top exaggerated rhetoric” and admits that what he now views as rubbish, was at the time considered “cool”. His defense, so many years later, that he wanted to advocate people thinking for themselves rings a bit hollow. No matter how true it is that he doesn’t control publishing rights and long ago distanced himself from the book, it’s a chilling reminder that one’s legacy doesn’t discriminate against age. All we have is (hopefully) wisdom with age, and an introspection that can be shared. The documentary is one that provides much insight into human nature, while also serving as a compelling history lesson.