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The Low-Carb Anarchist Cookbook

I watched two documentary films, by chance and back to back, during a recent Netflix binge. One is called New York Doll and focuses on the life of Arthur “Killer” Kane, bass player for the seminal NYC punk band The New York Dolls. The other, American Anarchist, is about the life of William Powell, author of the 1971 instructional manual The Anarchist Cookbook which has sold over two million copies. The book directs and even encourages the amateur bomb-maker in carrying out his trade. There was a strikingly coincidental theme in the two films (“film” being used colloquially here) particularly given that I watched them in succession. Both subjects die prematurely and during the making of the documentaries but not so soon as to prevent a finished product. Kane passes away at 55 from leukemia just days after seeing his dream of a Dolls reunion come to fruition and Powell at 66 of a heart attack shortly after being interviewed at some length about his now infamous work. Neither death seems imminent; both occur out of the blue. In Kane’s case he dies just two hours after he’s been diagnosed. And both deaths come within the brief time-frame of the respective documentaries’ production. They aren’t used as cinematic device some years later or for a flummoxed director to conclude “I guess I’ve got my ending.”

There isn’t much controversy to New York Doll. It follows a sweet man who struggled with youthful, short-lived fame and alcoholism. Arthur Kane seems a genuinely good guy whose life was cut short but not before coming full-circle with poignant emphasis. American Anarchist is different. Powell wrote The Anarchist Cookbook when he was 19 and attending Vietnam War protests. He cites a particular mass protest at Grand Central Station with indiscriminate police beatings as motivation. It’s later revealed that personal alienation, a disjointed upbringing and molestation by a school administrator might have been even stronger influences. Whatever his reasons, the fact remains that the book tells its reader how to make bombs and other weapons and encourages their use as a legitimate form of political protest. The manual has been found in the possession of numerous killers and domestic terrorists including Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh and Dylan Klebold (the Bill Maher resembling half of the Columbine duo.) It’s a terribly reckless effort at best and arguably indefensible. Maybe causal evidence can’t  be drawn for Powell’s culpability, but there’s a lot more to work with than with JD Salinger and Mark David Chapman.

Of course Powell was just 19 when his work was published and as his wife notes “we all do dumb things but not everyone prints them in a book.” He is obviously regretful but has also become somewhat adept at compartmentalizing and rationalizing. Curiously, the film’s director Charlie Siskel seems guilty of a similarly egregious error in his approach to Powell: he can’t lay off the guy. In cut after cut he pushes him for something more than he is capable of giving. Powell has consented to be interviewed at length and is obviously a man who shoulders a heavy burden for his youthful ambition. But he isn’t sufficiently contrite for Siskel’s taste and the director wants something more. What that might be ( tears? .. mental breakdown?) is never quite clear. One wonders if Siskel sees any link between his approach to bring this partially repressed guilt to the surface and his subject’s fatal heart attack not long after the interview.  His editing choices and heavy-handedness are particularly suspect given that he was putting the film together in the wake of Powell’s sudden and unexpected death. It’s a time-honored theme, this “pot calling the kettle black” stuff, but most of us don’t go so far as to use it in a documentary.

Other high-profile examples of culpability arguments came to mind watching American Anarchist. Mike Judge was criticized for influencing child arsonists with Beavis and Butthead and the “Jackass” films aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, either. But what is art if not exposing and celebrating the disposition of the truly stupid? And what are the odds that preventing this celebration will do anything to curb this most human of all traits? It’s always a bit more difficult when the work in question emphasizes humor or satire. Put Beavis and Butthead on the chopping block and pretty soon they’ll be coming after Spinal Tap. The Anarchist Cookbook, for what it’s worth, wasn’t a humorous attempt. But neither is the Bible nor Quran,  and if we’re to start somewhere we should probably go after the heavy-hitters.

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