Charlie Siskel, along with John Maloof, is responsible for Finding Vivian Maier, the documentary about the Chicago street photographer whose genius was only appreciated with the posthumous discovery of her archive. Now he has turned to another intriguing figure – the once marginal yet centrally important William Powell, author of the notorious, radical underground text The Anarchist Cookbook (1971). This was a book that combined standard-issue revolutionary rhetoric with deadly serious and very practical advice about how to make bombs. It has become a standard text, a locus classicus: but not with the revolutionary left, exactly. The book has been linked with almost every killing spree and mass shooting in the US.
Powell was an alienated teen, part of the angry Vietnam and Kent Stategeneration. After a brief storm of publicity, and after getting ripped off by his publisher, Powell more or less vanished from the public eye.
Siskel tracks him down to find a gentle, bland, grandfatherly figure. He is a retired teacher who once specialised in helping children with learning difficulties, living placidly in France.
Siskel subjects him to diffident yet thorough questioning from behind the camera, in the manner of Errol Morris. He quotes some of the more blood-curdlingly pro-violence passages from the book. Powell is often silent, offering no comebacks. His embarrassment is obvious – in some ways it is the dramatic and comic point of the entire film. But there is more to it.
He is perhaps reluctant to undergo the humiliation of a full climb-down (especially galling for a teacher used to imposing his will on a class) or is unwilling to abandon his youthful zeal. But Siskel highlights how Powell has been in a state of denial about his book for decades – despite the professional grief it has caused him and despite the disavowals he has published on Amazon and in the Guardian. He is coming out of denial right here, in front of the camera.
Powell has been in retreat from his creation, which partly explains why he has taken so many teaching posts outside the US. He is also in denial about the personal, psychological origins of his work.
There is a grisly kind of genius in its writing: a surrealist, situationist inspiration in its bizarre deadpan certainty. And there is also something remarkable in a 19-year-old Powell researching this book using open sources (mainly US military pamphlets) from the New York Public Library. There are PhD theses with far less originality and scholarly verve.
Even at the time, Powell wrote that his book might be used (fallaciously, as he saw it) by rightwing militia groups like the Minutemen. He also quoted the revolutionary statements of Abraham Lincoln. But in fact these gonzo-libertarian implications helped to keep The Anarchist Cookbook in print and available online, where it continues to inspire people like the Columbine school killers.
Powell now rejects violence, but with no great emotional displays or mea culpas. To some degree, Siskel lets him off the hook with his insights about Powell’s own unhappy teenage years, perceptive though this material is. But oddly, neither Powell nor Siskel talk about the US gun laws – which would surely be a key argument in Powell’s defence. I suspect that the film-maker was himself unwilling to raise an issue that might make his subject and his film look peripheral. But this is an intriguing and original study, and a great scoop for Charlie Siskel.