The Weather Underground, In Two Different Voices

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William Morrow

It's taken me a while, but I finally got around to reading Underground, Mark Rudd's memoir of his time as a student activist at Columbia and as a member of and fugitive with the Weather Underground. I'd wanted to read it because fragments of the book are the basis for the narration in The Weather Underground, the superb documentary about the radical left-wing group that carried out a series of bombings in the late 1960s' and early 1970s'.

Interestingly, Rudd's prose is narrated in a woman's voice, and it has an elegiac quality in the movie, superimposed over a lot of grainy footage. I'm not sure what that gender switch led me to expect from the memoir itself, but it acts as a form of translation, reinterpretation. That alter-ego, voicing his words, enhances the role Rudd plays in person in the movie, as an expression of regret, loss, and ongoing confusion.

The book is, unfortunately, a lot stiffer. Rudd's perspective—when it's not juxtaposed against voices that are both more ideologically rigid and more distanced from the events he feels responsible for—is less valuable as part of an overall portrait of an era. Understanding Mark Rudd may be important to the man himself, but it's less important to those of us who are trying to figure out an era.

I don't know that there's a larger, immutable point to be made here. But the contrast between the excerpted material, spoken in a different voice, and the material as a whole, in another voice altogether, is a valuable reminder of the fickle nature of adaptation, remix, and re-appropriation. Every work contains multiple possibilities, and the ones it was originally intended for may not be the best, or most effective. A single paragraph may be more valuable on its own than in a chapter, a single chorus line may be immortal removed from its context.

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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