Emile de Antonio and the new documentary of the 70s
by Thomas Waugh
Cut, no. 10-11, 1976, pp. 33-39
Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1976, 2004
The appearance of a whole series of impressive new documentaries over the last few years—PAINTERS PAINTING, I.F. STONE'S WEEKLY, ATTICA, ANTONIA, and HEARTS AND MINDS are the best known—is a reminder that, with mid-decade suddenly upon us, the U.S. documentary is not only showing remarkable signs of vitality but is also moving purposefully forward through the seventies in its own unique direction. And it is a direction which, for all its diversity, is markedly distinct from the cinema verité impulse which dominated the sixties. Despite the continuing voices of Wiseman, the Maysles and others still using the idiom of a decade ago, there is no doubt that the seventies have already added a new chapter to the history of the U.S. documentary. GIMME SHELTER, now five years old, and even THE AMERICAN FAMILY, almost three, already seem curiously dated in the shadow of this imposing new chapter.
A general overview of the new films is already long past due; even radical journals, let alone The New York Times, have shown a tendency toward a helter-skelter, ad hoc reception of each new film as it appears, rather than a more historical estimation of the new documentaries as parts of a totality. The Museum of Modern Art’s recent retrospective of the films of Emile de Antonio, most recently the director of PAINTERS PAINTING (1972) and the soon-to-be-released film on the Weather Underground, is an occasion to answer this need. De Antonio, long a dissenter from the cinema verité mainstream of the sixties—his first film, POINT OF ORDER, dates from 1963—is confirmed in his seven film retrospective as the pioneer and the foremost practitioner of the new documentary sensibility which has at long last reached the fore. The increasing publicity which surrounds de Antonio’s work, his elevation by Rolling Stone to the status of radical saint, reinforces the need for a comprehensive evaluation of this filmmaker’s career in the cultural, political and theoretical context which formed it.
The original impetus for cinema verité, as is well known, had been a technological revolution, an upheaval as radical in its own way as the introduction of the talkies had been thirty years earlier. Upon the first introduction of the handheld cameras and portable recorders in the late fifties, there was a sudden burst on both sides of the Atlantic of nonfiction films celebrating the new accessibility of “truth,”—truth in the surface textures of audiovisual reality, in the immediacy of present time, and in the nuance of spontaneous behavior. Close on the heels of their French and Canadian contemporaries, Richard Leacock and others, grouped around Drew Associates, rushed into the streets with their “caméra-stylos” and discovered, as if for the first time, the vitality of “unmediated” existence. They talked of honesty, intimacy, and above all objectivity, as if these old brickbats of aesthetics had been invented along with the Nagra.
This claim to a new privileged grasp of reality, which supplanted the old “subjective” documentary modes of discourse, now appears in retrospect to have been somewhat naive. Leacock and the others were of course right to hate the old newsreel voices over which had hammered away at U.S. audiences for generations, each inflection delivering its prepackaged interpretation of the “facts.” (Later de Antonio was to derive a brilliant ironic effect from newsreel clips of Nixon’s red-baiting days in MILLHOUSE, his analysis of the Nixon phenomenon). Yet the U.S. voice over with its abuses had not been the only alternative for the classical documentarist. The French had developed a distinguished tradition of the narrated documentary, in which sober and unobtrusive Gallic voices over were personal and suggestive rather than pontifical. Alain Resnais, and later Chris Marker, were the most celebrated arbiters of this genre of documentary. Accordingly, the French cinema verité movement (or cinéma-direct as the Gallic manifestation of it is properly called) led by Jean Rouch, used the spoken word as an essential material and structural principle. In fact, cinema direct’s most radical achievement was as a cinema of sounds.
In contrast, the U.S. filmmakers reacted to their heritage of the authoritarian voice over with an affirmation of the supposed objectivity of the unmediated image, creating a predominantly visual documentary form. Their aesthetic of the image, spontaneous, random, and true, was in effect a gospel of subjectivity, and too often, as it turned out, of inarticulateness as well. The movement’s most serious liability was not this subjectivity per se, but its persistent pretense of impartiality.
Most of the films of the era bore highly charged emotional statements beneath their posture of objectivity—uncritical adulation in STRAVINSKY, euphoria in WOODSTOCK, condescension in HAPPY MOTHERS’ DAY, contempt in SIXTEEN IN WEBSTER GROVES, contempt in TITICUT FOLLIES. In fact, contempt was probably the predominant tone of the entire cinema verité movement (probably since contempt is the stance which comes most easily to Eastern liberalism when it interacts with middle America). And contempt is the most visible residue of cinema verité in a film such as HEARTS AND MINDS in its weakest moments.
If the artifacts of cinema verité now seem in retrospect to have captured so much of the spirit of their age, it is their embrace of inarticulacy, spontaneity, and entrenched emotionalism—not their aspiration to objectivity—which above all seemed linked to the decade of campus disturbances, ghetto riots, assassinations, and a counterculture based on uncritical iconoclasm. Cinema verité bore the imprint of all the ambiguous romanticism of the Greening of America, its adventurism as well as its fervor.
The challenge to base the new consciousness in concrete change—and the Vietnam war—gave the counterculture its fatal test and provided cinema verité with a challenge which proved equally fatal. It was a challenge as insurmountable as the Depression hard been for twenties avant-gardism two generations earlier. Cinema verité per se had nothing to contribute to the real job that faced the counterculture; it merely reflected and reinforced a mood which in itself was not enough. As the war escalated and escalated, cinema verité people were preoccupied with rock concerts and easy targets like police chief conventions and boot camps, some moving gracelessly into the commercial arena. To be sure, they often provided undeniably profound and touching works of art, but films which failed to meet the increasing need for explicit sociopolitical analysis to support the momentum of the alternate politics. This failure of Leacock, Wiseman, et al. was a particularly bitter one, because of their widespread reputation as social critics, and because of the broad-based, potentially activist, liberal audience they addressed. Documentary has a special mystique in the English-speaking world, an aura of social responsibility not shared by the fiction film, which is perhaps its legacy from Grierson. The filmmakers were far more involved in the mystique than in the social issues they dealt with.
Nevertheless, Leacock and his contemporaries had developed an expressive and flexible language which was available for radical social criticism even if they themselves declined to use it in that direction. And three distinct currents of dissident filmmaking did emerge in the Vietnam era, all more or less adapting this language to their own particular goals. The current with the most immediate and diffuse (and no doubt the least radical) impact was based on a series of controversial television documentaries which appeared sporadically during those years, both on PBS and the commercial networks. Here, as might be expected, analytic rigor and conscience were the necessary sacrifice to the medium’s huge audience potential. Nevertheless, a number of creditable documentary examinations of domestic social problems appeared from time to time. These effectively continued the intermittent but impressive tradition of conscientious broadcasting initiated by Edward Murrow in his early fifties anti-McCarthy broadcasts. Morton Silverstein’s 1967 expose of conditions for southern black migrants on Long Island farms, WHAT HARVEST FOR THE REAPER?, was widely praised as a sequel to Morrow’s classic denunciation of the same social evil in his 1960 HARVEST OF SHAME. WHAT HARVEST FOR THE REAPER? relied almost exclusively on cinema verité techniques, although it was structured by voice over narration (like most television documentaries).
A later film by Silverstein, BANKS AND THE POOR (1970), also shown on PBS, is perhaps the most praiseworthy of this category of films during the Nixon era. It is a searing and moving indictment of the victimization of the urban poor by neighborhood banks and lending institutions. Its highlights include a hidden-camera scene in a ghetto loan office in which an unsuspecting loan shark does his pitch for a prospective client, and, most memorably, an interview with a tearful black woman whose house has just been dispossessed through a liability of only a few dollars. The canned rebuttals and denials by bank officials, including David Rockefeller, offer sharp contrast with the authenticity of the verité language as Silverstein uses it. Here a compelling Brechtian collage effect, the clash of document and actuality, is achieved; and the collage is, as we shall see, one of Emile de Antonio’s trademarks. A 1968 CBS documentary, HUNGER IN AMERICA, by Martin Carr and Peter Davis, was less successful, clumsy with its interviewing, and more interested in snags in welfare distribution than in the roots of the problem under scrutiny.
Only a few critical assessments of the ongoing war made it to television, understandably. Only rarely did the networks’ coverage of the war yield any insight as powerful as Silverstein’s domestic analysis had been. The first breakthrough here was a controversial PBS broadcast of a long segment of Felix Greene’s INSIDE NORTH VIETNAM (1968), a film CBS had originally planned to show before losing its nerve. This capsule tour of enemy territory also had a limited art house distribution despite federal harassment. More important was Peter Davis’s critical look at the Department of Defense in 1971, only obliquely aimed at the war, THE SELLING OF THE PENTAGON. This denunciation of the Pentagon’s promotional activities was a masterful blend of cinema verité language (watching children play on display bombers, for example) and traditional TV documentary structures (a voice over commentary by Roger Mudd, official statements from the Pentagon denying all, etc.). Of course, these few successes do not substantially alter the overwhelmingly dismal record of the network news departments during those years. But what else is new?
A second current of dissident documentary during these years was based on efforts by a number of Movement filmmakers, both individual and collective, to compensate for this media void. Few of these had any delusions about their potential for reaching a constituency anywhere as broad as a television audience, or even, for that matter, much broader than the already converted radical community. Impeccable in their directness and uncompromising in their anger, such filmmakers initiated a whole tradition of alternate radical documentary which is still going strong. This tradition’s base was the network of radical communities scattered across the urban and campus centers of the country, its continuity often broken and its internal liaison often exceedingly fragile. This tradition tended to emphasize depth of impact rather than breadth. And for a while screenings with discussions were the pattern, until coordination problems proved too much.
In the early days, this movement’s chief impetus came from the New York and San Francisco chapters of Newsreel, an organization whose pre-credits machine gun logo is still the most recognizable symbol of this whole tradition. Newsreel’s strategy of polarization and confrontation differed sharply from both the networks’ stance of socially conscious journalism and de Antonio’s emphasis on analysis. Such spokespeople as New York’s Robert Kramer (before he turned to fiction) rejected analysis as a goal entirely, championing instead the notion of film as a weapon.(1) The commitment towards analysis was an “illusion,” as was the possibility of real dissent or of real understanding of the issues. The early Newsreel film-weapons were often criticized by radicals for an “ultra-left disdain for quality (the larger the grain, the better the politics).”(2) In other words, the potential weaknesses of the cinema verité language used indiscriminately infected many of the films, and not only in terms of production values; thematic confusion, egotism, and ideological contradictions were rampant. Nevertheless, a number of competent, articulate films did come to be produced on both coasts and enjoyed a surprisingly large distribution on what was in the late sixties a burgeoning radical circuit. Such titles as GARBAGE, CHICAGO, BOSTON DRAFT RESISTANCE GROUP, and MEAT CO-OPERATIVE stood out above the early glut of films during the first Nixon years. As the output of films slackened somewhat, they seemingly improved, and it is from this middle period that the movement’s best films emerged. PEOPLE'S WAR (1969) was another Vietnam behind-the-lines film; this was an important documentary subgenre until quite recently, with its own special problems arising from varying degrees of Vietnamese official “co-authorship.” BLACK PANTHER and THE WOMAN'S FILM, two of the San Francisco products, respectively dealt with the radical black problematic and the organization of working class women; both films relied heavily on cinema verité and interview techniques, and represented the peak of Newsreel achievement both in terms of artistic impact and distribution range. RICHMOND OIL STRIKE, a 1970 chronicle of a California strike by white workers, has a special place in the Newsreel oeuvre for its stunning revelation of incipient revolutionary consciousness among white union members and their wives. With these latter two films, the Newsreel crews for once started to listen, and they tapped what has become the alternative cinema’s richest resource, the voices and consciousness of its working class constituency. Such recent films as Julia Reichert’s and Jim Klein’s METHADONE: AN AMERICAN WAY OF DEALING brilliantly demonstrate the flexibility and power of this resource.
Other Movement filmmakers, unaffiliated with Newsreel, were also notable. From Chicago, for example, came Howard Alk and Mike Gray’s THE MURDER OF FRED HAMPTON and the former’s AMERICAN REVOLUTION TWO, both widely distributed, powerful documents heavily dependent on cinema verité language. The former, in particular, had a large audience and was highly praised despite its susceptibility to verité’s rhetorical excesses. Much of its impact was due no doubt to the drama of the event it described (a frequent tendency of Newsreel films as well); in this case Hampton’s assassination occurred halfway through the shooting of a proposed film on the Chicago Panthers. The result is a film on his death, half eulogistic, half journalistic. Its most interesting feature is a de Antonio-style interplay of Chicago police Newspeak and its own verité investigation of the evidence. Its ultimate effect, however, is undercut by the artists’ overly sentimental approach to the subject (long indulgent close ups of bereaved Panther women). This seems to be a frequent liability of white filmmakers when dealing with minority agitation, or “other people’s struggles” as one Movement veteran puts it. (3) In recent years this liability has been increasingly overcome by radical documentarists by either concentrating on struggles closer to home, or by creating films about minority struggles which have genuine roots in their subjects’ consciousness.
Despite the continuing prolific output of this alternative tradition, as evidenced by such strong recent films as WINTER SOLDIERS, FINALLY GOT THE NEWS, the methadone film, and the work of the Pacific Street Collective (FRAMEUP: THE IMPRISONMENT OF MARTIN SOSTRE), this current has always been plagued by serious distribution problems, both theoretical and actual. Most radical filmmakers of this orientation have always relied on existing Movement structures to exhibit and distribute their work and the overall result has been neither efficient, systematic, nor continuous. Inevitably the old problem of preaching to the converted has reasserted itself. The films by and large never reached a public beyond the radical subculture circuit, despite such attempts as Newsreel’s experiments with street projections in ghetto neighborhoods, etc.. Later, the weakening of that circuit in the seventies was disastrous, though far from fatal, for alternative filmmaking. Nevertheless, the role of this current in stimulating and strengthening the Movement that has persisted over the years has been immeasurable and a worthy achievement in itself.
The third current of dissident documentary, what I have already referred to as the new documentary of the seventies, richly heterogeneous but epitomized by Emile de Antonio, avoids the pitfalls both of TV network compromise and the isolation of the radical circuit. Admittedly, its audience is not composed of workers, rightly a priority for radical filmmakers, or the minority communities that Newsreel tried to reach. Its constituency includes the radical subculture, but extends far beyond that to a wider base which often assures it a commercial viability (insofar as documentaries can ever be commercial) and a certain degree of independence as well. Speaking directly to the urban, liberal or intellectual middle class, it is able to retain much of its integrity as hard-nosed social enquiry. It is based on both the recognition of where the power really lies, and on the premise of the importance of struggling on the theoretical front as well as on the barricades, in the realm of the liberal consciousness as well as in ghetto neighborhoods, and of the macrocosmic perspective as well as the microcosmic. Filmmakers with this inspiration, occasionally casual or vague about their target audience and usually middle class intellectuals themselves, find a constituency of their peers and address themselves to the task of challenging the ideological foundation of that group. Most often such films rely on financing by wealthy liberals and on theatrical distribution in the urban and campus centers; some occasionally make it to the airwaves as well. Such filmmakers are hesitant to offer solutions—their contribution is often based on their ability to pose the correct questions, to penetrate and unsettle the liberal equilibrium. Contradictions are many—but ultimately radical discourse is extended to a broader base, and significantly enriched.
Emile de Antonio has set the pattern for the new documentary, and embodies its inspiration and its contradictions, more than any other. As one encounters him presiding over his New York office-studio, one is struck by the incongruity of a battle taken up against the whole U.S. establishment by this congenial man with enormous energy, roving conversation, and a robust sense of outrage. A laureate of the Enemies List? As he looks out over Union Square he points to both the pinkness of the late afternoon sky and the spot where the huge Communist marches gathered during the thirties. He wryly recalls his participation in those marches, a leader of a contingent from Harvard (the beginning of decades of FBI surveillance of his career, as he discovered recently, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act). As he braces himself for his forthcoming lawsuit against the FBI and the CIA (invasion of privacy), an outcome of the much publicized grand jury challenge to the new Weather Underground film, one senses the exhausting emotional investment of the man in his art and in his struggle to continue asking his own unique kind of questions.
Yet for all his dedication to social change and his continuously professed allegiance to Marxism, there seems a curious isolation on his part from the mainstream of both the Left and contemporary radical film culture. There is the suggestion that his now famous fascination with the Weather People stems partly from an affinity with them—an embattled obstinacy, a romantic bravado, a fierce self-dependence. As he lists the stages in his career—his years at prep school and Harvard, his service in the War, his short lived teaching stint (English and Philosophy at William and Mary), his aimless drift through the fifties engaging in short term business operations and hovering on the periphery of the New York avant-garde (he points out Andy Warhol’s headquarters across the street and recalls his support for Warhol at the beginning of the artist’s career), his sudden, almost accidental emergence as a filmmaker—he constantly alludes to the irony that he should have made his first film when already “middle aged”, as he puts it, and that his political development should have most recently taken the course of support for a famous group of underground revolutionaries while already advancing through his fifties. The overall impression is one of deadly seriousness and moral fervor, and in this, his role in the perpetuation of past traditions of documentary conscience, his place in the continuum of causes, ideals, and outcries that is his legacy as a documentarist, is a clear one.
The new documentary of the seventies, then, finds its roots in this man’s response to the political climate of the sixties. Like the filmmakers of the dissident television tradition and of the radical underground, de Antonio assimilated where necessary the strategies and aesthetics of the verité mainstream which dominated the decade, but adapted them to the serious and modest form suitable to his moral, didactic purposes. This form, refusing the resources of both declamatory rhetoric and self-indulgent aestheticism, expanded the documentary’s potential as a medium of genuine political interrogation. The pseudo-objective cinema verité of the sixties was ultimately bypassed by this cinema of open commitment, research, and analysis. The new U.S. documentary recognized the camera’s unavoidable subjectivity and harnessed it in the service of a conscious political orientation from the start. This seriousness, this modesty, and this commitment enabled this current to withstand the traps of commercial cooptation and political desublimation which WOODSTOCK and its progeny so vividly epitomized.
Emile de Antonio, then, was hardly an eager young camera wizard like cinema verité people when he made his first film, POINT OF ORDER, in 1963. It is significant that this first gesture of resistance to the formal and ideological orthodoxy of verité was made by a middle aged, ex-academic culture hobo who had never touched a camera; for the new documentary was not set off by a technological revolution as cinema verité had been. Its roots were more in a modulation of sensibility. This shift from cinema verité to the new committed documentary echoed a similar transition forty years earlier, in which the first euphoric documentaries of the twenties were replaced by those strikingly subdued products of the thirties and forties.
Despite the intervening introduction of sound technology, which of course had some thematic ramifications, it was not primarily technical refinement which distinguished the typical documentaries of the twenties—the avant-garde manifestos of Ivens, Ruttman, Cavalcanti, and Vertov, not to mention the Flahertian travelogues—from the restrained, earnest films of the next two decades—the sober products of the U.S. New Deal and war effort, of the Grierson bodies in Britain and Canada, and of the Soviet First Five-Year Plan and after. Both transitions (1930 and 1970 being only schematic approximations of their dates) were characterized by a reassessment of the previous era’s technical revolution, by a movement from “formlessness” to “form,” from poesis to thesis, from the celebration of surfaces to the probing of meanings, from the ecstatic experimentation with new resources to their consolidation in the services of specific analysis, questions, and statements. Both the thirties and the seventies represent a period of technological stasis in the field of the documentary, a pause for the arsenal of the nonfiction filmmaker to be tested, expanded, and applied to new aesthetic and political problems, not remodeled.
POINT OF ORDER, de Antonio’s first film, appeared in 1963, the same year as the release of Leacock’s HAPPY MOTHERS’ DAY, well before the zenith of the cinema verité movement, and yet it deserves to be seen as an early reaction to that movement. In fact, side by side, POINT OF ORDER and HAPPY MOTHERS’ DAY offers a strikingly clear paradigm of the twofold direction open to documentarists in the decade or so to follow. Leacock’s film, an often snide exploration of a South Dakota town’s materialistic response to the local birth of quintuplets, represents the path almost unanimously taken during the sixties. De Antonio’s film, rejected by the New York Film Festival because it was not a film, is an examination of the phenomenon of McCarthyism, through a compilation of original video footage of the Army-McCarthy hearings of ten years earlier. It sketches the contours of a less crowded route.
The contrast between these two directions is fundamental. The Leacock film is pure poesis, a cinema of great intimacy, yet of almost baroque stylization, at once a celebration of the present and an implied elegy for a mythological past. The de Antonio work is, pure analysis, a cinema that is both public and visually austere, the documents of the past explored for their lessons for the present. Leacock’s HAPPY MOTHERS’ DAY expresses its eloquent despair in the lyrical populist Flahertian tradition. It sees the ultimate betrayal of the American ideal in ordinary townspeople, but rejoices in the equanimity and grace of the babies’ mother. De Antonio localizes the object of his despair at the very seat of power, in the Eisensteinian manner. He presents McCarthy, his cronies, and the ineffectual politicians McCarthy confronts (not to mention the clever lawyers on both sides) as the personifications of a corrupt and oppressive system, just as his Soviet predecessor saw the Tsarist officers, the ineffectual Kerensky, and the fat kulaks and priests as embodiments of reaction.
The divergence between these two directions is essentially one which is already well explored in this century’s art forms: collage vs. improvisation. De Antonio’s basic technique is “the use of a collage of people, voices, images, ideas, to develop a story line or a didactic line, uninterrupted by external narration.” (4) He compresses and analyzes an event, assembling and juxtaposing fragments of it. POINT OF ORDER represents this technique in its purest, most rudimentary form, since the act of assemblage and editing is the artist’s only original contribution to the raw material. In contrast, Leacock extends and elaborates an event by intuitively circling about it, accumulating a wealth of random detail into a decoratively mythologized whole. The opposition suggested by these two approaches implies among other things the irreconcilability of mythological thought and analytic thought, of the Costa-Gavras and the Godards, of neo-mythologizing and demythologizing. For the radical filmmaker the implications are important. It is, of course, not surprising that it should have been the neomythologists who dominated the mainstream political cinema in the early and mid-sixties. It is a tragedy archetypally American that the Newspeak newsreel voice over should have been replaced by a mythologizing all the more insidious, the fetishizing of the image by a sensibility of alienated, individualist Romanticism.
Television has naturally had a crucial influence on the work of both Leacock and de Antonio. The opposition between the 1963 works of the two men demonstrates the distinctly different mode of this influence on each. Leacock was, as we have seen, one of the first to develop an integrated aesthetics from the new hardware of the late fifties, but the importance of television both in providing the economic stimulus for its development and the forum for the public assimilation of the new idiom it entailed, cannot be overemphasized. HAPPY MOTHERS’ DAY was in fact originally commissioned by ABC (and then drastically re-edited for the version that was finally broadcast); and the film is notable for its reliance on a filmic syntax made accessible by television, its assumption of its audience’s televisual literacy. Although the Leacock version of the film is undeniably more piquant than the re-edited ABC one, it is nevertheless disturbingly guilty of the increasing tendency of television to “massage” its audience under the innocent guise of objectivity.
In contrast, though POINT OF ORDER is composed entirely of period television footage of the Army-McCarthy hearings, compressed in a ratio of 100:1, the result is an incisive critique of the video medium itself, a documentary parallel of Elia Kazan’s A FACE IN THE CROWD, the 1957 Hollywood denunciation of the power of the tube. POINT OF ORDER’s impact as auto-critique is stronger because of its documentary authenticity. The alienating effect of seeing video on the cinema screen, and the further effect of the ten year lapse between shooting and compilation, give the film all the more analytic power. The object of analysis becomes not only the web of personality and issue involved in the historic Alice-in-Wonderland debate, but the medium itself and its power to lend dignity and legitimacy to scoundrels and demagogues, and authority and inertia to the status quo.
As de Antonio has often said, the two video cameras are the heroes of the film. Visual rhetoric wields more weight than logic, and videogenic physiognomy and witty rejoinder have more force than conviction. Of course, the televised Senate hearings were not the first manifestation of the video politics to come. With MILLHOUSE, and the later separate release of the Nixon 1952 Checkers Speech segment of it, de Antonio was to trace its birth back even further. If cinema has long had a clearly articulated tradition of auto-critique, of metacinema, ranging from MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA to LE GAI SAVOIR, POINT OF ORDER signified the coming of age of television with the now richly demonstrated possibility of the mode of meta-video.
At the same time, POINT OF ORDER was also an early revelation of video’s crucial potential as a tool of primary historical investigation. Period video footage now becomes an audiovisual historical record with the unassailable authority formerly held only by vintage newsreels (with the same inherent dangers of course, given video’s even greater need for editing de Antonio himself once commented that he could have made McCarthy come out looking good). This authority is partly due to the naive, functional, purely denotative orientation of the original recording. Video’s low density would seem also to minimize film’s emphasis of random nuances, while it captures all of the rich fabric of audiovisual inflection and detail which written history omits. Ironically, the transfer of video from the television screen to the movie screen somehow serves to absolve it of whatever lack of credibility infects it in its original, functional context. It attains purity as a document.
In this light, de Antonio appears the descendant of the first generation of Soviet cinehistorians, Esther Shub and others, who had a comparable sense of the primary role of the film document as a raw material of historical research. Dziga Vertov’s use of the cine-document was also highly skilled and all too rarely exercised, only in STRIDE, SOVIET! and THREE SONGS OF LENIN among his mature works. Vertov’s use of newsreel footage in these films has a somewhat different orientation than Shub’s or de Antonio’s, more towards the modes of rhetoric and mythography than historiography proper. Nevertheless the basic maieutic rhythm arising from the conjunction of document and actuality in these films certainly anticipates de Antonio’s essential strategy more than Shub’s basically archival interest.
In any case, de Antonio’s use of video documents, with their own freshness and impact, is his own unique contribution. Since video is a major component of the present cultural and ideological fabric of U.S. society, it becomes, with POINT OF ORDER, an indispensable resource for radical documentarists of both sociopolitical and historiographical intent.
Thus, while the cinema verité movement and HAPPY MOTHER'S DAY celebrated the present, POINT OF ORDER legitimized the past as an equally rich field of documentary exploration for Americans. History ceased to mean for the filmmaker either a visual illustration of conventional historiography, such as CBS’s TWENTIETH CENTURY and a host of other voice overed, popularized historical films had been, or a pretext for heroic mythologizing, as in the Spanish Civil War subgenre represented by TO DIE IN MADRID (a worthy exercise in itself, as a prod to civilization’s fading conscience, but hardly a tool of new historical investigation). Instead, the documentary became a genuine instrument of historiography, a medium for diachronic social analysis with its own validity and authority, relying on visual documents in the same way that the traditional writing of history relied on written documents. (Of course, an irony is to be savored in the use of a medium, based technically on the ephemerality of the instant, as an instrument for grasping the meaning of the past). The discovery of this potential of film and video is no doubt parallel to the changing conception of the task of history, the new emphasis, for example, on the use of oral history, and, oddly enough, of statistical analysis as well.
As might be expected, U.S. film and video makers followed other groups as diverse as the Parisian Left Bank and the National Film Board in their discovery of cinema as a medium of historical analysis, though it is to their credit that they discovered video as an indispensable resource in this pursuit and have used it most successfully since. And it is no doubt video’s integral auditory component, incidentally, that makes it such a valuable resource—the new documentary’s revolt against the tyranny of the image was implicit in de Antonio’s turn to video as the material of his first film.
As it stands, POINT OF ORDER is still de Antonio’s only film to have been televized nationally in the U.S., although there is now talk of broadcasting one or two of the others and virtually all of them have appeared on TV in most other Western countries. When it appeared, POINT OF ORDER was the most controversial and critically acclaimed documentary in years (it also provoked the most hate mail) and remains today one of the most commercially successful and widely distributed of his films. Financed, as was to be the pattern, with “liberal money”, and produced by New Yorker Films’ Daniel Talbot, it reached a theatrical audience—unheard of for postwar documentaries (thanks in no small way to a $100,000 distribution campaign financed by Walter Reade, another unheard-of feature of the film). It is no mean feat for a documentarist to reach such a constituency, to introduce the possibility of radical discourse to the deeply prejudiced and powerful, middle class liberal audience, with its entrenched fear of Stalinist propaganda, as de Antonio can be said to have done with that first film. It is a goal on which de Antonio staked his subsequent career; and one which Newsreel has never even to entertain.
The simple factor which most ensures de Antonio’s accessibility to the “unconverted” middlebrow or intellectual audience is his respect for the integrity of the document. He retains his audience’s trusts by refusing to superimpose an external explanation or commentary upon his evidence. The documents speak for themselves. His didacticism, in POINT OF ORDER, as well as in his other films, is democratic in a real sense. The viewer must actively meet the challenge posed by a document rather than submit to an exegesis dictated in the authoritarian manner of Louis de Rochemont, Roman Karmen, or Walter Cronkite. As de Antonio himself explained:
“I'm usually attacked for not jumping on McCarthy hard enough, or not explaining certain events with a voice over narration. I've always thought that it’s wrong to explain things to audiences. The material is there, and interpretations can be made. I mean I could have stopped the film and inserted outside explanations, but I'm really not terribly interested in that. I disagree with that approach from every point of view aesthetically and even politically. I think it’s a mistake to show everything. And I think this is what is most wrong with so-called didactic films, that they become so utterly didactic that they forget that a film is also a film.” (5)
Nevertheless, in a later interview about his Vietnam film, he expands a notion of “democratic didacticism” which is crucial to his work, for all its anachronistic Griersonian ring:
”...I have been a teacher. My work is didactic... I only want to think that this film on Vietnam is more complicated, has more levels of meaning than there are in a slogan or in a purely didactic message. I don't believe that such a message has any more sense than to shout in the street, ‘Down with war!’ If you do so, that doesn't mean anything. The goal of a truly didactic work is to go beyond that and to suggest the ‘why.’ I like to describe my own feelings as democratic with a small ‘d,’ which means that if you don't want to teach things to people but to reveal things to them, you will permit them then to arrive at the same conclusion as yourself. That’s a democratic didacticism, without having to say ‘firstly, secondly, thirdly.’ And that’s why I insist on the word ‘reveal.’ A young American sees the film, and he doesn't hear de Antonio addressing him, but he can himself come to a conclusion about the war...” (6)
Grierson is thus not the only ghost conjured up by this fervent ideal. The echoes of Eisenstein as well, in particular his famous invocation of Marx in Film Sense, are too striking to pass over and too obvious to elaborate:
“The spectator is compelled to proceed along that selfsame path that the author traveled in creating the image. The spectator not only sees the represented elements of the finished work, but also experiences the dynamic process of the emergence and assembly of the image just as it was experienced by the author. And this is, obviously, the highest possible degree of approximation to transmitting visually the author’s perceptions and intention in all their fullness, to transmitting them with “that strength of physical palpability” with which they arose before the author in his creative work and his creative vision.”
“Relevant to this part of the discussion is Marx’s definition of the course of genuine investigation: ‘Not only the results, but the road to it also is a part of truth. The investigation of truth must itself be true, true investigation is unfolded truth, the disjuncted members of which unite in the result.’ The strength of the method resides also in the circumstance that the spectator is drawn into a creative act in which his individuality is not subordinated to the author’s individuality, but is opened up throughout the process of fusion with the author’s intention...” (7)
Of course, the question can arise whether de Antonio’s appeal to a broad based, liberal audience is consistent with the Marxist principles he professes. It is a question not easily resolved. Is his divergence from the reformist ideology of the sixties more a theoretical one than an actual one, his analytic methodology merely a style based on a theoretically constructed model of an ideal spectator who doesn't actually exist? Does de Antonio’s recent interest in the Weather People mean that his earlier faith in “democratic didacticism” has been revised? He claims not, yet the contradictions persist.
They present themselves sharply indeed in de Antonio’s next film after POINT OF ORDER, THAT'S WHERE THE ACTION IS, a fifty minute BBC television assignment dealing, with the 1965 New York mayoral race between John Lindsay, Abraham Beame and William Buckley. The artist’s first experience with a camera crew and his first encounter with an ongoing event, the result is his most journalistic film. It is also most remote from the acerbic tone of the “radical scavenging” for which he was to become famous, and the least inclined to escape form the confines of the bourgeois problematic within which it is posed. Compared to the other films, it has, predictably, the impersonal air of an assignment about it, but it is executed with skill and verve nonetheless.
The film interpolates a British perspective of an U.S. election with a running discussion of the urban problems which were the issues of the campaign(a BBC voice over introducing parties, candidates and issues was probably unavoidable). A vivid mélange is flawlessly assembled of verité footage of campaign activity, and interviews with both voters and candidates, lay and professional commentators. The most impressive aspect of the film is its continuation of a theme of media critique begun with POINT OF ORDER. De Antonio wittily undercuts the electoral system by including television spots by both major candidates, complete with unabashedly empty rhetoric and tasteless campaign songs (by Ethel Merman in the Lindsay spot). There is also prolonged scrutiny of the candidates’ platform demagoguery and a caustic critique of the Lindsay style by also-ran conservative Buckley.
One the whole, THAT'S WHERE THE ACTION IS (it’s the BBC’s title, not his own) is a modest and promising second film. However, it fails to heighten the satirical bemusement in its view of electoral politics to any serious level of interrogation. Furthermore, it seems content with the classical 60s liberal problematic of urban decay in its treatment of big city problems (relying heavily on Daniel Moynihan for its commentary in this area). And ultimately the film’s analysis of video politics is itself weakened by its own susceptibility to the charismatic attraction of candidate Lindsay. The photogenic, aristocratic liberal emerges relatively unscathed from the film, seeming to get the better share of the camera’s attention (at one point he offers it a gigantic hot dog in close up). And in the long run he succeeds in charming the film’s audience, despite the director’s attempts to undercut his appeal, as much as he charmed most U.S. liberals that year (as well as most voters).
However, if the film is unquestioningly a minor work, it constitutes an important step in the artist’s career. If POINT OF ORDER served as a manifesto of general aesthetic principle (democratic didacticism) and strategy (collage), expressed in their most basic form, THAT'S WHERE THE ACTION IS and de Antonio’s subsequent film, RUSH TO JUDGMENT (1966) point clearly to the complex form of cinema, the “document-dossier”, which the four following “mature” works were to imitate and refine: IN THE YEAR OF THE PIG (1969) provides a discussion of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. AMERICA IS HARD TO SEE (1970) analyzes the Eugene McCarthy presidential campaign of 1968. MILLHOUSE (1971) offers a satirical portrait of Richard Nixon. And PAINTERS PAINTING (1973) presents an historical survey of contemporary U.S. (New York) painting.
In RUSH TO JUDGMENT, de Antonio confirms the interview as an integral element of his characteristic form of collage; it is a basic artifact of television culture and the basic ingredient of the television film which he had just completed. The interview had been totally suppressed by Leacock and his colleagues but had always been a standard component of the European and Canadian cinema-direct (not to mention the films of Godard). Despite the interview experiments in such early sound documentaries as Esther Shub’s KOMSOMOL: LEADERS OF ELECTRIFICATION (1932), Vertov’s THREE SONGS OF LENIN (1933) and Grierson’s HOUSING PROBLEMS (1936), and occasional reliance on it in the theatrical newsreel medium, it was only with the coming of television that this technique had been perfected as a staple of audiovisual language. By the time de Antonio took it up, it had already been totally absorbed by his video generation audience. Low key and not emphatic, the interview is essential to the functional orientation of his work. His art is an art of revelation, not astonishment, and “content,” not style. His emphasis on “content” is the basis for his nostalgic admiration for the pre-television documentaries of the thirties (particularly those of Paul Strand) and his scorn for his cinema verité contemporaries:
“Why did I make POINT OF ORDER? I wanted to make documentaries: the only documentaries I like had been made before World War II. Television and the Cold War had taken the content out of documentary...” (8)
“The audiovisual history of our time is the television outtake. Each hour, cameras, as impersonal as astronauts, grind away film and tape Which the content-free networks will never transmit. Our television is content-free not because it is regulated but because it is a commodity-not news or art or entertainment but a product...” (9)
“Dependence on the technical is also an aspect of no content. Cinema-verité? Whose verité? No one can fault the development of fast, light, mobile equipment. What is wrong is the space the best known practitioners of cinema-verité occupy today: publicity films for rock groups.” (10)
De Antonio relies on the interview, not only as a means of personal revelation (as with cinema-direct), but also, more importantly, as a medium of “content,” defying television’s relegation of the interview to its most pedestrian, digestible, reliably content-free ingredient. The use of this traditionally innocuous device for historical analysis, personal reminiscence, or professional (or lay) opinion made such content fresh and accessible for an audience unaccustomed to finding such weighty matter therein. It becomes emphatic by virtue of its flatness. The long, static interview shots in RUSH TO JUDGMENT and the later films force their content upon the spectator because of their visual austerity. De Antonio’s film language is more sedate, more prosaic, as it were, and much cheaper—ultimately much more relevant to the double ideals of democracy and didacticism, than the flamboyant, poetic language of cinema verité. And this visual language is by no accident an affirmation of the vital role of speech, of dialogue, of logic, in radical discourse.
The interview is also integral to de Antonio’s historical perspective. The fundamental rhythm of his mature films is a systole-diastole between the document, a fragment from a past event, and the interview, a living segment of a present reflecting upon and analyzing that fragment. It is the basic Brechtian (and Sophoclean) structure of action in alternation with analysis. RUSH TO JUDGMENT, de Antonio was proud to claim, was the first U.S. film that “went into really big interviewing” and his retrospective defensiveness about its “boringness” is not at all warranted. Just as THAT'S WHERE THE ACTION IS had juxtaposed documents (visual and auditory) from an event, with commentary from observers of and participants in that event, RUSH TO JUDGMENT assembled film and video material from the Dallas assassination and the investigation that followed it, with interviews with spectators of the events. The ultimate effect is a denunciation of the Warren Commission’s (deliberate?) shortsightedness.
De Antonio’s collaboration with Mark Lane on the project, the author of the investigative book by the same title, is perhaps responsible for the only major flaw in this otherwise compelling film: there is an overall tendency to sensationalize rather than analyze the evidence that the film gradually accumulates in the defense of the scapegoat Oswald, and in addition, a rather explicit, almost homiletic tone due to the awkward appearances of Lane himself, who tends to belabor the points that have already been driven home by the documentary evidence and testimonies of witnesses.
RUSH TO JUDGMENT’s most interesting feature is its continuation of the previous film’s excursion into the populist arena which is more normally considered the domain of Leacock, et al. Seen in the context of de Antonio’s oeuvre, these two films and the later treatment of Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign, AMERICA IS HARD TO SEE, reveal a grass roots sensibility that is ultimately secondary within his vision of U.S. society; these three films contain what might be called a digression from the more central preoccupation of the artist’s career, that is, the U.S. tragedy as seen in the roles of its chief protagonists, not its chorus (or its victims).
RUSH TO JUDGMENT, filmed only on the brink of the age of fashionable dissent, and far from the Eastern enclaves of radical chic, was also de Antonio’s most dangerous film to produce until the Weather Underground film. For one thing, his customary rich liberal investors were nervous about such a touchy subject and the film had to be financed by British sympathizers such as Tony Richardson and John Osborne. Realized with an amateur crew, terrorized while in production by local and federal police, and hampered by official hostility, the film provoked de Antonio’s first real taste of the harassment that was to dog him for the rest of his career. Distribution was also a problem theater owners were threatened with vandalism and the release date coincided with the outbreak of the Six Days War, which provided serious competition on the small screen. As a result, it was de Antonio’s least widely distributed film. Recently, however, there has been renewed interest in it and there is even talk of it being broadcast on PBS.
Remarkable then for its very existence, RUSH TO JUDGMENT is all the more impressive as an exploration of a popular response to bewildering political events:
“What I wanted to show, at great length, was that one guy could take on the FBI—or two of us really, Mark Lane and I and the Warren Report, and prove that they had lied, by filming people at great length describing events that had happened in Texas in November of 1963. I felt that the Warren Commission’s investigations or really lack of them, was outrageous, so I went down and filmed these witnesses. I like the idea of their slow Texas speech while telling a story just ordinary working people, not Marxists or anything, just guys who worked for the railroad or whatever and I didn't give a damn if people were bored by it or not. I liked it.” (11)
De Antonio thus hits upon a basic principle of the French and Canadian cinema-direct: not only can non-participant, non-expert subjects offer profound, illuminating discussions of the social forces which affect their lives, but their testimonies alone, by virtue of their very existence, can themselves in the specific sociopolitical context of their lives constitute the basis of a moving and provocative aesthetic/ political experience. This insight was later the basis for Newsreel’s most solid achievements, as we have already seen, in such films as THE WOMAN'S FILM and RICHMOND OIL STRIKE. It is certainly telling to compare the dignity of the witnesses in RUSH TO JUDGMENT, pictured in their unassuming living rooms (doilies in place), or in the open spaces of the assassination sight, with the shallow, condescending portraits of ordinary Americans one encounters in the films of Leacock, Wiseman, or Barron. Unhappily, de Antonio seldom returns to build on this talent he shows in RUSH TO JUDGMENT, or to confirm the populist sensibility which is too often lacking in the consciousness of the New Left.
De Antonio’s art is always highly evocative visually; he can extract as much visual power from a static close up interview as exists in a Godard monologue or in a Pasolini close up of a wrinkled extra. Nevertheless, the ultimate impact of his art is fundamentally aural. If the U.S. verité filmmakers banished the soundtrack to a minor role (despite their delight in noise), the reverse is true of de Antonio. His films are essentially sound films, or more specifically, films of verbal language and dialogue. As with television journalism, the dominant logic of the de Antonio film is verbal and the image often functions simply as a contrapuntal accompaniment to the primary current of the film, its voices arising out of the documents from the past, with voices from the present, echoing, interpreting, mocking, judging, analyzing, exorcising them. The voices of the interviewees regularly leave the image of the present and accompany the documents as they unfold, so that the past and present, document and actuality opposition becomes not only sequential but simultaneous. With THAT'S WHERE THE ACTION IS and RUSH TO JUDGMENT, the voice over, banished by cinema verité as a vestige of a tyrannical past is reclaimed and liberated. No longer the voice over of TWENTIETH CENTURY and THE MARCH OF TIME, it is the voice of a witness participating in a discourse extracting the meaning hidden by the image, bringing the reflection and the perhaps greater wisdom of the present to bear on the inscrutability of time past as it unrolls once again.
The word becomes the basic structural and organizational principle of the film:
“Words are very important in my film (THE YEAR OF THE PIG) and in all of my work, and that’s how I do the editing: I start with the transcription of the sound-track and put all of these pages up on the walls of the big editing rooms where I work and begin to assemble the papers before the film: that’s how the structure begins; then I take the film, and I go endlessly from the text to the film and from the film to the text, and I change them around, switching the sheets of paper with each other. I have a good visual memory. When you have so much filmed material, you think of a shot you want and the list of shots is no use because no list of shots can describe everything with precision (you know, the list of shots says: buffaloes, peasants, airplanes, medium shot of buffaloes and peasants). Even if it’s well drawn up, it’s not as exact as your own memory.” (12)
It is no accident that this methodology is extremely similar to that followed by many of cinema-direct filmmakers. A related structural principle is implied by the ratios of document to actuality, both aural and visual, in this particular film: on the soundtrack, the interviews overwhelm the documentary sound in a ratio of eight to one, but the image track presents four times as much vintage document as it does de Antonio’s own shots. Visual memory is restructured vocally, and only then is it useful to the present. Proust’s voice extracted redemption from the unorganized mass of visual fragments in his memory; and the voice is no less the instrument for de Antonio’s characters (and the other personae of the new documentary, I.F. Stone, Antonia Brico, Tom Wicker, Dan Ellsberg, etc.) to confront. the visual fragments from the past, and to shore these fragments against ruin. When the enemy has learned to hide its face be-hind a screen, only the faculty of speech exercised in naming it, denouncing it, can begin the confrontation with it.
IN THE YEAR OF THE PIG, de Antonio’s Vietnam epic, separated by an interval of three years from the Dallas film, is the artist’s only film to have reaped the dubious honor of an Oscar nomination; fortunately it did not win (according to de Antonio because of a closed shop town’s hostility to a non-union film). And the monolith’s infinite capacity to absorb even its most ardent opposition was temporarily forestalled (although this oversight can now be said to have been amply rectified by the Academy’s later gestures toward Joseph Strick’s INTERVIEWS WITH MY LAI VETERANS and now HEARTS AND MINDS, in the true Hollywood tradition of hindsight, surrogate recognition). IN THE YEAR OF THE PIG was also one of de Antonio’s three biggest commercial successes (along with POINT OF ORDER and PAINTERS PAINTING, but none of his films has ever lost money), focusing as it did on the decade’s most divisive national issue. Financed readily by various Peace Movement millionaires and such prominent liberals as Paul Newman, Leonard Bernstein, and Steve Allen, the film was one of the first documentaries about the Indochina struggle, and it still remains the best.
Yet, despite its place at the center of the antiwar movement in the late sixties, the film’s mood seems in marked contrast to the predominant spirit of the movement as it now appears in retrospect. Instead of the passionate moralistic tone of the marches, de Antonio’s rhetoric is cool, scholarly, and articulate. Its aim was to convince, not to inflame, to do the homework that the marchers had no time for. In contrast to the two famous French antiwar films of the period, IN THE YEAR OF THE PIG is notable for its shrewd, deliberate, cerebral tone: a far cry from THE SEVENTEENTH PARALLEL, Joris Ivens’ epic tribute to the heroism of the North Vietnamese peasant defense, or the emotional, subjective FAR FROM VIETNAM, the collective statement of the Leftish fringes of the New Wave.
In a cultural climate already charged with the divisive rhetoric of the war and distrustful of radical polemic, de Antonio’s strategy was probably the right one. U.S. liberals were ready for this cold chronological collage of documents arranged with the artist’s customary matter-of-factness and unmediated by any external narration. The documents outlined with precision and clarity almost forty years of the history of the Vietnamese struggle; a counterpoint of long authoritative interviews with experts as diverse as a French scholar of Buddhist thought and U.S. congressional leaders provided analysis and background at each stage of the chronology. The faces of the interlocuters repeatedly surface from the past, become familiar guides, and then vanish again as their voices continue on, disembodied, over the stream of visual artifacts. Motifs and refrains, both visual and aural, appear and disappear: early in the film a specially commissioned concerto of helicopter noises drones out of the silence in a deafening crescendo (when the projectionist resists the urge to turn down the volume, as occasionally happens), thereby introducing a major aural motif of the film and the war.
Much of the film’s documentary footage came, predictably, from sympathetic sources the NLF and North Vietnam. However, considerable amounts also originated with ABC, the BBC, and the French Army; and the film often achieves a dramatic emphasis because of this, with the editor’s reversing the original intention of a clip through judicious cutting or juxtaposition. Again it is a question of the removal of newsreel and video material from its original context and exploiting the profound distanciation which results. Particularly the U.S. television footage of the war now displays its startling contradictions when shown on a cinema screen, suddenly having lost the lulling effect that its continuous low definition, saturation in U.S. living rooms is said to have had. Media-critique is thus once more de Antonio’s stance:
“There is nothing as bad that’s happened concerning the war as the network’s coverage of it, because it seems as if they're covering the war whereas in fact they're not. The networks have made the U.S. people comfortable with the war because it appears between commercials. There’s never the question asked, ‘Why are we doing this? What is this war about?’ It’s never suggested by anything that occurs on television that we should even be interested in that type of question. Television is a way of avoiding coming to terms with the fact that we're in this war.” (13)
In contrast to the previous film’s populist flavor, a vivid record of ordinary people caught up in a political turmoil, IN THE YEAR OF THE PIG has little sense of public perspective of the war. The interviewer’s encounters with the French scholar and Ho Chi Minh are no doubt highlights of the film; but however indispensable the artist’s attention to the experts and the protagonists to his analytical goals and his exposure of the folly and evil of the U.S. leadership, there is a sense that this irrepressible Jeremiah might have profited from the cinema verité model of interest in ordinary people. The concluding credits of his film about U.S. painting, PAINTERS PAINTING, unroll over footage of expressionless crowds wandering around the Museum of Modern Art, and at this point one is suddenly struck by how much this film, as well as others of his oeuvre, would have been enriched by the reflection of the consciousness of such crowds. In YEAR OF THE PIG, de Antonio’s short encounters with a deserter, and with GI’s on active duty are high points of the film, but this exploration of the human, everyday dimension of the war is tantalizingly brief. In PAINTERS PAINTING, as in the art world in general, the absence of lay perspective is total.
With HEARTS AND MINDS, Peter Davis makes some progress towards correcting this deficit, aiming for a populist perspective of the war which is not present in de Antonio. Davis’ involvement with individual Americans who obediently waged the war is often sensitive and profound, and almost compensates for occasional lapses into clumsiness and offense (the Saigon bordello cinema verité sequence) or facile crowd scenes which rival Leacock and Wiseman in their arrogance and undercut the sensitivity displayed elsewhere in the film. If de Antonio saw the war as a debacle of international imperialism and domestic intrigue, Davis sees it as a national tragedy, not primarily for the Vietnamese people (though he doesn't understate their suffering), but for the U.S. people. Employing a characteristic de Antonio collage, though in a less rigorous, nonchronological manner, Davis confronts participants and witnesses both in the present and the past, from the Oklahoma ex-flier who weeps as he remembers his bombing raids, to the infamous Colonel Patton who, in a video tape from the late sixties, praises his men for being “good killers” (de Antonio used the same tape, but not in Davis’s living color). A sense of national failure of spirit emerges from this application of the collage approach, despite the ideological confusion of the overall effect, the blurring of class lines in Davis’s conception of the U.S. people, and a tendency towards a muddled sentimentality. Like de Antonio, Davis also presents chief protagonists in the conflict Ellsberg, Rostow, Westmoreland, etc., but what finally remains with the spectator is the impression of a community, divided, defensive, penitent, and fearful.
Davis’s early television documentary, THE SELLING OF THE PENTAGON (1971) is on the whole a much better film, ironically because network requirements apparently demanded more coherence (the topic was also much more compact and assailable the public relations activities of the Defense Department). However, the topic was less amenable to the kind of populist sensibility which Davis later reveals in the best moments of HEARTS AND MINDS. Morton Silverstein’s TV films, as we have seen, represent the potential of television journalism to reflect the lives and viewpoints of ordinary people at its best.
Cinda Firestone’s ATTICA is another recent documentary which builds upon de Antonio’s formula in YEAR OF THE PIG (she is a former editor of his) and in addition shares in the populist sensibility which is the most important achievement of the radical underground current of films. She relies much more than her mentor on1ong interviews with her subjects, the participants and witnesses in the prison revolt. And unlike Davis, she does not lose sight of the political basis of the tragedy and resists the easy resources of sentimentality.
De Antonio’s fifth film was AMERICA IS HARD TO SEE (1970), a title taken from Robert Frost. It dealt with a single event from the recent past rather than an ongoing historical process of several decades like the Vietnam war. By restricting his focus to the McCarthy campaign for the Presidency in 1968, de Antonio created a more concentrated, more specific kind of political analysis than the unwieldy subject of the war permitted. In addition, the McCarthy film was closer to its subject chronologically than any of the others, a time lapse of only two years separating document and event from recollection and analysis. This is a very short historical perspective indeed, but a dramatic one nevertheless. The abrupt changes in even the sartorial aspect of the campaigners as they emerge from the 1968 documents into the 1970 interviews, the pronounced oscillation between the 1968 campaign euphoria and the 1970 sober realism tined with nostalgia, the hagiographical atmosphere with which only two years’ hindsight surrounds the documentary appearances of Robert Kennedy and the references to Martin Luther King ... all contribute to a sense of the uncontrollable acceleration of the historical process, two years having seen such a radical transformation of cast and ambience in the U.S. political arena.
The film is at times a critique off the naive enthusiasm of the McCarthy supporters, from the gloomy perspective of Nixonian 1970, and otherwise a meditation on the very real possibility of a reformist alternative politics within the system. AMERICA IS HARD TO SEE is at once a (relatively) bright film, and a highly ambiguous one. The victories in New Hampshire and Oregon are miracles captured on video, Johnson’s resignation speech a tentative defeat of the enemy, and the charm and affable rationality of the chief protagonist of the film himself a refreshing glimpse of an apparently real, attractive alternative. Yet the awareness is always present that the film is, after all, a post-mortem, and the campaign so euphorically pursued and relived was indeed a failure.
Again, a low key chronological approach follows the event from its beginning, slowly and conscientiously to its end. As a historian de Antonio is fastidious: he is careful to balance whatever mythologizing is inevitable in his subject matter—the heroics, the flag waving, the paranoia, the despair—with a down to earth examination of the mechanics of electoral politics on the smallest level. He seeks out documents which show the moments of groundwork and individual effort which cumulatively make up the historical process. The potential of alternative politics is discovered in the images and voices of ordinary people with specific goals, and in those of top strategists planning and then evaluating the maneuvers.
De Antonio’s focus on specific topical issues a senate hearing, a war, a political campaign, etc., does not mean that his interest is restricted to these events, as we have seen. The challenge of addressing abstract theoretical problems through immediate, topical subjects, is a traditional one for the radical filmmaker: he or she must always satisfy the demands for the concrete and topical, by box office and audience, and perhaps even by the photographic, representative nature of the medium, despite whatever interest s/he may have in more abstract or theoretical issues. It is to de Antonio’s credit that he habitually succeeds in extending the microcosm to the macrocosm, yet never makes this extension in a way that is un-“democratic” or facile. The step from the specific to the general is never transparent and often difficult, yet it is always there implicitly; engaging his spectators to complete the concoctions themselves. It is perhaps this aspect of de Antonio’s films that is most responsible for their extraordinary durability, a feature that is by no means a common one in the radical cinema.
The Army-McCarthy hearing, as we have seen, for example, becomes a pretext for an analysis of what de Antonio saw as a symptomatic emphasis on “Technique” in U.S. life. (14) In the same way, RUSH TO JUDGMENT becomes an attempt “not to prove the innocence of Oswald, but to show how the U.S. machine works,”(15) and YEAR OF THE PIG is an analysis of the media’s role in legitimizing-the politics of imperialism and monopoly capitalism. Similarly, AMERICA IS HARD TO SEE contains a consciousness, beneath its surface optimism, of the grim inevitability that the system must ultimately defuse even this hope, using even dissent to entrench itself in its own inertia. From this viewpoint, de Antonio’s entire oeuvre becomes a continuing Marcuse-style essay on the modern state and its manner of making its tyranny palatable. Yet the films continue, one by one, with no end in sight, and their presence themselves contradicts de Antonio’s apparent recognition of this fatality. The Weather film is certain to add an important new perspective to this continuing essay.
AMERICA IS HARD TO SEE treated a personality as the symbol of the system’s potential to renew itself from within. MILLHOUSE; another, different kind of portrait, appeared a year later, and treated another personality, Nixon at the height of his power, as emblematic of the corruption of the System and its tenacious opposition to that self-renewal. “The film attacks the System, the credibility of the System,, by focusing on the obvious and perfect symbol for that System.”(16) De Antonio’s blackest, most sardonic, and most despairing film, MILLHOUSE is also his funniest, as he himself terms it, “the first real attempt at a real documentary comedy.”(17) But immediately Marcuse’s problematic again imposes itself: is the ability of the radical subculture to laugh at the enemy merely the reverse side of that enemy’s power to absorb its dissent with just as much glee?
Though the filmmaker was to claim that MILLHOUSE is not a personal attack, whatever else it may be, it is indeed an attack, par excellence, merciless and brilliant, worthy of Swift and Pope, delivered ad hominem and below the belt. De Antonio certainly deserved the honor of inclusion on Nixon’s celebrated enemies list as much as anyone. MILLHOUSE (its full title is MILLHOUSE, A WHITE COMEDY) is predictably conducted as a chronological record of Nixon’s career, in fact as a parody of the famous crisis-to-crisis chronology which Nixon himself set forth in his pre-presidential memoirs. The system which Nixon had manipulated continuously to his own advantage for over a quarter century is closely scrutinized.
As with the previous films, the basic, strategy is to remove documentary from their original context and re-examine them in a context of (here, satiric) juxtaposition with actuality. The most memorable example is the infamous Checkers speech, where the nervous young candidate gravely tries out the ropes of the medium to which he would habitually resort when under attack over the next twenty years. Once removed from its intended context it becomes a monument of hilarity. An additional twist in MILLHOUSE is the humor derived from the art of the outtake. This means of confronting the public man with the private man is developed here to perfection, often without cutting. The changes the Nixonian face undergoes as it confronts the video cameras constitute a sublime image of the duplicity fostered by the system of media politics. And Nixon’s unwitting contributions to de Antonio’s art of collage are more expressive of the man than any other moments in the film.
Although ad hominem mockery hardly seems a legitimate tool of “democratic didacticism, there is a stratum to the film of utmost gravity, developed by serious commentators in the traditional de Antonio style. The homework is done no less efficiently for the fun: the facts and the documents are presented with equal authoritativeness. De Antonio’s scrutiny, of the political personality—from the earliest red baiting and smear campaign days to the smoothest White House piety—is as methodical and thorough as it is irreverent.
It is ironic that MILLHOUSE, that arch-example of an anti-exemplary biography, should provide the model for an important sub-genre of the new documentary, the exemplary biography, the documentary homage. Jerry Bruck’s I.F. STONE'S WEEKLY and Jill Godmilow’s ANTONIA are two of the best known of the new biographical films, all built more or less faithfully on the model provided by MILLHOUSE, that is, the collage of vintage document and commentary, and the extensive use of interviews and monologues to penetrate the personality under examination. (The National Film Board of Canada’s film biographies of Dr. Norman Bethune and John Grierson are two other admirable prototypes for this sub-genre).
Such films, given the advantage of the posture of tribute rather than attack, have often been able to enlist the cooperation of their subjects, thereby making the invaluable addition of his or her own voice to the commentary and. varying amounts of cinema verité footage to the collage as well. The latter brings to the portrait cinema verité’s undeniable talent for capturing behavioral authenticity. In contrast to the accumulative effect of the new film portrait, those of the sixties relying solely on verité language seem superficial, indeed—Stravinsky, Fonda, Dylan, Cash, etc.. De Antonio has demonstrated, that the addition of historical background, contemporary and external commentary, and the direct on-camera confrontation with the subject are essential to the genre. Instead of the suggestive cinema verité cameo, limited by the counterculture and the System’s shared, synchronic conception of the personality, we have in this way a more penetrating diachronic exploration of individuals, one elaborating their growth in relation to the social forces around them. Cinema verité reinforced individualist, behaviorist ideology; the de Antonio collage makes possible a new collective, materialist view of the human reality.
If MILLHOUSE is de Antonio’s most exaggerated rejection of the network and verité ideal of “objectivity,” PAINTERS PAINTING (1973) hovers disturbingly close to that dubious standard which the filmmaker’s previous career had so convincingly repudiated. Outside of the film, de. Antonio made no secret of the definite reservations about contemporary painting which see, might have expected from him:
“If you consider American art since the war, it’s a cold art for a cold war. It’s an art ‘non-engagé.’ The best American painters have no point of view on the world. They have become part of the world of business. The rich families collect their works. McLuhan admires technology, as John Cage does in music, who has passed from music to technology. This is political, because you are upholding in this way American values; when you are neutral you defend the existing order: and that’s the danger of McLuhan.”(18)
And criticism of postwar U.S. (official) art might well be the duty of an artist who has spent a decade of his life in films denouncing the triumph of technique over content in politics, in communications, in film and in every phase of U.S. life (including the film aesthetics of that group of New American independent filmmakers, most akin to the postwar movements in painting, whom de Antonio once termed “Jonas Mekas and his troupe of trend sniffing mercenary cavalry.”(19) However the viewer is hard pressed to read such an attitude into PAINTERS PAINTING. In fact, it is a film that even CBS might be proud to broadcast, it is so wary of evaluating the phenomenon under study. As a film, then, by an avowed Marxist about an artistic avant-garde, PAINTERS PAINTING encapsulates all of the contradictions in the murky relationships of the Left to such avant-gardes.
Predictably, de Antonio readily admits to such contradictions in the film:
”...it’s presented me with several problems personally, which anyone who has seen my work would guess, since I regard myself as a Marxist social critic of the existing social system in this country and yet the painters and the way in which they work are essentially manifestations of a very conservative aspect of America. The painting itself is not conservative (though it is apolitical) but it’s part of a machine which runs this country. And so, if I have to make a choice between American painting and the attempt to turn men’s [sic] minds and the search for a collective soul, then I'm more interested in what Mao is doing than in the art of my friends. And yet I'm making the film: perhaps it’s something I have to do to get it out of my system.”(20)
The film’s virtually sole critical perception comes from the half-satirical encounter with Robert Scull, the self-styled Maecenas of the New York art world, and his since-jettisoned wife. The interview brings out only a momentary flash of the MILLHOUSE de Antonio, as the realization half emerges that virtually all contemporary painting depends on the whims of these dubiously motivated, superficially endowed, nouveaux riches, and on the personal tastes of the establishment art critics whose pontifical pronouncements on surfaces and textures are also part of the collage.
Still, as an uncritical chronicle of postwar painting (with an evaluation of its elitist audience, marketplace orientation, and incestuous, conspiratorial inspiration hardly implied), PAINTERS PAINTING represents an additional refinement of the essay-collage form which de Antonio had been developing for a decade. Now the past and present, document and analysis oscillation is sharpened by the 35mm definition and brilliant acrylic color of the footage from the present. The documents recording the Masters in the act, Pollack pouring, and de Kooning and the others doing whatever we are told they were doing, presented in reverent fifties black and white, form an evocative counterpoint with the color images of their completed work and of their successors working and talking a generation later. The tendency of the present generation of painters and sculptors to talk and conceptualize at least as much (and as well) as they create makes the interviews all the more penetrating. The only exception to the respectful bourgeois Romantic perspective of Art adopted by the film as a whole arises from the interview with Andy Warhol. This artist is easily as fascinating on the screen as the haunting menagerie which he himself has led across it over the last ten years. In the film, he is unique among the artists interviewed for his refusal to play the self important, oracular role which attracts the others.
PAINTERS PAINTING also continues the perspective of the seventies to incorporate some elements of cinema verité into the structure of the collage. De Antonio balances the interviews, ranging from manifesto-like monologues to CHELSEA GIRLS chitchat, with revealing though somewhat stiff footage of the personalities outside of the interview format. The flexibility of such an eclecticism is richly demonstrated.
However rewarding this film might be for those observers of Rockefeller Art who would not be disturbed by such a non-committal attitude, it is to be hoped that with this film (partly financed by the sale of paintings de Antonio himself had collected during the fifties from his artist friends), the artist has indeed “got it out of his system.”
A far more rewarding film on avant-garde culture is Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet’s excellent short work on Schoenberg, also a film based on the structural principle of collage. In it Straub no doubt shares de Antonio’s reverential attitude to his subject, but balances it not only with a clear elaboration of the historical context for Schoenberg’s work, but also, importantly, with a statement by Brecht reflecting on the very problem the earlier biographical material had dealt with (antisemitism). The insight provoked by this disruption of the biographical moment with a (literally) Brechtian intervention, is an achievement that de Antonio might profitably have imitated in PAINTERS PAINTING, to redeem what otherwise is a disturbingly ambiguous homage to an avant-garde movement which could use more analysis than accolades.
Now that HEARTS AND MINDS has finally succeeded in reaching its public, and public anticipation of the Weather Underground film is high, there seems no reason to doubt that the new documentary is in reasonably good health, with every possibility of expanding its audience even more. Despite the enormous debt that Davis clearly owes de Antonio, there are important differences between them. Davis belongs more to the tradition of liberal, humanitarian journalism than to that of incisive, political analysis, and thus bears less resemblance to de Antonio than to Marcel Ophuls, with whom he has already been compared in the popular press several times. Though both Davis and Ophuls use modified versions of the basic de Antonio “document-dossier” format, they share explicit moralistic, bourgeois humanist perspectives of history which de Antonio has always been careful to avoid.
For de Antonio, history is neither therapeutic or cathartic, nor, worse still, a paradigm of the moral relativity of human acts—it is instructive. Weeping over Vietnam with Davis, and meaculpa-ing over the Occupation with Ophuls only serves to becloud the social forces in play. De Antonio’s review of HEARTS AND MINDS in a 1974 University Review condemns the Davis film for “political emptiness,” “an inability to understand either the United States or Vietnam,” a “(sneering), japing, middle-class liberal superiority,” and “patronizing attitudes,”—in short it is “heartless” and “mindless.”(21)
De Antonio’s objections are by and large valid; nevertheless, Davis’s film deserved the wide audience it reached even if it only serves to prevent people in the United States from forgetting Indochina as quickly as they seem to be doing. And it is to be praised for speaking to its audiences with moral and emotional force. It can't be denied that Davis’s broad appeal is a tactical virtue which other more rigorous and uncompromising Vietnam films lack, for example YEAR OF THE TIGER by Deirdre English, Dave Davis, and Steve Talbot (a casualty of the “official tour behind the lines” syndrome), or the Jane Fonda and Haskell Wexler work, INTRODUCTION TO THE ENEMY (a far superior film because it is more personal, but one apparently still restricted to the committed circuit). Of course the definitive film of the Vietnam war—and the Cold War -has still to be made. And de Antonio has provided the surest models with which to begin.
In the meantime, as the Weather film nears completion, the filmmaker has two projects in the conception phase. Both ideas are for fiction films, a shift in gears of no small consequence for a documentarist of his standing. Which project will materialize first, if either, is anybody’s guess: a fictional treatment of Philip Agee’s book, INSIDE THE COMPANY: CIA DIARY, or a story of a famous radical filmmaker seen through the eyes of government agencies who, keep him under surveillance(!). What is certain is that de Antonio, in leaving behind him (temporarily, it is to be hoped) the documentary mode of discourse, will not abandon the rich creative energy, the obstinate commitment to rationality and to change, and the clear sighted historical consciousness which have made him one of the major U.S. filmmakers of our time. It is perhaps this last dimension of his art, its investment in the importance of historical analysis, which has constituted his most significant contribution to U.S. radical culture, and which will no doubt continue to do so with. his new turn toward the mode of fiction.
1. Robert Kramer, quoted in “Newsreel” (“A Montage of Programmatic Comments by Newsreel Filmmakers”). Film Quarterly, No. 22 (Winter, 1968). p. 45.
2. Peter Biskind, quoted in “Radical American Film? A Questionnaire.” Cineaste, Vol. V. No. 4, p. 15.
4. Bernard Weiner, “Radical Scavenging: An Interview with Emile de Antonio.” Film Quarterly, No. 25, Fall ‘71, p. 3.
5. Ibid., p. 9.
6. Michel Ciment and Bernard Cohn, “Entretien avec Emile de Antonio.” Positif. No 113 (Feb. 1970), p. 28. My translation.
7. Sergei M. Eisenstein, Film Sense. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1942, p. 28.
8. Weiner, interview, p. 8.
9. Ibid., p. 10.
10. Ibid., p. 10.
11. Ibid. , P. 8.
12. Ciment, interview, p. 30.
13. Weiner, interview, p. 7.
14. Ibid., p. 8.
15. Ibid., p. 7.
16. Ibid., p. 6
17. Ibid., p. 15.
18. Ciment, interview, p. 36.
19. Weiner, interview, p. 10.
20. Ibid., p. 14.
21. Emile de Antonio, “Visions of Vietnam,” University Review, No. 41 (Dec. 1974), p. 21.
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