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Documenting Revolution: Emile de Antonio

Emile de Antonio (1919-1990) has been lauded as “the most important political filmmaker during the Cold War.” His career spanned over three decades, during which he produced ten feature-length documentary films, including Point of Order (1963), In the Year of the Pig (1969), and Underground (1976). Randolph Lewis, author of the first biography on de Antonio, offers a well-crafted work that aims to prove the veracity of the above-mentioned claim. Lewis recovers the history of the life and works of a documentary auteur who at one time may have been known and well-received in some circles (among Warhol’s New York art crowd, and by esteemed critics Vincent Canby and Pauline Kael), but who nonetheless has rarely been included in the canon of U.S. documentary filmmaking.

After reading Lewis’s compelling study of the complex personality and works of de Antonio—a story set within a richly descriptive historical context—one might wonder if de Antonio wouldn’t have minded being excluded from a tradition that favored linear, descriptive, historical documentaries like Hearts and Minds (1974) (a film de Antonio despised) or Ken Burns’s oeuvres such as the Civil War series. As Lewis aptly demonstrates, de Antonio had a radical agenda for his highly-charged political films, the themes of which included the McCarthy-Army hearings of 1955 (Point of Order); a revisionist history of the then-sacralized Warren Report of 1964 (Rush to Judgment) (based on the best-seller by Mark Lane); a no-holds-barred critique of the U.S.’s involvement in Vietnam (In the Year of the Pig); and a humorous satire of then-president Nixon, Millhouse: A White Comedy. De Antonio aimed not only to educate with his films (his pre-production research often included a vast amount of background reading), but also to agitate and provoke a critical perspective on the mainstream media, television in particular. His objective was to provide a counter-hegemonic critique of the power structure, ranging from scathing rants against the power elite (McCarthy, Nixon, and J. Edgar Hoover each were subjects of his films) to documentaries about social actors often excluded from explaining their views in mainstream media. The latter group included the Catholic Left activists in In the King of Prussia, the young radicals of the Weather Underground, in Underground, and Vietnamese civilians, in In the Year of the Pig.


From his first film, Point of Order (made at age 42), throughout most of his career, de Antonio tore down “official” truths (e.g. the Warren report on the Kennedy assassination) promulgated by the television networks, and replaced them with multi-layered, complex views of history and voices often elided in mainstream journalistic discourse. Rather than simplistic and brief snapshots of historical events, like television coverage during the Vietnam War, de Antonio acknowledged the discontinuities, ruptures, and ambiguities that make up the reality of the historical process. His films undermine a single version of history and create an alternate narrative more open to multiple interpretations.


What makes de Antonio’s work so compelling is not only the content of his films, but also the innovative and complex form in which he tells a story. De Antonio’s style has been characterized as “compilation documentary,” having origins in the 1920s with Soviet filmmaker Esther Shub. The compilation form consists of using found footage and editing it, oftentimes using the Eisensteinian dialectical montage technique. De Antonio, however, created his own brand of compilation documentary form by intercutting archival footage (in the case of Millhouse, Nixon’s famed Checkers speech was stolen, or “liberated”) with his own filmed interviews to provide commentary. Many times it was the juxtaposition of the footage that allowed the viewer to read visual and aural content “against the grain,” much in the ironic fashion made famous by Luis Bunuel’s Las Hurdes/Land without Bread (1932). Lewis argues that it was this blend of archival footage and contemporary interviews that set the past and present into a dialectical tension only the audience could resolve. In de Antonio’s tour de force on the disaster that was the U.S. intervention in Vietnam, In the Year of the Pig, Lewis compares de Antonio’s confrontational style to Brecht’s, in that it served to “break the viewer’s passivity and emphasize the distance between the images of television and the statements of observers on one hand, and the realities of war on the other…which ‘irritates the viewer into thought,’ as one reviewer noted.”


Lewis examines de Antonio’s filmmaking trajectory not only as an auteur (defining the director’s signature style), but also as a radical intellectual living in the United States during the Cold War. For example, when de Antonio read about the militant political group the Weather Underground, he decided to contact the movement himself and offered to make a clandestine film about it. This led to problems with the FBI, and ultimately a court battle against de Antonio by the U.S. government, which tried to bar him from filming this fugitive group. De Antonio won this court case with the help of many famous actors and filmmakers, including Warren Beatty, Mel Brooks, and many others. Lewis notes that outside the films that made his name, this First Amendment victory was probably the most significant achievement of de Antonio’s career.


Lewis’s strength as a biographer is his deft use of a vast archive that de Antonio and his wife Nancy donated to the University of Wisconsin. There, Lewis found many journals that de Antonio faithfully kept throughout his filmmaking career, along with his correspondence, script outlines, newspaper clippings, and even FBI documents that de Antonio requested about himself. In addition to this large repository of information, Lewis culls together many film reviews of the day and intersperses the reception of each of de Antonio’s films with the film’s production and its historical context. In this way, the reader gains a multiplicity of viewpoints on the success of de Antonio’s films, and comprehends the critical debates of the time in which the films were exhibited.


De Antonio’s distinctively “visual chaotic” style arose from his use of montage, creating a sense of contradiction, irony, and at times parody within his films. As Lewis outlines, the nature of his filmmaking was inextricably linked to the complexities and contradictions of de Antonio’s character. Born into an elite family, he attended Harvard, and there became immersed in leftist politics by joining the John Reed Society and the Young Communist League. Paradoxically, he later enlisted in the U.S. military and afterwards obtained a Master’s degree. After being ousted from his position as a college English professor due to his wild conduct (an arrest for drunk driving, affairs with students, and a brazen attitude), de Antonio encountered filmmaking via the New York art scene during the 1950s. His first film foray was as the distributor for the Beat film classic Pull My Daisy (1959). Lewis intricately paints a portrait of de Antonio’s milieu during this time, when friendships were cultivated with Andy Warhol (de Antonio was the drunken star of a Warhol film—Drink—that was such an embarrassment that he threatened to sue Warhol if he ever screened it), composer John Cage, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg. It was through exposure to these assemblage artists that de Antonio developed his own collage style of filmmaking. In 1972 he used his privileged status as a friend and art insider to create a documentary of the New York art world, Painters Painting. This film was de Antonio’s least political in an overt sense, but some critics considered it his best work.


In the footsteps of many leftist filmmakers, de Antonio raised money for his films through very wealthy liberal investors rather than appeal to foundations or grassroots groups for backing. Although de Antonio espoused a radical sensibility, Lewis cleverly observes, he was the only Marxist filmmaker who never discussed class struggle in his films, nor did he seek out an audience other than “those middle class souls who had the time, money, and education to frequent an alternative movie house.” The charge of raising money from the wealthy and “preaching to the choir,” could be leveled against many left-leaning artistic or intellectual creators, including Eisenstein himself (for his unfinished film Que Viva Mexico).


Although the claim that de Antonio is the most significant documentary filmmaker in the postwar United States is debatable, especially when one considers the work of Frederick Wiseman, Albert and David Maysles, and Barbara Kopple, one thing is certain: de Antonio was gutsy, brilliant, and willing to take great risks for his art, both physically and financially. He adamantly rejected the veneer of “objectivity” that was a central tenet in the documentary tradition. In that way he mirrors the most famous documentary filmmaker in Cuba, Santiago Alvarez—a contemporary who also used the compilation style to make highly-charged political statements about the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War using newsreel footage, still photographs, and bits from television. Alvarez might agree with de Antonio’s observation that “film was tug, pull, conflict, process…and an honest film reflected this process on the screen without the veil of naturalism.” Randolph Lewis successfully synthesizes the ebullient life of one man for the reader: a life filled with joie de vivre, enlightening histories, innovative filmmaking, and passionate politics.


Tamara L. Falicov


The Brooklyn Rail


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