Emile de Antonio

Emile de Antonio (1919-1989), America’s most influential political documentary filmmaker, made ten films: Point of Order (1964); That’s Where the Action Is (1965); Rush to Judgment (1966) (video title: The Plot to Kill JFK: Rush to Judgment [1988]); In the Year of the Pig (1969); America is Hard to See (1970); Millhouse: A White Comedy (1971); Painters Painting (1972); Underground (1976); In the King of Prussia (1982) and Mr. Hoover and I (1989).

All but Painters Painting are about the Cold War, and three of them are classics: Point of Order (about the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings); In the Year of the Pig (the first important film to question and put into historical perspective America’s involvement in Vietnam); and Millhouse: A White Comedy (an hilarious examination of the career and character of Richard M. Nixon that seemed prescient several years later when Nixon’s presidency disintegrated) (1).

In September 1988, de Antonio visited University at Buffalo in upstate New York to take part in “Editing Reality”, a two-day symposium on representation and truth that Diane Christian and I had organised through the Center for Studies in American Culture. Friday, the night before his appearance at the symposium, de Antonio met at our house with a small group of students, teachers and journalists. He talked at length about his work and career. He continued that conversation two days later with our son Michael Jackson, a law student, in the course of a five-hour automobile trip to Oneonta.

The title of de Antonio’s Saturday morning talk was “Finding a New Form in Content”, but that’s all it was, a title. Many of the things he said were what the comic Lenny Bruce called “bits” – routines or riffs he’d done before and would do again. Some of them he’d said in our house the previous day, some he would say to Michael the next day on the road to Oneonta, some he’d said in other public and private events just like these. If you see his last film, Mr. Hoover and I, you’ll see and hear him telling versions of several of the bits he does here (2).

What follows are edited selections from the transcripts of his remarks about his films during that Buffalo weekend. A longer version of the annotated transcripts is available as Emile de Antonio in Buffalo, recently published by Center Working Papers.

– Bruce Jackson

* * *

(Friday night at the house)

History and heroes

Emile de Antonio: My films are a kind of history of the United States in the days of the Cold War. They are episodic disjunctive histories. They’re not like a written history which moves magisterially from the beginning to the end. They’re chaotic; they’re made by a chaotic person and his interests. You have McCarthy, you have the death of Kennedy, you have the war in Vietnam, you have Nixon, you have the Weather Underground, you have the Christian Left.

I’m an atheist but I admire the Christian Left. I probably admire Phil Berrigan (3) as much as any person I know.

I admire Anne Montgomery (4). I know nobody like her. Her father was an admiral. The last time she talked to me she said, “De, I want you to help me”. She said, “You once wrote in an article that you wished that the next time the Left did anything like the King of Prussia action, they would let somebody in film know beforehand, so you could film the plans and everything else. I am going to go on a little rubber boat and attack a submarine”.

I said, “A-anne! It’s not only that I’m probably afraid to do it, but the extra boat, the camera, you have no idea what a camera’s like. You need light, and the sound and all that other garbage”.

So she went and did it with three other people, two little rubber boats up against a major American submarine up in New London, Connecticut. She’s a heroine of the highest order.

Q: What happened to her after that?

EDA: The trial’s coming up. She’s already doing jail for other trials. She’s got many trials.

The Weather Underground

Bruce Jackson: Tell them about the FBI wanting to confiscate the film.

EDA: The FBI spent more time and money and energy looking for the Weather Underground than anything that ever happened. The thing that bothered the FBI was that most of the Weather Underground people were upper class Americans. They weren’t black, they weren’t Hispanic, they weren’t the kind of people you could shoot and nobody’d know. These were major folks.

The FBI spent five years on it. [An ex-FBI agent] told me they had, in L.A. alone, ten guys working full-time on the Weather Underground, and he also told me, he did not know for sure the exact number, but the overall number for the country was probably in the neighbourhood of 250-300 people working at one time. And they never found any of them.

So suddenly, a middle-aged film director takes a crew underground and films these people. It drove the FBI insane. We were subpoenaed. We were the only people in the history of the film industry that won, and we were lucky. Had we done it this year we’d be in jail. We were lucky because we had great lawyers. We were lucky because a guy named Levi was Attorney General of the United States under Ford, who was a legal scholar; in fact, he’d been Dean of the University of Chicago Law School (5).

We changed the law administratively, not intrinsically. He said film people have the same rights as the press not to be forced to divulge information about the work they’re doing. But it was an administrative note, not a judicial note. Had it been a judicial note, it would be the law of the land. But it was the law of the land only as long as Levi was the Attorney General.

But the real reason we won is the only reason people win anything in America: because of publicity. I wrote a statement saying, “We have the right to make any film we want, under the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States”, and at that point people came out of the woodwork, like Shirley MacLaine and her brother Warren Beatty, Martin Sheen, and Jon Voight and the president of the Screen Director’s Guild, who was the editor of Citizen Kane – Robert Wise.

Many famous women and men of Hollywood came and stood behind me when I made that statement, and the FBI and the United States Attorney’s Office in California withdrew the subpoena. And so we won. We changed the law for that short period of time.

I think if I were to make that film today I’d be in jail for five years, because I never would have cooperated with the FBI. Neither would Mary have cooperated. Neither would Haskell (6). Although we had an informer among us. That’s how the FBI knew we made the film in the first place.

Q: You mean an informer who was making the film with you, with the Underground?

EDA: Yes.

Point of Order

EDA: McCarthy was really paper to begin with. The soft part about McCarthy was he was always upset that the people he maligned, people he made, were angry. He couldn’t understand why.

Point of Order

BJ: You catch that very well in your film

Q: Yeah, where he says, “Where are you going? How can you be walking out on me?”

EDA: That ending is fictitious, of course. It’s made by me. That’s the world walking out.

BJ: Was the court reporter made by you?

EDA: I put that in intentionally.

BJ: Yeah, but was that a shot you filmed separately?

EDA: No, no. I bought that. See, the film, the primary influence in that film is John Cage, who is a dear friend of mine, who influenced Robert Rauschenberg. It’s that art can be made out of junk as much as it can out of beautifully shot stuff. In fact, most beautifully shot stuff, the way it’s shot in Hollywood, is shit and not worth looking at.

BJ: A lot of movies now are just gorgeous to look at.

EDA: Gorgeous to look at, and I don’t go. This stuff is raw, art brut (7), and all that. But I wanted people to see what a 35 millimetre shot would look like at that time, so I went and bought a 35 millimetre sequence that was only a few seconds, that was taken by the newsreels. It’s actually beautiful.

BJ: And it’s that?

EDA: And that’s it.

BJ: ‘Cause it pops out at you like that.

EDA: It’s supposed to pop out. It’s saying, “Look, this is the way film in black and white can look, but the rest of the film is really so much more significant than the courtroom stenographer doing this ridiculous thing is. That’s why it’s there”.

You look at the film slowly on a Steenbeck, say, you’ll see that the shirts change too. I started with 188 hours of material and the film is 97 minutes.

(Saturday morning, the Symposium)

The “Editing Reality” symposium opened with presentations by Diane Christian, Emile de Antonio and Frederick Wiseman. Each of the three spoke for about 25 minutes, then fielded questions for another 30 minutes or so.

EDA: When The Year of the Pig was about to open in California in L.A., people broke into the theatre at night and with a tarbrush painted the word “Traitor” six feet high on the screen. That’s a very effective form of film criticism. It’s probably the most effective form because theatre owners are in business to make money. Bookings were cancelled. That was the end.

In the case of Millhouse: A White Comedy, I couldn’t believe the White House didn’t have better things to do than to send hundreds of memos concerning that film, which I received under the Freedom of Information Act. These were from Haldeman and Dean (8). At the highest levels of the White House they were saying, “Should we do a Nofziger job on de Antonio?” (9) Nofziger now is under indictment.

I found it exotic too that the FBI has documents saying, “de Antonio is going to make a film about McCarthy. Which position will he take?” That seemed to me to be really terribly peculiar at best.

What is reality? What do we see, what do we hear, what do we know, how do we know? All of these are things that I studied as a freshman at Harvard and I went on to concentrate on philosophy and I still have no idea and I don’t think anybody does or can provide a real answer to those things…

I think it’s almost impossible to make a good fiction film. I go to one fiction film a year. My wife sees two a week. She tells me about them so I know that I’m right.

I received money recently from Channel 4 in London, which has done a retrospective of all my work, for a down payment on making a fiction film and it was going to be about my FBI files. Martin Sheen, who is a friend of mine, was going to play me. I said “No, that’s hokey. I’m a poor actor but I’m going to play myself”. That is all I’m going to do. I’m going to be me and I know that I’m going to be acting.

This raises the question that Diane raised. I’m going to be myself but yet I’m going to know that the camera changes everyone, the tape recorder changes everyone. I don’t talk to my wife the way I’m talking to you. I talk to myself when I’m driving but I don’t talk to myself out loud the way I talk to my wife or you. We all have different voices and we all have different ways of hearing as well…

The word “documentary” originally comes from the French documentaire, which means a travel film. I think this is exactly what Flaherty (10) made: travel films.

I’m always made very nervous when I look at Flaherty’s work and I examine it because it’s very beautiful in a way that it is artistic and not art. It’s very arty but there is something about it that makes me very nervous.

I raise the name of John Cage and another friend of his and mine, Robert Rauschenberg, in relation to Point of Order because, as Diane said, Point of Order was made out of pure junk (11). I mean the film was garbage – it was Kinescope materials, it was old, it had been lying around in a warehouse.

It took me a long time to make that film because I had never made a film, I had never studied filmmaking and the people who put up the money for it said “We’re not going to let you make the film, you can be the producer”. My partner (12), in particular, who is a film salesman and distributor, he said no.

So I got Richard Rovere, who wrote a book on McCarthy (13), he’s a New Yorker magazine columnist, to write a narration. I had Mike Wallace, who is a friend of mine, deliver the narration and we spent all the money I’d raised for the film and I looked at it and they looked at it and we all said it was lousy. It was just like another TV documentary.

So then I started from scratch alone with two young editors and we made the film and I think it was the first political film that did not have that intrusive, narrative voice. It came out of the material itself.

The very idea of cinema verite is repugnant to me. It is as if the filmmaker owned truth of some kind. I have never felt that I owned truth. I tried to be as truthful as I can but I know I am a man of deep-seated prejudices and many assumptions about the nature of society which colour all my thinking and feeling and the work that I do. For me there is no concept of objectivity. Objectivity is a myth…

No film, no matter how good, is going to influence people as much as the daily barrage of television. There is nothing like junk for getting people indoctrinated. So-called “free television” is the most powerful weapon our society has in obliterating sensibility, intelligence, knowledge, and anything else. The news is an absolute hype – it’s worse than Diane described it to be… We talk about TV – we talk against it – we hope our children won’t be corrupted by it – we wonder if we ourselves are being corrupted by it. And nobody does anything about it. I, like you, have a television set. I think in New York City I get something like 40 different channels and I can’t turn it on because there isn’t anything there except C-SPAN (14).

C-SPAN is the one excuse for all of television because it is uncut. It just keeps running – you get the boredom – I find the boring aspects of social existence as interesting as the so-called interesting aspects. I watch C-SPAN and it moves me and very little else moves me. You’re dealing with bureaucrats. The addiction of PBS to buy British series, detective series, is nauseating, it’s absolutely nauseating.

…I came from a background of privilege, people with money. And people with money put up the money for my films. I never applied to the Foundations or the networks.

I was telling Bruce yesterday that one of the things I like is raising money under certain conditions. For In The Year of the Pig I decided I would raise money from many people instead of just five or six. I knew this woman who was unhappy and middle-aged and her husband was about to leave her and she had a lot of money and I said to her, “Let’s have a party once a week and we’ll invite everybody from fashion models to millionaires and I’ll come in and make a pitch for the film on Vietnam and you give them shrimp and a drink”. She said, “Wonderful idea”.

I found that very good, because it was a political act too and I raised money. I didn’t know these people, but it was easy. I got money from Paul Newman, Steve Allen, Robert Ryan, a Rockefeller young woman, a whole host of people who were very angry about the war in Vietnam and two of the greatest fashion models in the world. I think the units were $600 each and the lowest anybody wrote was $1,200 and the most was $100,000. And that was over a drink. I found that to be interesting.

Point of Order was always the coup of my life for raising money because I had never made any film. I didn’t even go to films, I didn’t like them. I went to see a man I knew who was distinguished for his liberal beliefs. I said, “Eliot, I want to make this film. I don’t know anything about film. I haven’t even begun the preparation”.

“You want $150,00 now to start?” This is 1961. That’s a lot of money then. Like 500,000 of these dollars now.

I said “No. I have to do preparation”.

So he said “Fine, when you’re ready, let me know”. And that was how my first film got underway.

Certain subjects are so sensitive and hostile to people in general that it’s very hard to do them. The most trouble I ever had was the next film, which is Rush to Judgment, which I made with Mark Lane, about the assassination of Kennedy. The American people did not want to believe the truth about Kennedy’s death, that there was more than one assassin. People wanted to forget it at that time. A right wing idiot in the Buffalo newspaper, George Will, carries on about that subject today. That was a sore nerve in the American people. I got most of my money for that film in England and from British television, but nobody here wanted to know about it. Making that film was scary. I met people who said, “I was standing here, I saw this but I don’t want you filming this because I’m afraid of the consequences”.

Any film person would tell you that every time you raise money it’s a different situation. It’s harder now…

(Sunday morning, in the car)

Michael Jackson, a third-year University at Buffalo law student, had recently finished his second summer as a clerk for New York civil rights attorney William M. Kunstler. He and de Antonio had talked about civil rights and political issues Friday evening and Saturday morning. Before Saturday afternoon’s symposium session ended, they decided that the next morning Michael would drive de Antonio to Oneonta, New York, where he was to spend the evening with the Upper Catskill Cultural Association, and along the way they would continue their conversation and would tape it to be part of the record of de Antonio’s Buffalo visit.

In the Year of the Pig

Michael Jackson: Which of your films is your favourite, if you had to pick one?

EDA: The standard answer to that is the cliché, “Which is your favourite child?” I don’t make many films, I spend a long time making them. I think there are too many films out there so I don’t want to make very many films. I suppose In the Year of the Pig is my favourite film. But I like three or four of them almost equally: Point of Order, In the Year of the Pig, Millhouse, and Painters Painting which is not a political film.

Painters Painting

I was probably the only filmmaker in the world who could [have made Painters Painting] because I knew all those people, from the time that they were poor, and unsuccessful and had no money. I knew Warhol and Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns and Stella before they ever sold a painting, and so it was interesting to [do the film about them]. They appeared in the film along with DeKooning, whom I knew very well, and Barnett Newman, who is now dead. They talked to me in a way that they would never have talked to anybody else because they knew I knew the subject.

In the Year of the Pig was a film that was generated by anger at our war. All of my work together is an attempt to deal with the history of the United States in the days of the Cold War.

Film history is, by its own nature, sui generis, it’s of its own kind, it’s not like nice linear written history where you go from point A to point B to point C. Because film jumps, it’s episodic by nature. You wouldn’t want to make a film history that was like a book, because one image truly stands for 10,000 words.

In the Year of the Pig opens with a concerto made out of helicopters because the helicopter was the quintessential difference between Vietnam and all other wars. We would not have fought that war at all without the helicopters. Our guys wouldn’t have gone through the jungle; they would have been killed in massive quantities. We were able to leapfrog in with helicopters, bring in weapons and supplies, take out the wounded, take out the stuff we didn’t want the enemy to have. So I took – in the mode of John Cage, who is a friend of mine – I took about ten or 15 different series of helicopter sounds and mixed them the way modern music is mixed. I said nothing about that. If people don’t get it, they don’t get it. Then I took a lot of images that were the history of Vietnam, old shots from the French and up to John Foster Dulles playing with the globe of the United States. It was an attempt to compress a lot of history into a short period.

The major influence in In the Year of the Pig and in many of my other pictures was the theories of John Cage and of some of the painters, because it was visual images that stood for a much higher frame of reference than they ordinarily did in film. People were sophisticated, they were all looking at TV and movies, so they could get the point. You didn’t have to explain everything and that way you could treat the audience as if the audience were you. The audience was just as sophisticated as the maker of the film because the audience had all that experience.

And then, I just liked the idea of doing a long history of a war of justice, and I was bowled over by all the major conservative intellectuals I got, like Paul Mus, who was born in Hanoi. He was one of the most famous French thinkers and he’s a professor of Buddhism at Yale besides and more importantly he did six months in Paris as a member of the College de France. We have nothing like that, but that was the college of the highest people, the very best teachers and then the students were going to go on to become ministers of state, and he was the one who was attacking the war (15). And I got [Republican] Senator [Thruston] Morton to attack the war. The Vietnamese gave me a lot of footage of Ho Chi Minh so that I was able to get collages, which is what interests me.

The collage theory I thought was uniquely left wing because it bore a close relationship to the early Soviet films which were essentially films in editing. The collage is a more sophisticated form of editing. It makes no difference where the material comes from, that was Andy’s point and I agree with it. It can be a piece of film you find on the ground or it can be something you shoot.

All my work is like art brut. It’s savage, brutal work in the sense that I don’t really care too much for great shots because Hollywood produces all those great shots and makes empty films, films that have no meaning. I don’t mind old black and white images. Of course, I prefer black and white to colour to begin with.

Rush to Judgment I

MJ: Why did you shoot Rush to Judgment, then?

EDA: I had to shoot something that would give the storyline, and Mark [Lane] whom I knew and was a friend, was the outstanding guy on the assassination. He’d spent the most time at it; he was a natural actor to put in the film. He’s not great looking, he’s a little boring at times, but that’s not the point; it’s firsthand in his case. He’d seen all those people before the film. I found a lot of those people myself, however, people he didn’t find and I was always very pleased with that.

By the way, the film version of Rush to Judgment‘s no good. It’s too long and there’s some dishonest stuff in it. The videotape version is shorter and better.

MJ: What is the difference between the two? What’s the dishonest thing?

EDA: We put in one guy, a black guy named Williams. Mark and I argued and he insisted that it be in and I didn’t care that much about it and Williams asked to be paid. I don’t believe you can pay people in a film. Williams claimed that he saw Officer Tippett and Jack Ruby in a police car together prior to the assassination. When I made the tape version, I just cut it all out, I just took that out. The tape version is 98 minutes and the film version is 110. I cut out 12 minutes. The Harold Williams sequence is only about five minutes. I cut out a lot of Lane because he’s too redundant, and so that tape version is very good…

Film is dying anyway; the tapes sell well. It’s gone now, you know, 16mm. There are very few guys whose work shows at all now in 16mm. Purists. Morgan Wesson puts on film shows all the time at Eastman House and those are interesting because the people who go there and the people who give the films care about film. I care about film. Film’s a beautiful medium and tape isn’t. But when I began making films there were 16mm distributors. First of all, I made my films in 35, so that they all played theatrically. And then there was a big 16 market. You got 15, 20 bookings a month, and that turned out to be a fair amount of money over a base period of several years. Not like Hollywood films but money nonetheless. Then you threw in Europe where my films have done very well. But that’s all ending and it’s ending for everybody. The 16mm film has a limited future. There were theatres at one point that were geared to play 35 and 16, movie houses. Nobody wants to see 16 in a movie house anymore, unless it’s something scabrous or has a lot of sex in it or something like that…

We had a very young inexperienced camera crew. They were good but they were very inexperienced. I tried to get a good New York crew of people I knew, and they were afraid to go. Dallas was a hairy place. Mark wasn’t down yet. I was down and I took a lot of rooms in this motel because the crew was coming that day, and I had a suite – not because I’m fancy but I needed it, one room was going to be the office.

So, in the big room which was the office, I had the crew there and I was briefing them, telling them how I want it done. There’s a knock at the door and two Dallas detectives are there, and they have engraved cards. I saved the cards; they’re in my archive at the University of Wisconsin. They were both members of the homicide squad in the Dallas Police Department. They were very polite in the beginning. They said, “Well, Mr. de Antonio, what is it you’re going to do down here?”

You make a decision right then, you know? I should have said, “Fuck you. The First Amendment to the Constitution. I can do what I want”, and that would have ended, because they would have beaten us up and thrown us out of Dallas. I’m not afraid to get beaten up, but if you get thrown out of Dallas it’s not so easy to get back.

So I answered their questions. I said, “We’re here to make a film about the assassination”.

“Who do you work for?”

“Judgment Films Corporation”. I had just founded that corporation. They said, “Where is that corporation?”

The Plot to Kill JFK: Rush to Judgment

I said, “New York State”.

They were very polite and they smiled and asked a lot of boring, easy questions, and then their voices got steely and hostile, and they said, “Now, we hear you’re going to interview this boy Benavedes?”

I said, “Yes, we’re going to interview Mr. Benavedes”.

He said, “No you’re not”.

Benavedes was very close to Officer Tippett when he was killed. He was the best witness. In the Warren Commission he did not really identify Oswald (16). We never did film him. His brother, who looked like him, was killed with a rifle shot, but nobody ever found out who did it.

MJ: Why didn’t you interview him?

EDA: Because we couldn’t get to him. The police had him somewhere else. I suppose I could go now and find him but you know the film is over. Once a film is over, it’s over.

But at that point they got hard and they said, “No you’re not”, and then they left.

Then the crew quit. “We’re going back to California. You didn’t tell us it was going to be this way”.

I said, “Of course I told you it was going to be this way. Now if you guys are chicken shit …” One of them was a Marine Corps veteran. I got very tough with them. I said, “I’ll see that you never work again”. So they stayed, and we had a lot of experiences like that. The short-circuiting going on made you know that something was wrong there. You knew it anyway by studying the Warren Report.

We tried to interview a woman called Mary Moorman who was as close to Kennedy as anybody and took stills. She wouldn’t be filmed, but the woman next to her was a grade school teacher named Jean Hill, and I went to see her alone, and she was very nervous. At first she wouldn’t let me in the house, then she let me in the house, and she said that, well what she saw was very important – she was 15 feet away from the president – so she said, “Okay, come tonight at six o’clock”. Six o’clock is night up there. “Come tonight at six o’clock and you can film me”.

We always used two cars. It’s kind of overwhelming with people who aren’t accustomed to it when you go in with all that gear. I went in the first car that night. I don’t call six o’clock night but they do. She was at the door and the screen door was locked and she said, “You can’t come in. You can’t film me”.

I said, “Come on. Your information is so important”.

She said, “Well…I can’t tell you. Go away, please, you’re really upsetting me. Take those two cars and get out of here”.

I said, “Okay, we’ll go but tell me and I won’t tell anybody”. I meant at that time, obviously.

She said, “I’m supporting these two children. My husband left me and I’m a school teacher”. Which I knew.

She said, “The superintendent of schools called me one hour after you were here this morning”, which meant that the pigs were there, “and said that if I did the interview I’d lose my job”.

So how do you deal with that? Even if you had a tremendous amount of money and said, “Well, here’s a year’s salary, here’s a check for $15,000”, that’s buying the witness. It’s not moral, and so we lost her…

The film did very well abroad and you knew that it was shot down here. We have censorship here just like everybody else has, except we do it in the name of freedom. The BBC put on the biggest TV program it ever did with that film. They also paid $50,000 for it which in those days that was a lot of dough. They did a five-hour show, almost two hours was Rush to Judgment, and then they had the Lord Chief Justice of England and different defence attorneys and prosecuting attorneys, and they had a vote from the audience and a vote from the people on the panels, and they voted against the Warren Commission.

All that stuff did not make people like me popular.

In the Year of the Pig

In the Year of the Pig

The censorship of In The Year of the Pig was the most interesting censorship because it destroyed the theatrical release. There was a big chain of theatres out in California and they booked it because the LA area was very hot against the war in California and someone broke into the theatre the night before the picture opened and he took a tarbrush and painted a hammer and sickle on the screen. They ruined the screen, you know, and then they wrote the word “traitor” in big letters. The guy had to buy a new screen. He cancelled the whole booking. The whole chain cancelled the booking.

In Houston we were in a good theatre, and they got a bomb threat, so they moved it to another theatre and there was another threat. It was only the YMHA – the Young Men’s Hebrew Association – that played it, which took a lot of nerve.

But In the Year of the Pig was a fun film for me. I raised a lot of money and I went to Europe and got French footage. The NLF (17) headquarters was in Czechoslovakia in Prague. I went to Prague and got their footage. I went to East Germany. The East Germans have the greatest film archive of all and I got whatever I wanted from them. I was at Leipzig in the East German Film Festival, where I’m going to be chairman of the jury this year, and I met a Vietnamese colonel who said, “We’ve heard about what you’re doing and we hope it succeeds. Can I help you in any way?”

I said, “Well, do you have any footage?”

He said, “Oh we have a nice film that we have here and I’ll give it to you. It’s called The Life of Ho Chi Minh”. There were some good shots in the film from that. Then he said, “I want you to have this ring. It’s my ring”. It was made out of an American airplane that was shot down. When I came back I gave it to Moxy Schell, the woman who raised the money for me, who gave the parties and all that, because I don’t wear jewellery of any kind. I never have. It makes me nervous. I don’t even wear a wedding ring. My hand is bigger than hers, so she took it to Tiffany’s and had them build this silver band on the inside which would make it smaller so that she could wear it on her finger. She still has that…

I would like to talk about the first eight minutes of In the Year of the Pig, with that music and all that black leader and the statue of the American Civil War soldier. Nobody’s ever asked what that fucking statue’s doing there. The answer is that I was a soldier from Pennsylvania. That guy was the 163rd infantry. That was a just war. He was fighting for the Union army in a just war, and I was fighting in film, a pro-Vietnamese film in my time, and that’s what that soldier meant. I meant it to be hard to get and special, but I had to put it in there. I was looking for some photographs and I found that photograph and I said, “Well Jesus, this is me in a sense, a hundred and some years before”.

I wanted to do the beginning part, up to John Foster Dulles, I wanted to make the helicopter concerto and I mixed that the way Cage mixed music. I took many many helicopter sounds from different U.S. military helicopters, because that was the dominant sound of that war. Not airplanes. Airplanes are World War II. We would not have fought that war without the helicopter. We would have surrendered early. The helicopter moved troops in to fight and it took out the wounded. That’s why it was called the air cavalry. They went in on choppers; that was unique to that war. We used choppers in Korea but not that way.

MJ: That is powerful…

Frederick Wiseman

MJ: I thought one of the interesting things that happened yesterday was when I saw the tension that came out between you and Fred out there. I thought it was interesting in the context of the symposium and of itself.

EDA: It was that palpable?

MJ: I felt it, yeah, but I saw it as something interesting in the context of Editing Reality.

EDA: Each one of us pretended that the other person wasn’t there.

MJ: Exactly. And that kind of says that even people whose lives –

EDA: Well, the machine is on. I hate his work.

MJ: You want me to switch it off?

EDA: I want it on. I dislike his work because it’s totally without any commitment. He was the boy of PBS, which itself has no commitment. PBS went down on its knees when Reagan came in. I looked at Missile. I couldn’t look at it. I looked at it for an hour and turned it off. It was too boring. It had nothing to say.

Polemics, history, politics

MJ: Are your films polemics?

EDA: I think my films are more complicated than that. They’re personal. They’re also based on the hope that people will see something and understand and examine the nature of the process of the world, of specific issues in the world and act about them, on them. If that’s a polemic then I guess my films are polemics. I see them as works of art, as works of political art, and they’re made with a view to changing people’s minds from the ordinary assumptions on most of the subjects I deal with. I take, generally, views that the majority of the American people don’t hold, like the Kennedy assassination, the war in Vietnam, Nixon, who was elected by a huge number of votes.

Underground

I’m interested in history and this is the one point I could never get anybody to understand, because we always think of history in terms of volumes of books: I use these two words all time, episodic and disjunctive. I’ll use them again. I think that film by nature in jumping around is episodic and disjunctive. So my films constitute the main issues of the Cold War and my country from the time that I started making films until now, which would include the response to thermonuclear war in In the King of Prussia. It would be the harsh leftwing terrorist types in Weather Underground, who come from upper-middle-class families, you know all the contradictions are there, to a biography of a president, which covers the whole period, but he’s the Cold War president. His whole life was based on the Hiss case, finally. Without the Hiss case Nixon would never have become even a senator, let alone the president. And the war in Vietnam, which is the most important war we’ve been in since probably the Civil War, except for World War II. It tore this country apart in a way that World War I didn’t, but it was more important than World War I. Our thing there was late; it was necessary but it wasn’t as important.

MJ: What do you think’s happened to the American left, since –

EDA: It’s dead.

MJ: – the Vietnam War?

EDA: Dead. Fractionated and dead. But it could be revived. The FBI and the cops and the withdrawal of support and money and television, all of these things have helped to break the left. You see people who were once leftist intellectuals sitting there looking at the tube. You’ve accepted something when you do that.

MJ: What do you think it would take to revive it, another war?

EDA: I don’t know, I really don’t know. I think if you had a charismatic figure they’d bump him off. Malcolm X was somebody who, he was the greatest speaker I’ve [ever heard].

The two greatest speakers I ever heard in my life, in real life, were both black. One was 22 years old and that was Fred Hampton (18). He was an incredible speaker. He had to be killed and he was killed. The FBI fingered him and then the Chicago police killed him. Then X, Malcolm had to be killed because he made his peace. As long as you’re in the nigger business, you’re not a danger. It was when Martin Luther King started talking about Vietnam and working class America, meaning white people, that he had to be killed.

The main issue for me is to make reparations in Vietnam. Until this country can understand what it did to absolutely defenceless people… There’s still bombs going off there, you know, and we’ve left those little things that sink in and you step on them and you lose a leg. Mines. I think that we have to go over there and start feeding them and building stuff for them. We’d find, because that’s the way the world is, that they’d become allies of ours.

I think the most pressing thing around here is, we’ve got to get our asses out of Nicaragua. Nicaragua’s so simple and plain; it’s not a complex issue. Who in his right mind would want to be ruled by a man like Somoza – who went to West Point, who was a creation of us, whose father was our creation. They’re no threat to anybody.

Jews

MJ: How about Israel?

EDA: Israel is a real problem. Like most intellectuals in this country, if you’re an intellectual it ends up that half of your intellectual friends are Jewish. My wife is Jewish, the wife I loved most who died was Jewish and the woman I loved for the longest time and did not marry was Jewish.

Anti-Semitism is a crime, but I think the conduct of Israel is a crime.

Marty Peretz (19) put a lot of money into my films. He married a WASP heiress of the greatest money. He had no money. She was the heiress of the Singer Sewing Machine Company. She’s not Jewish. It’s against Jewish law but the Israelis love him so much because he gives so much money to Israel, that I think his children are officially Jews even though their mother was a WASP heiress (20). Marty’s wife was very close to my wife Terry and she used to fly down from Cambridge to the Memorial Hospital every week while Terry was dying.

Marty is a brilliant and funny man. But suddenly something turned in him and he became insanely pro-Israel. In 1975 when Terry died he called me up and he said, “Listen, I have a bunch of intellectuals going to Israel to visit and I think you ought to come. All your expenses are paid”. All the people who went were well-known intellectuals, like Gary Wills, and the editor of Foreign Affairs. There were only two Jews in the ten people.

It was the craziest trip I’ve ever had in my life. Everything was expensive. We had lunch in the Knesset, we had dinner with the Prime Minister, we went to a kibbutz that looked like it was run by the Waldorf Astoria. It wasn’t a regular kibbutz, it was so fancy.

Then they made the mistake of taking us south where Israeli soldiers were searching Arab women. Well, you know, the Muslims have all those crazy ideas that women can’t be touched and this was just like making them suffer and the hatred on the faces of those Arabs was unbelievable… This is a long time ago. This is 13 years ago.

So at the end, the last day that we were there, we were in that famous hotel, the King David Hotel. Unlimited bar, anything you wanted, it was all paid for. Gary Wills and I said, “Aren’t we going to see anything of the Arabs?” That last day they were going to go to that place, the Masada (21), climb up where the paratroopers take their pledge. I said, “That’s the one thing I don’t need”, and Gary said, “Me too”. So we went over to the Palestinian side and talked to those people. They were very moderate at that time; it was before all this other stuff happened. What they were talking about seemed very reasonable, but the other people were pissed off that we did that.

The worst thing was that everybody there cooperated and wrote and did stuff.

Millhouse: A White Comedy

When I was first over there Marty took me to meet this very handsome young guy who was obviously in the Intelligence Office. They claimed it was cultural but he was obviously a very bright young intelligence officer. He said, “Mr. de Antonio, I’ve seen all your films, Marty has sent us prints”. Marty put up money for In the Year of the Pig and for Millhouse.

I said, “I’m glad. A woman I know over here has all my films because they’re in the archive. She bought them and she shows them”.

He said, “That’s good. We would be interested in exploring the possibility of a non-Jew making a film out of our footage about the rise of the state of Israel, and this is something that we think could be very profitable because people all over the world would see it, and particularly the United States”.

That was a way of telling me that I could make a lot of money and he also made it clear that he thought it would be interesting if an American leftist with a non-Jewish background made the film.

I said, “Well I don’t think…” I was very polite because I’m basically a polite person, I said, “I don’t think I’m the right man to make this film”. And he just cut it right there. He understood the whole thing. I didn’t have to explain it. He was like all good hard guys, there’s no bullshit, you know, he didn’t say, “Why not?” or “What’s the reason, maybe we can make some accommodation”. He understood it all.

We went to the dangerous part, the Golan Heights, and there were all these Israeli soldiers there, and one good looking guy, he had no insignia on. He spoke English a little bit and I said, “Who’s the commanding officer?”

He said, “I am”.

I said, “Really, How old are you?”

He said, “23”.

I said, “What’s your rank?”

And he said, “Major”.

I said, “That’s pretty fantastic”.

He said, “Well, you know, I’m a good cook”. He was a funny guy, he was witty, he was a very nice man. He said, “We don’t wear badges of rank here. My mother was a good cook so we take turns cooking here instead of having a regular cook and I’m the best cook so the men like what I cook. But they all cook, we all take turns”.

It was a real combat situation where guys live that way. It was interesting. I said, “Now let me ask you one question, I hope this isn’t personal: how did you get this job and this rank?”

He said, “Well, I took this hill in 1973. I was a sergeant. I was the highest ranking guy that survived. The officers were killed. So they promoted me”.

He was a good guy. I liked him. He obviously would’ve shot me under the right conditions but he was unaffected, intelligent and a good soldier.

Endnotes

  1. For detailed biographical information and an excellent discussion and analysis of de Antonio’s work, see Randolph Lewis, Emile de Antonio: Radical Filmmaker in Cold War America, University of Wisconsin Press, Wisconsin, 2000.
  2. And you’ll find more in the excellent collection of pieces by and about de Antonio edited by Douglas Kellner and Dan Streible, Emile de Antonio: A Reader, University of Minnesota Press, Minnesota, 2000.
  3. Philip Berrigan. Infantry officer in WWII, Catholic priest, anti-war advocate, defrocked for his political activities in 1973, spent several years in prison for his anti-war and anti-nuclear weapons work.
  4. Anne Montgomery. Nun in the Order of the Sacred Heart, peace and anti-nuclear activist, a member of the Plowshares Eight, a group that included Daniel and Philip Berrigan. On September 9, 1980, the group which entered the General Electric Nuclear Missile Re-Entry Division in King of Prussia, PA, and hammered on two nuclear nose cones, poured blood on documents, and prayed for peace. In a trial before a judge who refused to let them present expert testimony on their behalf, they were convicted of burglary, conspiracy and criminal mischief and given sentences ranging from five to ten years. The case worked its way through appellate courts for a decade. For more on the King of Prussia incident and other Plowshare actions, visit the Plowshares website.
  5. Edward Levi, 1911–2000, was President of the University of Chicago when Gerald Ford appointed him Attorney General. He had previously been Dean of the University’s Law School.
  6. Mary Lampson edited de Antonio’s Underground and Millhouse and the Barbara Kopple’s Academy Award-winning Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976). Haskell Wexler was cinematographer for Underground. He is one of the great cinematographers, with five Academy Award best cinematography nominations and two wins (Bound For Glory [1976] and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? [1966]). He directed Medium Cool (1969), a fiction film played against the very real 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago.
  7. Art brut – raw art – term applied by the French artist Jean Dubuffet to art created by schizophrenics. He collected and exhibited such works for years, convinced that they represented the ultimate in artistic individualism. The concept broadened in recent years to what is now called “outsider art” (see Roger Cardinal, Outsider Art, Studio Vista, London, 1972, and Leo Navratil, “Art Brut & Psychiatry”).
  8. H.R. Haldeman, 1926–1993. Nixon’s chief of staff, spent 18 months in a federal prison for his part in the Watergate cover up. John Dean was White House counsel during the last 1,000 days of the Nixon administration.
  9. Lyn Nofziger, Republican media manager and fund-raiser. Among his many political jobs: Reagan campaign press secretary in 1966 and presidential press secretary in 1980, worked in several capacities for Nixon, including director of the California Committee to Re-elect the President. His conviction, 90-day prison sentence and $30,000 fine for influence peddling were eventually thrown out by an appellate court.
  10. Robert J. Flaherty (1884–1951). Maker of romantic ethnographic films. His Nanook of the North (1922) was the first documentary ever to have a successful Broadway run. Some of his other films were Moana (1926), Man of Aran (1934), The Land (1941), and Louisiana Story (1948).
  11. Point of Order was a major documentary constructed entirely out of these ‘found’ materials – much as Rauschenberg incorporated found objects in his artworks and Cage used environmental sounds in his music. Point of Order was groundbreaking in its rejection of conventional narrating, using only selectively edited excepts from the hearings”. Kellner and Streible, Emile de Antonio: A Reader, p. 17.
  12. Daniel Talbot, who ran the New Yorker Theater, an art film house.
  13. Senator Joe McCarthy, Harcourt Brace, New York, 1959
  14. Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network. C-SPAN, funded by cable and satellite corporations, began broadcasting complete sessions of the House and House committees in 1979; it expanded to the Senate in 1987. It presents gavel-to-gavel coverage of political conventions, campaign debates, important lectures and interviews. There are now three C-SPAN television stations and one radio station. See http://www.cspan.org for information on programming and network policy.
  15. Paul Mus, 1902-1969. Appointed to College de France in 1946. Mus was born in Bourges, but his family moved to Hanoi in 1907. Visiting professor at Yale from 1950 on. Academically, he is known as an art historian of Buddhist Asia and colonisation of art, but he also wrote five books on the politics of Vietnam, all published by Le Seuil between 1952 and 1972.
  16. Domingo Benavedes was interviewed by Warren Commission assistant counsel Joseph A. Ball on April 2, 1964. His testimony begins at p. 444 of volume 6 of the Commission’s 26-volume full printed record.
  17. National Liberation Front, the Viet Cong, founded in 1960, descendant of the Viet Minh, the coalition of Communist and nationalist groups that fought French and Japanese occupation of Viet Nam during World War II and which continued fighting the French until 1954.
  18. Fred Hampton, 21-year-old deputy chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, shot to death in his bed by Chicago police, December 4, 1969.
  19. Martin Peretz is editor-in-chief and publisher of the New Republic.
  20. For religious Jews, Jewishness is transmitted through the mother, not the father. The children of a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man are Jewish; the children of a Jewish man married to a non-Jewish woman are not.
  21. An isolated mesa rising 1,380 feet above the western shore of the Dead Sea. In 74CE, according to the ancient historian Flavius Josephus, 960 Jews slaughtered one another in their city atop Masada (Hebrew metseda – “fortress”) rather than submit to Roman rule. For a time, in the 1960s and 1970s, members of the Israel Defense Forces paratroopers took an oath there that Masada would not fall again, and the legend of the 960 refusing to submit was frequently cited by politicians and journalists. Archaeological work uncovered an elaborate city, but the remains of only 25 bodies. Nowadays, Masada is a major tourist site, but its political and metaphorical significance have all but disappeared.