A self-described “anarchist” and proto-YouTuber, a khaki-clad confidant of the Weather Underground and a buddy to New York modernists from Warhol to Rauschenberg, Emile de Antonio loved American culture; he also lived to distrust American history. Still, blessed with a healthy measure of bravado, the filmmaker wouldn’t likely dispute the more or less official story—at least among cineasts—that he remains the boldest documentarian the U.S. has ever produced. To his credit, this radical auteur, who died along with the Cold War in the late ’80s, never came close to winning an Oscar; instead, de Antonio’s awards include a District Court subpoena,
the title role in Warhol’s unscreened Drunk, and a high-ranking spot on J. Edgar Hoover’s shit list.
The “year of the political documentary” arrives annually now, but none of them has brought a film with the raw force and visionary disturbance of de Antonio’s toughest work, which verily strangled the myths of Richard Nixon, the Warren Commission, the Vietnam War, and American democracy in general. Built primarily on found footage, and stitched, often irreverently, into prickly collage art, his movies epitomize the simple power of reappropriation. Point of Order (1963), de Antonio proudly claimed, was “made out of pure junk”—milky-looking kinescope footage of the Army-McCarthy hearings. Its release was a crucial step toward burying the 1950s, even as the movie warned that the bully’s Senate seat could be filled at any time. The past was never past in these docs, which is why Anthology Film Archives’ de Antonio retrospective is no less potent for being long overdue. To varying degrees, every one of this muckraker’s movies appears to tussle with the here and now.
Vietnam may have been the “living room war,” but it took de Antonio’s In the Year of the Pig (1969) to provide the audiovisual context for why we fight—and, more daring still, why they fight. More than anything, Pig plays as an ode to the ingenuity and resilience of the North Vietnamese, and as a harsh disavowal of the alleged efficiency of America’s killing machine. De Antonio’s many detractors naturally fixated on the fact that the celluloid dumpster-diver never set foot in Vietnam, but for the director, saluting the materials at hand, his lack of travel was a source of pride. (Warhol may never have visited a Coke-bottling plant, either, and so what?) No American movie, with the possible exception of Letters from Iwo Jima, has expressed greater sympathy for the enemy. Still, Pig is hardly anti-American, not even as its ferocious montage culminates in shots of bloodied U.S. soldiers, a mocking refrain of “Glory, Glory Hallelujah” warbling on the soundtrack. Support the troops, right? Part of what the film was saying to the domestic audience of ’69 was: “Let’s face it—we can’t possibly win this one.”
De Antonio toasted New York art-scene superstars in his breezy Painters Painting (1973), but, like most radicals, he was strongest when working in anger on behalf of the beleaguered underdog. (In the posthumously released Mr. Hoover and I, that underdog was himself.) In Underground (1976), one of the hidden Weathermen—seen from behind, in shadow, or through a scrim—says that the war wasn’t about one bad president or five, but about supporting the American way, at which point the director cuts to a succession of corporate logos. And Rush to Judgment (1967), called a “brief for the defense” by collaborator Mark Lane, begins with Lee Harvey Oswald in handcuffs, looking like a frightened patsy. “He’ll be taken care of,” says one of his handlers—and then bang, he’s taken care of. De Antonio’s editing—his entire artistic project, more or less—is designed to encourage the viewer’s complete distrust of authority. The first time we see the Dallas district attorney spelling “O-S-W-A-L-D” for reporters, it looks like history; the second time, as the footage is repeated at the end of Rush, it’s the image of a bad actor reciting dialogue.
Millhouse: A White Comedy (1971) starts with our 37th president getting groomed for his most convincing role—that of a wax figure in a museum. Was the real Nixon any less fake? Billed in ads as “a movie in the tradition of the Marx Brothers” (and released less than a year before Watergate broke), this brazenly subversive, thoroughly hilarious doc was an instant triumph simply for lifting Nixon’s absurd, pathetic “Checkers speech” out of the dustbin where it had been stashed. Susan Sontag hailed the movie as “both a pure documentary and a comedy”—which it most certainly is. If de Antonio’s career-long focus was on the crude theatrics through which humans struggle to maintain control, this collage-art documentarian never had to work less hard than here. Indeed, when you’ve got Nixon on camera saying, “North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States—only Americans can do that,” what more material do you need?