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September 10-29, 2004

Cold War Chronicles: The Films of Emile de Antonio

“As Fahrenheit 9/11 racks up another week of multimillion-dollar grosses, pundits are buzzing that no major documentary has been so scathing toward a sitting president during an election. Apparently, they've never seen Emile de Antonio's Millhouse: A White Comedy.” – David Greenberg, Slate

Forty years ago, a no-budget film about the Army-McCarthy hearings debuted at the Beekman Theater in Manhattan. The film, Point of Order, received an enthusiastic response from the press and quickly became a favorite of audiences on the art-house circuit. Over the next twenty-five years, the film’s director would emerge as one of the strongest and most principled voices of the American counterculture, incurring the wrath of everyone from Richard Nixon to J. Edgar Hoover. In his book on Emile de Antonio, scholar Randolph Lewis describes the filmmaker as “the foremost cinematic chronicler of cold war America and one of the most provocative film essayists of the century.” Although his early films relied heavily on compilation techniques using newsreel footage as their primary source, his later films became much more personal, revealing as much about the filmmaker as they did about his politically charged subjects. Whether profiling the presidential candidacy of Eugene McCarthy or gaining access to the underground world of The Weatherpeople, de Antonio staked out a largely unpopular (and dangerous) position as a radical Marxist determined to challenge the conventions of bourgeois society.

Special thanks to the Museum of Modern Art, Peter Dowd, the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, UCLA Film and Television Archive and Bob Feldman.


September 10 (Friday) 7 pm
September 12 (Sunday) 9 pm
September 13 (Monday) 7 pm

In the Year of the Pig

Directed by Emile de Antonio
US, 1968, b/w, 103 min.

During the throes of American intervention in Vietnam, de Antonio produced a visceral anti-war document. Contrary to the dominant public opinion in the U.S., the filmmaker perceived Ho Chi Minh as a great patriot of the Vietnamese people and crafted a work which condemned the efforts of imperial powers to overthrow his regime. Inspired by the experimentation of musician John Cage, de Antonio employed collage techniques, combining archival footage of the war (borrowed largely from unwitting television stations) and interviews conducted by the filmmaker with ironically heroic musical pieces. A groundbreaking political work, In the Year of the Pig was greeted with great hostility upon its release including bomb threats and vandalism at theaters which booked the film.

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September 10 (Friday) 9 pm
September 12 (Sunday) 7 pm

Rush to Judgement

Directed by Emile de Antonio
US, 1967, b/w, 98 min.

In the wake of the Warren Commission’s report on the assassination of John F. Kennedy, de Antonio collaborated with author Mark Lane to investigate the consequences of these oft-disputed findings. Rather than seeking to explain what actually happened in Dallas, de Antonio and Lane draw on interviews with witnesses to expose the inconsistencies of the report. Although the perceived impartiality of cinéma vérité was in vogue at the time of the film’s release, de Antonio was steadfastly opposed to such techniques and made no attempt to conceal his suspicions about the U.S. government: “Lee Harvey Oswald was executed and tried without a defense…this film is his defense.”

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September 11 (Saturday) 7 pm
September 13 (Monday) 9 pm
September 14 (Tuesday) 7 pm

Point of Order

Directed by Emile de Antonio
US, 1964, b/w, 93 min.

During the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, two network television cameras captured over 188 hours of footage. Emile de Antonio used this material as the basis for his first feature and what eventually became his greatest commercial success. Senator Joseph McCarthy takes center stage as his efforts to rout out Communists in the military are called into question in hearings that would eventually lead to his censure for conduct unbecoming. Originally constructed with voiceover narration by Mike Wallace, de Antonio scrapped the audio track for fear that the film would too strictly adhere to the conventions of television documentary. The result was one of the most important nonfiction films of the postwar era.

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September 11 (Saturday) 9 pm
September 15 (Wednesday) 9 pm

Mr. Hoover and I

Directed by Emile de Antonio
US, 1989, b/w and color, 90 min.

Although most of his films are noted by the absence of the director’s voice, de Antonio’s final film is his most personal. Using both his own life stories and those of J. Edgar Hoover, de Antonio constructs a fitting coda to a life on the Left. Directly addressing the camera, he reflects on his years of surveillance by the FBI’s top gun and on Hoover’s contemptuous acts in leading America’s “secret police.” The film’s political elements are tempered by very human scenes of de Antonio receiving a haircut from his wife Nancy and watching his friend John Cage bake a loaf of bread. De Antonio passed away not long after the film was completed.

September 14 (Tuesday) 9 pm
September 15 (Wednesday) 7 pm

Underground

Directed by Mary Lampson, Haskell Wexler, and Emile de Antonio
US, 1976, color, 87 min.

 

The task of making a film about a collective of underground radicals is seemingly impossible. Yet de Antonio, in collaboration with Mary Lampson and noted cinematographer Haskell Wexler, devised a way to tell the story of the Weather Underground, the most wanted countercultural insurgents in the country. The filmmakers conducted interviews with the Weatherpeople with their backs facing the camera in order to protect their respective identities. Combining these interviews with archival footage of revolutionary figures from around the world, de Antonio and his mini-collective fashioned a powerful statement of protest which provided a direct challenge to the media’s representation of this radical group. Despite efforts of the FBI to confiscate the film footage, de Antonio prevailed by invoking legal statutes designed to protect journalists from revealing sources.

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September 24 (Friday) 7 pm
September 26 (Saturday) 9 pm

Millhouse: A White Comedy

Directed by Emile de Antonio
US, 1971, b/w, 92 min.

De Antonio secured a place on Richard Nixon’s infamous “enemies list” with this scathing portrait of the controversial American president. Completed during Nixon’s first term in office, the film consists largely of archival footage of the President, beginning with his rise to Congress in 1946 and leading to his journey to the Oval Office in 1969. While de Antonio’s ironic critique of Nixon is evident throughout the film, he remained vehemently opposed to techniques such as voiceover commentary, which he viewed as a fascist device. As a result, his own voice never overpowers the footage he has compiled, a choice most evident in the famed “Checkers” speech, which he presents in its entirety with no additional commentary. Released a year before the Watergate break-in, de Antonio’s unforgiving portrait became even more prescient after Nixon’s downfall.

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September 24 (Friday) 9 pm
September 26 (Sunday) 9:30 pm

America is Hard to See

Directed by Emile de Antonio
US, 1968, b/w, 101 min.

Although he was suspicious of most political figures, both Democrat and Republican, de Antonio felt compelled to make a film about Senator Eugene McCarthy and his bid for the presidency in 1968. Drawing its title from a Robert Frost poem, the film combines footage of the anti-war movement which mobilized around the Minnesota Senator, the Democratic Convention in Chicago and countless campaign stops across the country. Although McCarthy did not win the nomination, the film documents the senator’s pivotal role in what was arguably the most volatile presidential election in U.S. history.

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September 25 (Saturday) 7 pm
September 29 (Wednesday) 9 pm

Painters Painting

Directed by Emile de Antonio
US, 1972, b/w and color, 116 min.

Arguably the least “political” of his films, Painters Painting is an intimate portrait of the major figures of the art world’s acclaimed New York School. Featuring a who’s who of postwar American art including painters Willem de Kooning, Andy Warhol, Japser Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, architect Philip Johnson, curator Henry Geldzahler and critic Clement Greenberg among many others, de Antonio cleverly mixes black and white interview footage with color shots of the actual paintings. De Antonio had a long-standing relationship with many of the featured artists which dated back to the days in which when he represented them as a business agent (although he preferred the moniker of “catalyst”).

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September 28 (Tuesday) 9 pm

In the King of Prussia

Directed by Emile de Antonio
US, 1982, color, 92 min.
With Martin Sheen, Daniel Berrigan, Phillip Berrigan

In 1980, a group of Catholic activists broke into the General Electric Nuclear Missile Re-Entry Division in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, poured blood on documents and damaged two of the weapons with hammers. Dubbed “The Plowshares Eight,” they faced trial for burglary, trespassing and assault. Employing both fiction and nonfiction filmmaking techniques, de Antonio reconstructs the events of the trial based on its original transcripts, with the activists portraying themselves and actors such as Martin Sheen, a noted pacifist activist in his own right, in supporting roles. Although this was not his most successful work, de Antonio took great pride in bringing to light one of the great miscarriages of justice in American history.

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