Few filmmakers have consistently rattled America’s schemes as sharp-eyed as Emile de Antonio has. By pushing to extract the poisons of Nixon, the media, Vietnam, Kennedy’s assassination, and the boggles in our political systems, from the 1960’s through 1989 he has created landmark documentaries about modern America.
His no-budget film about the Army-McCarthy hearings, Point of Order, became a favorite on the art-house circuit and established de Antonio as a principal voice in the counterculture.
I interviewed “D,” as he insisted everyone call him, several times in the mid-1980’s, first upon the independent release of his films to videocassette and later to collect information about men who marry five times or more. I am using quotes from those interviews in this post.
In 1984 when I interviewed D about his married life, he was on his sixth wife and living in an East Village brownstone. His office didn’t have much furniture but thousands of books. Right away he wanted me to know that in addition to his wives there were many women he loved but didn’t marry.
“I could never marry a woman who drank whiskey,” he said, “but I could live with her.”
D stayed married to his sixth wife, Nancy, a psychoanalyst up until his death in 1989. In the film, Me and Mr. Hoover his wife gives him a haircut to ready him for the camera. Haircut shots are edited in throughout the film.
“She is the only woman who can read my eyes,” D said. “She knows that when I sit and smile, staring a certain way, that I’m probably killing or torturing some politician or person that I don’t like much.”
D was born in 1919 in Scranton, Pennsylvania. His father, a doctor, provided an ample bank account for his son’s enjoyment while he was at Harvard. “I didn’t go to classes much,” he boyishly confessed, “But I did read a lot, was a top student, and had an extraordinary amount of fun. I had a sports car.” At Harvard he was a classmate of John F. Kennedy.
He served as a bomber pilot in World War II. After the army, he went on to study literature and philosophy at Colombia and taught for a while at William and Mary College in Virginia. Being a professor didn’t suit D. He moved to New York and immersed himself into the post-war art scene where he became friends with Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Willem de Kooning, Frank Stella, and Andy Warhol, in whose 1966 film Drink he starred—famously guzzling, in real time, a quart of whiskey in 20 minutes.
His film Painters Painting documents America’s abstract expressionist movement. I asked him how this film fit into his repertoire of political films.
D answered that all his films were political. “Painters Painting is political for this reason: Why is it that Hollywood can never treat a cultural experience? Can anything be more bizarre than Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh? Or, that boob of all time, Charlton Heston, as Michelangelo?”
So D cast painters he knew in his 1972 film about the revolution in the arts. “I made a film about real painters.
“It was the first time that American painting was serious. They were all in the same place, and they were better than any other painters in the world. New York in 1945 was like Florence in 1520, or Paris any time from 1875 to 1940.”
To see political films from de Antonio’s perspective is to see something absolutely unique. He boasted he was the first left-wing filmmaker to be nominated for an Academy Award.
“I’m a Marxist, and I love America. I have enough money to live anywhere I want. The fact that I live here makes me free to criticize its leadership and the failures of the political system. My films don’t say ‘Overthrow the government.’ What they do say is ‘Isn’t this peculiar—that this sort of thing is going on in America?’”
According to D, “The point of Millhouse: A White Comedy (at Harvard 9/24 and 9/26) is how did an ungainly goat learn how to use the media so that he became the President of the United States? Drive for power is the single most fascinating thing in political life.
“In the King of Prussia (at Harvard 9/28) is a trail film about the first act of disarmament since World War II. In September 1980, Dan and Phil Berrigan, together with Sister Ann Montgomery, Molly Rush, and four others entered the General Electric plant in King of Prussia, PA, and damaged two Mark 12A thermonuclear warheads. They poured blood over secret documents, joined hands, sang hymns, and were arrested. Martin Sheen played the judge in this film. Sheen later wrote to me, thanking him for allowing him to come as close to courage as he ever would.”
D said his work is 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.”