SFMOMA's Emile de Antonio Series

B. Ruby Rich January 3, 2008

Once in a while, history shuffles the deck of reputation and deals out a hand that revises the outcome of the game entirely. And if ever a filmmaker deserved a new deal, it’s the late great Emile de Antonio, whose documentary legacy has been unjustly overshadowed by current genre approaches. As an SFMOMA retrospective (opening on Jan. 5) makes clear, de Antonio’s documentaries are a different species entirely from the kind of celebrity-driven, headline (or animal) chasing theatricals now in favor. De Antonio favored argument, instead, along with logic, research, and intelligence; and he trusted his audience to think the right thing. How quaint: He’s the OG of documentary.

The most famous of de Antonio’s documentaries is probably "Point of Order," his meticulously reconstructed record of the McCarthy hearings that destroyed so many people’s lives. A convincing condemnation of the witch-hunt as an anatomy of evil facilitated by procedure and cowardice, it won de Antonio a permanent spot on J. Edgar Hoover’s notorious "enemies list" when it debuted in 1963, nine years after the events it analyzed. Borrowing the kinescopes that documented the hearings, de Antonio established his style of using existing audiovisual materials to create historical records that became an archive with a point of view. His style, inspired by key Soviet-era documentarists, relied on Marxist principles of thesis/antithesis/synthesis to educate and motivate the American public. SFMOMA’s double bill includes "Charge and Countercharge," the 1968 commentary on the original with outtakes: Yes, the ever-inventive de Antonio anticipated our DVD extras format.

"The Year of The Pig," possibly De Antonio’s masterpiece, presents a carefully researched record of Vietnam’s struggle against both French colonialism and U.S. aggression. Made, incredibly, at the height of the war (1968), it includes key footage of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnamese intellectuals, French historians, and disillusioned U.S. policymakers. Much of the archival footage is from sources closed off by the Cold War, sprung through de Antonio’s legendary web of connections. Compelling and devastating, it influenced the generation of Newsreel documentarians whose work was crucial to counter-culture politicking in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

De Antonio (or "De" as he was known) grew up wealthy, a doctor’s son who spent his childhood in the rough conditions of a coal-mining town but went off to prep schools and an elite circle at Harvard. All his life, he had access to the halls of power, monied friends and socialite circles (he’s even credited with convincing Warhol to become an artist), yet his sympathies never strayed from working- class folk and Marxist politics, from fighting the good fight against an unjust government. De Antonio was a compelling figure because, no sober ideologue, he was a genuine character, a boozing and womanizing lover of life whose style aptly reflected the Abstract Expressionist pals he portrayed in "Painters Painting," his version of the birth of the post-war New York City art world.

It’s ironic that films that once seemed raw and cutting-edge, both aesthetically and politically, feel downright classic by today’s standards. De Antonio never had any patience for the vaunted claims of a truthful, dispassionate observation, as he once told an interviewer in an atypically restrained moment: "I don’t believe in cinema verité. I think it’s nonsense. I’d say whose verité?" No mere observer, de Antonio believed in putting himself on the line with his documentaries; at one point, that included a meeting with the Weathermen, whom he documented in the clandestinely shot "Underground." (I wrote a letter in his support when the FBI subpoenaed him and his "co-conspirators" Mary Lampson and Haskell Wexler to get the footage.) At SFMOMA, Sam Green (director, "The Weather Underground") will introduce the program.

De Antonio never went in for the currently popular on-screen populism in documentary. No, until his last film — a last will and testament in the form of an autobiography, "Mr. Hoover and I" — he remained resolutely off-screen, revealing his presence only in the deep structure of the documentaries. As history dealt the cards with savage irony, "Mr. Hoover and I" premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 1989, right alongside a new documentary, "Roger and Me." Three months later, De Antonio was dead. In 1990, Michael Moore made history with the theatrical release of "Roger and Me" and changed the nature of American documentary forever. "De" was gone, and a new generation was taking over.

Thanks to SFMOMA, we have a long overdue chance this winter to see what we’ve been missing. I’m hoping that De left us some clues as to how documentary might redirect itself — in updated form, of course, as he was never nostalgic — for a world in which political storm clouds are gathering faster than the Bay Area’s imminent winter weather.