An Interview with Emile de Antonio

Introduction

All but enshrined by critics, audiences, and academy members, George Clooney’s admirable, efficient Good Night, and Good Luck, despite its aspirations to political relevance, remains politely hermetic, even somehow antiquated. Though shot in pristine black-and-white, Good Night seems more like it’s trapped in amber—sultry jazz interludes, evocative cigarette smoke curlie-cues: those were the days all right. One wouldn’t be wrong in mistaking it for nostalgia, a glossy remembrance for the halcyon days when men were men and journalists were stand-up guys fighting for decency. Despite the presence of Joseph McCarthy, whose appearance as merely a face on integrated old footage is remarkably effective as a dramatic device but somehow nullifies the film as an immediate social experience, Good Night traffics in the same hazy, dulled glow of Fifties remembrance that it should probably be trying to subvert.

More immediate is Emile De Antonio’s striking and far more nervy documentary take on the McCarthy hearings, Point of Order. Recently released on DVD, Point of Order, compiled from footage of the 1954 McCarthy “witch-hunt” hearings, is worth re-exploring for the uninitiated. A highly charged political filmmaker, who went on to direct the radical, left-wing Vietnam exposé In the Year of the Pig in 1968, de Antonio died in December of 1989. In this interview conducted by Sam Szurek, at the time of the Oliver North hearings for the September 23, 1987 edition of the now-defunct New York arts weekly, Downtown, Antonio opens up about film, politics, and his past in the New York art scene of the 60s and 70s.

Remembering Emile De Antonio

By Sam Szurek

Deconstruction is a mantra-like incantatory buzzword frequently intoned by those who absolutely must establish their hip credentials. My eyes glaze over each time someone else uses it. But now’s my turn, and I finally found the right context.

The enemy is a fraud and it must be exposed. Deadly force is futile and in any case morally unacceptable. Deconstruction is another useful weapon. It breaks down the enemy’s systems, methods, and laws into its component parts. Thus stripped, everyone can see that the emperor has no clothes.

Nixon and Reagan have been exposed by the long, torturous, demanding, and frequently tedious deconstructive process of the televised hearings. McCarthyism, an earlier avatar of evil, was similarly undone. For those of us too young to have witnessed and understood the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, the 1964 documentary Point of Order was a powerful exercise in political deconstruction. It exposed Senator Joseph McCarthy, Republican from Wisconsin as a dangerous demagogue who for nearly a decade scared and hypnotized a nation.

Emile de Antonio as a role model? Yeah. He was and remains so. This dawned on me as I was getting ready to interview him for an article I wrote in the late Eighties. I met him over 20 years earlier in Boston at a screening of his film, Point of Order. After the obligatory Q&A before a crowd of assorted disaffected pinkos from Harvard, Boston University, and Brandeis, I gave him a ride to the airport. In the course of a fortuitous traffic jam I was dazzled by his articulate soliloquy on film, politics, and art.

For the first time as an undergraduate, and much to my mother’s consternation, I got a vivid lesson in the alternative possibilities of a life in New York City’s bohemia. Emile de Antonio, I learned, was also a kind of agent, a facilitator, really, for the likes of painters Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg, Stella, John Cage the composer, and filmmakers Robert Frank and Jonas Mekas.

While shooting stills of De at his Sixth Street brownstone I told him of that momentous encounter. He proudly replied by telling me that Andy Warhol is also among those who felt influenced by him. The opening paragraphs of POPism, The Warhol ‘60s, attest to this:

The person I got my art training from was Emile de Antonio… at one point he said, ‘I don’t know why you don’t become a painter, Andy — you’ve got more ideas than anybody around’. De was the first person I know of to see commercial art as real art and real art as commercial art, and he made the whole New York art world see it that way too.

So we sat down to talk.

SAM SZUREK: De, I’m torn on whether I ought to focus on you as a political filmmaker or on your adventures in the modern art world.

EMILE DE ANTONIO: I was connected with Rauschenberg and Johns and Warhol, all through John Cage, long before I ever made a film. The basic technique of Cage, which was in music and then influenced Rauschenberg, Warhol and Johns, also influenced me. Point of Order was made out of absolute junk, in junky kinescope. But it was the first time that anybody had taken a complete hearing and made something more real out of it than the reality, because the reality of it wasn’t very real. It ended with a whimper, a gavel bang, and everybody went away looking a little odd and not knowing what happened. I don’t believe in cinema verité. I think it’s nonsense. I’d say whose verité?

SS: Are you saying that the kind of truth that was coming out of our TV screens was not the reality that you eventually came up with?

EdA: Well, I changed it. First of all, it gave it structure. That’s what art is about. And the 190-hours of footage had no structure. It was just as amorphous as life, it was a very Iengthy hearing. Tell me the structure of the Watergate hearings, it sort of rambles on discursively until somebody pinpoints it.

SS: It’s interesting that you say that. I was glued to the set during the Watergate hearings. I was equally obsessed by the Iran-Contra hearings, watching every live moment. But nevertheless, I also found myself having to read about it the following day the New York Times. Why do you suppose that is?

EdA: The people who rule our country are much more sophisticated, much less is revealed. It really calls for an almost priestly interpretation on a day-by-day basis. The fact is that our president is a shadow, and the fact that we have a president who is acting out a part, a president who is sleepy, who doesn’t do very much except perform. A president who doesn’t really know very much but yet, is in perfect sync with the people in his administration because he shares their extreme and conservative right wing views.

SS: He’s not a classic villain in this piece like Nixon was, and I’m not really sure who the villains really are. I think Ollle North is such an easy target. Who is the true villain here? I’d like to have your priestly interpretation.

EdA: The villain in this one? Obviously it’s the American right Wing. It’s the American conservative classes who freely elect their people, essentially because they own the media. The media is the one way you will never learn anything from. The networks are the three most corrupt things we have.

SS: It seems to me that the American public is largely non-ideological; most people don’t vote based on their ideology. They watch TV. They want a clear idea of what is good, what’s bad, who’s fucking up and who isn’t. Do you sense that this is being conveyed by the hearings?

EdA: No, I don’t sense that that is being conveyed because they’re being suppressed. Even if you were extremely intelligent and knew something about modern American history, too much is not revealed in the hearings themselves. And you don’t have a really great lawyer in there. I thought Lyman would be. But he’s not. He’s not like Welch [counsel during the McCarthy hearing]. You need somebody who’s not afraid to go after it, who’ll keep pressing, and there’s a kind of reluctance to go after these boys who’ve been admirals, and colonels and all that. I don’t think we can afford to have the truth come out here, and therefore it won’t come out. This isn’t getting rid of one demagogue. You’re talking about the whole super-structure of the government’s financial relationships and the military. We’re too far committed to what we’ve done in Nicaragua, which is heinous and criminal. So what are we going to do? Start conducting court martials? All of these people broke the law, and some of them made great profits from it. Secord seemed like a crook to me, to be honest with you.

SS: How does this rate as television theater, compared to Watergate and the McCarthy hearings?

EdA: The Army-McCarthy hearings were the best because they were the first, and also because they were black-and-white and also because you had six senators. That was it. Plus, you had the McCarthy staff and two lawyers, Welsh and Jim St. Claire, who later became Nixon’s lawyer. He’s the only lawyer who defended presidential privilege twice, once during the Army-McCarthy hearings when he defended Eisenhower, and again toward the end of the Nixon period in the White House with respect to Nixon’s executive privilege regarding the tapes.

SS: There was a time in America — and not so long ago — when stating "I am a Marxist" was a badge of courage, because you invited all sorts of problems. When you say, as you say now, “I am a Marxist," what does that elicit from younger people? Puzzlement? Ignorance? Do they see you as courageous?

EdA: I’ve always spoken a good deal at universities, and I still do, and I think young people accept it. There was more wonder about it in the time of Nixon and after I made Point of Order. Today they accept it, frankly because... I’m an easy kind of Marxist to live with, really, I’m an intellectual, I make films, I don’t make bombs.

SS: Several years ago you were involved in a landmark court case. The feds were after you when you made the film Underground, a sympathetic portrait of the Weather Underground.

EdA: I changed the laws of this country because I made a film with the Weather Underground, and the FBI and 200 agents looking, full time, for these people for five years and never found them, so a middle-aged filmmaker takes a crew underground and spends a few days underground and films them. I was subpoenaed, and we said we’d go to jail before we cooperate. When you go through the long
history of the House Un-American Activities Committee and Nixon and everybody else, nobody ever beat it. lf you were cited for contempt, you went to jail or there was a fine or something. But we beat it. We won it because the Attorney General at the time was a civil rights man by the name of Levy,
who’d been the Dean at the University of Chicago Law School, and he said that people who make independent films have the same rights as journalists.

The only reason we beat the FBI and the Department of Justice and the subpoena was that the entire Hollywood community supported us. That’s where I met Martin Sheen, who was in my last film, In the King of Prussia. Everybody came out. From Robert Wise, who was president of the Screen Directors Guild and who cut Citizen Kane, to Shirley MacLaine—hundreds of people who could see that we, as radicals, if we had a problem it could be extended to anyone. Even Peter Bogdanovich, whom I’ve known since he was18 and has always been very conservative. Jon Voight. Many important people. Producers, directors. as well as actors, chilled by the subpoena.

SS: Through the Freedom of Information Act you were able to obtain your FBI dossier. What was the most arresting thing you read about yourself?

EdA: Well, I did a lot of fairly serious things, but the most arresting thing I think of is when I was a teenager, they followed my roommate, Tommy Bixley, and me. He went on to become a high-ranking officer in the CIA, I might add. Went to see Sonja Henie skate, we wore black tie and took a bottle of champagne, and FBI men followed us there because of me. and wrote down “De Antonio drank champagne," and it’s spelled “champaign,” as in Illinois, “and threw flowers.” He added that, which was true, to something that wasn’t true, that I went with a group of friends to a large demonstration for the Soviet Union, and many thousands of people were there and that we emptied our wallets for the Soviet Union, which is something I’ve never done, or would ever do.

SS: What was so damming about the fact that you had champagne while watching Sonja Henle skate?

EdA: They were watching me and caught the innocent roommate, who became a CIA guy. It’s the late Thirties, I’m 17 years old. I’d done a lot of things that they should have watched me for, and they did. But it means that they were really watching me a lot, and when I was doing naïve things. Do you really follow a guy in black tie?

SS: The other day you said, over the phone, that you’re now in the process of starting to do something that I don’t think anybody’s ever done: a filmed autobiography. Tell me about that.

EdA: That’s due to a great man in TV named Jeremy Isaacs who started Channel Four in England, and one of the reasons I like him is that at the end of his fifth year as huge success, he resigned. He’s now going to be the head of Covent Garden. Neither you nor I could imagine the head of CBS or NBC resigning to become head of the Metropolitan Opera.

One night, I couldn’t sleep, I’m an insomniac, and I came down here at three in the morning. I just typed until about 10, and I sent it to him, and he said, “This is wonderful. I’m coming to New York anyway, let’s have lunch, ”and we did. He said, “how much do you need?” and I didn’t have any idea, so I pulled a crazy number out of the air, $500,000, and he said, “Well, I’ll give you a third of it right now.”

Now, I’m interested in doing it in two ways. Martin Sheen’s a pretty good friend, I want him to play me, and I want me to play myself. I’m not a particularly good actor, but I don’t care. I want the documentary of me to be shot in 35mm color, I want the fictional subtext, played by Sheen, to be played in fairly poor video, and then I want, which I did in King of Prussia, to transfer it to film.

SS: I take it Sheen has agreed to do it.

EdA: He has, subject to me coming up with a script for him, which I haven’t given him.

SS: But you got part of the money based on something?

EdA: There isn’t a script. I don’t want a script. I want a general script. I want Sheen and me both to extemporize.

SS: But you realize that in your life there are scores of characters, and rather important ones. I mean, Rauschenberg, Warhol, CIA people, J. Edgar Hoover, U.S. Presidents, editors, filmmakers, Hollywood stars. What will you focus on?

EdA: Just the story of my six marriages would take considerable time.

SS: So, I’m afraid that your filmed autobiography will have to be rather focused, and narrowly focused at that.

EdA: I hope that my filmed autobiography will not be narrowly focused at all. I want it to be sprawling, discursive . . .

SS: Then I’m afraid we’re talking about a miniseries.

EdA: No, no. We’re talking about a long film. I’m going to shoot it on film, most of it on film, a lot of it on tape too. I hate re-creation. but there’s no other way.

SS: You know what’s remarkable? I can’t think of anybody in Hollywood but Martin Sheen who still has a sense of outrage and courage. In the King of Prussia, he said “Thank you for allowing me to come the closest to courage that I’m ever likely to be.” And of course it wasn’t true, because he went out and got himself arrested. It hurts his career. I think his life must be very hard right now because of it.

SS: He’s filming a movie now with one of his sons. It’s about Wall Street.

EdA: With Oliver Stone. I hated Platoon. I saw Platoon because it was about Vietnam. I made the first movie from the Left that was nominated for an Academy Award; it was called In the Year of the Pig, which was about Vietnam. That thing just sold some 20,000 tapes or cassettes. Martin [Sheen] says freely that Coppola got the idea of the Wagner sequence from it. I began In the Year of the Pig with a concerto of helicopter sounds over black leader, then to images of Vietnam, but the helicopter was the quintessential difference between the Vietnam War and all other wars because without it we wouldn’t have been able to fight it at all. We carried the troops in them, we carried out wounded and the dead, everything was the chopper.

I’m going to do a thing on this filmed autobiography. Hangovers and famous drunks. Drunks that I’ve known. And monstrous hangovers and terrible people who come and visit. But that’s me. Sheen will be in other things. For instance, Andy Warhol made a film with me.

SS: Who will play Warhol?

EdA: No, he won’t be in it. He already has made the film. And I’ve never allowed him to show it. My lawyer threatened him with a suit, film that only appears in the catalogue resume of his work, it’s called Drink starring Emile de Antonio.

SS: When was it filmed? How was it filmed?

EdA: In the Sixties, when he first started making films. After the first seven or eight films, 10 films. He used to see me all the time, and Point of Order came out and I was working on another film and I used to go to Elaine’s from the beginning because she’s a friend of mine and he used to be there and he’d say, “De, when are we going to make a film together. Come on” And I’d say, “I make serious, boring political films, and you make boring frou-frous, there’s nowhere to meet.” One night I was pretty drunk. I used to be a very heavy drinker. I said, “We’ll make a film on Thursday,” and he said, “wonderful, what time?” “Six.” He asked, “What will you do?” I said, “l’ll drink a quart o whiskey in 20 minutes.” Marine Corps sergeants die doing that. So he said. “De, that would be wonderful.” And I did it. And it’s an amazing film.

SS: Was this before he did The Man Sleeping or after? [ln POPlsm , Warhol points out that he called the film Drink so it could be a trilogy with Eat and Sleep.]

EdA: After. He did Eat and Sleep first. This was my idea. He just kept the camera running and I’m just sitting. I don’t talk or anything. l’m just drinking. I’m silent. I don’t talk when I’m alone. I regarded the camera crew as alone.

SS: The soundtrack is ambient sound?

EdA: Yes, but then it took him half an hour to change the film magazine. I’m on the floor. I can’t get up, because so much time has gone by, my hand is going up the brick wall, I’m trying to pull myself up and I can’t do it.

SS: Why did you prevent him from releasing this film? It’s just you drlnking. Beginning, middle, and end.

EdA: Yeah, but the degradation of a human being totally wiped out. It’s disgusting. So my wife, she threatened to sue them. She’s dead, that wife.

SS: Which wife was this?

EdA: Five.

SS: It’s just as well that it was never released. It doesn’t contribute much to the history of film or to the problem of alcoholism.

EdA: No. I felt at the time that WCTU might have a deep interest in this film, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the people who helped get Prohibition passed.

SS: Did that lead you to stop drinking?

EdA: No. Nancy, my current wife, got really pissed about my drinking, so I make promises which I keep. I will not drink for 42 days. And for 42 days I drink vast quantities of Perrier.

SS: And then you get shitfaced on day 43?

EdA: On day 43 I drink a lot.

SS: I’m glad to hear that, because I don’t know how to deal with completely abstemious people.
EdA: My wedding anniversary is the 23rd, which is Tuesday. Monday we’re having dinner with on old friend of mine, the guy who put up the first money for Point of Order, Hank Rosenberg, he’s the one who owned the New Yorker Theater. I still see a lot of him. He’s a very sweet man. I’m seeing him Monday, and I’d like to have a drink with him, but I promised Nancy.

Sam Szurek is an advertising creative director. In a previous incarnation, Sam produced controversial TV talk shows, music videos featuring the Kinks, Neil Young, Devo, Grace Jones, Celia Cruz, Tito Puente, Ray Barreto and many other seminal rock and salsa musicians. Sam also produced “Memories of Duke,” a musical documentary film on Duke Ellington. He can be reached at samszurek@mac.com.