Primary Colors

Tobi Haslett on “Four More Years: An Election Special”

Emile de Antonio, America Is Hard to See, 1970, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 90 minutes.

THIS YEAR, the People (poor things) shall choose a new president. The attendant Grand Guignol will entail the usual insults to our collective intelligence. Now is the time for brayed assurances, spurious commiserations, mawkish appeals, winking threats, plagiarized bromides—a whole sloppy revue of cheap, bullying speech. And the stakes have been raised especially high this time, as Nixon’s “silent majority” finds its mouthpiece in a billionaire chauvinist who grasps—with an acuity that eludes the liberal elite—the sense of bitter abandonment that churns within the white working class. So this pied-piper of proletarian resentment sidles up to the very people once claimed and inspired—and later failed—by the Left.

Donald Trump, of course, comes from the land of TV. One wonders what Debord would think of all this: a fascist sprouting like a blister from a little crease in the Spectacle. So it’s with acrid timeliness that “Four More Years: An Election Special,” a series on now at BAMcinématek, offers us a chance to consider anew the relationship between electoral politics and the moving image. It’s a link made most explicit, perhaps, in Haskell Wexler’s marvelous Medium Cool (1969), about a cameraman who finds out his footage is being handed over to the FBI. (Wexler’s fiction ends with a documentary wobble, as he filmed his actors being tossed about by the actual riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.) And BAM has summoned a few canonical films for the two-week program—Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), Frank Capra’s State of the Union (1948), and John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962)—which sit grandly among more obscure artifacts of direct cinema (Robert Drew’s Primary [1960]) and guerrilla video (the TVTV collective of the 1970s). But one film from half a century ago—set amid the same events as Medium Cool—offers a strange, oblique insight into the current situation. It snipes at the present. After all, 1968 was another election year in which the primary season was flanked by clamorous social movements on the Left and the Right’s rising bile; and at the Democratic center, the conformism of political dynasty.

Emile de Antonio’s America Is Hard to See (1970) comports itself like any staid political documentary, built from talking-head interviews and public speeches. The film stands like an obelisk of partisan chatter. But this brisk synopsis of Eugene McCarthy’s failed bid to be the Democratic nominee—a process that saw Lyndon Johnson scuttle out, Bobby Kennedy stride in, and Hubert Humphrey win the nomination after Kennedy was killed—draws a perverse force from its blanched quality, its annulment of differences. De Antonio has instituted a clenched visual discipline: The shots are all frontal and fixed. The interviewees are squarely framed. And everyone who speaks—with the exception of a single McCarthy volunteer and a throng of young women shouting “Bobby! BOBBY!”—is a man.

Behold the world of American politics, mashed to a dreary paste. (The men, needless to say, are white.) The film, then, contracts into a study of the morphology of the political class: By the end, you find you’ve developed an eye and ear for the miniscule distinctions, the exquisite taxonomical gradations, in accent, style, grain of voice—as Johnson, Kennedy, J.K. Galbraith, Arthur Miller, and McCarthy himself wriggle around within the same stifling phenotype. So this is what power used to look like: a pomaded, Windsor-knotted, smugly smiling masculinity. A masculinity with a sonorous voice and an aphoristic reflex. McCarthy himself is graceful, even pleasant. His role as insurgent candidate—the first to challenge Johnson for the nomination—seems a mere extension of his drifting charm, his amused, patrician distance. Kennedy’s elocution is glittering and abrupt: He speaks from the top of his voicebox. And Johnson, drawling his self-exculpating lies about the Vietnam War, seems a kind of lolloping old dog, quickly banished from the house.

Banished, too, are any images of Vietnam itself: Hanoi stalks the film like a specter, part of the vicious outside world that limns the insular talk. De Antonio’s In the Year of the Pig (1968) is his direct handling of the war: Scenes of bombed villages and well-groomed Westerners are thrust together in an arranged marriage of dialectical opposition. But in America Is Hard to See, “American engagement” is reduced to glib rhetorical object, bounced along by a broken party machine. Vietnam was McCarthy’s platform, after all. He favored an immediate withdrawal, a position that let him harness the discontent spuming up from college campuses. The campaign was meant to be “an adult enterprise, not a children’s crusade” (odious phrasing, considering all the young men who died in the actual war), but McCarthy had the poor judgment to take the youth movement—and the tenets of liberalism—seriously. A simple disinclination to hypocrisy made him stumble amiably into a radical position, where he was caricatured by the “realists” and clung to by the kids.

Ibsen seems to have penned de Antonio’s final scene. Humphrey is put forth as the candidate, to the dutiful applause of apparatchiks—and just outside the Chicago Amphitheatre, the now-mythic riots at the Democratic National Convention are hacking their way into history. The irony is slicing, the doom inevitable, the Democrats—unmoved. De Antonio’s restraint vaults from formal exercise to tragicomic bliss as we observe this dense bundle of Party power, dreaming of ruling a burning world. The Siege on Chicago is taking place, but all de Antonio gives us is the clapping and the spotlight and the rousing speeches—and the obedient faces of the DNC, tense, grinning metaphors for a liberalism in distress. Soon they fade to black.

“Four More Years: An Election Special” runs through Wednesday, August 3 at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn. Emile De Antonio’s America Is Hard to See plays Wednesday, July 20.