PRINT March 1973

An Interview with Emile de Antonio

Why have your films always been political in nature?

I have always looked upon documentary as belonging to politics as much as to art. Those documentary films which have survived, which have had any meaning, which have been artistically interesting, have been political. These include Eisenstein’s reconstructions, the work of Schub and Vertov, and the documentaries made by Americans in the ’30s, such as The Plow That Broke The Plains and The River.

In 1948, Robert Flaherty made his last film, Louisiana Story. It was the first American documentary film to be shown in theaters after World War II until Point of Order. I would like to attack Flaherty and the principles of his work and Louisiana Story in particular. Louisiana Story is exactly the opposite of everything that I have aspired to do in film—in the way it was made, in intention, and the way it was financed. Louisiana Story was financed by a $285,000 grant from Humble Oil Company, a subsidiary of The Standard Oil Company. $285,000 in 1948 is like $500,000 today. It becomes one of the costliest documentaries ever made. It was a repudiation of the tradition of dissent and of such films as The Plow That Broke The Plains, made in the days of the New Deal, that questioned the rape of our country. That’s what The Plow That Broke The Plains is about, the creation of the dust bowl. It was how the insane and insulting abuse of the earth created an emptiness in the center of America that forced people to go westward. But Louisiana Story is finally an accommodation between the oil map and the people of the bayou.

When you make a film like Louisiana Story, the film of a young Cajun boy confronted by the drilling rigs in Louisiana and you’ve been commissioned to make this film by an oil company you are already compromised. One of the reasons this film played so widely is because Humble Oil gave it away to theaters all over the country. Each time we look at anything we change it. Seen today Flaherty seems to stand for a shallow estheticism, a search for the artificially exotic. Flaherty’s staged conflicts between man and nature were, in the first place, false, and in the second place, because of brilliant execution and personal devotion, they deflected documentary into hopeless and unrewarding motions. The enemy out there isn’t ice or the sea, but man. The Flaherty line leads directly to cinema verité. A line dead, blank, and empty.

At the time of Louisiana Story we were already in the Cold War, which is what my life in film is all about including Painters Painting. What you had in that period was silence. The silent ’50s. But the ’50s weren’t silent on the part of the United States government. The government in its various forms produced Richard Nixon and the House Un-American Activities Committee; it produced Joseph McCarthy; it produced a thousand films through the US Information Agency supporting Korea and the Cold War. What you had was silence on the part of the people. There were very few documentary films, mainly those made by television, which were links of sausage, not films. Most of them sought after that illusory concept—objectivity—which is pure bullshit and in reality means no offense to advertisers.

Do you feel that the politically oriented film can serve an essential function to the community in much the same way that the annual theater festival in fifth-century Athens combined politics, religion, and entertainment into a single integral community event?

The theater of Aeschylus, Sophocles, andEuripides is essentially a theater of celebration. Even including the disharmony within the Athenian state, from what we know of it, and I have the most serious doubts about the validity of history as an idea, but from what we know of it, it always took place at a certain time of year under the auspices of the state. So even if Euripides was thought of as subversive, the plays were nonetheless put on by the state in a state-operated and state-trained theater. In our time, the film documentary is the art of opposition. My films have been against the chief assumptions of the American state, and I think my films have succeeded in making a new kind of art form in film out of political material. This is precisely the problem that interested me. My films were made alone, outside the structure, opposed to the structure, opposed to specific activities of the United States government. When you put my films together they constitute the history of the United States in the days of the Cold War.

Point of Order deals with witch hunts in the broadest sense, and with McCarthyism, which was the dominant idea of domestic politics in the United States in the ’50s. Rush To Judgment is not about the death of President Kennedy, nothing could interest me less. Nothing could bore me more than those USIA films like Years of Lightning, Day of Drums with Kennedy’s coffin and weeping Jackie. What was of interest to me was the suppression of evidence and the elevation of the police to a superpower within the United States. That was the consequence of the death of Kennedy. The FBI and the Secret Service and the Dallas Police had at the very least been remiss. They were covered up by a government commission of most august people. The film I made was out of outrage at the police and judicial conspiracy. One result of the Warren Report is that we are now living in a form of police state. In The Year Of The Pig is a cry of outrage against our war in Vietnam. After Kent State and Cambodia, I stopped work on Painters Painting to make Millhouse.

Millhouse is historical in approach. It begins with Nixon’s career and traces it throughout as comedy, as satire. Nixon is the Tartuffe of the Cold War from its beginning to its most refined development in 1972. One of the things that happened from 194570, the years covered in Painters Painting, is that the United States, in some curious way, for the first time confronting the whole problem of abstraction, produced a new kind of painting. It was the painting with which I grew up. I knew a good many of the artists personally, and it introduced me to a problem which lay in the back of my mind as I was doing all my other films, which is the relationship between art and politics.

The inconsistency of having left-wing politics, as I do, and liking the paintings of Jackson Pollock, Jasper Johns, and Frank Stella, is not to me contradictory. The film is largely supportive of what I consider the chief lines of American painting from 1945 to the present in the days of the Cold War. This is painting that is apolitical, that is concerned with painting, not with politics. This is painting that was concerned with paint, canvas, and objects. There seems to be an apparent dichotomy, an apparent separation, an almost schizophrenic separation between what I was doing on the one hand and what these people were doing on the other. It’s a question I raise myself and there is no answer to it.

Could the art of the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s have been produced without the political and economic structure that supported it?

That’s the key question that has been worrying me all these years. This is why I go out of my way in Painters Painting to separate the painters from the collectors, the dealers, and the people who create the market, although they are an intrinsic part of the art world.

What do you see for the future of painting?

One of the reasons Artforum is writing so much about film is that the fantastic movement that was going on in American painting has come to an end. I think the thing that worries the best young painters we have, like Stella, is that there is nobody behind them. They don’t hear that herd of hoofbeats, that compression that you had with Abstract Expressionism followed by Johns and Rauschenberg, followed by Stella and Noland, followed by Pop art, all these ideas, movements, ferments, one right after the other, bang, bang, bang. Suddenly, where are the guys twenty-five years old? I don’t see them.

Aren’t there more people making art today than ever before?

That’s right, but most of it is not good art. And this is the key to the whole thing, quality. One of the reasons I made Painters Painting is that Iwas alive in the middle of this extraordinary period which was a kind of rush of talent, of ambition, of energy. Abstract Expressionism, when Rauschen- berg and Johns came on the scene, was exhausted. The second-generation Abstract Expressionists were for the most part very, very second-generation. One night I was playing poker with several of them in East Hampton and they were saying, “What are you doing going around with people like Johns and Rauschenberg? Are you some sort of fucking anarchist? They’re not artists, they’re anti-art.” I said “Precisely, that is the point.”

I’m not equating art with fashion. There was a compression of energy, one thing following another, but it stopped—by the time you get to Stella and Poons, it’s over.

I think that one of the reasons Artforum is in such a coy, arty, and academic way searching out all kinds of crap in film, is that most of the film makers you are dealing with are failed painters or film makers who think like painters or aspire to a painting “scene.” People like Hollis Frampton and the people who seem to amuse Annette Michelson and film fleas like Jonas Mekas are essentially failed painters. They were choked off and cast aside into the development of another art form and came to film out of desperation. They are the tail end, and they have all the same feeling toward visual material that the painters had who succeeded in their art. They tried to translate their failure on canvas into some kind of cinematic existence; what they do doesn’t work in film. When Jasper Johns paints letters it’s art; Hollis Frampton’s A, B, C, D film is something else. The idea of literally transposing exhausted painting ideas into film is a boring idea and most of the people doing this are painters manqués. These are the people who seem to interest art critics which is one of the reasons why art magazines are devoting so much time to this sort of work. An issue of Artforum on Brakhage!

What of the younger artists today who are putting their energies into other media such as video tape, Conceptual art, etc.?

When I began work on Painters Painting I went to Henry Geldzahler and got permission to film his show “American Painting 1940 to 1970” at the Metropolitan Museum. The camera crew and I spent ten nights there filming those canvases. Nobody will ever film those works again. Nobody will ever again bring together such a collection. First of all, modern painting is much more fragile than the old masterpieces. A Rembrandt holds up much better than a Rauschenberg. They were painted with better paint on better canvas. Then there are the present day problems of shipping and insurance. Henry’s intuition behind the choice of time span for his show was similar to mine for Painters Painting. No matter how many good paintings these artists go on to make, the original source of that information is finished for me. The younger artists are into nonpainting activity which I regard as another world that is not necessarily a new world or an interesting world. Conceptual art is a symbol of exhaustion.

What motivated you to make Painters Painting?

As much as I distrust history, I live in it and I work in it. One of the things I wanted to do in Painters Painting was to make something, rather than doing a film about it as TV does it. TV uses a narrator to explain it, to tell you what it was about. I wanted to make a film which would be a thing in itself, which would reflect what happened in those 25 years in which I lived, what I thought was important, what generated it. I wanted it in the words of the people who did it, rather than making a film about it, and I wanted to define who did it in the widest possible sense. The film includes the promoters, the dealers, the collectors, as well as the people who make the art.

It is perfectly obvious that when you have a man like Barnett Newman who was so extraordinarily articulate, whose work I happen to like tremendously, who had such a sense of the pertinent anecdote, and was able to tie that pertinent anecdote to a genuine point in the development of his art and to abstract art in America, you tend to use more of Barney than you do of many others in the film. This suggests one of the limitations in the kind of film I made—you were in a sense trapped by the projective capacity of those you film. There is an extraordinary sweet expressiveness about de Kooning; there’s a steely passion in Stella; there’s a fantastic ability to articulate and an intellectuality in Newman; there’s an iron, logical precision, and a gift for speech in Jasper Johns which are overwhelming. So you tend to be more interested in them because you are dealing with film as well as painting.

Would you have included more artists in Painters Painting if time had allowed?

I made the film as long as I wanted it. One thing about making the films I make is that I’m not responsible to anybody. I could have made the film eight hours long if I had wanted to.

I find that there is no written overall history of the art of this period which covers the field as thoroughly as Painters Painting. As I read the written history of American painting in the 20th century, I find remarkable shallowness that is highly journalistic rather than critical or revealing.

In Painters Painting was the end result similar to your original intent?

One of the reasons the film works is that most of the painters are articulate people. One thing about the birth of Abstract Expressionism, one thing about beginning at the bottom, being born in despair without acceptance the way modern American painting began, is that it created verbal expressiveness as defense. It forced an artist to become a theorist to defend his position. This is one reason artists, particularly like Newman, became brilliant at rhetoric. A question I asked during the interviews was, “How old were you when you had your first one-man show?” Willem de Kooning was forty-four, Barnett Newman was forty-five. Hans Hofmann was over sixty. Painters of the next generation were having their first shows in their twenties.

Do you feel that the decline in the quality of art is due to the partial elimination of the struggle, since there is now more money, more galleries, more public and private support than ever before?

The struggle was eliminated by the time Stella and Johns appeared. There are more galleries, but the successful galleries throughout the country are selling the work of these same artists.

A big point of argument between Phil Leider and myself was that he thought that Earthworks and Conceptual art had a special social meaning. Originally I did an interview with Phil about that but decided to substitute a later interview in the film. For me their social meaning was negative. I wasn’t interested in Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. Some post-Stella artists were tired of the whole gallery setup which they considered bourgeois and proprietary, and they were trying to move their art out of the galleries. They started by having exhibits in their studios which was not very different really than having an exhibit in a gallery. They still put up the pictures and had somebody come in and buy them. Some people argue that the artists who moved art out into the landscape, like Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson, destroyed the buying and selling concept. How? You still had to have a patron: you had to go back and have a Holy Roman Catholic Church pay the bill or a Bob Scull.

How old were you when you made your first film?

I was forty years old when I started work on my first film, Point of Order, 12 years ago. Before that my life had been a sort of stew. How does an intellectual survive when he doesn’t have anything that he really wants to do?

The first job I had after I got out of college was as a translator, then as a longshoreman in Baltimore, and then into the army. After the army I went to graduate school at Columbia and was a barge captain at the same time. A barge captain is the only job for an unemployed intellectual because you have absolutely nothing to do. I used to read all day and get paid for it. But I was bored by everything.

I saw an ad in the paper once that said “Wanted—economist with graduate degree” so I called up and said “I’m an economist.” All they did was check to see if I had a degree, but not in what subject.

Then I taught at the College of William and Mary and at CCNY. But that was never a completely engrossing activity. The interesting problem in teaching was to teach something for the first time, when you weren’t sure of the material yourself, when you had to get up on your tightrope and do your teaching performance with your students. There was something about the excitement of that that made you a good teacher. The second time it was already flat.

After teaching I flopped around into different things and then I became a combination peddler and idea man. It was very uninspiring but lucrative. I put people together who weren’t very logical together. My first relationship with Andy Warhol was commercial. I got him a job painting a Puerto Rican theater in Spanish Harlem. Andy went to the theater owner and told him to paint it Puerto Rican colors, pink and gaudy. The man did and Andy got a fee for saying that and I took a piece of Andy’s fee. It was a kind of joke. I was always astounded at how silly business people were. At that time I never went to the movies, I really disliked the medium.

What finally got you interested in making film?

I saw a film in 1958–59 which had a great deal to do with the art world called Pull My Daisy. There was a new spirit in the air—we were emerging from the ’50s and there was a new questioning that meshed with my own mood. I’d been a radical at the age of sixteen, then I became quiet. Pull My Daisy was shot by Alfred Leslie and Robert Frank. Allen Ginsberg and Larry Rivers were in it. It was the most brilliant text that Jack Kerouac had ever done. I liked the film because it was a very grubby little film, very cheaply made. It was a very alive film and it had a great sense of black-and-white which I liked. I was suddenly looking at films, looking at films I should have seen before, and I was excited by them.

What motivated you to make Point of Order?

There was a hole, something that had to be filled. Dan Talbot and I talked about his problem of getting new films to show in his theater. He hadn’t at that time been able to procure all the old films and start the great classic series that he did. So originally he had the idea of taking the footage from the Army-McCarthy Hearings and showing it at his theater. That’s the point at which suddenly something went click in my head, which was “No. We shouldn’t do that—we should make a film. It should be an imposition of order over chaos. It should be something different.”

Did you have any training in film-making at all?

No. I’d never seen a piece of film, I’d never seen an editing machine. I started from scratch. It’s a brutal way to learn things, but a very good way to find out everything for yourself.

The sociological aspect of all this that I find entertaining is that my life is a reversal of the American Dream, which is that you work your ass off to make a lot of money and when you’re forty you retire. I gambled with my life. I spent all my time doing all the things that people who wanted to retire hoped to do when they retired, but didn’t have the energy to do. I knew a lot of women, drank a lot, played ’very hard. That’s what I did when I was young. When I reached middle age I started working very hard, nonstop. Right now I’m in a state of exhaustion and boredom. So I’m about to strike out in a new direction. It’s not the subject alone, it’s not the fact that I’ve looked upon documentary as a way to right wrong, as a way to cry out against injustice, as a way to attack the social system: I still feel that all those problems remain and that films should be made about them. But I’ve done everything that I can. I can’t say anything else with force in the documentary that I haven’t said before.

This is something that happens to everyone in every art form. “What are you going to do next?” You can’t fall back on earlier ideas. They’re boring. The crack of that whip is very loud indeed and it prevents you from going back.

Richard Roud, whom I call Richard Rude, the director of the New York Film Festival, thought Point of Order was very good but not a film. It was just far enough ahead of its time that a festival director was too blind to see it. Dan Talbot’s New Yorker is a better festival than Roud ever promoted.

A film is anything that goes through a projector. I’d been saying that for ten years before I read it in Artforum. I heard it in defense of a film by Peter Kubelka in which he simply ran white leader through the projector. My definition of film is anything that passes through a projector and produces a filmic response in people. It doesn’t matter where the material comes from. But the audience is part of it.

Point of Order was shot with two absolutely fixed cameras. It’s lucky that all I had to work with was those two fixed cameras grinding away remorse-lessly for 188 hours. The film worked better because there were no tricks in it. It was stripped down to where it really mattered. The esthetics in that film was the politics, it was the character, it was the tone and the voice, it was America. That’s what film is about, not beautiful shots.

What interests me more than anything else in film is structure. The Army-McCarthy hearings themselves were untrue, as the historical present usually is. What I did was make them true because what appeared to be the truth, that which actually happened, included all the subterfuges of the government, included all the efforts to sweep it under the rug, included that weaselly little ending in which everyone wanted to run away and not acknowledge what had been let loose in the land. When I changed it all around, it became not only a new kind of documentary, but also the truth.

Will you define structure?

The Swedes in reviewing Millhouse said it was the best portrait of a statesman since Charley Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. I think it’s different than fiction, but it is made up in a sense. What I wanted to do in Millhouse was to create a portrait of a political figure, to make it very clear that I wasn’t being objective, to make Nixon as round as he could be on film, to make him as round as a figure in Moliere, to have a certain sympathy for him, to understand this poor boy from the lower middle classes with the burning desire and energy to have the whole piece of cake. Who wanted to eat the, whole thing and got to eat the whole thing no matter how many Asian peasants were to die for it. Everybody who wrote about it missed the Horatio Alger structure. Millhouse starts with Nixon in 1962, defeated for the governorship of California, after already losing a shot at the presidency. To put that together in such a way on film, the Vietnam war and everything else, and not to make it strictly chronological but to have theme and subtheme . . . it’s a wholly different experience in documentary. Structure is all.

All my films are collage films and I’ve wondered if there was any relationship between what I was doing and the fact that I did know those painters who were doing collage before I ever made films. Millhouse is cut from millions of options; it’s the marriage of all kinds of elements. I use collage in film to make a political point because it’s a shorthand to the truth of the documents.

Is there anyone today making films that, in your opinion, are superior or significant?

Not too many. One of the great problems of being an American is that you are driven mad by all the technical garbage that goes on around you, and you become inordinately impressed with the significance of technique and technical things. Lots of people have gone that route.

What about Andy Warhol’s films?

What Andy was doing, which nobody picked up on, was reproducing the whole history of film from the beginning. His first films were silent; Andy didn’t know how to use sound. He didn’t know how to deal with motion. His films were static. One of his first films was Sleep—about a guy lying on a couch. Another was a transvestite eating a banana. It was exactly like the beginning of film. Then Andy learned how to move the camera so you got a little more action. Then he learned how to do sync sound. Although Andy didn’t do much of this himself, there would be no Warhol films without Warhol. Without Andy, I doubt if the people around him could exist. Andy is the organizing force and intelligence. Whether he actually handles the camera himself isn’t important. As he has moved closer to conventional film, the films are less interesting.

I was a subject of a film by Warhol so I saw him work, what I could remember of it. He made a 70-minute film of me getting drunk. I drank a quart of whiskey in 20 minutes—that’s very hard to do and stay alive. I noticed his technique was primitive (this was early in his film life). It was refreshing.That “Look Ma, no hands” aspect of Andy’s work whether it was in painting or in film. Again, it was the necessary and proper rebellion against the million-handed Hollywood monster. How else could you begin except the way Andy began or the way I began, if you were going to make serious films? He didn’t cut anything. His films were just whole rolls of film spliced together. It was like he then invented cutting as Porter and Griffith did. Andy got it reduced to a premodern minimum.What you saw in his life, taking place about every three months, was the whole history of film being redone.

What sort of material do you consider to be documents for your films?

My films are made with documents, whether I in Dallas right now is still dangerous. film the document or whether the document exists.The structure, the technique, everything else is invented. There are no actors employed.

An aspect of all this that I find interesting is the Yes. The films of mine that have been commercial failures like Rush to Judgment, 1966, which was the first film that began with a collage of events, newsreels, and interviews. A film that I really dislike, The Sorrow and the Pity, is an absolute imitation of my film, and is financially one of the most successful was always the most interesting part of his work, documentaries ever made. Rush to Judgment was seen in France by all the people in the film world. It had a run there before it ran here, and it was the first film made like that. The Sorrow and the Pity is the same film, sentimentally done and badly structured. It’s more sentimental for New Yorkers because it emphasizes the Jewish question under the Nazis, and because we’re already nostalgic about Hitler, World War II, and the Resistance. Also it doesn’t offend anybody. It’s very safe to talk about the Resistance and to take the mealy-mouthed position Anthony Eden does in that film. A liberal film. It’s easy to get up and talk about the fall of France,or the Resistance, because that’s all so alien to our culture or to English culture at this point, and it’s so dim in the past. Hitler is dead and buried. But to talk about the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas right now is still dangerous.

Are your films being re-released now?

Yes. The American Film Institute did a retrospec , tive of my films two years ago and since that time different countries have been doing it, the Swedes,the Danes, the Finns, the Norwegians, now the University of Wisconsin. No film of mine has ever been on television in the United States in its original version. Every film of mine has played television in Holland, Belgium, Sweden, England, West Germany, and at the commercial rates.


Point of Order, 1963. Produced by Emile de Antonio and Daniel Talbot. Directed by Emile de Antonio. (Joseph R. McCarthy)

That’s Where the Action Is, 1965. Produced by David Webster. Directed by Emile de Antonio. (Urban politics)

Rush to Judgment, 1966. Produced by Emile de Antonio and Mark Lane. Directed by Emile de Antonio. (The Warren Commission)

In The Year Of The Pig, 1968. Produced and directed by Emile de Antonio. (The War in Vietnam)

America Is Hard To See, 1969. Produced by Emile de Antonio and Martin Peretz. Directed by Emile cfe Antonio. (1968 Campaign of Eugene McCarthy) Millhouse: A White Comedy, 1971. Produced and directed by Emile de Antonio. (Richard Milhous Nixon)

Painters Painting, 1972. Produced and directed by Emile de Antonio.

Annette Michelson Replies
It is, of course, because Emile de Antonio’s work in film has so many qualities of interest and of urgency of that we are pleased to have him speak for us on film-making, and because of them, as well, that we are discouraged by his lack of interest in, his lack of sympathy with, those younger men, working in considerable difficulty, who might be regarded as his fellows in independence and integrity. The impulse behind the glacial and categorical rejection no doubt spurs the assumption that one’s own concerns are serious, while those of one’s interlocutor take place on the level of irresponsible amusement.

Inscribed within de Antonio’s hostility toward Artforum’s present concern with film are questions about film’s relation to painting and to other fine arts, to the tradition we know as modernist, the manner in which film solicits our particular critical and theoretical attention. As to the question of iconographic sources, no one would take seriously the double claim that Jasper Johns’ use of numbers and letters derived from Cubist sources and could be, therefore, no more than derivative. So Hollis Frampton’s use of the alphabet in a major filmic work, Zorns Lemma, has a function, structural, semantic, that can simply not begin to be accounted for by the very loose, lazy rhetoric of de Antonio’s art-historical free associations.

The real, by no means academic question of the nature of current filmic aspirations and their relation to older art, has already been posed, in a more than tentative manner, in the first of our special issues devoted to film (Artforum, September, 1971). Because that issue is now out of print, I offer the following excerpts from its foreward:

This present issue of Artforum is, then, designed to evoke-largely through the work of younger critics—for some of the artists, critics, and their audiences who compose a visually literate public here and abroad, the urgency of recognition for an achievement whose importance will eventually be seen as comparable to that of American painting in the 1950s and onwards.

That achievement is radically indebted to the disciplined energy, generosity and prescience of men like Jonas Mekas—a statement which is no sooner made than it forces remembrance that there is indeed none like him.

Advanced film-making in this country demands to be studied in relation to the growing constriction of pictorial and sculptural energies and the inflation of an economy which has reactivated, through the desperate polarity of “conceptual” and “body” art, the esthetic syndrome of that ancient, obstinate malady, philosophical dualism.

The critical task is going to be redefined by thosefor whom both reading and writing serve the medium, by those, above all, in whom cinematic consciousness has been heightened by the disciplined readjustment of the perceptive processes which film requires of artist and audience. New critics are demanding a situation in which that cinematic consciousness can develop with a rigor not totally disjoined from generosity. It is time for a transvaluation of values; only then will conventions perpetuated in the disingenuous rhetoric of intellectual pathos and personal coquetry be dissolved.

Artforum’s increasing concern with film-making and film criticism in its most advanced aspects quite naturally elicits pained reactions for those with vested interests in the art of the recent past, just as it tends to provoke discomfort in those official and largely journalistic film-critical milieus who have responded with enthusiasm to de Antonio’s own work. Thus, the recent attempt to examine through a comparative study of Eisenstein and Brakhage the montage tradition upon which de Antonio is largely dependent, was designed to call into question a number of historical, formal, theoretical conventions. We shall continue in this direction, directing our attention to areas of film still waiting their inscription into critical discourse—and to those ill-served by a rhetoric now outworn.