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Book Review: Remembering a Radical Documentarian

By Jerry White

Emile de Antonio: Radical Filmmaker in Cold War America.
By Randolph Lewis
Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000. 338pp.


There's recently been a great deal of attention paid to Emile de Antonio, a filmmaker whose reputation had, only twelve years after his death, begun to slip into obscurity. Just this year, though, we have had two books on his career, in addition to a spotlight on his work at the 2001 Taos Talking Pictures Festival (Jonathan Rosenbaum came out to introduce a screening of Millhouse, and there was a panel on de Antonio comprised of Rob Silberman and Randolph Lewis).

One of these texts is Emile de Antonio: A Reader (University of Minnesota Press), an anthology of documents, interviews, and essays by and about de Antonio, edited by Douglas Kellner (de Antonio's literary executor) and Dan Streible. The other book, Randolph Lewis' Emile de Antonio: Radical Filmmaker in Cold War America (University of Wisconsin Press), is a more straightforward narrative of de Antonio's career, and is clearly the product of copious archival research. Lewis is clearly a passionate advocate for de Antonio's place in American cultural history, although he never gets gushy, telling us on more than one occasion what a contradictory, sometimes excessive character he was. There are some academic quirks, but overall Lewis has written a comprehensive, thorough explanation of one of the key figures in American documentary.

And the time for such an explanation is ripe; although it's rare to find discussions in the film press that mention him by name, de Antonio's legacy has never been more fully felt. Towards the end of the book Lewis mentions some 1970s and 80s political filmmakers who bear de Antonio's mark, like Jim Klein/Julia Reichert, Marcel Ophuls, and Marina Goldovskaya. But just as important are the school of filmmakers who are not quite as activist in orientation but just as critical and, frankly, a whole lot funnier (and de Antonio could be howlingly funny when he wanted to be). Lewis mentions Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick's NFB documentary Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media, Michael Moore's Roger and Me, Kevin and Pierce Rafferty's Feed, writing that "these films have far more in common with de Antonio's ironic meditations on political power such as Millhouse or Mr. Hoover and I than the mainstream documentaries that are usually welcome on public television" (238). To this list you could also add Ron Mann's film Grass or Rafferty/Rafferty and Jane Loader's Atomic Café, which also deal with governments and the various ridiculous lies they spin. But you could also add less political work by these filmmakers, such as Mann's Twist or Obie Benz's Heavy Petting (written by Pierce Rafferty), films that are mostly de-Antonio-style collages of archival footage (a style that Lewis richly contextualises throughout the book, linking it to de Antonio's interest in modernist art) and that are comically but acidically critical of mainstream culture's tendency to suppress whatever it considers unruly.

The addition of films like Twist and Heavy Petting to the list of de Antonio's heirs seems to me crucial; one of the real shifts in North American documentary film (including Canadians Ron Mann, Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick) has been a move away from explicit activism, a project that has for the most part shifted to videomakers. For these filmmakers, this is a shift towards, not away from, the legacy of de Antonio. Many important documentary filmmakers interested in politics have turned towards comedy and satire, a strategy that has given their films wider appeal than a lot of activist work (Roger and Me is the most well known example of this). Choosing your tone carefully and avoiding the presumption that your audience will share your politics were, for de Antonio, important parts of political documentary practice. Indeed, while the differences between Deep Dish Television and Ron Mann are fare less explicit (not to mention far less acrimonious), they remind me a bit of the differences de Antonio had with elements of the 1970s left. Recounting his attempts to make a film about Vietnam, Lewis writes that "the project was soon derailed by those he [de Antonio] called the 'incompetent, pot befuddled filmers of the New Left," de Antonio's slur against those whom the Vietnamese trusted to approve the project in the United States. These included members of the radical film collective Newsreel and a leading antiwar activist, Dave Dellinger, who insisted on making the film a collective venture. To de Antonio this was absurd in that it presupposed an equality of talent and ideas that could never exist – at least while he was in the room."

While his leftism, indeed his Marxism, is beyond question, there was always a tough, high-modernist consciousness at work in de Antonio's films, a point that Lewis makes clear throughout the book not only by analysing these films closely but also by describing de Antonio's personal relationships with painters like Andy Warhol Jasper Johns, or Robert Rauschenberg.

And it's that kind of biographical digging that makes this book a really good read. The chapter on the production of Underground, de Antonio's 1976 portrait of the Weather Underground, is nothing short of rivetting. It's a rich explanation of a film shoot and post-production that was, to say the least, complex (the people de Antonio was shooting were wanted by the FBI, who has been unable to find them; upon learning of the film they subpoenaed the rough footage). Much the same is true of the chapter on Painters Painting (1973), which recounts a complex, fascinating production in great detail.

Indeed, it strikes me that this book was meant to be a well written, closely researched intellectual biography of an important filmmaker, a bit like what Faber and Faber has been publishing recently. None of those readable, intellectually rigorous Faber tomes, though, have been about documentarians; the best of that work has been on filmmakers like Joseph Losey and Nicolas Ray. Academic presses have filled this gap, but they come with their own expectations and limitations. You can feel that kind of academic pull when Lewis invokes Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard or Jacques Derrida. These seem like tenuous connections, showings of the academic/professional flag that feel more distracting that elucidating. These are minor bumps, though, in what is overall a valuable contribution to the understanding of postwar American cinema.


Jerry White is a Killam Doctoral Fellow in Comparative Literature at the University of Alberta.