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Political Documentary Filmmaker in Cold War America: Emile de Antonio Interview


I’d like to ask you why at the age of 40 did you start making films and then the second question why did you choose Joe McCarthy as your first topic well those are two entirely separate questions so let me deal with question one first I’d been basically uninterested in film because I see I saw film in my early life as essentially a commercial enterprise the films were made to make money films were made to avoid the reality of life documentaries like Flaherty’s Louisiana story were fraudulent they presented a false picture and I did I saw no space for me in that world and then the New York scene changed and it changed film in a very precise and E Hollywood way and this began with the film the Jack Kerouac wrote called pull my Daisy it it featured a great number of major artists like Robert Frank the cinematographer like Alfred Leslie the painter like a great actress Delphine se rig who went on to become a star in France a great singer Anita Alice and they were all in this film it’s very off beat made for very little money and it’s absolutely the quintessential expression of The Beat Generation and I thought if these people can make a film for almost nothing and it’s one of the best films made maybe it’s time for me to look at what should be done did you have background in film at that time I I think most successful people in the arts begin in innocence I had no background which means that I had no garbage to get rid of noted treatise to get rid of I mean all that stuff that’s taught in film school is simply taught so that you junk it at some point and there was nothing I wanted from Hollywood except to junk what that had been so I went directly to a thing that had never been done before in this country which is a I was able to buy from ABC the complete army McCarthy hearings 188 hours now this was one of the great and most important political moments in American life because when McCarthy began those hearings when the government began the hearings with McCarthy in April of 1954 McCarthy was high he was riding high he had he was the most prominent and powerful figure in American politics he had changed the nature of American politics he had said you’re a communist and even if you were as indeed he did even if you were a cleaning woman in the State Department and you didn’t even know what the word communism meant you were a communist because McCarthy called you one and the word communist was used blatantly without consideration without judicious necessity to condemn all kinds of people most of whom were not communist by the time the hearings were over and for the first time you had a hearing in which a demagogue like McCarthy was exposed to all of the American people the audience’s for those hearings were huge bigger than World Series games really huge audiences and at the time the hearings were over McCarthy was finished he was no longer a political entity now I wanted to take all that raw material and it’s not a question of editing or reducing it’s a question of making something for creating a structure of making a film that had never been made before I named it point of order because that heard those that’s phrase those words were heard throughout America for months point of order point of order and all was disorder of course and that was the film I ask you this now CBS and Edward are murrow’s expose on McCarthy did that come before or after your documentary before and it was thin stuff right and don’t forget Murrow was on TV every week and he waited until that endpoint to do his short indecisive piece on McCarthy ah his was a basically journalistic response where his mind was an attempt to do something else which was to make art out of political raw material to make art to make a political art which did not happen in this country it was tried in the theater Orson Welles did one of the first ones in the Great Depression it was tried in the theater under WPA political art was made but not film and film was too dangerous because it reached too many people so political films were not encouraged pseudo political films were encouraged like mr. Smith goes to Washington all those early classics but films that were really about what is politics who runs the country how do they run it to what end I don’t think that really happened until point of order the what distinguished point of order from other documentaries in terms of style well the one thing that bothered me more than anything else particularly about sleazy Network documentaries is that they always depended on some idiotic narrator Cronkite somebody who knew nothing about the subject who would simply read off a teleprompter I wanted to destroy that voice I wanted the people who themselves were in the film to be the only voices heard so I began point of order with my voice over black leader and I say for 59 seconds everything you were about to see actually happened and I go on in that vein for 50 seconds more and then I’m out and there’s no other voice heard except those people who really were part of that historical moment obviously he wanted to show his downfall so you had to pick some moments in the hearings that would in a fact shall reveal McCarthy unraveling what moments do you think are most striking well I think the most emotional moment in the most dramatic moment and the most dramatic the most emotional emotional are not necessarily the most political but it’s something that happened before the hearings began that then burst towards the end of the hearings Roy Cohn who was McCarthy’s assistant had a problem he beat the draft so they all agreed that Cohn’s military record would never be mentioned and just as the hearings were about to begin Welsh the famous Boston lawyer who opposed McCarthy learned that a young man on his staff had been a member of a fairly communist organization when he was a young person at the Harvard Law School it was the National Lawyers Guild so they agreed that nothing would be mentioned about the National Lawyers Guild now McCarthy was reckless McCarthy could have really made something much wilder than he ever dreamed of but he was so reckless he destroyed himself right on TV because he brought up the name of that young lawyer at that point Welch began those great speeches that began sir have you at long last no sense of decency at long last no sense of decency and the American people heard that and they heard it unanimously and the Senate heard it and the first time for the first time the Senate which had grovelled and crawl before McCarthy stood up and passed even after the hearings were over over passed a motion of censure it was his its what the Greeks called in their tragedy hubris that overweening irrational pride that brings you down brings you to destruction and this is precisely what brought it wasn’t the good guys who brought him down McCarthy brought himself down and who do you think the hero or heroes of the Makar the army here in do you think it was Welsh the Senators or perhaps television itself really Doug I wish you wouldn’t give me the whole answer because there’s no doubt in my mind that it is it was the the camera and the sound it was television that was the hero I mean Welsh was a great lawyer and a highly sympathetic figure but he too finally was a hired gun as most great lawyers are the more money you have in our society in any other society I suppose the better chance you have of hiring a great lawyer which means a lawyer with a great fee and beating the case but what really destroyed McCarthy was that camera that camera that’s looking at me now and which looked at McCarthy over a very long period of time when you multiply the number of hours and the number of days from April through through June of the Year 1954 it was 188 hours that the American people looked at him and nobody can hide in 188 hours in 188 hours if you’re a good guy it’s revealed no matter how clever you are or how much you want to hide even being a good guy and if you’re a bad guy it’s also revealed and mccarthy was revealed in the machine stripped him and he was destroyed so you then chose to make a film about the kennedy assassination has your second film what led you into this project well mark lane and I together became involved in the film on Kennedy Kennedy was a classmate of mine at Harvard I don’t feel sentimental about my classmates but I thought that Kennedy was an important president and I think he had an agenda that had to be stopped and this is why we made the film because we did not believe the Warren Report and we thought somebody other than Lee Harvey Oswald killed John Fitzgerald Kennedy or at least that if Lee Harvey Oswald had a row it was a minor role to begin with Lee Harvey Oswald is a poor shot in the second place we now have so many facts and so much proof about other people who are in Dallas that day who had a real commitment to the killing of Kennedy and then as the political aspect of John F Kennedy himself Kennedy had alienated a good many people although he didn’t do very much but he spoke and he spoke very convincingly about changing things in regard to civil rights this alienated a certain proportion of the population but most importantly he alienated the CIA because he did stop the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba and it is my belief that he was getting ready to pull out of our tiny at that point tiny presence in Vietnam he had already withdrawn 1,000 troops and he didn’t think the war was winnable and it’s so he wasn’t essentially an idealist but a pragmatist and pragmatic people are generally wiser than ideologues like the right wing lunatics who wanted the war in Vietnam and so he had to be killed just as his brother had to be killed the most striking thing in looking at the film today is the amount of witnesses that you compiled interviews with who claimed that they saw gunshots or heard gunshots or gun smoke or movements in this grassy knoll in his fence which was very close to the passage on the freeway where Kennedy drove past witness after witness confirmed that they think that that’s where the gunshot came from how are you able to get these people on film and why didn’t the Warren Commission go after him the extent that you did what the Warren Report and Commission failed to do makes you feel not only that it was flawed but there must have to mean something else afoot because we found witnesses simple Texas working people honest people who had no ax to grind who were on top of the overpass Kennedy was being driven down toward them they saw what and as well as anybody there were five of them there the Warren Commission interviewed SM Holland first he was the foreman of these five people and his testimony was so amazing in which he said he believed that shots came from the grassy knoll did not come from the Book Depository building that there was more than one shooter that there were not three shots but four shots the Warren committee Commission did not want that testimony so it took a little bit of the next man and none of the other three nobody ever asked who the hell was Ruby why was Ruby who was who was a pimp who ran a cheap nightclub who was a drug dealer why did he feel that it was a patriotic duty to kill Oswald and then when Earl Warren came with other members of the Warren Report and they talked to Ruby in his cell Ruby said mr. chief justice take me out of this cell take me to Washington and I’ll tell you the truth this clearly implied he had not told the truth and then Ruby died of cancer six months later now doesn’t it seem reasonable to think that somebody put Ruby up I mean this is an assumption that had to be examined I’m not saying it’s the truth but it had to be examined and weighed carefully and considered isn’t it at least reasonably possible that Jack Ruby was said by one of his bosses look you’ve got terminal cancer go in and kill his son of a bitch and he will be comfortable in jail and you’ll die you’re going to die anyway I mean something like that maybe he said it more kindly than I’ve put it but him it could have been something like that he was something the Warren Report had it being efficient and honest would have brought up question Wade and then thrown out if they could prove it was not they left too many strings lying around now the other thing can you believe this could anybody in his right mind believe this that all the material they took in the interviews with Oswald chief Fritz chief investigative officer Dallas police chief curry the chief in charge of the whole that Police Department they had no notes no record of any notes now here you’re interrogating if he’s guilty the most important criminal in modern times the most important criminal since the assassination of Lincoln at any rate and they don’t keep any notes I mean you know that isn’t feasible I mean it makes the whole see any place where you touch the Warren Report or what or what the police did wherever you touch it with a probing finger you knock it out I mean could anybody believe ask any honest cop ask any military policeman ask anybody who’s ever run a courts-martial or a judge’s run a trial that if police haven’t aired a guy for eight hours and who was killed the present United States right there’d be no notes those two people should be fired instead they stayed on the force until they retired the main point of your film rush to judgment was to raise questions concerning the Warren Commission’s theory that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin assassin you punctured many different holes in this theory but you didn’t really offer an alternative hypothesis at this point in time many years later do you have some ideas about who you think might have been involved in the assassination of John F Kennedy well this is probably a better informed than the Warren Report was but it’s it never I never pursued it I never did a lot of work on it because I went on to make other films I mean I covered what I had to cover in the in the film rush to judgment but I’m convinced that it was a combination of Cubans and CIA people Cubans under the direction of CIA people Cuban veterans of the Bay of Pigs the Cuban exiles Cuban exiles not Cubans living in in Cuba today or then but the same exile who attempted to overthrow Castro in the Bay of Pigs operation which Kennedy halted you know those people believe to this day that if he had put up the b-26s and bombed the beaches and if he had used more naval cover that they would have won and it was at the last minute that he called off the b-26 strikes and those people hated John F Kennedy with a passion and they hate him to this day even though he’s dead and it’s absolutely my belief that they with the CIA officers who ran them together we’re responsible for the death of Kennedy do you think the mob had any role Jack Ruby obviously had mob connections he seemed to be part of a conspiracy plot well I hope you don’t think this is a light joke but it’s my feeling you have enough people at the ball without the Mafia I mean it’s possible that the Mafia was involved and it’s Pocket possible at the market may even supplied weapons or something but you have too many people there and most of the evidence that points there’s a woman that Lane found long after we made the film who had been the mistress of Castro and then became an a/d Castro person it was involved with the Cuban community and she talks of making a trip to Dallas with a Cuban guy who was involved with the CIA even in Watergate and Lane says before the court and he won this case by the way landed what what was in the car besides you people and he said she said all the trunk was full of high-powered rifles it was Marita Lorenz right yes exactly and that’s you know why didn’t it work I mean if Lane could find that person why I’m you know if a civil lawyer can find that person where was where was the FBI where were the investigators in the Warren Commission Lane also alleged that a Howard Hunt who later turned up in Watergate and who had involvement with CIA and he’s right-wing Cubans is also present in Dallas that day that’s absolutely true so is Richard Nixon present in Dallas that day but nobody think he had anything to do with the death of Kennedy that’s something quite different but didn’t Mike Howard hunt was there and Howard had lied about that right and he lied in court about it and and this all took this case ended only three years ago well didn’t Marita Lorenz say that the caravan carrying rifles that she was in was met in Dallas by hunt and he was the one who received them and then paid them off she did say that but that was in spotlight right and spotlight is not a paper is not the New York Times I mean I try to be as conservative as possible which is why I didn’t bring that up you brought it up which I mean I’m glad you did because I frankly believe it but you know it doesn’t have the same evident evidentiary weight that the New York Times has or the fact that hunt lost a case in which he lied about where he was it’s one of the great mysteries and the Warren Commission has been that belongs to the garbage can of history and so does the Warren Report and what will go on is you know more and more people died so there’s less and less evidence but people will go on asking that question as long as people to ask questions let’s talk about your next film and the year of the pig which was about the Vietnam War and you made it while the war was still going on well I’m not only a leftist diamond American patriot and it’s very possible to be a leftist and to be a patriot and love your country and I that is a position I take I thought our war was immoral and so did many other people and finally the majority of the American people became to that belief but after all I’m an artist I make films and I wanted to make a film that would treat history I didn’t want to make an over emotional film I didn’t want to make a piece of Hollywood nonsense like platoon or I mean they came after my me anyway but I wanted to make a film that would place Vietnam in history beginning with the French history which is where I began and a little allusion to the Japanese invasion of Vietnam while we were in the war with Japan and then our war primarily our war and what it was that our war was about why we were there and as usual I use a collage collage method in which many voices many faces many images are used and that was the first left-wing film nominated for an Academy Award it was not widely played here because it was very badly treated here oh when it opened in Los Angeles somebody broke into the theater and wrote the word traitor on the wall I was the traitor well that’s bad for business you know nobody knows nobody goes to a film like the Booker the the people with all the theaters canceled it and in Texas when it was supposed to open at Euston there were bomb threats so then the University in Houston was going to play it and then there were more threats and then the ymh a in Houston actually played it there’s a big difference economically critically and in every other way from a theater to the Y Maj what’s the Y mhm a young men’s Hebrew Association oh like the YMCA except Hebrew rather than Christian neither Christian nor Hebrew has any particular meaning for me I’m a non-believer but I thought it was very brave of the ymh AAA to do it but it’s not the kind of audience I would have had in a theater but I I never complained about it and I’m not complaining about it now if you make hard films that oppose the government you can’t expect the government to hand you a lollipop or give you a tax deduction why I was audited every year I mean I you know I was audited every year because of what I did I might as well have been a drug smuggler or in the Mafia or something because the film did uncommonly well in Europe you know that’s the but I wasn’t proud of that the French loved my film they loved it for two reasons a France does have film culture and they’re wild about films that have new forms and it played in three theaters in Paris at once and got great reviews but they also liked it because they had lost the war in Vietnam and we were still fighting it and they said haha the Americans are fighting so they enjoyed and I I was uncomfortable that by that of course because I am an American and not a French person I think in the year the pig is probably the densest and richest collection of images of any documentary film that’s ever been made has probably never been so many images before put together in a film where did you find all of this material and what led you to assemble it in the way you did well I knew I could get all the film in the West so I began by going to Paris and meeting with the Vietnamese and they gave me one film which was a film made by them called the life of Ho Chi Minh which was important and I used quite a bit of that footage I then went to Prague where the National Liberation Front was and got material from Prague I then went back to France and got French material from the French experience in Vietnam and I went to East Germany which has one of the best film archives in the world and got the Soviet material that the Soviets wouldn’t give me namely the Soviet director Carmen’s reconstruction of the Battle of Jim BAMF ooh then I came back to this country and got all of the American footage I wanted by paying three thousand dollars a minute for it mm-hm and then I shot a lot of material and the shot material is the most important part of the film because I shot a deserter from the Green Berets I shot the only man who I knew or anybody else in the United States who spoke not only in Vietnamese but Chomp and who was a professor and a French professor who taught at Yale and who taught Buddhism and the history of Vietnam and he he was a brilliant man who became a friend of mine he’s dead now but I also then found American footage of obviously of Johnson and McNamara and their laws and protesters the one young boy one young man I liked and admired was a 19 year old who was a sergeant in the Green Berets and who was deserting and I helped him to desert he moved to Sweden he still lives there all the rich images and critical images of that film which ones do you think best capture the nature of the American involvement in Vietnam you have some favorite scenes are in the well I think that scene of all those naval weapons being fired I mean those monstrous it begins with it that was the most desperate war this country ever fought because the people who fought that war were as badly treated as we treated the Vietnamese almost I mean you know they anybody who wanted to get out of the draft who was white could get out of it it was a war in which there was an out of proportion number of blacks of poor whites if you were going to college you got out of it so there was a class war in a sense I mean the poor people who couldn’t afford to go to college went into the draft and went to Vietnam and were killed and the people at Harvard where I went to school went to graduate school after being at Harvard for the full four years they then would go to law school or medical school and add three more years and by that time they were out of it the young man who is Associate Producer and the reason I helped wanted him to be Associate Producer of my last film mr. Hoover and I was somebody who avoided the draft and went to prison he made a principled stand against the draft and he went to prison and his name is Michael Thomas and he’s a good friend of mine he I found the faces of those American generals the most striking and you filled the screen with these close-ups of Curtis LeMay and other America’s are Mark Clark who are making the most brutal and racist statements imaginal about how the Orientals don’t value life and about how they should be bombed back to the Stone Age and other horrible ly brutal remarks what’s the significance of their faces filling up the image of the screen well to begin with that I could say that general LeMay was my own commanding officer but but they get the point of that that was during World War Two too young you flew between the other ooh we don’t talk about that now but uh so people people wonder about what law he was Benton you’re right do it LeMay was my commanding officer and he did say but bomb them back to the stone Age’s that there’s a barbarism in that that you don’t find among civilized people the thing that I cannot forgive my government is that it never went back when we finished our war with the Nazis in the Japanese the very first thing we did with the two richest and most powerful countries in their own areas was immediately helped to build them back we poured billions of dollars into Germany and Japan and when we were done with the Vietnam War of course it was because we lost it rather than winning it but what we left was a legacy of more bombs or unexploded that still killed will kill people you see there’s a kind of cruelty in our view in our policy to Vietnam that extends all these years after the war it’s sheer cruelty I mean we took the Nazis and we helped rebuild Germany and of course maybe because they’re yellow people because they’re Asians deter because we lost that war because we admit that we made it Timmy donut actually lost it we said all we say we withdrew from it that we withdrew because we lost it you don’t withdraw if you’re winning I mean you were enable officer you know that if you’re winning the other people withdraw you stay and well big differences they not only do we lose it but there were a socialist country where as the Germans Japan Japanese or capitalist countries they were a communist country movie about Richard Nixon was really really you know one for the jugular vein but funny a whole lot of different things roll up into one well the proper title is what I meant it to be most people just call it Milhouse and I misspelled his middle name excellent I spelled it like the german word that his middle name came from it was mu housing the other great man whose family came from Mill housing was Albert Schweitzer but the name of the film is Milhouse : a white comedy mm-hmm because to me Nixon was the quintessential white comedian in an independent sort of perverse sense and I think that was the first time anybody did the life of a president on film and it’s it’s a full-length biography it’s a 97 minute biography on film that goes back to his earliest days and up until just before Watergate but it’s not a conventional biography in the sense that you tell a linear story it’s rather like your Vietnam film a collage of images that capture Nixon through the juxtaposition of images in a very complicated image construction well I first of all I don’t see film as being linear to begin with you know it’s to me it’s essentially much more disjunctive much more episodic and I intentionally made Nixon’s life that way I mean one of the themes I ran Nixon was always nervous about who he was always nervous and he wrote a book himself he had somebody else write it but I mean his name is on the book as the author and it there his ideas surely it’s a book called six crises and it’s an attempt at his autobiography and he it’s almost biblical or religious in tone because here he has these terrible crises and he he overcomes them and he surmounts the problem and then he goes on and upward and upward until he becomes the president well some of those crises were flawed you know I mean one of the first is the his case Nixon’s entire career depended on what happened to Alger Hiss because Nixon was an unknown Congress person and he suddenly introduced the his case into the house and it’s a long story but Alger Hiss eventually went to jail and Nixon’s career was made and somebody who began in the Congress in the year 1946 is the most junior Congress person there by 1952 was chosen by Eisenhower to run as the vice presidential candidate and it was because of the his case the his case gave him a kind of publicity that no Congress person of his generation had day after day the his case played before the American people in the different courts and the courts of Appeal in the Congress of the United States and Nixon played it like a master these some people say that Alger Hiss represented really Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and a certain sophisticated internationalist cosmopolitan mentality the people like Richard Nixon and later Joseph McCarthy would oppose so that by knocking hiss off the right-wing was showing that it could deal with the New Deal that it was superior do you think there was something on that there’s a power struggle going on between liberals and conservatives and that hiss and Nixon were just on different sides of this battle at that time that’s a very long question you know Doug there’s no doubt that the the right-wing radicals wanted to shoot down rose weld and shoot down for instance Yalta and hiss was part of the team at Yalta he was a state department person who went to one of the State Department people who went to Yalta and the fact that he went to Yalta I assume had something to do with the reason that he was the one who was triggered in a sense the contract was put on him it’s clear from the evidence that’s come out since that time that most of it was fairly phony and finally the most ridiculous thing of all as I say mr. Hoover and I is the fact that it was found all the evidence was found the microfilm was found in a pumpkin right I mean who ever heard of anything as crazy as that you know I mean here everybody is looking for this vital evidence that’s found in a pumpkin in a farm in New Jersey it’s it’s not really credible you know in effect Nixon was a McCarthy before McCarthy that the McCarthyism so to speak began with Nixon going after his I mean didn’t McCarthy then start going after the State Department to get so-called communists out and begin his crusade so there’s a real linkage between McCarthy and l’ainte Nixon here there always was until until Nixon became vice president then he had to assume a different role because McCarthy was a self-destruct kind of person and Nixon was a very careful precise ambitious man who would have done anything and he did it but he also knew when to be quiet and when he became the vice president and then when the hearings began two years after that Nixon cut himself off from McCarthy Nixon was always prudent some might say the Nixon had no moral scruples frankly that he did he did what he had to do but if you look at it in a commie way which I don’t you could say he was a pragmatist that he indeed did what had to be done to further his career oh yes there was all this big talk in the 1960 election about the new Nixon you know is is he he’s different from the way he used to be he’s more of a statesman now I saw one columnist say there is no Nixon Nixon was this back during the Red Scare days he’s trying to act like a statesman now Nixon is whatever is necessary at any particular time the most pathetic thing about Nixon is the one time he tried to be a good guy he really got screwed what was the head in the 1960 campaign that was as tight as any election ever was and now it’s fairly clear that there is no doubt that the state of Illinois was the swing vote and the state of Illinois was swung by voting many dead people all of whom voted virginity all of whom voted for Kennedy and the people on Nixon’s staff and important members of the Congress said to Nixon start a lawsuit and Nixon said no it would be bad for the country let’s let it go it was so tight anyway that Nixon wasn’t sure he was going to win but actually as you know if they proved only a few hundred dead people voted then there’d be enough of a scandal so that the whole country would have been flawed at that moment by as a result of that suit so did Nixon did make his remarkable comeback it looked like he was completely out of politics you’re Milhouse film has that famous sequence where he talked to the reporters in California after losing the governor you won’t have Nixon to kick around my says he says he’s never going to run again you know he says publish it do what you want he won’t have next to kick around anymore I won’t be here I tell you no from that minute on he was starting to run again right I mean Nixon never told the truth and his his second attempt was brilliant because he nobody in the world gave him a chance and you have to admire that stick to it stick-to-itiveness in Nixon I despise the man I despise his policies but that toughness and he’s still that way even after Watergate you know he is still having people write books defending the entire position of his his administration I mean you can suddenly think you can forget gordon Liddy and all those crooks and thieves who are in the White House and all that money piling in they’re the plumbers the Cubans but Nixon is there I think there are four books now by Nixon not written by him really but but his name down is the writer since Watergate in 1974 he’s a tough guy and I you know he can’t help but admire that as I say I despise him but I also admire that never quitting Milhouse came out during the end of Nixon’s first term before he ran again for reelection in 1972 how did the Nixon administration and the public receive your film Milhouse there wasn’t a very flattering portrait of Richard Nixon well it was meant to be an absolutely punishing and cruel portrait of a man who himself punished and was cruel nobody has found an error in that film I mean everything that’s in there is true but it was a huge theatrical success and then it was killed of course because I was already a customer that the government killed the film how’d they do that well the government doesn’t do it officially but it opened here in it opened in New York in three main theaters at one time the first documentary ever it opened it was in the plaza and another theater on 58th Street and in The New Yorker all these are big theaters in New Yorker at 900 seats and then they were filled and the New York ran run ran but when it went out to the west coast it went into 50 theaters supposed to go into 50 theaters and they all canceled and that’s the way hardball is played and Nixon played hardball and the manager the Bluebird theater in Denver wrote me a long letter in which he said we were going to play your film Millhouse a white comedy and then we were told by the people who own our corporation that we would not play it because the film did not give Nixon equal time to finish with Milhouse’s with a no house story uh Nixon had me put on the enemies list right and that wasn’t such a light thing because it meant you were audited I was already being audited anyway but I was on the enemy’s list and the enemy’s list was not a big bunch of bunch of people it was people Nixon regarded as real enemies and to me it was a badge of honor of course and I still keep it as a badge of honor I always have a few Xeroxes of the enemies list in my the drawer of my desk and I like to look at them I mean that’s just most sincere form of film criticism when the president the United States takes time out to cut you off I mean that’s real you know that your work has a kind of dimension that it was the Taylor films don’t have the after Milhouse what was your next film project and what were you feeling about film at that time having all these films suppressed then it wasn’t a discouraging or well I made a film whose title came from Robert Frost called America’s hard to say oh and that was about the Chicago basically by the 1968 Chicago Convention and the fix and the assassination of Bobby Kennedy and it ends with a great speech I can say it because it’s not my speech by Arthur Miller who says something the effect that what we learned in 1968 is that the people don’t own anything the politicians do and the people who own the politicians they own the Democratic National Convention they own who’s going to be elected who’s going to be nominated and all the rest of it that was a film made in anger and were made very quickly and then I went on to make to begin then I went out to finish painters painting which I had begun you did a film on the Weather Underground which was really unique can you tell us about that well it was unique but most of the people in the Weather Underground one of the sad things we find if you’ve lived among radicals as I have in I’m a radical as you don’t come they don’t come from the lower class you would think that the lower class which was treated punitive Lee would be the class that would but in our society for instance the Weather Underground who made the strongest protest as the Vietnam War started to wind down we’re essentially from the upper classes or the middle classes and these people did a tremendous number of bombings in which they tried never to hurt anybody they put a bomb in the State Department they bombed police stations they bombed they bombed my brother-in-law who was a CIA person gracious and they bombed his office they bombed all kinds of people who were not people didn’t bomb people they bought all kinds of installations which stood for military power which stood for the war in Vietnam which stood for injustice and the FBI went crazy because they couldn’t find these people the FBI had hundreds of people full-time looking for these guys and women there were as many women who was already a feminist group there were as many women in it as men and so I thought why not why don’t I do this film why don’t I go underground and show the FBI how it’s done and you had to find him of course it wasn’t hard ha ha not for me I mean it was hard for jig for the FBI but not for me I just took a friend of mine inside and said listen you know where those people are ah put me in touch with him so it began like a mystery story it was wonderful because he said about a week later he came by said ok they’re the Mayflower Hotel that’s 59th Street but it’s an park where Central Park is and he said go to the third phone booth from the left at exactly 7 o’clock and the phone will ring so I went in there the phone rang and it disguised what he said Dantonio I said yeah man said ah you will get a message from us which will tell you what the next step is so the next step was it I was to go on the subway which I never take to be on the last train to get on the train then jumper off quickly and then make sure that the train left the station obviously and get on the train after that and take it to a certain station in Brooklyn hell of long ride and there would be a phone booth on the northwest corner go to the phone booth and at exactly 7 o’clock the phone would ring phone racks said okay now walk sorry I ended up and I thought the guy who did this had military training this is like the great field of fire you know except this time it’s vision because I was standing in a corner I was visible from there from there and a huge arc and I was supposed to stand five minutes I stood five minutes and out of the darkness came this young guy and he smiled in 2d and then he gave me his fake name shook hands and he said go over there there’s a woman holding a copy of Time magazine against her chest like this and I did it so involved then we went into a restaurant and sat and talked they said that what you want to make this film and the doom to them we finally agreed and then I got Haskell Wexler and they went to a safe house in California and we went to the safe house and film them and made the film and the FBI went bananas and as a result we were subpoenaed now the First Amendment the Constitution is the dearest thing and all law to me that is that that we as Americans have the right to feel think right film anything we want so I enjoyed testing the First Amendment we got three great lawyers in the entire Hollywood community supported us we stood there with our lawyers and I read my statement which said I believe I have the right to make any film I want to me that’s as clear an expression as there is of the First Amendment in regard to film and behind us stood Martin Sheen and Warren Beatty and the head of the of the screen Directors Guild and 50 well-known actors and the American Civil Liberties Union and the FBI went through the chart withdrew everything and we won and we were the first people in the history of film to win and that year I got the award of the American Civil Liberties Union for defense of the First Amendment and I’m glad we did it and it’s a good film and it doesn’t advocate bombing because I make films not bombs those people bombed my film gets treatment that other films do when I film I noticed that the Germans brought it imported for a hell of a lot of money tremendous amount of money that this is going to be great they’re going to play on every station instead they brought it to suppress it oh they brought in a seven-year contract and they never played it the young German radical was writing a book about me found out about this he wrote a big story that was poached in every German newspaper so that we got revenge down to the last bone did the FBI step up its activities and surveillance of you after that yes they tried to break into my house and then you know there are always good people this is a great complex country to young lawyers and the Justice Department wrote me letters the same they signed the same letters wrote a letter saying we’re resigning from the Justice Department because of what it does to people and you were among the people and they said the FBI tried to break into your house well the FBI did this and this and this and these are the people who were involved and here the documents oh my god so it was pretty great stuff and I never went probably with that because I didn’t want to hurt them in spite of the fact they said they didn’t care but Antony knows I haven’t mentioned their name which I remember very well but he was this the time where you got your Freedom of Information Act information on the extent of FBI surveillance of you when did that come about then and you know that of that film alone generated ten thousand documents I mean it’s not just ten thousand my whole life that one film generated ten thousand documents because as I say in mr. Hoover 9 an ex-fbi man came to see me he said you know why you don’t even have the numbers for your files on the Weather Underground I said no he said because you’re listed under Bernardine Dohrn you see because she was one of the leading Weather Underground people so what they would do is they would put my file under her file so when I say do you have a file on me concerning my Weather Underground film they could say no this city much freedom or much information no no that’s the whole point it was very very funny I mean you know you wanted to go and shoot them but at the same time you had to realize it was funny that I mean you know these people are supposed to be represented on order and they stand for suppression and disorder the Charter the FBI is a personal is a there’s a reasonable Charter the Charter the FBI is to go after criminals is to prevent crime across state lines like bootleggers bank robbers etc but it’s not in the in the Constitution to be used to keep people from making films or writing books for having ideas the next film I made was called in the King of Prussia and I’m not I’m an atheist but I have always admired Daniel and Philip Berrigan because they were brave and of what because of what they did they were priests their priests one is a Jesuit one was resigned from the priesthood as married as children and runs it a house in the middle of the black district of Baltimore where anybody is welcome to stay or be fed so they decided to attack a thermonuclear nose cone at the General Electric plant in King of Prussia Pennsylvania and they did this and I made a film about it and Martin Sheen heard about it and I knew him anyway but he said D I want to be in the film I’ll play any part you want me to play and I said well it might had I could be the judge he’s the bad guy he said oh I’d love to do that I’ll be the judge so hit Martin’s the judge but not only was the judge he said it must cost lot of money to make that film I said well that’s my problem it does he said let me give you some so instead of hanging of the action the film he sent me a check for $10,000 and that filmed the film’s changed people’s lives that film changed Martin’s life because Martin has now been arrested seven or eight times in demonstrations and he’s now connected with Mitch Snyder and the homeless movement in Washington and his own children think he’s bananas you know because he goes out and does it he’s middle-aged now he’s forty eight or nine he goes out and does all this stuff and gets arrested and and he hadn’t been active in know all that Munoz out here now do you politicize them I pose a lot of people hmm establishment in the ruling class in this country are very much on the right track from their point of view of suppressing and much of your stuff is possible because you do politicize and radicalize people that’s my intention after all isn’t it I mean I don’t make these films as an academic exercise radicalize all you do really is show what what what the truth and truth is reality truth is radical yeah the truth is always radical reality is radical reality is radical is absolutely correct because if we knew if the American people I believe enough in the in America and the American people to feel that if they knew what was really going on say in Nicaragua not this blather that Dan Rather puts out blather rather but you know what really is happening there there’d be a sense of outrage about it but we’ve already brainwashed on that subject this is why your work is so radical and subversive because the official version of reality whether it’s the Kennedy assassination the Vietnam War Nixon Nicaragua is lies its distortions so if you counter that we the truth you’re coming off as a radical subversive you’re subverting the official account I’m very self-destructive the most useful person to me in all the world is Vincent Canby the New York Times he’s their chief film critic he gave no house of review that guaranteed of the hit it would be a hit in New York but I attacked him anyway and it finished my getting a review from the New York Times but I attacked him on the question of of actually El Salvador and and I ended my letter by saying till not only am i right and are you wrong but I challenge you to have the entire staff of New York Times go over any of my work and find one place where I’ve tinkered with tampered with history go find one and then you can write about it and call me a liar and he could not find one I mean they’re always tricks in film but there’s I mean they’re cuts that are a little faster than they should be or something else perhaps but but there’s nothing as cooked in my work as was cooked in the work of the United States government during this whole period on any one of the subjects I addressed then I went on to finish painters painting which I had begun and painters painting is a film about people who were friends of mine and political people never liked the film because it was a celebration of New York painting it started building Kooning in Andy Warhol and jasper johns and frank stella and robert rauschenberg and and a great many painters and people in the art world of New York and this had never been done before you know just think of what it would have been like into to have lived in Paris and have a camera crew and film Braque and Matisse and Picasso and that’s exactly the way New York was safe from 1949 1952 the time I filmed them in 1970 and on past 1970 by me I chose I was there actually and I knew those people well I knew Rauschenberg and John’s before they ever sold a painting a woman I used to live with he gave a Warhol his first job I knew these people extremely well I met Frank Stella when he was still a student at Princeton and I knew de Kooning from long before and Barnett Newman and most of my political friends hate that art and they hate the fact that these people have all made millions and millions of dollars I mean millions those people make more than bank presidents do and they’re not even crooks so that I think that nobody makes as much money in America today including movie stars and Jasper Johns he probably makes I know that he sells about 10 paintings a year for 800,000 H and then he sells some of his older paintings for a lot of money into your other work how do you see it relation to your political films well what I always said I was doing with my films once I got a few of them made was to try to put on film the history of my time that interested me and the painting of my time interests me and it’s not political the very the very world around painting is essentially a reactionary world it’s a world of many millionaires getting their kicks by buying paintings it’s a series of sharp dealers of hokey museums but it’s also done by people who came from all sorts of classes most of the painters I knew came from the poor and they’re now super millionaires it’s and I don’t care about the money my you know I mean even though I own some of their works I don’t care about the money I like the work it’s and as I told you before I’m a patriot you know American art was really strong and and new and vital and interesting and painting is always being for the rich in the Middle Ages it was the church that was rich you don’t think that peasants commissioned art in the 12th century was Cardinals and Pope’s kings and Lords painting anything that’s tactile we see the beauty about film is its very nature should be democratic that anybody can go into a theater and look at it the beauty of the written word is almost the same thing even though books cost twenty dollars today it’s not really that serious but if you want to buy a major Jasper Johns work that’s old you’re going to have to lay out ten million dollars and that immediately takes most people out of the market yes but it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily that maybe the people who buy those paintings are bad but the people who make them are not political art in the United States that people made a lot of money on like we know down to Mexico Wow you see these incredible great political murals they realize what’s missing in the United States is art that carefully control to keep out the political art alright well let’s put it this way we’ve never had an artist of quality who tried to do political art I mean Ben Shawn was not art of quality and Jack Levine is not an art equality the Germans have produced political art modern German art there’s a guy called Hans Hakka who is quite amazing he’s attacked Margaret Thatcher he’s attacked Reagan and he’s done it brilliantly I’ve seen Swedish political art too and I’ve spent a lot of time in Sweden Saints British political art but it’s not as good as German there is one man now who is doing serious political art who’s making it a success but it’s it’s a minority because frankly paint what is what can be owned you can’t own a film basically except the cassette and you can’t own a book in the sense that you own the rights of it but when you own a painting you own the entire thing nobody can reproduce it without your permission it’s yours and there’s a kind of ownership that says it and it transcends the concept of bourgeois society because it goes back as I say the lordly societies and religious societies the greatest collections of old are in the world or by the Pope’s you can still go to Rome and see not just Michelangelo’s Chapel but see one painting after another the ruling class of always controlled art as a sign of their temporal power absolutely and it continues to this day it’s the big corporations that buy most of the modern art for their corporate buildings or or donate healthy or donate them to the Museum of Modern Art and the major museums around the country and get healthy tax deductions and all it painting has to do with money there’s no doubt about that tell us about your film mr. Hoover and I that really takes courage in this day and age to attack the FBI directly I believed enough in this country so that I don’t think it takes courage to attack the FBI I’ve been attacking it all the time but I I wanted to attack thee I wanted to do something that never been done before I went to tell my life story and do it in terms of mr. Hoover the head of the FBI and his interest in me which began when I was 16 years old and to make a film that would reflect the bounce and the heat that existed between the FBI and me from that time to the present at 16 years of age he was a well I mean he had every right to to have a small interest in me because I was a precocious person and I entered Harvard at 16 which is fairly young to begin with and then I joined three radical groups I joined the young Communist League I joined the John Reed society John Reed was a Harvard graduate who covered the Russian Revolution and changed and I joined the American Student Union which was like SDS was in the 60s but that was a long time before him and I think that the FBI should have taken a file out on men and realized that it was nonsense because I didn’t do anything basically I mean wasn’t old enough I wasn’t political enough I did it to find out I mean I went to demonstrations and but there was nothing too crazy I mean I this was the 1930s when the country was in a great depression I guess when there were hundreds of thousands maybe a million’s militant and we were getting ready to go to war with seven or a war in which I enlisted but that’s something else I mean there’s no doubt about that but the FBI you see the real problem is that the FBI is always being a secret police force as I said before the FBI does have a charter which is to go after criminals but it doesn’t have any charter to go after thought to do thought control or to care what organizations I belong to if those organizations break the law or if I break the law then the FBI should come after me but those organizations did not break the law and neither did I that’s the significance of Hoover for you well Hoover is the quintessential lying cold warrior bureaucrat all of those things are evil he’s one of the truly most evil people that our society has produced and to me one of the most wildest things was that Hoover even attacked gay people when he himself was gay and nobody ever had the courage to say this he lived with Clyde Tolson as man and wife for thirty of the years that he ran the FBI and if somebody applied to the FBI and was gay he would be rejected because he was queer I know it’s it’s a kind of theory of royalty that the King can do no wrong King John Edgar and his wife Clyde and his Queen Clyde can do no wrong but anybody else bingo Oh to me that is simply outrageous and in fact you compiled some files on J Edgar Hoover in your film you exposed Hugh Hoover to public scrutiny in the same way that he is to like to expose be except I couldn’t I can’t hurt anybody and what I was exposing was the truth right and not secret files those secret files were really really crazy because they were so complete I mean I enlisted to be a flyer and when I was in flying school I mean this is world war ii world war ii he corrupted people he had people i don’t know what made them do it he did it with military intelligence reporting of what I was doing all the time when I was in the Air Force and there I was flying expensive equipment and these people were reporting they had nothing to report cuz I’m not an idiot I never talked Marxism in the Air Force I mean he says I wanted to be in it and all that and I was very the only thing I did that that he didn’t care about only the local police cared about I was the Wing Commander of my class you see this is drove the FBI crazy and two other aviation cadets and I and we were getting ready to graduate we we were in Texas in that time the rice hotel which is nothing I was the best hotel in Houston it’s as many years ago in 1943 we rented a big suite and we got drunk and I used to have a knife and I took the knife and split open the pillows and all the feathers came out they didn’t have air conditioning those days they had fans so I had the fans going with the feathers fly and I said snow room this is a snow room and we kept drinking and feathers flying it was a really serious offense because here’s the police department came in they think that come on we’re gonna have to take it up to jail on the manager said you’ll have to take him to jail it’ll affect their careers all he was pay for it we paid for the damage and got off but I mean that was the the real crime of my military career there are also scenes in this movie of your friend John Cage baking bread speaking about his philosophy of creativity and your wife Nancy giving you a haircut one of the significance of these sections of the film interspersed with the more I listen well I consider the John edgar Hoover elements non-human and the other elements of the human element I see my wife does cut my hair because she does in real life I can’t stand going to barbers I don’t know why I mean maybe my brother was a psychiatrist could tell me where my wife was a psychoanalyst but I can’t stand having some guy want to put smelly stuff in my hair and you know like everything that John says it sounds so simple so naive and it’s profound you know it’s I wanted to be an artist I didn’t know which way to go and he just says and we maintained this relationship over many many years and he’s politically radical and that he thinks that Thoreau was the greatest American Thoreau who went to prison for one day rather than pay rather than pay his tax for an unjust war the Mexican War t-this is raises an interesting point about your film work as a whole many people see you as a political filmmaker making the documentaries the political historical I am a political right right but in addition you’re an artistic filmmaker in other words art and politics it’s one thing I’m an artist who makes political film okay so that’s the way you would see yourself yeah this is sometimes neglected in analyses of your work people fail to see the radical innovations you’ve made in the documentary film your use of it for artistic statements visions your use for a little look at even mr. Hoover and I that’s nobody’s made a film like that I mean I can’t say that it’s I don’t think it’s that original but the fact that nobody else did it must mean that it’s somewhat original I mean I made a film about myself I’m not a particularly good actor and I’m the main actor in the film and it’s it’s not easy to talk for 89 minutes and my voice is on just about the only voice in that film except for a few words of Nancy’s and of John’s and I know the film works is I’ve only shown it about four times because I don’t even have a final release print or release prints all I have our to answer prints which are not correct and it played here and you know how people applauded it was remarkable the same thing has happened every time it’s played and people have to reinvent themselves all the time and a country has to be reinvented all the time and the idea of Liberty has to be fought for and reinvented all the time and it’s exactly what we should be doing instead of being repressive instead of having an FBI that wonders what you read or what I say or whom you go out with it should worry about about who is breaking the laws the real laws that should not be broken and we should be making a new kind of life in this country that isn’t for the rich because most of the people in this country aren’t the rich this is not a world of George Bush’s this is not a sleazy world of the Reagan’s this is a world of many kinds of people from different colors and races of different national backgrounds all in one place and it seems to me that we devolves on us to be experimental to be radical to be open to seek justice to risk our lives for the truth and we’re not doing that and nobody’s ever done that well do you have done it I think I almost gave no country is ever done no country but individuals within this country I think you just gave a remarkable statement of what your life’s work no I’m also a hypocrite and a liar and it’s you know come on I’m a human being so I’m full of error but the collective people of this country interest me more than I am interested in myself and I’m that may sound like a lot but it isn’t I mean the idea of living in a country that would change that way I mean I think the Thomas Jefferson in spite of you can’t blame Jefferson for his his acts and thoughts which were natural in his time but I think that people like Jefferson and Lincoln and Tom Paine in particular and a good many other Americans have stood for something that all the world admired and one of the things that rankles us now is that nobody admires it because we have nothing to hold up I mean you really can imagine what imagine that people would admire a country ruled by Ronald Reagan and his wife it seems to be unbelievable not credible and I think you know I think one of the points of all my work is it’s directed to change into changing the country and getting young people in particular to believe that it’s possible to do tremendous things things that require daring and and and to make a new world I mean this place was called the new world we’re now an old world you know we have lost our ingenuity as well even even in the business world that I don’t care that much about but we we were the new world and we are now in every sense the old countries Germany Japan countries long before there was the United States are the new world there are even more new ideas in Germany now and so that’s why I make films you also it seems to me have done quite a bit of reinventing documentary I’m struck by how different your films are every single film you seem to approach from a new angle there’s always some innovative features in it so I think as well as this political aim of telling the truth and exposing the lies and dealing with the hard and controversial issues you really have attempted to innovate the documentary film to develop it in new directions to make formal contributions to the film and it’s this intersection of art and politics that I see is defining your work as a whole and I think they’re related because art can be emancipatory the notion of formal innovation of invention of openness of creativity of doing something new is an analogue to political change it’s the same process I I agree with you I think that I mean I think this is what my work tries to be and I there’s no point in saying in giving a speech like the one I just gave and and making it and saying this is a film because it isn’t I mean a film is something else if we were to could make a film doing this with the TV cameras we have to rethink the whole thing and change the form around and it’s it’s a very it’s a very heavy problem so to change the very nature of an interview I’m looking into Lisa’s camera and so I mean I’m in this static position so the only thing I can hope for is to say something that’s different or else pull out a clown’s hat and wear it or you know something else but but I do think that we always have to test I mean that really is what the game is about and um but okay what you’re saying is actually correct and I’m rambling because I mean I could never stand to make the same film over which is why I could never work in Hollywood in Hollywood if you make a really successful picture that brings in a 50 million dollar profit you know you have that guy with the claws number four number five what is he the guy that scratches kills the women Oh Freddie or Freddie I mean those things are not inventive they’re not new they’re not exciting and they’re dead and we have to look for a new art and that’s why I liked painting frankly because because it was an individual enterprise and a painter could paint not because he had to change it but because he he had he had no alternative but not because there was any demand in the market I mean the painters were honest in that sense they weren’t changing the way a tailor would change fashion for clothing and that’s why one of the reasons I was intrigued with the painters I found so many people on the Left sterile when it came to ideas about what art should be her film should be or poetry should be they were back at some other place the already been explored and finished dug up the evacuation was there an owl that was already was a coffin the net needed was a coffin a tombstone the ultimately why did you choose then documentary as your media of choice he started off more interest in art really you were very involved in the arts and why was it that documentary rather than fictional film or painting or any number of other well first I loved the document I loved but and the second and equally important is frankly money is that you could you could make a work that was reasonable in price my stuff isn’t that cheap actually when you put them all together I’ve spent a few million dollars but that’s for ten films whereas a two million dollar film in Hollywood is is not much I mean not having to raise a lot of money or have a lot of money is freedom it’s a way to make films or to make a make a work of art that isn’t produced by an account well and puts surrounded by three lawyers do you have any projects coming up now are you working on anything well the enthusiasm of other people and in myself for this new film leads me to think that I should make another film and I’d like to make a film about something I’d like to make a film about some women I know who they are but I’d like to make a film about women to see if I could really understand what women think that I don’t think because I’m not a woman and it would be political too and one of the things I’ve liked about my work in the past is that I’ve hired so many women and got them in a position where they could leave which is what I always wanted them to do is they could go and make their own work I like to hire people who had no experience because then they wouldn’t have bad ideas and some of them went on to become phenomenally successful and some settled for children and marriage and you know life is life is composed of choice I I don’t like one more than the other I mean they were all like children to me in a sense other more questions no that’s it I won’t thank you very well we come to the end of the end thank you so much for coming down we showed I can’t tell you how happy I am to be here this is you know this is a great reception and tremendous people and it’s not bullshit and you know the response on the campus is terrific and I feel I’m among friends here absolutely thank you thank you so much

Stephen Childs

4 Comments

  1. One thing we need to keep in mind; Former Senator Joseph Raymond McCarthy is DEAD! We are able to to tar and feather him because he is no longer with us to speak for himself. People like Mr. de Antonio, the Hollywood Ten, etc., are only presenting their subjective viewpoints; that Mr. McCarthy was wrong. Were any card-carrying, dyed-in-the-wool Communists exposed? Were any bona fide Communists deported? Did Mr. McCarthy do any real DAMAGE to the Communist Party? Let's see the WHOLE PICTURE

  2. An advertisement attached of seven minutes or more, with fake piano and other sound solutions… no way.. please tell me a true story

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