enshrined by critics, audiences, and academy
members, George Clooney’s admirable, efficient
Good Night, and Good Luck, despite
its aspirations to political relevance,
remains politely hermetic, even somehow
antiquated. Though shot in pristine black-and-white,
Good Night, and Good Luck seems more
like it’s trapped in amber—sultry jazz interludes,
evocative cigarette smoke curlie-cues: those
were the days all right. One wouldn’t be
wrong in mistaking it for nostalgia, a glossy
remembrance for the halcyon days when men
were men and journalists were stand-up guys
fighting for decency. Despite the presence
of Joseph McCarthy, whose appearance as
merely a face on integrated old footage
is remarkably effective as a dramatic device
but somehow nullifies the film as an immediate
social experience, Good Night, and Good
Luck traffics in the same hazy, dulled
glow of Fifties remembrance that it should
probably be trying to subvert.
More immediate is Emile De Antonio’s striking and far more nervy documentary take on the McCarthy hearings, Point of Order. Newly out on DVD for the first time, Point of Order, compiled from footage of the 1954 McCarthy “witch-hunt” hearings, is worth re-exploring for the uninitiated. A highly charged political filmmaker, who went on to direct the radical, left-wing Vietnam exposé In the Year of the Pig in 1968, de Antonio died in December of 1989. In this interview conducted by Sam Szurek, at the time of the Iran-Contra hearings for the September 23, 1987 edition of the now-defunct New York arts weekly, Downtown, Antonio opens up about film, politics, and his past in the New York art scene of the 60s and 70s.
Emile de Antonio:
By Sam Szurek
is a mantra-like incantatory buzzword frequently
intoned by those who absolutely must establish
their hip credentials. My eyes glaze over
each time someone else uses it. But now’s
my turn, and I finally found the right context.
The enemy is a fraud and it must be exposed.
Deadly force is futile and in any case morally
unacceptable. Deconstruction is another
useful weapon. It breaks down the enemy’s
systems, methods, and laws into its component
parts. Thus stripped, everyone can see that
the emperor has no clothes.
Nixon and Reagan have been exposed by the
long, torturous, demanding, and frequently
tedious deconstructive process of the televised
hearings. McCarthyism, an earlier avatar
of evil, was similarly undone. For those
of us too young to have witnessed and understood
the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, the 1964
documentary Point of Order was a
powerful exercise in political deconstruction.
It exposed Senator Joseph McCarthy, Republican
from Wisconsin as a dangerous demagogue
who for nearly a decade scared and hypnotized
Emile de Antonio as a role model? Yeah.
He was and remains so. This dawned on me
as I was getting ready to interview him
for an article I wrote in the late Eighties.
I met him over 20 years earlier in Boston
at a screening of his film, Point of
Order. After the obligatory Q&A before
a crowd of assorted disaffected pinkos from
Harvard, Boston University, and Brandeis,
I gave him a ride to the airport. In the
course of a fortuitous traffic jam I was
dazzled by his articulate soliloquy on film,
politics, and art.
For the first time as an undergraduate,
and much to my mother’s consternation, I
got a vivid lesson in the alternative possibilities
of a life in New York City’s bohemia. Emile
de Antonio, I learned, was also a kind of
agent, a facilitator, really, for the likes
of painters Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg,
Stella, John Cage the composer, and filmmakers
Robert Frank and Jonas Mekas.
While shooting stills of De at his Sixth
Street brownstone I told him of that momentous
encounter. He proudly replied by telling
me that Andy Warhol is also among those
who felt influenced by him. The opening
paragraphs of POPism, The Warhol
‘60s, attest to this:
The person I got my art training from
was Emile de Antonio… at one point he said,
‘I don’t know why you don’t become a painter,
Andy — you’ve got more ideas than anybody
around’. De was the first person I know
of to see commercial art as real art and
real art as commercial art, and he made
the whole New York art world see it that
So we sat down to talk.
SAM SZUREK: De, I’m torn on whether I
ought to focus on you as a political filmmaker
or on your adventures in the modern art
EMILE DE ANTONIO: I was connected with Rauschenberg
and Johns and Warhol, all through John Cage,
long before I ever made a film. The basic
technique of Cage, which was in music and
then influenced Rauschenberg, Warhol and
Johns, also influenced me. Point of Order
was made out of absolute junk, in junky
kinescope. But it was the first time that
anybody had taken a complete hearing and
made something more real out of it than
the reality, because the reality of it wasn’t
very real. It ended with a whimper, a gavel
bang, and everybody went away looking a
little odd and not knowing what happened.
I don’t believe in cinema verité. I think
it’s nonsense. I’d say whose verité?
SS: Are you saying that the kind of truth
that was coming out of our TV screens was
not the reality that you eventually came
EdA: Well, I changed it. First of all, it
gave it structure. That’s what art is about.
And the 190-hours of footage had no structure.
It was just as amorphous as life, it was
a very lengthy hearing. Tell me the structure
of the Watergate hearings, it sort of rambles
on discursively until somebody pinpoints
interesting that you say that. I was glued
to the set during the Watergate hearings.
I was equally obsessed by the Iran-Contra
hearings, watching every live moment. But
nevertheless, I also found myself having
to read about it the following day in the
New York Times. Why do you suppose that
EdA: The people who rule our country are
much more sophisticated, much less is revealed.
It really calls for an almost priestly interpretation
on a day-by-day basis. The fact is that
our president is a shadow, and the fact
that we have a president who is acting out
a part, a president who is sleepy, who doesn’t
do very much except perform. A president
who doesn’t really know very much but yet,
is in perfect sync with the people in his
administration because he shares their extreme
and conservative right wing views. SS: He’s
not a classic villain in this piece like
Nixon was, and I’m not really sure who the
villains really are. I think Ollie North
is such an easy target. Who is the true
villain here? I’d like to have your priestly
EdA: The villain in this one? Obviously
it’s the American Right wing. It’s the American
conservative classes who freely elect their
people, essentially because they own the
media. The media is the one way you will
never learn anything from. The networks
are the three most corrupt things we have.
SS: It seems to me that the American
public is largely non-ideological; most
people don’t vote based on their ideology.
They watch TV. They want a clear idea of
what is good, what’s bad, who’s fucking
up and who isn’t. Do you sense that this
is being conveyed by the hearings?
EdA: No, I don’t sense that that is being
conveyed because they’re being suppressed.
Even if you were extremely intelligent and
knew something about modern American history,
too much is not revealed in the hearings
themselves. And you don’t have a really
great lawyer in there. I thought Lyman would
be. But he’s not. He’s not like Welch [counsel
during the McCarthy hearings]. You need
somebody who’s not afraid to go after it,
who’ll keep pressing, and there’s a kind
of reluctance to go after these boys who’ve
been admirals, and colonels and all that.
I don’t think we can afford to have the
truth come out here, and therefore it won’t
come out. This isn’t getting rid of one
demagogue. You’re talking about the whole
super-structure of the government’s financial
relationships and the military. We’re too
far committed to what we’ve done in Nicaragua,
which is heinous and criminal. So what are
we going to do? Start conducting court martials?
All of these people broke the law, and some
of them made great profits from it. Secord
seemed like a crook to me, to be honest
SS: How does this rate as television
theater, compared to Watergate and the McCarthy
EdA: The Army-McCarthy hearings were the
best because they were the first, and also
because they were black-and-white and also
because you had six senators. That was it.
Plus, you had the McCarthy staff and two
lawyers, Welch and Jim St. Claire, who later
became Nixon’s lawyer. He’s the only lawyer
who defended presidential privilege twice,
once during the Army-McCarthy hearings when
he defended Eisenhower, and again toward
the end of the Nixon period in the White
House with respect to Nixon’s executive
privilege regarding the tapes.
SS: There was a time in America — and
not so long ago — when stating "I am a Marxist"
was a badge of courage, because you invited
all sorts of problems. When you say, as
you say now, “I am a Marxist," what does
that elicit from younger people? Puzzlement?
Ignorance? Do they see you as courageous?
EdA: I’ve always spoken a good deal at universities,
and I still do, and I think young people
accept it. There was more wonder about it
in the time of Nixon and after I made Point
of Order. Today they accept it, frankly
because... I’m an easy kind of Marxist to
live with, really, I’m an intellectual,
I make films, I don’t make bombs.
SS: Several years ago you were involved
in a landmark court case. The feds were
after you when you made the film Underground,
a sympathetic portrait of the Weather
EdA: I changed the laws of this country
because I made a film with the Weather Underground,
and the FBI and 200 agents looking, full
time, for these people for five years and
never found them, so a middle-aged filmmaker
takes a crew underground and spends a few
days underground and films them. I was subpoenaed,
and we said we’d go to jail before we cooperate.
When you go through the long history of
the House Un-American Activities Committee
and Nixon and everybody else, nobody ever
beat it. If you were cited for contempt,
you went to jail or there was a fine or
something. But we beat it. We won it because
the Attorney General at the time was a civil
rights man by the name of Levy, who’d been
the Dean at the University of Chicago Law
School, and he said that people who make
independent films have the same rights as
The only reason we beat the FBI and the
Department of Justice and the subpoena was
that the entire Hollywood community supported
us. That’s where I met Martin Sheen, who
was in my last film, In the King of Prussia.
Everybody came out. From Robert Wise, who
was president of the Screen Directors Guild
and who cut Citizen Kane, to Shirley
MacLaine—hundreds of people who could see
that we, as radicals, if we had a problem
it could be extended to anyone. Even Peter
Bogdanovich, whom I’ve known since he was18
and has always been very conservative. Jon
Voight. Many important people. Producers,
directors, as well as actors, chilled by
SS: Through the Freedom of Information
Act you were able to obtain your FBI dossier.
What was the most arresting thing you read
EdA: Well, I did a lot of fairly serious
things, but the most arresting thing I think
of is when I was a teenager, they followed
my roommate, Tommy Bixley, and me. He went
on to become a high-ranking officer in the
CIA, I might add. Went to see Sonja Henie
skate, we wore black tie and took a bottle
of champagne, and FBI men followed us there
because of me and wrote down “De Antonio
drank champagne," and it’s spelled “champaign,”
as in Illinois, “and threw flowers.” He
added that, which was true, to something
that wasn’t true, that I went with a group
of friends to a large demonstration for
the Soviet Union, and many thousands of
people were there and that we emptied our
wallets for the Soviet Union, which is something
I’ve never done, or would ever do.
was so damming about the fact that you had
champagne while watching Sonja Henle skate?
EdA: They were watching me and caught the
innocent roommate, who became a CIA guy.
It’s the late Thirties, I’m 17 years old.
I’d done a lot of things that they should
have watched me for, and they did. But it
means that they were really watching me
a lot, and when I was doing naïve things.
Do you really follow a guy in black tie?
SS: The other day you said, over the
phone, that you’re now in the process of
starting to do something that I don’t think
anybody’s ever done: a filmed autobiography.
Tell me about that.
EdA: That’s due to a great man in TV named
Jeremy Isaacs who started Channel Four in
England, and one of the reasons I like him
is that at the end of his fifth year as
huge success, he resigned. He’s now going
to be the head of Covent Garden. Neither
you nor I could imagine the head of CBS
or NBC resigning to become head of the Metropolitan
One night, I couldn’t sleep, I’m an insomniac,
and I came down here at three in the morning.
I just typed until about 10, and I sent
it to him, and he said, “This is wonderful.
I’m coming to New York anyway, let’s have
lunch, ”and we did. He said, “how much do
you need?” and I didn’t have any idea, so
I pulled a crazy number out of the air,
$500,000, and he said, “Well, I’ll give
you a third of it right now.”
Now, I’m interested in doing it in two ways.
Martin Sheen’s a pretty good friend, I want
him to play me, and I want me to play myself.
I’m not a particularly good actor, but I
don’t care. I want the documentary of me
to be shot in 35mm color, I want the fictional
subtext, played by Sheen, to be played in
fairly poor video, and then I want, which
I did in The King of Prussia, to
transfer it to film.
SS: I take it Sheen has agreed to do
EdA: He has, subject to me coming up with
a script for him, which I haven’t given
SS: But you got part of the money based
EdA: There isn’t a script. I don’t want
a script. I want a general script. I want
Sheen and me both to extemporize.
SS: But you realize that in your life
there are scores of characters, and rather
important ones. I mean, Rauschenberg, Warhol,
CIA people, J. Edgar Hoover, U.S. Presidents,
editors, filmmakers, Hollywood stars. What
will you focus on?
EdA: Just the story of my six marriages
would take considerable time.
SS: So, I’m afraid that your filmed autobiography
will have to be rather focused, and narrowly
focused at that.
EdA: I hope that my filmed autobiography
will not be narrowly focused at all. I want
it to be sprawling, discursive . . .
SS: Then I’m afraid we’re talking about
EdA: No, no. We’re talking about a long
film. I’m going to shoot it on film, most
of it on film, a lot of it on tape too.
I hate re-creation. But there’s no other
SS: You know what’s remarkable? I can’t
think of anybody in Hollywood but Martin
Sheen who still has a sense of outrage and
EdA: He’s been arrested five times. You
know what he did...he sent me a lovely letter,
I think I still have a Xerox copy of it.
Right after we filmed In the King of
Prussia, he said “Thank you for allowing
me to come the closest to courage that I’m
ever likely to be.” And of course it wasn’t
true, because he went out and got himself
arrested. It hurts his career. I think his
life must be very hard right now because
SS: He’s filming a movie now with one
of his sons. It’s about Wall Street.
EdA: With Oliver Stone. I hated Platoon.
I saw Platoon because it was about
Vietnam. I made the first movie from the
Left that was nominated for an Academy Award;
it was called In the Year of the Pig, which
was about Vietnam. That thing just sold
some 20,000 tapes or cassettes. Martin [Sheen]
says freely that Coppola got the idea of
the Wagner sequence from it. I began In
the Year of the Pig with a concerto of helicopter
sounds over black leader, then to images
of Vietnam, but the helicopter was the quintessential
difference between the Vietnam War and all
other wars because without it we wouldn’t
have been able to fight it at all. We carried
the troops in them, we carried out wounded
and the dead, everything was the chopper.
I’m going to do a thing on this filmed autobiography.
Hangovers and famous drunks. Drunks that
I’ve known. And monstrous hangovers and
terrible people who come and visit. But
that’s me. Sheen will be in other things.
For instance, Andy Warhol made a film with
SS: Who will play Warhol?
EdA: No, he won’t be in it. He already has
made the film. And I’ve never allowed him
to show it. My lawyer threatened him with
a suit. It’s a film that only appears in
the catalogue resume of his work, it’s called
Drink starring Emile de Antonio.
SS: When was it filmed? How was it filmed?
EdA: In the Sixties, when he first started
making films. After the first seven or eight
films, 10 films. He used to see me all the
time, and Point of Order came out
and I was working on another film and I
used to go to Elaine’s from the beginning
because she’s a friend of mine and he used
to be there and he’d say, “De, when are
we going to make a film together. Come on”
And I’d say, “I make serious, boring political
films, and you make boring frou-frous, there’s
nowhere to meet.” One night I was pretty
drunk. I used to be a very heavy drinker.
I said, “We’ll make a film on Thursday,”
and he said, “wonderful, what time?”
“Six.” He asked, “What will you do?” I said,
“l’ll drink a quart o whiskey in 20 minutes.”
Marine Corps sergeants die doing that. So
he said. “De, that would be wonderful.”
And I did it. And it’s an amazing film.
SS: Was this before he did The Man
Sleeping or after? [In POPism
Warhol points out that he called the film
Drink so it could be a trilogy with
Eat and Sleep.]
EdA: After. He did Eat and Sleep
first. This was my idea. He just kept the
camera running and I’m just sitting. I don’t
talk or anything. i’m just drinking. I’m
silent. I don’t talk when I’m alone. I regarded
the camera crew as alone.
SS: The soundtrack is ambient sound?
EdA: Yes, but then it took him half an hour
to change the film magazine. I’m on the
floor. I can’t get up, because so much time
has gone by, my hand is going up the brick
wall, I’m trying to pull myself up and I
can’t do it.
SS: Why did you prevent him from releasing
this film? It’s just you drinking. Beginning,
middle, and end.
EdA: Yeah, but the degradation of a human
being totally wiped out. It’s disgusting.
So my wife, she threatened to sue them.
She’s dead, that wife.
SS: Which wife was this?
SS: It’s just as well that it was never
released. It doesn’t contribute much to
the history of film or to the problem of
EdA: No. I felt at the time that WCTU might
have a deep interest in this film, the Women’s
Christian Temperance Union, the people who
helped get Prohibition passed.
SS: Did that lead you to stop drinking?
EdA: No. Nancy, my current wife, got really
pissed about my drinking, so I make promises
which I keep. I will not drink for 42 days.
And for 42 days I drink vast quantities
SS: And then you get shitfaced on day
EdA: On day 43 I drink a lot.
SS: I’m glad to hear that, because I
don’t know how to deal with completely abstemious
EdA: My wedding anniversary is the 23rd,
which is Tuesday. Monday we’re having dinner
with on old friend of mine, the guy who
put up the first money for Point of Order,
Hank Rosenberg, he’s the one who owned the
New Yorker Theater. I still see a lot of
him. He’s a very sweet man. I’m seeing him
Monday, and I’d like to have a drink with
him, but I promised Nancy.
Sam Szurek is an advertising creative
director. In a previous incarnation, Sam
produced controversial TV talk shows, music
videos featuring the Kinks, Neil Young,
Devo, Celia Cruz, Tito Puente, Ray Barreto
and many other seminal rock and salsa musicians.
Sam also produced “Memories of Duke,” a
musical documentary film on Duke Ellington.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org