Emile de Antonio - Director

Nationality: American. Born: Scranton, Pennsylvania, 1920. Education: Harvard, and Columbia University, New York. Military Service: Served in World War II. Career: Teacher of philosophy, longshoreman, and editor, 1940s and 1950s; formed G-String productions, 1958; began making compilation documentaries with Point of Order , 1963. Died: December 1989.

Emile de Antonio (right) with Martin Sheen
Emile de Antonio (right) with Martin Sheen

Films as Director:


Point of Order (+ co-pr)


That's Where the Action Is (for television) (+ pr)


Rush to Judgment (+ co-pr)


In the Year of the Pig (+ pr)


America Is Hard to See (+ co-pr)


Millhouse: A White House Comedy ( Millhouse: A White Comedy ) (+ pr)


Painters Painting (+ pr)


Underground (co-d, pr)


In the King of Prussia


Mr. Hoover and I

Other Films:


Sunday (Drasin) (pr)


Drunk (Warhol) (role)


By de ANTONIO: articles—

Interview with Jonas Mekas, in Village Voice (New York), 13 November 1969.

"Radical Scavenging: An Interview with Emile de Antonio," with Bernard Weiner, in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Fall 1971.

Interview with G. O'Brien, in Inter/View (New York), February 1972.

"Rencontre avec Emile de Antonio," with L. Marcorelles, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), December 1976.

"Filmer de que ne montre pas l'histoire 'officielle'," an interview with M. Euvrard, in Cinéma Quebec (Montreal), vol. 5, no. 19, 1977.

Interview with A. Rosenthal, in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Fall 1978.

Interview in Cineaste (New York), vol. 12, no. 2, 1982.

"History Is the Theme of All My Films," an interview with Gary Crowdus and Dan Georgakas, in Cineaste (New York), vol. 12, no. 2, 1982.

"De Antonio and the Plowshares Eight," an interview with D. Segal, in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1982.

"Emile de Antonio Interviews Himself," in Film Quarterly (Los Angeles), Fall 1982.

"My Brush with Painting," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), March 1984.

"Quotations from Chairman 'Dee': Decodifying de Antonio," in Cinema Canada (Montreal), July-August 1984.

On de ANTONIO: articles—

Bazelon, David, "Background of Point of Order ," in Film Comment (New York), Winter 1964.

Westerbeck, Colin, Jr., "Some Out-Takes from Radical Film Making: Emile de Antonio," in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1970.

Hess, J., "Political Filmmaking: Feds Harass Film Crew," in Jump Cut (Berkeley), September 1975.

Linfield, Susan, "De Antonio's Day in Court," in Village Voice (New York), 8 February 1983.

Obituary in Variety (New York), 27 December 1989.

Ruth, W., "Emile de Antonio, 1919–15.12.1989," in EPD Film (Frankfurt), vol. 71, no. 2, February 1990.

Tuchman, M., "Freedom of Information," in Film Comment (New York), vol. 26, no. 4, July-August 1990.

Wintonick, P., "Appelez-moi 'D,"' in Revue Cinémathèque (Paris), no. 7, August-September 1990.

* * *

A communist with impeccable Ivy League credentials, Emile de Antonio came to filmmaking relatively late in his career. Leaving Harvard in the 1930s, he first flexed his muscles as a longshoreman on Baltimore docks. After World War II, he returned to academia, attending graduate school at Columbia University, and then teaching for a time at William and Mary College, Virginia.

The late 1950s found him in New York, engaged in get-rich-quick schemes. (With a friend, he set up "Sailor's Surplus," a mail order business.) More significantly, he became acquainted with several notable personalities in the New York art world. He went drinking with Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns and organized "galas" for the minimalist composer John Cage and the dancer Merce Cunningham. As far as his future filmmaking was concerned, this period was crucial: he was encountering the wealthy liberal arts patrons whose backing would later be so important to him.

De Antonio was a member of "The Group," a "free open organization of American cinema" set up in the summer of 1961 with the avowed aim of rejecting censorship and exploding the "myth of budget." The organization was comprised of such luminaries of the New York avant garde film scene as Jonas Mekas and Shirley Clarke. However, it was as a film producer/distributor, not as a filmmaker, that de Antonio was associated with this organization. In 1958 he had formed G–String Productions to distribute the celebrated underground classic, Pull My Daisy .

In the early 1960s, de Antonio was given access to 188 hours worth of kinetoscopes of the McCarthy hearings. He managed to raise $75,000 from his friend Eliot Pratt, the Standard Oil heir, and set to work editing.

It took him more than two years, and he went broke in the process, but in 1964 de Antonio emerged with his first documentary, Point of Order. Paul Newman offered to do a narration. De Antonio turned him down. He had already evolved his film philosophy, and it held no place for narrators: "the narrator on TV becomes a super figure who has to explain to you what you've seen, or what you haven't been allowed to see. It's not the same as the jackboot of the nazis, but it is a kind of fascism of the mind."

In a sense, de Antonio was the great precursor of scratch video and sampling. He described his own method as "radical scavenging": what it entailed was expropriating footage from the television networks and editing the footage together to make a scathing critique of some aspect of American society. De Antonio devoted his energy to looking for the parapraxes, the out-takes, those never-broadcast moments that had been consigned to the deepest vaults of the network archives.

The 1960s proved to be a good period for him. Although Point of Order was slammed by the New York Times , it was successful with students, who were beginning to be politicized by the Vietnam War. Pressed as to why he did not shoot his own footage, de Antonio asked critics what chance an independent filmmaker had against the all-powerful television stations, "the ruling class of America," as he described them. An independent filmmaker would not have been allowed to get near Kennedy on that fateful day in Dallas.

Kennedy's assassination, indeed, was the subject of de Antonio's second film, Rush to Judgment. Sponsored in the United Kingdom by Woodfall Films, Tony Richardson's production company, this project did not endear him to the establishment. Although officially shunned, he was privately helped by "insiders" who gave him access to sensitive material. Nonetheless, the networks had an annoying tendency of destroying the most valuable, and most incriminating, footage.

His Vietnam film, In the Year of the Pig , was again eccentrically financed. Mrs. Orville Schell, a wealthy New York socialite, gave dinner parties at which the production money was raised, and she is credited as the film's executive producer. De Antonio managed to find an interview with U.S. General George Patton in which Patton described the young Americans in Vietnam as "a bloody good bunch of killers."

De Antonio's 1976 effort was Underground. He managed to track down and interview the infamous Weather Underground for this project, a fact that exasperated the authorities, who hadn't been able to get near the group. The FBI therefore tried to subpoena the film and crew.

Not long before his death, Emile de Antonio discovered that J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI had been keeping files on him for nearly thirty years. Appalled by American "secret society," he could not help but be amused at the same time. There was something pathetic and comic about this sinister man, Hoover, and his pet organization. De Antonio, in Mr. Hoover and I , took great pleasure in reporting FBI minutiae: the way that Hoover made all his employees wear felt hats; his admiration for the Jewish star of the television series about the FBI despite his own notorious anti-Semitism; Hoover's insistence that his driver never take a left turn because of a previous car accident suffered by the FBI chief after such a turn. All of these tales appealed to de Antonio's sense of irony. "I am as much Dada as I am a Marxist," he said in an interview he conducted with himself for Film Quarterly. A strange mixture of Thomas Paine and Huckleberry Finn, Emile de Antonio was a devout patriot, who defined his role as "artist" in constructively negative terms. As far as he was concerned, art was necessarily adversary, and he was determinedly critical and anarchistic. He saw such a stance as his duty.

—G.C. Macnab

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