Thursday, 11 December 2008

MR. HOOVER AND I (Emile de Antonio, 1989)

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 4

Figure 5

Figure 6

Figure 7

Figure 8

Figure 9

If I had to choose the greatest documentary filmmaker, I would probably select Emile de Antonio. He is also the director who I most admire in terms of his commitment to political filmmaking in America throughout the era of the Cold War. He began making films in 1964, with the compilation work Point of Order, which dealt with the Army-McCarthy hearings. He made ten films in total, finishing in 1989 with Mr. Hoover and I. Somewhat fittingly, he died at the end of the same year, just as the Cold War was concluding. His films are often difficult to find, but last year a 4 disc set was released by HomeVision titled "Emile de Antonio: Films of the Radical Saint." The set includes his masterpiece, In the Year of the Pig (1968), as well as three lesser known works: Millhouse: A White Comedy (1971), Underground (1976), and Mr. Hoover and I.

Mr. Hoover and I certainly feels like the final work of an artist, a closing statement of sorts. It is de Antonio's most personal movie, and a large percentage of the film consists of de Antonio addressing the camera in long take and telling stories about his own life and that of his "co-star", J. Edgar Hoover (Figures 1 and 2). The first sequence establishes the point of view, with de Antonio describing Hoover as one of the main villains in the history of the United States, more dangerous and harmful than Communist and Nazi spies because of the power he held. Hoover is set up as the antithesis of everything de Antonio believes. However, despite the title, the film is less about Hoover and much more about de Antonio and his views about life and art.

De Antonio cuts between the shots of him lecturing to the audience with three other spaces that recur throughout:

(1) de Antonio talking to John Cage about his art as Cage bakes bread (Figure 3);

(2) de Antonio lecturing to university students (Figures 4 and 5);

(3) de Antonio getting a hair cut from his wife.

In addition, there is archival footage of Hoover presenting Nixon with an honorary FBI badge (Figure 7). Almost all of these scenes are handled with sequence shots (especially the ones with Cage and de Antonio's wife), which is very different from the heavy editing of de Antonio's earlier work. But de Antonio avoids a direct cinema approach. He makes the audience aware of the camera's presence and act of filmmaking, explicitly arguing against the endless flow and technical perfection of most film and television. In addition to being a filmmaker, de Antonio was also a painter with connections to the New York art scene (particularly Andy Warhol), and he makes explicit his spiritual bond with not only Cage but also the experimental filmmakers of the "New American Cinema" led by Jonas Mekas. He mentions Pull My Daisy (Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie, 1959) as being a major influence. The very idea of making art for profit is seen as counter to his principles:

"Perhaps the only thing worthwhile is to make something that isn't really for sale except on your own terms, which is I made it, it's true, if you don't like it, the hell with you. I want you to like it or I'd be crazy. But I'd rather be crazy than have you like it because it was false, because it was what you wanted for me instead of what I wanted."

As this passage suggests, de Antonio is decidedly strident and confrontational in his views (which is exhilarating if you're sympathetic, but likely aggravating if you aren't). The other scenes are thus crucial for balance, not in terms of contrasting viewpoints but in regards to tone. Seeing de Antonio in private with his friend and partner, as well as delivering a lecture to a social audience, allows the viewer to place his political position in context.

Ultimately, despite its concern with the past of both himself and Hoover (who died in 1973), the message of the film is directed towards the future. The penultimate shot is the university audience emptying (Figure 8), over which de Antonio begins his final voiceover. The last image (Figure 9) contains de Antonio's final words to the viewer, and they provide an appropriate summing up of the past decades and a look towards a future that, unfortunately, de Antonio will not be a part of:

"We had politics in the 60s simply because a great many young people became tremendously involved with the hope of social change. And that's why we're in such a quiescent period now, because it failed. The system was strong enough. This is the strength of democracies, that they create the illusion of change. But in fact what they do is permit change, a certain kind of change."

"And when the students in the 60s got hard, they were crushed. Chicago, the 1968 Chicago riots were by the police, not by the students, and that police riot was planned. The point of that police riot was to go out over world television to say that the United States government would take no more of this. That if you were willing to have your skull cracked, if you were willing to spend a few days in jail, crowded like sheep, if you were willing to have your record destroyed forever and go into a permanent FBI file, then you could demonstrate in that way, and if not, not. And that's a simple and cruel way, and it took place all over the country."

"The nature of the police went back to the period of the 1890s, when the police beat, killed, mowed down, so-called anarchists in the Haymarket riots and those other riots. The police moved into that same position in the 1960s because the game was getting out of control, the game was no longer played by the government's rules. And Kent State was the height of it. When the National Guard could fire on harmless, peaceful demonstrators and kill them, a very clear message was sent to the young people of this country and to all people who were political in the sense that I use that word. You had either the end of the movement, or revolution, and of course it was the end of the movement and a kind of slow death for political ideas."

"We no longer have politics as I use that word. But I think we're on the verge of it, and that's why we're making this film. I think we're on the verge of a new kind of social change. History doesn't repeat itself, it only appears to repeat itself. The new change, the form of the new change cannot be predicted. We will be aware of that form when it takes place."

Recommended reading:

Douglas Kellner and Dan Streible (eds), Emile de Antonio: A Reader (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000).

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

No comments: