As home to a thriving community of documentary filmmakers, the Bay Area is ideally situated for a revival of the work of Emile de Antonio, a towering figure in the field who brought a new level of artistry to compilation filmmaking with his classic Point of Order. This reworking of the Army-McCarthy Hearings of 1954 kicks off the film series, which runs through February 28, 2008 at the Phyllis Wattis Theater at SFMOMA.
The vigorous and often vicious pursuit of suspected Communists in the 1950s has turned into the stuff of legend in the US -- meaning, of course, that it has spawned countless books, plays, and films. Most creative explorations of these fevered investigations fueled by fear, uncertainty, and paranoia have focused on the activities of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), particularly since HUAC was responsible for hounding Hollywood into blacklisting over 300 artists. But that junior senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, was the public face of the hunt for Communists for many Americans, and he remains an enduring symbol of smear tactics and fear mongering in a nation whose political scene has come to be largely dominated by those tactics.
In 1954, the McCarthy machine came head to head with the US Army, when the Army charged that McCarthy and his chief counsel Roy Cohn had tried to pressure the Army into giving preferential treatment to a former aide-turned-private, G. David Schine. McCarthy responded that the Army was holding Schine "hostage" to keep his committee from exposing Communists within the military. The Senate hearings on the charges opened on April 22, 1954 and lasted for 36 days, televised in their entirety to a national audience. In Point of Order, de Antonio takes the nearly 190 hours of footage produced from the hearings and distills them into 93 minutes.
Presented without voiceover or commentary, Point of Order gives form and perspective to what could be called the greatest courtroom drama caught on film. De Antonio opens the film by introducing us to the colorful cast of characters in the room representing the Army and the Committee, showing a freeze frame of each individual accompanied by a speech demonstrating their contribution. Fascinatingly, he does not introduce McCarthy -- this is a man who needs no introduction -- and his arrival on screen elicited actual hissing from the audience at the screening I attended last Saturday. De Antonio shows each argument from the hearings organized by topic, presenting each one as if it is an uninterrupted conversation. It is amazingly seamless to watch, despite subtle changes in outfit and atmosphere as the conversation leaps from day to day within seconds.
McCarthy, as crafted by de Antonio, takes on the larger-than-life villainous proportions he fills in US history. The close of the film leaves us with McCarthy delivering a rant to an exiting, disinterested audience -- again cut together from several different days -- mirroring how the American public turned their backs on him in the wake of the televised hearings. In that final scene, you can almost hear McCarthy chewing the scenery, and it is that much more chilling to remember that these are real events that actually took place, if artfully arranged. Point of Order has only gained in relevance through the years, and will undoubtedly remain a vital historical record -- not an objective one, but a valued interpretation. The SFMOMA showing is a double feature with Charge and Countercharge, a shorter recap of the same events in which de Antonio includes a small amount of context through a short voiceover.
A close friend and contemporary of such luminaries as Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and John Cage, Emile de Antonio began his film career late in life. It was a career largely defined by political material; all but three of his films are about the Cold War. His subjects range from the Kennedy assassination in Rush to Judgment to the Weather Underground to his friends in the NY art scene in Painters Painting. All of these, along with the rest of de Antonio's catalogue, can be seen at SFMOMA through February 28, 2008.
The Films of Emile de Antonio run through February 28, 2008 at SFMOMA. For a full program visit sfmoma.org.