In 1974, Emile de Antonio, the radical filmmaker whose cinematic chronicles of Cold War America changed the face of documentary moviemaking, was speculating about how best to present a survey of his work. As recounted in letters to colleagues including the Finnish filmmaker and historian Peter von Bagh, Tom Luddy of the Pacific Film Archive, and his friend and distributor Daniel Talbot, with whom he produced Point of Order!, de Antonio balked at the idea that a retrospective of documentaries could stand on its own commercially. To enliven the screenings, de Antonio, ever the showman, advocated for what he termed “creative programming,” envisioning a series of double bills that would link his films with their fictional counterparts.
“Did I tell you about Rugoof and me?” writes de Antonio in a letter to van Bagh, deliberately misspelling the New York City theatre mogul Don Rugoff’s name. “He offered to do a retrospective of my films in one of his fine commercial cinemas. I was thrilled but told him it [was] commercial suicide to [run] two documentaries back to back. [Can] you imagine POO [Point of Order] and RTJ [Rush to Judgment] at one time. Even my mother would have walked out of the theater. So I suggested ‘creative programming’ to him. The dialogue we had about fiction/document.” Though De Antonio framed the double bills as commercial necessities, he nonetheless conceived of them as critical opportunities for pairing documentary realities with their fictional foils. In keeping with his montage aesthetic, which favored ironic and contradictory juxtapositions, de Antonio’s double bills were fascinating exercises in cinematic contrast.
The first double-feature proposed linking Point of Order! (1963), de Antonio’s takedown of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s grotesque search for an invisible though omnipresent Communist menace, with either Robert Rossen’s All the King’s Men (1949), a noir about the ways in which the American political system corrupts even the most idealistic, or The Manchurian Candidate (1962), John Frankenheimer’s Cold War thriller featuring a McCarthy-like firebrand and a political scion brainwashed into acting as an assassin for an international communist conspiracy.
The second paired Rush to Judgment (1967), de Antonio and Mark Lane’s critique, based on the latter’s book of the same name, of the Warren Commission’s report on the assassination of John F. Kennedy, with Executive Action (David Miller, 1973), a contemporary conspiracy thriller starring Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan that dramatized Kennedy‘s killing as an inside job, and which was partially written by Lane.
The third, and perhaps most tantalizing, placed In the Year of the Pig (1969) alongside John Wayne’s notorious pro-Vietnam War film The Green Berets (1968). In stark contrast to Wayne’s outré fantasy of American rectitude, de Antonio wisely understood that any combat film would evidence the racism at the heart of the military’s East Asian invasions.
America is Hard to See (1970), de Antonio’s chronicle of Senator Eugene McCarthy’s bid for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination, was to be shown alongside Michael Ritchie’s political satire The Candidate (1972), which was written by McCarthy speechwriter Jeremy Larner during the ’68 campaign and featured Robert Redford as a hopeless candidate for the U.S. Senate who finds himself on the right side of victory come election day.
Millhouse: A White Comedy (1971), described by de Antonio as a film that “comedically pushed into dark corners, the rat holes of our living history, and in these rat holes was exactly where Middle America lived and Richard Milhous Nixon was the rat,” would be shown with Stanley Kubrick’s Cold War satire of nuclear annihilation and its perverse logic of “mutually assured destruction,” Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964).
Lastly, Painters Painting (1973), de Antonio’s vibrant portrait of New York’s post-war art scene, would play with “Charlton Heston as Michelangelo or Jose Ferrer as Lautrec or K. Douglas as Van Gogh.” The effect, one speculates, would either expose the limitations of Hollywood’s romantic enshrinement of the artist as tortured genius or highlight the lush color palettes Carol Reed, John Huston, and Vincente Minelli marshaled to visualize their respective odes to art history’s greats.
The final retrospective, which ran at the now defunct 8th Street Playhouse in the West Village between October 24 and 29, 1974, tamed some of de Antonio’s more incendiary choices. The Green Berets, for instance, was out, but Patton (Franlin J. Schaffner, 1970), one of Nixon’s favorite films (he owned a print) and one he would reportedly watch before making military decisions about the war in Southeast Asia, was appropriately in.
De Antonio’s double-bills are more than clever attempts to make exhibiting documentaries more commercial. They demonstrate how documentaries can inform the public and serve as a corrective to the government and Hollywood’s mendacity, as In the Year of the Pig’s juxtaposition with The Green Berets suggests. They also show up a society preoccupied with images and mired in personality cults, as evidenced by demagogues like McCarthy and Nixon who lived life and wielded power as if they were the stars of their own movies. But most importantly, they are laden with ironies, above all that reality and fiction necessarily work together in order to create social and political consciousness. Before the contemporary vogue for performative, self-conscious documentaries that highlight the thin line between reality and its fictional figurations, de Antonio’s “creative programming” showed that the imbrication of art and life was one that was always and already impossible to ignore.