In 1963 his first film, Point of Order, exposed the hypocrisy of the McCarthy era and launched a new media form, political documentary filmmaking without a narrative track. From then on, de Antonio, known simply as de to his friends, was an articulate opponent of repression and the establishment. Holding his camera eye up to reality, he translated some of the more disquieting political events of the late 20th Century into powerful indictments.
For artists and activists, de Antonio films like Rush to Judgement, In the Year of the Pig, Millhouse, Underground, and In the King of Prussia, are models of visual art as social critique and protest. His last film, Mr. Hoover and I, took his critical awareness yet another step, combining the story of his own "relationship" with the FBI and his critique of the film industry.
Basically, he ended up being a filmmaker who didn't particularly like movies. "I go about once a year," he admitted with some pride.
During a visit with him in September 1989, only a few months before his death at age 70, de Antonio dismissed most movies as "industrial products. They're not art, because they lack the ideas of one person or one small group of people that you usually find when art is made."
Turning movies into a money-making business had debased the form, he felt. "Some people make art, but most of them make films as business products just like shoes." Disdaining the rationalization of the market and dominance of movie chains, he had concluded that "the logical thing is to make a film as cheaply as possible, a film that is hostile to every assumption about filmmaking."
Thus, Mr. Hoover and I had no written script. Instead the filmmaker, who was also the main actor and one of the primary subjects, made a list of topics, things like his personal knowledge of Harvard, the military, suppression of films and the life of Hoover. He would paste a word or phrase to his light stand, turn on the camera, and just talk. "It wasn't as if I was reading off a teleprompter. I'd just look and see the word and that would get me going," he recalled. "I'm not sure that I have much camera presence, but by hearing myself do a take, I'd do it over again and eventually manage to get it OK."
Aside from the director, the only cast is his wife Nancy, who gives him a haircut as he recalls the past, and John Cage, who talks about chance and indeterminacy while baking bread. The sequences are intercut with monologues and old Nixon and Hoover footage.
Stripped of technical effects, the film provides no distractions from the matter at hand -- how de Antonio's life, the FBI and Hoover intersected over the years. The project began with the idea of basing a film on FBI files obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. Once he had thousands of pages, however, he was overwhelmed. The files went back to 1936, when he was only 16 years old.
"And I've never regarded myself as a dangerous person," he joked, "except when I worked for the United States government."
Dangerous or not, de Antonio was marked early for special FBI attention, possibly due to his membership in the Young Communist League, John Reed Society, and American Student Union, a less radical version of SDS. More shocking, in his last year at Harvard, the files revealed, he was slated for "custodial detention," archaic code for a World War II internment camp.
"No one ever explored what that really meant," he said, "how many people were involved, and who was involved. I have to think it was a very big number, because I was a college boy when this was going on. My crimes were not very substantial."
Even after de Antonio enlisted for combat duty in the Air Force, the Bureau tracked him during the war. And they "got really serious" afterward when he started making films. His documentary on the Weather Underground attracted special ire. "For five year, they had been searching out the Weather Underground people and were unable to find them," he said. "So, it was kind of weird that two middle-aged guys, Haskell Wexler and I, could go underground and spend a few days with the Weather people. That obviously made the FBI look ridiculous."
In response, the Bureau tailed him, broke into his house, and took him to court, all apparently in hopes of tracking down the urban guerrillas. In previous cases where the government targeted someone in the film industry, it eventually won. From blacklisting to jail, the chill was invariably effective. But this time stars like Warren Beatty, Shirley MacLaine and Martin Sheen supported his right to freedom of expression and signed a widely circulated statement. De Antonio also had a strong legal case. But in the end, he thought, "the thing that won it was publicity. That's what this country is about."
However it happened, the government lost that time.
But it wasn't the only time the FBI and Hoover took aim at him. Bookings for his film on President Nixon, Millhouse: A White Comedy, were allegedly cancelled after FBI agents told theater owners that Nixon would have to be given equal time. "Equal time was never applied to film," he explained, "but more importantly, Nixon was the president of the United States. He was on the tube every day!"
The only film of his that they didn't try to suppress, he believed, was a documentary on painters, which grew out of his early work as an art teacher and his friendships with leading contemporary artists. Among them was Andy Warhol, who called de Antonio "the only art teacher I ever had."
"A characteristic Warhol statement," he laughed. "Some of it wasn't true, of course. He had a perfectly respectable art education at Carnegie Tech, but I did teach him something about painting."
"Incidentally," he added, shifting back to his main topic, "Warhol had an extraordinary FBI file. He made this film, Lonesome Cowboys, which was about these gay cowboys that were patting each other's asses and kissing each other. The FBI went crazy. They thought this was a denigration of a major American art form, the macho cowboy."
Despite his own harassment, de Antonio could see the bigger picture. He understood that control of culture and information is more subtle and thorough than agents disrupting films they consider subversive. "Television has already done it to America," he said grimly, "and in a much wider area than politics. It has totally brainwashed people."
Yet he could also see some hopeful signs, even before the birth of the digital age. For example, upper middle class people, who could afford to buy access to premium channels, were already beginning to turn off the old TV channels. "The networks are biting their nails because the people who really buy things, the larger ticket items of capitalism, don't really look at TV anymore. They look at presidential debates, they look at the news. They look at the tube. But not the networks."
Another positive sign was the interest in televised government proceedings on CSPAN. Due to his own special interest in President George H.W. Bush, he had recently been binge-watching hearings chaired by Senator John Kerry that examined drug links to the Iran-Contra scandal. "Everything you need to know to blow away Bush is in those hearings," he had concluded. But at the same time he doubted that anything would come of the evidence. The major news media were already backing off the story.
Yet that didn't stop him. In a book on Bush that remained unpublished, he delved into the significance of the president's college membership in Skull and Bones. Both Bush and his father, Prescott, were in the private society. Among other credentials he found significant, Prescott Bush chaired Brown Brothers Harriman, then the most influential private banking company in the world.
"Private banks are like Skull and Bones, very secretive," he said. "The very essence of a private bank is secrecy." Following social and historical threads, his research also led to the face of another Skull and Bones member -- also name Brown, and from the same private firm -- a face that appeared in 1905 on the currency of Nicaragua. Putting an American's picture on Nicaragua's money was part of a loan deal between Brown Brothers and the government. Delayed by a lawsuit and still unpublished when he died, de Antonio described the book as "a view of Bush that most people haven't seen."
One of his conclusions about the former president: "He was in the CIA long before he became director of it. The most important thing Bush did, prior to becoming vice president, was in the Ford years. The CIA was crumbling and he spent one year there, and the idea was to clean it up, make it fly straight and get rid of certain elements that were a threat to it. He was very effective."
He was less impressed, and even more suspicious, about Bush's handling of drug problems. "In 1982, Reagan appointed Bush head of the south of the border drug task force. His assistant was Admiral Murphy, who had been his assistant in the CIA. Bush did nothing, he said nothing. In fact, the importation of drugs grew by over 300 percent in the few years he was head of the task force. And he was close to Noriega at this time. Bush was in intelligence, and Noriega was an asset for the CIA before Bush ran for president."
Swinging between pessimism and optimism, he worried that the future of free expression was in serious jeopardy. Yet he was hopeful that developments like CSPAN, cable and the home video market would give people access to the ideas and information they need to make more informed choices.
"Not the networks," he said.
But cable companies are owned by the same interests, I pressed. "Why should they be any different?"
"There is only the hope, the possibility," he replied. "Take CSPAN, which doesn't take a position. Its position is to report the whole thing. It's as objective as you can be. Anything it does is as it plays. The analogy in science is the best: there is no objectivity anywhere. Heisenberg's conclusion was that when you measure the atom you change it. Looking at it changes it."
At first intuitively, De Antonio seemed to have applied Heisenberg's principle to film, producing, directing and, in the end, starring in documentaries that both observed America's political underbelly and contributed to the process of change.
Point of Order brilliantly encapsulated the hysteria of anti-Communisim. Two decades later, In the King of Prussia illuminated the conflict between religious witness against nuclear weapons and an inflexible legal system. In both cases his observations -- without comment -- were powerful enough to change hearts and minds. And, in the end, his own surveillance of government misdeeds proved more effective than anything the FBI ever did to him.