Film Fights Back

Radical voices are hard to hear in an era in which leftists drive SUVs, and NAFTA-pushing, welfare-smashing, Iraq-bombing Bill Clinton is called a liberal. 'Twas not always thus, as shown by "An American Radical: The Films of Emile de Antonio," a four-movie retrospective of the premier radical filmmaker. His 1969 documentary In the Year of the Pig (March 12) sounds like an anti-police screed, but in fact it's a passionate history of American (and international) involvement in Vietnam. Some of the footage is familiar but still packs a punch -- burning monks, stampeding villagers -- while other images like the famous "Make War Not Love" photo show the director's always discerning eye. There are welcome interviews with players on all sides of the conflict, but also some surprises that would be unheard of in today's lock-step political climate, as when a senator from Kentucky blasts the "military-industrial complex" and says, "Whatever we think of him, Ho Chi Minh is considered the George Washington of Vietnam."

De Antonio continued his scathing social critique a year later with America Is Hard to See (March 19), an analysis of the failed Eugene McCarthy presidential campaign, while a more exotic realm of the counterculture is exposed in Underground (March 26), made in 1976. That film's penetrating back-to-the-camera interviews with radical revolutionaries like Jeff Jones and Bernadine Dorhn would no doubt have caused a riot in the office of de Antonio's lifelong nemesis, Red-baiting transvestite FBI head J. Edgar Hoover, had not the latter died in 1972. Still, the filmmaker gets his revenge with Mr. Hoover and I (also March 26), a thoughtful look at a "relationship" that began in the 1940s when Hoover threw de Antonio into "custodial detention" as a Red and only ended with Hoover's death. This film, completed in 1989 a few months before the director died, was his most personal; he talks with bracing intelligence directly to the camera on a wide range of subjects dear to him. Unlike too many on the left, he also had a whimsical sense of humor that emerges when he abandons politics briefly to sample some strange-looking bread baked by his pal, the legendary composer and genius of the toy piano, John Cage. The Antonio series begins with In The Year of the Pig at 8 p.m. Friday at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission (at Third Street), S.F. Admission is $3-6; call 978-ARTS.

-- Gary Morris

 
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