Bright Lights Film Journal

America is Hard to See (Emile De Antonio; 1970)

Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 Presidential campaign started on a premise that would sound downright exotic coming from a member of the United States Senate today. He believed that US military agression in Southeast Asia had to cease. Period. Not for the reasons its establishment critics cited at the time: wholly pragmatic grounds such as the loss of US blood and treasure on an unlikely, if otherwise noble, objective. McCarthy and his initially small handful of supporters felt that, whatever its (dubious) purpose, the US war on Vietnam was essentially a moral issue this country had a duty to address. That was its foundation, and it was up to our threadbare simulacrum of Democracy to rise to the occasion, for once, or fail us miserably. All other considerations came in last place. As I say, were an elected official seeking the White House to speak in such terms nowadays, the basic phonology of it all would sound like half-mumbled esperanto (with a vaguely sinister connotation) to those generations who came of age hearing about such things as Vietnam Syndrome . . . a disease affecting the central nervous system of institutional amorality; theoretically making some in power squeamish about ransacking the globe . . . and the imperatives of a War on Terror that, in fact, was declared during the 1980s. The principal target then was Central America, not the Middle East, but the goals were virtually identical to what we endure now, and every bit as deadly.

While that very real war was gearing up, Emile De Antonio revised America is Hard to See, his 1970 account of Eugene McCarthy and the ultimately failed effort to inject a degree of moral sense into national political life. It is, in all respects, a fondly-writ document; a film of enormous respect (if not awe) toward its subject. Having only seen the revised edition from 1987 . . . shortened by ten minutes and containing several pointless videotape interruptions by De Antonio himself (reading from a volume of Robert Frost; drawing clumsy, rambling parallels between the events of 1968 and those of the Reagan era) . . . it’s impossible for me to tell what was revised, or how drastically. What remains is nevertheless an often affecting chronicle of a unique moment that entails interviews with McCarthy campaign veterans (including the candidate himself), newsreels of the long, initially hopeless campaign, as well as extended excerpts of McCarthy speaking on the campaign trail. These speeches and press conference remarks appear to be the main focus of America is Hard to See (at least this edition); and while they make for a charming presentation in an age where Presidential candidates rarely speak words of more than two syllables, they represent the point where both candidate and film falter terribly.

McCarthy may have been a man on a near tactile mission, but in every public utterance during that tragic primary season he exuded what might charitably be described as an implacable reserve; a remoteness of manner that seemed (and indeed was) devoid of passion, particularly when placed alongside the visceral appeal of his eventual rival for the Democratic Party nomination that year, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. He was endlessly risible and professorial, and though he never strayed from his campaign’s basic message, opposition to the war as a moral principle, he seemed incapable of rousing in himself one tenth of the insurgent spirit that animated even his most casual supporters (at times he appears to be casting his eyes over the heads of everyone on earth to see if something more amusing is on the horizon).

Sadly, Emile De Antonio takes up McCarthy’s eccentric disengagement and just about siphons it wholesale into his film, leaving behind a cinematically limp and uninvolving result. It is, I have to say, not entirely unexpected. De Antonio was a filmmaker whose displeasure at the state of the world . . . a fundamentally aesthetic disdain informed as much by his credentials as a long-time denizen of the New York art scene as by a set of bedrock Leftist principles . . . kick-started his creativity to a higher degree than that of most artists who find inspiration in their own sense of outrage. When events and subjects moved him to anger, he could be a truly, flamboyantly inspired film artist; when he was after something more nuanced (that great and vastly complex found art object, 1963’s Point of Order) or something almost celebratory, as in America is Hard to See or his 1973 panorama, Painters Painting, his technique entered a perfunctory state of being. Less stimulated than his preceding work, 1968’s In the Year of the Pig, America retains its more or less linear narrative structure, but his style isn’t nearly as atomized on this occasion, nor as engrossing (it is also considerably less sardonic). America is Hard to See is a film whose heart and mind is in the right place; but like its subject, that’s about all it is.