In praise of Point of Order, an incendiary take-down of McCarthyism from 1964
By Andrew Male
Reading time 13 Minutes
Born in Grand Chute, Wisconsin
Born in Grand Chute, Wisconsin in 1908, Joseph McCarthy was never a well-favoured man. A much-disliked Wisconsin judge, and a WWII Marine Corps officer given to grandiose lies about his military conduct, “Tail-Gunner Joe” became junior senator for Wisconsin in 1946, following what might best be described as a dirty-tricks campaign against his opponent. Although his early Senate career was unremarkable, he still managed to make himself wildly unpopular, thanks to personal vendettas against the US Army and his work as an unofficial paid lobbyist for Pepsi Cola.
However, in 1950, in an attempt to improve his chances of re-election, McCarthy jumped on a circus bandwagon that would hurtle him to his death. Giving a Lincoln Day speech to the Republican Women's Club of Wheeling, West Virginia, the Senator for Wisconsin produced a piece of paper on which, he claimed, was a list of 57 known Communists working for the State Department.
Communist paranoia was no new thing in the America of 1950. After the war, the House Un-American Activities Committee conducted anti-Communist probes into Hollywood, labour unions, education and the arts. The trials of the scriptwriters known as Hollywood Ten, government official Alger Hiss, plus the hounding, and blacklisting of Dalton Trumbo, Paul Robeson and Frances Farmer, and the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. None of this had anything to do with Senator Joseph McCarthy.
When Emile De Antonio’s directorial debut premiered on January 14, 1964 at the Beekman Theatre, New York City, McCarthy had already been dead six years.
After the war, the House Un-American Activities Committee conducted anti-Communist probes into Hollywood, labour unions, education and the arts. The trials of the scriptwriters known as The Hollywood Ten, government official Alger Hiss, plus the hounding and blacklisting of Dalton Trumbo, Paul Robeson and Frances Farmer, and the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, had nothing to do with Joseph McCarthy. Yet, he quickly became the most visible and vocal figurehead for anti-communist ‘witch-hunts”, thanks in part to his loud, hectoring style, an insane love of the spotlight and a penchant for reckless, unsubstantiated charges.
Significantly, while McCarthy was staunchly anti-communist, he was also anti-establishment and anti-intellectual. An insecure, often loutish and friendless soul, as chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, McCarthy’s investigations into federal government possessed the blurred passions of the class bully or town drunk, fired by the simple need to take down those in more privileged positions than himself.
For a while, his rabble-rousing worked, but in 1954, he wildly overreached himself, stating that the U.S. Army was “soft on communists.” The army countered, arguing that McCarthy’s chief committee counsel, Roy Cohn, had pressured the Army into giving preferential treatment to a former McCarthy aide, Private David Schine.
Convened on March 16, 1954, by the Subcommittee on Investigations, the Army-McCarthy hearings became the news media event of the year, with “gavel-to-gavel” TV coverage. It gave the US viewing public a first-hand view of McCarthy’s reckless, grating and often incoherent technique, and the unruffled might of the US government machine. The televised hearings documented McCarthy’s on-air downfall and effectively destroyed his career. When he died, from cirrhosis of the liver, three years later, he was a broken, forgotten man.
Nothing like it was ever shown on American TV again. The first nationwide transmission of a constitutional crisis, the Army-McCarthy hearings revealed something profound about the power of government, where it resides and who is allowed to hold it. As the 1960s began, the cold war rhetoric of “the quiet fifties” took over, but, for at least one man, the pull and potency of those live televised debates stuck fast.
A Harvard graduate, who’d fought as a bomber pilot in World War II, before joining the Young Communist League, Emile de Antonio spent his 1950s immersed in the bohemian chaos of post-war New York, working with John Cage, Robert Rauchenberg, Jasper Johns and various other members of what he termed “the homosexual avant garde”. In 1959, he set up G-String Productions to distribute Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie’s chaotic Beat Generation film document, Pull My Daisy, and, in his own words, rediscovered film as “a mystical experience… like being reborn.”
Conceived as “a kind of collage junk idea”, inspired by the “combine paintings” of his friend Rauchenberg, De Antonio’s film would, he hoped, be a way to work with “dead footage” to attack the system, a new genre of political documentary he would later describe as “radical scavenging”, a forerunner of the “film found on a tip”, as Jean-Luc Godard would later describe his 1967 film, Week-End.
De Antonio focussed on the Army-McCarthy hearings because, he told Bernard Weiner in Film Quarterly in the autumn of 1971, “this was a peak moment of American political theatre. They [didn’t] want anybody to see this again. Because the whole thing about American politics is that it is a game… whereby you hide what’s really happening from the American people while it’s happening, and that’s part of what [Point Of Order] is all about, to show the game.”
Funded by New York Theatre owner Daniel Talbot
Funded by New York theatre owner Daniel Talbot and “that nice liberal millionaire Elliot Pratt” de Antonio found the money, freed the footage, and began work on a film that, initially, was solidly rooted in the standard tropes of late 50s documentary cinema, with Paul Newman hired as a narrator to explain character, background, context, explanations. Then de Antonio had a brainwave.
“Suddenly I knew this was all wrong,” he said. “What I really wanted was that one enclosed event without anything intruding. So I fired everybody and started over.” For over two years de Antonio screened and edited 188 hours of raw 16mm kinescope footage. Edited down to 97 minutes, and blown up to 35mm, the finished version of Point Of Order came with no explanatory narration whatsoever.
“I wanted it to be a self-explanatory political statement,” said de Antonio. “If the film works you do not have to narrate it. It narrates itself.” However, what Point Of Order most certainly isn’t is Cinéma vérité. There is nothing pure, or direct about Point Of Order. “The material is totally manipulated,” said de Antonio. “I wanted to make a dadaist piece of theatre… to show how a demagogue was undone by a machine…. [How] they broke McCarthy because he went beyond the rules of the Senate ‘Club’.”
From the film’s opening inter-title, which states “Everything you are about to see actually happened”, to the final shot of the empty Senate caucus room, Point Of Order is a trickster work of montage, editing as authorship, a re-splicing of events that presents the emotional and political truth of the Army-McCarthy hearings as de Antonio perceived them, rather than as they actually happened.
“It’s my assumption that people who live in the electronic world can understand these shifts of sound and image,” said de Antonio. “It’s exactly what goes on in a Beatles song.” Believing that “television and the cold war had taken the content out of documentary” it was de Antonio’s aim to defy the true chronological order and structure the film dramatically, to make the disposable indelible, and, in the process, reveal emotional, political and social truths that everyone else had missed, or chosen to forget.
“Mirrors really don’t interest me that much,” said de Antonio. “Stuff was not always in it’s original time-place context, but nothing was moved in such a way that it was untrue to what actually happened. The hearings [were] less true than [my] edited version.” From the start, de Antonio presents McCarthy as a fool, a site of confusion, whose words might sound authoritative, but ultimately make no sense. Significantly, the first thing de Antonio has him say - “The average American can do very little insofar as digging Communist espionage agents out of our government is concerned. [sic]” - is almost complete gibberish.
Yet de Antonio is just as incisive in how he depicts the flaws and foibles other members of the hearings: the chairman, the counsel for the army, the counsel for McCarthy and the various US senators called on to testify. US secretary of the army, Robert T. Stevens is presented as a capitulating weakling, while Joseph N Welch, chief counsel for the army, is shown as a man of ruthlessly assured demeanour, playing McCarthy, the cameras, and the audience for all he’s worth. “I haven’t the slightest intention of being quiet,” says McCarthy at one point. Welch, by contrast, is quiet at exactly the points where he knows it will weaken McCarthy, vocal when he knows McCarthy is already on the ropes. This is a film about performance, a verbal boxing match, and De Antonio later said that Welch gave “one of the great acting performances in the history of American film”.
De Antonio also draws out other subtexts and undercurrents in the hearings. He focuses on surreal details such the description of Private David Schine’s non-army-issue boots - “He had these special boots with straps and buckles on the side” - and a strain of homophobia running through McCarthy’s investigations; when Welch asks McCarthy staff member James Juliana where he might have found a particular photo he says, "Did you think this came from a pixie?", at which point McCarthy asked to have the question re-read:
Senator McCarthy. Will counsel [i.e. Welch] for my benefit define – I think he might be an expert on that – what a pixie is? Mr. Welch. Yes. I should say, Mr. Senator, that a pixie is a close relative of a fairy. (Laughter from the chamber) Shall I proceed, sir? Have I enlightened you? Senator McCarthy. As I said, I think you may be an authority on what a pixie is.
Yet, finally, ultimately, Point Of Order is a film about one man’s removal from the political system, a 90 minute remix of an 180 hour human demolition. We see McCarthy attempting to manipulate both the US broadcasting system and the US political system and being destroyed by both. This is trial by television, where the hanging judge in the first scene is the one who ends up being executed in the final shot. “I probably treated McCarthy more from a liberal point of view, than radical,” said de Antonio. “The film is not an attack on McCarthy. It is an attack on the American government.”
Fittingly for a work of montage and re-editing, Point Of Order does not end where the Army-McCarthy hearings ended. It ends with an event from eight days earlier. Following an attack by McCarthy on a lawyer in Welch's law firm who’d once belonged to the National Lawyers Guild, “the legal bulwark of the Communist Party”, Welch rounds on him, saying, “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness… Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator… Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
The final scene shows Missouri senator Stuart Symington walking out on McCarthy as the hearing closes for recess, McCarthy calling out, “You can run away if you like Stu! You can run away if you like!,” before de Antonio cuts to a final shot of the empty caucus room. The scene is pathetic, chilling, somewhat cruel yet oddly moving. “[That’s why] I changed the material around,” said de Antonio. “I wanted to make the point that McCarthy was wiped out by these hearings.”
What de Antonio discovered in the process was a new site of political history, the television out-take. He would continue to revamp and rework the political documentary with such groundbreaking films as Rush To Judgement, In the Year Of the Pig, Millhouse and Underground, but Point Of Order’s legacy, both in the use and re-use of the TV image, can be found in the contemporary work of Adam Curtis, Cassette Boy and thousands of amateur YouTube radicals, re-purposing discarded footage to reveal secret, hidden and forgotten political narratives.
Andrew Male is a freelance arts journalist and the senior associate editor of MOJO magazine. He lives in South London with his wife, Colette, and their cats.
Art by Jason Ngai