Friday, May 11, 2007

ONE THING PERFECTLY CLEAR. Saw Emile De Antonio's old Millhouse documentary on Richard Nixon last night. Crude as hell, starting with the name, though the crudity works for it in places. De Antonio's lingering attention to the doughy middle Americans over whom Nixon put his line of bullshit comes straight out of old underground comics: lookit the squares gobbling it up! But there's a great passage from the '68 Republican Convention in which Nixon orates from the podium on his "dream" for the American people to the rapt honkies in the folding chairs. De Antonio strategically cuts into the soundtrack with the recently-assassinated Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. But he never cuts away from the Convention visuals. In this context, the attentiveness of the massively white Conventioneers to Nixon's knockoff isn't a cheap shot at all. It is, for one thing, a tribute to Nixon's cunning at extracting the saleable parts of the zeitgeist. (I remember the moment in Nixon's '72 Convention speech when he told Democrats disaffected toward Democratic nominee McGovern, whose "Come Home, America" theme has just been launched, "we say come home -- not to another party, but we say come home to the great principles we Americans believe in together." Nixon carried 49 states.) For another, it attributes to Nixon's auditors a yearning that is perfectly understandable. There is an implied criticism here, but the mind has to work a little to figure upon whom it is really implied. This lifts us, for the moment, out of the realm of propaganda and into that of art.

But there's not enough of that. De Antonio keeps laying in negative commentary and burlesque intertitles to show us what a bastard Nixon is. That's often very entertaining. But outside this razzing, Nixon also exists as a character, which invites a curious reaction. In film as in life, nothing succeeds like success. The hard work Nixon put into mastering his game -- and "Iron Butt" was nothing if not hard-working -- is perversely admirable. Even the ridiculous "Checkers" speech -- so humiliatingly crass that John Ford saw fit to parody it in The Last Hurrah -- moved Nixon's ball forward. And though we are shown victims of Nixon's heedless rise, and proof of his mendacity, we can't help but notice that in the end (so far as the film knows) Nixon finally got to exactly where he wanted to be. Being Americans, how can we not be sympathetic to this triumph over adversity?

It is often said that some subjects are beyond parody. It may also be that some are beyond exposè, at least on the limited terms of documentary film. For a poetic perspective on Nixon, see Robert Coover's The Public Burning.

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