Two Documentaries Prove the Form Can Be as Entertaining - and Infuriating - as Scripted Films
New York — MOVIEGOERS tend to forget about documentary films, which are not as glamorous as their fictional cousins. But they can be just as dramatic and entertaining - and infuriating, too - when they want to. And just as diverse, as a couple of recently arrived documentaries remind us. ``Mr. Hoover and I'' was directed by one of the true documentary masters: Emile de Antonio, who finished this picture just before his death a few months ago. Throughout his career, Mr. de Antonio believed that film has the power to convey great truth, and also to carry social and political ideas to an audience that might not hear them otherwise.
De Antonio was proud of his politics, which tilted strongly to the left, and often used ``found footage'' to prove his points and express his views - that is, he spliced together pieces of film he didn't shoot himself but simply discovered in newsreels, archives, and other people's movies. He called his technique ``radical scavenging,'' and used to it demonstrate that the important facts of public life are usually in front of our noses, if we just look for them and put them together so they form a clear picture. Some of his movies are documentary classics - such as ``Point of Order,'' about the Army-McCarthy hearings in the 1950s, and ``Millhouse: A White Comedy,'' his biography of Richard Nixon.
In his last film, ``Mr. Hoover and I,'' he takes a feisty look at a man who just drove him crazy: former Federal Bureau of Investigation chief J. Edgar Hoover. The man held a lot of the conservative ideas - and conservative power - to which de Antonio always opposed himself. In addition to documenting aspects of Hoover's career, de Antonio speaks directly to the camera, stating his own views as frankly and personally as he can.
Also on hand, in interview segments with the filmmaker, is composer John Cage, whose revolutionary musical ideas strongly influenced de Antonio's work; and de Antonio's wife, who chats with her husband while giving him a living-room haircut. The movie is quirky and eccentric much of the time, and its use of Cage's radical ``indeterminacy'' principles isn't always successful or even sensible. Yet the film as whole remains a lively, plucky, argumentative affair that never hestitates to raise a political ruckus. For people who enjoy a good polemic now and then - less polished than ``The Thin Blue Line'' but almost as funny as ``Roger & Me,'' to make a couple of comparisons with other recent documentaries - it's a treasure.
I'm less enthusiastic about another new documentary, ``In the Blood,'' because I'm no friend of hunting, which is the subject of the picture. It was directed by George Butler, who also made the ``Pumping Iron'' films about weightlifting. (They also left me fairly cold in their day.) It shows an African safari that includes Mr. Butler, his movie camera, and his 13-year-old son, who's hoping to make his first big-game kill. Also on the expedition are some family friends and a couple of Theodore Roosevelt's descendants, who never cease reminding us what an enthusiastic hunter the original TR was.
The movie's frequent invocations of President Roosevelt are a clue to its pro-hunting tactics. Another is the way the film revolves around Butler's young son, who also provides the narration. Like the manipulative commercials for the National Rifle Association that show up so often on television, the movie tries relentlessly to convey ideas of ``family values'' and ``conservation'' and ``our natural heritage,'' while its real intention is to celebrate guns and the macho charge of stalking a prey. I mean macho, too - there's scarcely a woman in sight during the film.
``In the Blood'' is relatively tasteful in its view of hunting. It doesn't make us look at much bloodshed, and it talks a lot about conservation, which is always a good thing to promote. It shows its true colors at the climax, though, when the boy shoots his first animal and touches off a barbaric ritual, complete with an older friend smearing blood on his face and congratulating him on his ``first blood'' experience. (``First Blood'' was the title of the first Rambo movie, of course, which touched off its own spate of barbarism in the form of sequels.) Family values and our natural heritage are wonderful, but they're not what this picture is really about. It's about killing. And there's too much of that in the movies already.