Monday, November 28, 2016

Millhouse: A White Comedy (1971)

          Assembled by activist filmmaker Emile de Antonio partway through Richard Nixon’s first term as U.S. president, Millhouse—the title of which oddly mangles Nixon’s middle name, Milhous—seems peculiar when encountered outside its original context. At the time of its release, the intention was presumably to remind viewers of how crafty and ruthless Nixon could be, thereby galvanizing opposition as the president geared up for his 1972 reelection campaign. In that sense, Millhouse: A White Comedy is something of a precursor to Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004). Yet while Moore’s film endures as a vital record of the left’s reaction to changes in American policies that occurred during George W. Bush’s first term, outlasting its original utility as election-season propaganda, de Antonio’s picture was already obsolete by the time Nixon left office in disgrace. Given the seismic repercussions of the Watergate scandal, the issues explored in Millhouse seem trivial by comparison. Furthermore, while it’s impossible to mistake Millhouse for a loving tribute, the picture is not explicitly damning, so a Nixon fan could easily watch the movie, dismiss a few talking-head criticisms, and revel in Nixon’s resourcefulness.
          As for the subtitle A White Comedy, whatever significance de Antonio saw in those words has been lost with the passage of time, beyond the obvious irony of suggesting that Nixon’s political scheming is a laughing matter.
          In any event, Millhouse provides a succinct compendium of Nixon’s greatest hits prior to his successful 1968 bid for the presidency. Accentuating Nixon’s shiftiness right from the first frames, de Antonio begins with the famous 1962 press conference following Nixon’s loss in a California gubernatorial race, featuring the infamous words, “You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” This moment showcases Nixon’s persecution complex, his tendency toward grand political gestures, and his unfortunate habit of making statements that later proved disingenuous if not outright dishonest. Thereafter, de Antonio uses newsreel footage and other preexisting material to track Nixon’s ascendance from a law career to the U.S. Senate, his 1953–1961 tenure as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vide president, his failed campaigns of 1960 and 1964, and finally his 1968 election.
          Consuming the largest amount of screen time is the full “Checkers” speech, a notorious TV appearance during which Nixon exhaustively explained his finances while trying to keep his VP run viable. Woven into de Antonio’s film are many tales of Nixon smearing personal enemies as pinkos. For those on de Antonio’s side of the political fence, especially those with knowledge of Nixon’s overall history, this stuff is enough to make the blood boil, or at least simmer. And that, more than anything, is the reason Millhouse has aged so poorly—the filmmaker’s bias renders the picture too one-sided to serve as political history, and yet the lack of a powerful viewpoint makes it feel almost toothless.

Millhouse: A White Comedy: FUNKY

1 comment:

Guy Callaway said...

'A White Comedy' could be a play on the idea that the film isn't a black comedy?