Toggle full-width

Emma Goldman — The NEH Documentary

American Experience: Emma Goldman. Written, produced, and directed by Mel Bucklin. PBS Home Video, 90 min.
Having long regarded Emma Goldman among the Great American Anti-Statists, who incidentally died the same day I was born (14 May 1940), I maintain a more-than-sentimental interest in anything new about her. Eagerly anticipating Mel Bucklin’s 2004 documentary on “public television” here, I was disappointed. Stylistically, it was a typical product of National Endowment for the Humanities support with a succession of Talking Heads, filmed in brown-tinged settings (implicitly reflecting the deleterious visual influence of the NEH’s favorite documentarian, Ken Burns). Most of these heads belong to professors, members of the Academic Party, who were subsidized for advising the filmmaker. Their cooperation is required by an NEH whose funding bias is essentially Stalinist (much as Eastern European cultural czars required that Communist Party members be subsidized for their official cultural produce). As a result, the principal images in the film do not belong to Emma but to the Talking Heads. Turn off the sound, and you realize that these middle-aged folk could be talking about anything under the sun. Ignore the picture, and you’ll hear comments that are often puerile.

The Talking Heads compensate for the absence of any footage or audio of Emma herself, which is unfortunate, because she was reputed to be a great lecturer. The most vivid testimonial to her oratorical prowess comes from the American writer Henry Miller, likewise an anarchist, who heard her in San Diego at the beginning of the last century. However, Miller isn’t mentioned, perhaps because he wasn’t an academic. Nor does the documentary acknowledge my friend Alix Kates Schulman, who edited the most familiar Goldman anthology three decades ago as well as writing a biography, perhaps because, you see, she isn’t a professor either. Oddly, this Stalinist operational principle at the NEH has survived administrations both Republican and Democrat, neither apparently aware of the profound subversion they are sponsoring. Recalling that Ms. Dick Cheney was NEH chairman during the Reagan administration, can I can alone in questioning whether she was politically innocent or simply out on the hustings?

A related film problem is a disconcerting insecurity about Emma’s physical appearance. The inconsistent still photographs of her face seem to portray several women. As no one comments on these discrepancies, you wonder if the filmmakers watched what they produced. The historian Martin Duberman describes Emma as physically imposing, while photographs of her among others reveal a short woman, barely above five feet tall.

What is finally lacking from the film is an after-image, which is the measure of any visual art, either kinetic or static — the image that sticks in your head long after you’ve seen the work. Without an after-image, the documentary is just Journalism or, as in this case, Interviews. Indeed, a stronger after-image of Emma Goldman appears in Warren Beatty’s pseudo-fictional Reds (1981), where she is played by Maureen Stapleton. I recall a stronger after-image from Jessica Litwak’s one-woman Emma Goldman theatrical performance witnessed a decade ago. In addition, having recently appreciated Sam Wood’s Our Town (1940), with its extraordinarily effective Aaron Copland score, need I add that the soupy generic Musak behind the speakers in this Emma Goldman film is not just awful but distractingly awful. Having wondered if the producers see, may I likewise question whether they listen?

What mystifies me, especially given federal government sponsorship, is the documentary’s minimizing her most important achievement in political criticism — discovering early, real early, from a perspective customarily defined as Left, that Lenin’s Soviet Union offered not freedom but a new kind of despotism. Needlessly deported from the USA, to which she immigrated as a child, she went soon after the Revolution to Russia with expectations. Quickly noting that the Party functionaries had become a new aristocracy, she published two pioneering classics of anti-Soviet criticism — My Disillusionment with Russia (1923) and My Further Disillusionment with Russia (1924), both of which are still readable (and, incidentally, reprintable). Indeed, these books weren’t mentioned at all. The film also neglected her critical analysis of the Spanish Civil War, perhaps because the producers ran out of money or of talking heads for portraying her final decade.

The real contribution of the film to the documentary tradition is the unusually frank discussion of Emma’s sex life. Believing early that women should have control of their own bodies, she slept around, as we would now say, and could even be sort of enslaved to a skilled lover. Her enthusiastic taste is portrayed in a remarkable dramatized heterosexual seduction involving the removal of underwear typical a century ago (no bra!) to show bodies apparently nude, even if their heads and private parts are kept privatized, so to speak. Elsewhere in Emma Goldman, the playwright Tony Kushner uses a four-letter word for excrement that is not bleeped or blanked out, even though it is among the seven for which the New York radio station WBAI was prosecuted not too long ago. So “adult” is this NEH-backed film that a friend felt embarrassed when watching Emma Goldman with her pre-teen daughter before the latter’s bedtime. If the anti-porn fanatics in John Ashcroft’s Justice Department screen this film, will they prosecute the filmmaker? Or their own NEH? Or disinter Emma Goldman? Stay tuned.

A final problem, perhaps reflecting the NEH emolument, is the film’s pointlessness about a ballsy bird who during her lifetime inspired so much love and so much hate, especially from Ashcroft’s predecessor, J. Edgar Hoover. Doubly disappointing along with the stylistic mediocrity, such emasculation (to switch genders) will probably discourage anyone from making (or sponsoring) another film appreciation of the great Emma. Need I add that no great documentary known to me is a pointless succession of talking heads, except perhaps Leni Riefenstal’s Triumph of the Will (1934) about Adolf Hitler and his cronies. Indeed, her Olympia (1938), which I regard among the greatest, didn’t get “up close and personal” with anyone. (West) German sponsors, I know from experience, don’t (and didn’t) make the mistake of bureaucratic rigmarole conducive to mediocrity, by beneficial default accounting for their sponsoring superior documentaries (and other films) to no surprise except the de facto Stalinists at the NEH.

Nonetheless, the truest scandal of the NEH and its sister, the National Endowment for the Arts, has not been that they supported porn, bankrolled reds, or duplicated alien subversive procedures but that they extended taxpayer support to so many people and so much work that is, to be frank, negligible in the sad tradition of inept federal welfare.