Feature by: Leo Goldsmith
Posted on: 22 April 2011
Since his debut review – of no less a film than David Lynch’s Eraserhead – in 1977, J. Hoberman’s has been one of the defining voices in contemporary American film criticism. As the senior film critic at The Village Voice since 1988, Hoberman has for fifty weeks a year offered his insights into cinema in an oft-imitated style that is not only rich and thoughtful, but also, always, damn entertaining. In his advocacy and analysis of a wide range of classic, contemporary, and experimental film – popcorn, arthouse, and avant-ephemera alike – his weekly writings on film mirror the devoutly eclectic film culture of his hometown, which he and Jonathan Rosenbaum so lovingly documented in their 1991 classic, Midnight Movies (Da Capo Press).
But journalism is only part of the picture. Wearing his historian hat, Hoberman is also the author of about a dozen books, including Red Atlantis: Communist Culture in the Absence of Communism (Temple University Press, 1999), On Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (and Other Secret-flix of Cinemaroc) (Granary Books/Hips Road, 2001), and The Magic Hour: Film at Fin de Siècle (Temple University Press, 2003). His new book An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War, a prequel to his acclaimed 2003 book The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties, follows the similarly fractious social climate of the postwar era, with its paranoid visions of witch-hunts and wild ones, flying saucers and impending nuclear blitzes, mind-controlling propaganda and wars of the worlds, both earthbound and intergalactic. Hoberman’s particular interest here is the cinema that captured and often prodded the pathologies of the day: reactionary exposés of the lurking Red Menace, crypto-socialist satires and sympathetic docudramas, and those scads of B-grade Cold War allegories presented in the genre guise of science fiction, the biblical epic, the western. With a cast of characters including G-men, fact-finders, space invaders, coonskin kids, Christian soldiers, and “white negroes,” and with cameos from the likes of Ronald Reagan, Nick Ray, Orson Welles, and Joe McCarthy, it’s a densely detailed, near-hallucinatory history, irradiated with Hoberman’s inimitable, vibrant prose.
In anticipation of our screening of Anthony Mann’s 1949 French Revolution noir, Reign of Terror, which Hoberman will introduce, we sat down with the author to discuss postwar Hollywood historiography, film criticism doomsday musings, and the underappreciated insights of beleaguered New York Times critic Bosley Crowther.
This is a book in a series (with The Dream Life and a forthcoming book), but it also covers similar territory to Red Atlantis. So, what draws you to the subject of communism? Were you interested in it growing up?
I was aware of it as a child, yes …
But did your interest in it grow over time? You mention in the introduction, for example, that William Wellman’s 1950 film The Next Voice You Hear was particularly important to your thinking about the project, but that you only happened upon much later.
Yes, I saw it in the early seventies, and I was amazed. But many of the ideas for the book come from teaching classes at New York University and Cooper Union—in which I sometimes included The Next Voice You Hear as a model of “sociological propaganda.”
Some of these films like The Next Voice You Hear seem to us really obviously ideological now, but what do you think were the impressions of viewers at the time? Do you think they found these films as nutty and polemical as we do?
Nothing I found in contemporary reviews mentioned either communism or television—although, The Next Voice You Hear was bracketed with Destination Moon, because they opened a week apart. It was seen as a kind of science fiction film like Destination Moon, which people saw as very naturalistic. So, in that sense there was some recognition.
You point out in the book that Adorno & Horkheimer were working on Dialectics of Enlightenment around that time, so it seems that these concerns with propaganda, mind control, television, and so forth were very much on people’s minds, perhaps for the first time.
That was a big issue as a result of the rise of fascism in the 1930s, although to the Communists propaganda was not a dirty word, and during World War II it was obvious that Hollywood was producing positive message-movies. Certainly this idea of propaganda was being taken much more seriously than it ever would be again.
In the sense that it could be a positive force or that it was more a matter of social concern?
In the sense that movies could mold opinions, as opposed to what came about later with the Kefauver committee hearings, which were premised on the idea that movies could set bad examples—like The Wild One. Kefauver and others weren’t so much concerned that it had a political message (although you could probably extrapolate one), but that it would just encourage teenagers to act badly. And that was true even into the sixties, with the Yippies and the Students for a Democratic Society who thought that Bonnie and Clyde offered a program for political action, and others who were upset because they thought that the violence would be socially destructive.
This issue of the influence of mass media is always a fascinating issue because it’s always seemed to cross the usual cultural divides between Left and Right, Liberal and Conservative—it’s as much an issue for Tipper Gore as it is for Oral Roberts. In Army of Phantoms, you’re dealing of course with the specter of socialism, which is very much at issue today. Did your interest in this era derive from any connections you were seeing between that time and now?
I started working on the book early in the Iraq War, when there was a brief attempt to make use of certain movies – Black Hawk Down and The Sum of All Fears were coopted by the Bush Administration – as well as attempts to plant “real-life” movies into the media like the story of Jessica Lynch or create living photo-ops like Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech. But as I continued to work on the book, things changed, and things that I couldn’t have anticipated became palpable.
But there’s also this issue of religion that seems to me to be still quite relevant—the supposed godlessness of communism versus the godliness of America.
That was a big thing during the Cold War. People forget that Eisenhower was actually very instrumental in introducing Christianity into public culture. But of course at that time most fundamentalists were southern Democrats. Incidentally, when people talk about socialism now, they’re really talking about the New Deal. For Eisenhower and even Nixon, the New Deal was just something they accepted as a social reality. So, in some ways, they were even further to the Left than Obama.
Not such a radical position, perhaps…. One interesting tale you relate is that of the first set of McCarthy hearings, which were met with considerable resistance from the industry from people like Humphrey Bogart. By the time of the second wave of McCarthy hearings, this resistance had been quashed resoundingly. Why do you think there wasn’t greater resistance then?
As I try to make clear in the book, there’s a Left-Right schism in Hollywood that goes back even before the Second World War. People like the Committee for the First Amendment saw the HUAC investigations as analogous to certain things that had happened just before or during the War. So it was possible to rally all these liberals and New Dealers to this particular cause. However, it was framed as a free speech issue which was counterproductive in that really had to do more with the right of association and even workers’ rights. I believe that the blacklist was directed more at liberals, New Dealers, and fellow travelers than at the Communists. It intended to frighten them by generating a lot of bad publicity and it worked, even though the media at the time didn’t think the initial hearings were particularly successful—in fact, they thought they were ridiculous. But the studio bosses extremely nervous—they remembered all the other times that Hollywood was accused of being un-American, a foreign element, and so on. They overreacted, and of course the people that they used to implement the blacklist were frightened liberals like Dore Schary and Walter Wanger. Of course, the Committee did at first call unfriendly witnesses whom they knew to be Communists. And the first of these John Howard Lawson, who was kind of a self-important blowhard, saw this as his opportunity to put the Committee in their place. He became the voice of the opposition – none of the others were allowed to read their statements – and this didn’t help the situation.
The HUAC hearings that happened afterwards, in 1951, ‘52, and ‘53, were much more vicious, because then it was a matter of getting people to name names and forcing people out of their jobs. The Committee never quite got what it was looking for – a big star, like Edward G. Robinson or John Garfield – but they did get a lot of publicity.
This seems to feed into the still more malleable Hollywood of today, which can be patriotic when it feels it needs to be or more critical when they think it’s a more saleable strategy.
Back then, people were deeply politicized, first by the Great Depression and then by the war. The actors, writers, and personnel in the studios were much more politically aware and committed than they would be again. This is not to say that there weren’t causes, and certainly the 1972 election was characterized by a tremendous contribution from Hollywood. But I think that in terms of people’s daily lives, the ’40s were much more political.
Many of them had been veterans of the war …
Or they came from families that had been destroyed by the Depression. They just had a different experience of life, and they didn’t have this absolute faith that America was perfect. At the same time, many of them were active anti-fascists even before World War II. To me, one of the great paradoxes was that many of these gung-ho, patriotic movies that were produced during World War II – many of the most outrageous, sentimental, and manipulative ones – so many of these were written by Communists. People like Dalton Trumbo and Albert Maltz were really anxious to do their part.
Were there films that you discovered in the process of research?
Some. Atomic City was one. And Reign of Terror I hadn’t seen before working on this. Only the Valiant, by Gordon Douglas, who was a sort of Cold War auteur.
You use quite a lot of film criticism from that time in the book, like Bosley Crowther and The Daily Worker. Were you surprised at the reactions of these critics, or did they more or less react to films the way you would expect them to? Today, we have the conception of Crowther as this sort of crotchety old man who’s often wrong about things, and one could guess how The Daily Worker – which is called The Daily Toiler in The Red Menace, I believe – would react to the more anti-Communist Hollywood products.
I use reviews because there aren’t many ways to determine how these movies were perceived in their moment. You can find out how successful they were; you can see what the ads were like; occasionally, if you go into the studio archives, you can find reports from preview screenings. But other than that, you really have to depend on the critics. For me, Crowther became a more interesting figure in the course of my working on this book. Because I became aware of him toward the end of his career in the sixties, I saw him as this hopeless figure. For Sarris, he was the enemy. But he was in many respects a pretty thoughtful, responsible critic, and not a bad writer, either.
I asked Philip Lopate, “Weren’t you struck by the fact that this guy actually wrote some interesting reviews?” And he knew what I was talking about, but he’s a little older than me so for him even more, Crowther was the enemy. Crowther did get involved in certain things—he was part of the defense of Monsieur Verdoux, and he made fun of Ayn Rand. He was very skeptical about the anti-Communist movies, which took a certain amount of nerve on his part. Certainly Variety never criticized those movies.
And I was always interested in what The Daily Worker wrote. Even if what they wrote was going to be predictable – which it wasn’t always – to find reviews that were that explicitly ideological was very useful. When I was writing about the sixties, I was always looking for stuff in the underground press, because to me they gave you something very close to what a particular self-identified dissident would think.
This series of books gives you the opportunity to write about older work, but obviously you’re still active as a weekly film critic …
Yeah, I’m like the Bosley Crowther of the 21st century.
But going back and forth between new and old film: does that help you as a critic?
I’m grateful that there’s still a number of new films that I look forward to writing about. And even in weekly criticism I like to write historical pieces, but doing this book is a different thing. It’s really more like writing history rather than criticism.
And the book is less evaluative than criticism per se. I mean, you do mention that, yes, Ford’s The Fugitive was “insufferable,” but you’re primarily interested in capturing something more about the time rather than the individual works.
Well, I hope that it’s possible to tell which ones I think are better movies, but it’s more like looking at a continuum, and these movies take on an interest that’s not necessarily aesthetic.
I think that also comes through in your weekly writing—a sense of perspective rather than a simple thumbs-up/thumbs-down assessment. I was recently re-reading your piece on the future of criticism, “The Film Critic of Tomorrow, Today,” in The Magic Hour. We’ve recently had a lot of worry over this subject recently, though fortunately much of the hand-wringing and panel discussions seem to have quieted down a bit. You’ve always deemphasized this idea of the decline of film criticism.
I think that at first there was a certain meaningless debate about whether film criticism could even exist online, but that was kind of a red herring. I think the issue of what’s happening to criticism mirrors what’s happening to journalism in general. You don’t hear as much about the decline of art criticism or theater criticism or book criticism.
Thinking about Midnight Movies, which you co-wrote with Jonathan Rosenbaum, I wonder what you think of changes in reception. In some ways, that book implies that film culture is very much something that happens in the seats of movie theaters. Is that not something you feel nostalgic about?
It doesn’t pay to be nostalgic about something that’s a historical process. I mean, you can be, but it’s kind of an indulgence. I try to understand the historical forces that make certain things happen. Some people are nostalgic for the Hollywood of the 1970s—it’s never going to happen again. And if it does, it’ll come in another form. And I think it was somewhat overrated in any case.
Plenty of bad movies were made in the 70s.
The only thing is that the bad movies made then were more interesting.
This comes back to the question of positive and negative reviewing. One feature of your criticism is that, unlike many critics, you seem to put a lot of effort and interest into assessing the merits of what some might simply call a bad film.
Well, I see reviewing as a form of journalism. You’re reporting on something, and you get to be much more subjective and playful than you would be if you were simply reporting a news story, but I think that you need to provide a certain amount of information and context. People have been asking me since I started, “Should I go see this?” And I say, “How do I know? Does it sound like something you would want to see?” And that’s all you can do.
And in terms of bad movies: here’s an example. I thought that, in some respects, Black Swan was just terrible. But it wasn’t boring and it was so much fun to write about that I had to give it credit. I can’t really come down that hard on a movie that I enjoyed writing about, because it clearly had something about it.
There are people who enjoy panning something. I’d actually prefer to write positive reviews—if I can. But if you’re doing this once a week, you come across lots of things that you think are really just mediocre, where you think, “Why even have an opinion about it?”
Your next book in this series promises to be about the period after The Dream Life, leading up through the Reagan years.
Originally, this was all going to be one book, which turned out to be kind of an insane idea. I did have this chapter on Nashville and Jaws [in an anthology on the seventies]. But now I’m actually trying to do something else that I thought would be a quick project—a book for Verso about 21st century cinema. So, only on new stuff, and not as theorized, much more episodic. And then I was going to start working on the next book, but given the way I work, it’s never taken me less than five years to do something like this.
Do you have any specific plans for that book, then?
Well, I’ve been thinking about it—I’ve been thinking about where I want it to begin. One of the important things that I don’t talk about in The Dream Life is The Godfather. So, I was thinking I might begin with a flash-forward to The Godfather, and then pick it up later in the mid-1970s. Then, the question is how long to take the book—ideally, I’d like to end it around 1986, because the movies get really horrible.
But the difference with the third book is that much of it would be contemporary with your own writing on film.
Yes, well, only the stuff in the eighties. There would definitely be some things. Once I would be dealing with Top Gun or Rambo or Platoon, I would have reviewed all of those movies when they came out, which would be a little strange.
In that case, what sources would you go to? The Bosley Crowthers and Daily Workers of the 80s?
I want to find some alternative view, so I think I would probably be looking more to the Right. Because it’s really about Reagan, and I think that Hollywood did go way to the Right by the end of the seventies. So, I’d like to see how things were being viewed in The National Review, for example—and there probably wasn’t much in the way of an alternative press, certainly not the way there was in the early seventies.
And also because popular memory about film criticism in that period is much clearer.
It’s going to be tricky. And you had journals like Jump Cut, so everything was already parsed in ideological terms—it was already part of the package. To be able to historicize that as well will be a challenge.
The thing is that the year that I really started was 1979-1980—even though I was a third-string critic, so I certainly wasn’t reviewing big movies. But I was around, so I may have to make use of personal things. [For example] when Apocalypse Now had its premiere at the Ziegfeld, there was just enormous anticipation—it would be hard to think of a movie that was more eagerly awaited. They had no early screenings, although it had been at Cannes; everyone else in the press saw it at the same time. I didn’t get very good seats—I was up there very close to the screen—but the opening of the film just stunned me. You can never recapture what it was like to see that, with the napalm exploding in sync with The Doors. It was just stunning, so I might have to go back to those experiences.
I’ll never be able to write something like The Dream Life again. That was just the perfect confluence, since I was a sentient being when that stuff was going on. Whether I saw all those movies then or not, I certainly understood the milieu. With the fifties, I do remember these issues as a child – the way a six-year old would be aware of it – but except for Davy Crockett, I really saw these movies later on television or in the seventies.