J. HOBERMAN’S AN ARMY OF PHANTOMS

March 15, 2011

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Under siege. John Ford’s Fort Apache established one of the major Cold War film archetypes, as J. Hoberman explains in An Army of Phantoms, his breathless, careening cultural history of the period (which the New Press released today). Covering the initial years of the political frost, from the mid-1940s through 1956, it’s the prequel to his 2003 The Dream Life, which ranged from 1960 to the release of Blow Out in 1981. He is preparing a third volume, Found Illusions: The Romance of the Remake and the Triumph of Reaganocracy, that will cover the rest of the 80s and the end of the Cold War. His stated inspiration is Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler, and Hoberman’s less deterministic project will likely cozy up to it on film reference shelves in the coming decades as an essential and idiosyncratic work of cultural studies.

The phrase “cultural studies” tends to make me recoil in various poses of disgust. It’s the lapsed academic in me. As David Bordwell said in a Cinema Scope interview, ” most film scholars aren’t interested in film as a creative art. I know it sounds odd to say that, but I think it’s true. Most scholars are interested in film as an expression of cultural trends, interests, processes, etc. or of political moods, tendencies, etc.” Much of what I encountered of cultural studies in school reduced films to fit ideological agendas, starting with a theory and then squeezing the movie to fit that theory. The art object itself was lost in the process.

What Hoberman is doing here is undoubtedly cultural studies, describing how social and political events shaped the era, and in turn the tone and texture of Hollywood’s product, but it is a supple and nuanced version of the discipline. Since he is coming from a film critic’s background, he never loses sight of the unruly complexity of the movies themselves. The wealth of production history Hoberman lays down here is one of its most invaluable aspects, and has me continually dogearing pages (Full disclosure: I took a Film Criticism seminar that Hoberman taught at NYU).

For example, in his thumbnail portrait of The Thing (1951), he places it in the context of Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Man From Planet X, an alien cheapie that beat it into theaters, heralding 1951 as “the year that the saucers landed and the extraterrestrials arrived.” The Thing’s pre-production also “coincided with the emergence of Senator McCarthy and the early stages of the Korean War.”, resulting in a “congealed hysteria.” Politics and film inform each other, but they are not irreducible to the other. Hoberman is adapting French philosopher and sociologist Jacques Ellul’s concept of sociological propaganda:

a vague, spontaneous, all-pervasive, yet half-conscious form of social bonding and ideological proselytizing advanced by advertising, newspaper editorials, social service agencies, patriotic speeches, and anything else that might use the phrase ‘way of life.’”

It is the haziness of being a part of an epoch, the received wisdom that we mouth daily because we don’t have time to reflect on everything we say. It is a flexible, elusive concept, the perfect prism from which to pursue the indirect but palpable influence of the social and political spheres on film. Those are his theoretical walking orders, but Hoberman fills the book  with the clammy details of the dream factory. After spotty snowfall in Cut Bank, Montana, the crew re-located “to an arctic landscape created on the RKO ranch in Encino – another sort of ordeal with sweaty, parka swaddled actors tramping over the artificial snow that had been created from rock salt, ground-up Masonite, and crystallized photographic solution.”

The Thing’s scenario was comic-book Fort Apache, the group under siege by a marauding, unknowable force. The parallels with Communist infiltration (and the bloody “police action” in Korea) were starkly clear, and The Thing’s “effete little Nobel Prize-winning scientist affecting a blazer, turtleneck, and goatee” is nothing less than a “wannabe Russian”. The Thing makes gestures toward anti-communism, but more than anything else it’s a Howard Hawks film, a buzzing group of insecure he-men talking their way through their problems and through the Red Menace. This Fort Apache scenario of terror from without is one of the repeated motifs of the book (Only the Valiant, which I wrote up earlier, introduces subversion from within into the cavalry Western), although many others wind through it, including The Next Voice You Hear, whose vision of God-as-entertainment actualized Hollywood’s fondest dreams of itself. Hoberman draws out the cruel irony of how the real universal communicator, television, almost puts Hollywood out of business. The third major strand is provided by Kiss Me Deadly and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides’ term for nuclear power, The Great Whatzit, which Hoberman uses throughout as both a metaphor for nuclear weapons as well as the undefinable anxieties which haunted the generation.

All of these ideas are buttressed by meticulous research, with reams of contemporary opinions from VarietyThe New York Times and especially The Daily Worker, as film and  political history start to smack up against each other. Everything converges in his tour-de-force explication of the House Un-American Activities Commission hearings, whose impact on the movie business is laid out in granular detail, as studio heads tried to triangulate between Sen. McCarthy and the panicky artist-progressives who pushed out their money-making product. Never have I read such a thorough examination of this period, and the moral gray areas that subpoenaed witnesses had to traverse. There is no cheap moralizing or blanket condemnations of those who named names, only a fanatically detailed, contextually rich rundown of the cultural currents that led to their decisions.

I’d advise you not to open the Great Whatzit, but please open the book.

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BOOKS ON FILM: A LIST

June 9, 2009

The problem of the young cinephile: what to see next? Growing up in movie-thin Buffalo, I had to consult the oracles: movie critics in bigger cities. Then there was the winnowing process – who to trust and who to ignore? Once I locked in on a kindred spirit, I followed in lockstep with their viewing and reading recommendations. Soon a whole network of informed writers radiated from my admiration of one critic, and opened up whole new vistas of learning. For me, that critic was Jonathan Rosenbaum, formerly of the Chicago Reader. Sure, I also gobbled up the words of J. Hoberman at the Village Voice, but Rosenbaum had a combative skepticism that suited my own tastes of the time, and I eagerly anticipated his work every week. His enthusiasms also led me to the work of Manny Farber, Joe Dante, Jacques Rivette, and a whole host of others.

Why the reminiscing? Well, the enigmatically named MovieMan0283 of The Dancing Image started a meme on his site, listing the ten film books that left the greatest impression on him. He encouraged other film bloggers to do the same, and it’s been all over the internet this past week. I noticed it first at Glenn Kenny’s Some Came Running. Below the fold is my contribution, all of them determining factors towards my questionable taste.

1. The Chicago Reader‘s Brief Reviews Archive: Admittedly, this is cheating, but ever since I discovered this vast trove of critical nuggets from Rosenbaum and Dave Kehr, I’ve considered it my go-to reference book, despite its mere virtual existence. With the click of my sweaty fingers, I could read the concise and informed opinion of my two favorite writers on just about any cinematic subject at hand. Need a recommendation for an upcoming pre-code series? Hmm…Me and My Gal was Manny Farber’s favorite Raoul Walsh, sez Rosenbaum, and that it’s “A small picture, but an ecstatic one.” Sold!  I’ve consulted the site more than anything bound in pulp, and I daresay I’m the better for it.

2. Negative Space, by Manny Farber (1971, 1999): See, film critics can be great writers! Just read Negative Space, the only published collection of Farber’s work. His dense, allusive prose takes as much time to unpack as some of the films he adores (Scarface, Me and My Gal, Wavelength), and goshdarnit if he doesn’t have a cantakerously careening essay on Howard Hawks. On Scarface, and also not a bad description of his writing: “The image seems unique because of its moody energy: it is a movie of quick-moving actions, inner tension, and more angularity per inch of screen than any street film in history.”  (and is Amazon lying to me or is this out of print? A tragedy, if so, despite its Kindle availability)

 

3. Howard Hawks, by Robin Wood (1981, 2006):  Of all the words I’ve consumed about Howard Hawks, these were the first and the most influential. His introduction to the 1981 edition told me that “the distinction between ‘art’ and ‘entertainment’ was too rigid”, and that Mozart worked for an audience as much as Hawks. His thematic breakdown of the work still holds up, as does his enthusiasm (also see his excellent recent monograph on Rio Bravo). I’ll also always agree with him on this point: “If I were asked to chose a film that would justify the existence of Hollywood, I think it would be Rio Bravo.”

4. A Biographical Dictionary of Film, by David Thomson (1975-2002): If I could rewrite history, I would have told my youthful self to purchase Andrew Sarris’ The American Cinema instead of this tome, but I can’t, so here we are. I’ve grown weary of Mr. Thomson and his inability to engage with contemporary cinema (see his lazy entries on Abbas Kiaorstami and Wes Anderson, for instance), but his elegant phrasing and embrace of Hawks (sensing a theme?) were definitely valuable, and it’s impossible to discount this book’s importance in shaping my young mind. The only thing that sticks with me from that book is his epic ode to Johnny Carson, both moving and mystifying for this Letterman-aged viewer.

5. This is Orson Welles, by Orson Welles & Peter Bogdanovich (1992, 1998): Before Hawks, Welles was my favorite – and where Hawks was tight-lipped, Welles was expansive. An incredibly entertaining romp through Welles’ astonishing career, with the added benefit of an exhaustive career chronology, an appendix of the scenes cut from The Magnificent Ambersons, and the memo Welles sent Universal with his suggested revisions to Touch of Evil. A treasure trove of research material to please any budding Wellesian. Also plenty to throw back at those who say Welles declined after Citizen Kane, or similarly ill-informed gobbledygook.

6. Movie Mutations, by Jonathan Rosenbaum, Adrian Martin, et. al. (2003): My most obscure choice introduced me to a number of young cinephiles, and clued me in to the vibrant journals Senses of Cinema Rougeand Cinema ScopeIt lent me a sense that I belonged to a community, not just a darkened living room. First published as a series of letters in the French magazine Trafic, it brought together Rosenbaum, Martin, Kent Jones, Alexander Horwath, Nicole Brenez and Raymond Bellour. These epistles were added together with a few essays on transnational cinematic exchanges: Jones on Tsai Ming-liang, Shigehiko Hasumi on Hawks (!), and an excellent tete-a-tete between Martin and James Naremore on academic film study (which I was about to enter). This volume was very prescient in regards to the bourgeoning online film community, and in a sense paved the way for my own modest entry into the online film conversation.

7. Who the Devil Made It, by Peter Bogdanovich (1997): Another superb book of interviews from Bogdanovich, this time chatting with a gaggle of the greatest talents from Hollywood’s Golden Age, from Aldrich to Walsh (Hawks is included, of course). Rich with production minutae and backstage anecodotes, it’s an invaluable resource, and I find myself always coming back to it. My recent infatuation with Leo McCarey led me to it recently, and his reticence at discussing one of his masterpieces, Make Way for Tomorrow, is palpable and moving: “It was the saddest story I ever shot; at the same time very funny. It’s difficult for me to talk about, but I think it was very beautiful.”

 

8. Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema, by David Bordwell (1988): This is available for free as a PDF at the link provided, so download it now. Got it? OK, this is the most in-depth auteur study I’ve ever read, exhaustively covering Ozu’s style (his 360 degree use of space, low-angle camera, etc.) as well as the culture he came out of. Definitive in every sense, and essential for an understanding of one of the greats. I came to it while writing a forgotten paper on An Autumn Afternoon, and its erudition, depth, and breadth are staggering. Read his blog, too!

9. Objects of Desire: Conversations with Luis Bunuel, by Jose de la Colina & Tomas Perez Turrent (1986, 1992): Bunuel’s autiobiography, My Last Sigh, is phenomenal (I’ve never forgotten his poetic description of his lost sex drive), but the offhanded charm of this collection of interviews was too hard to resist. Full of important lessons, like, “Let’s put a little rum in our coffee like they do in Spanish country towns. It gives coffee a nice smell.”

10. Fun in a Chinese Laundry, by Josef von Sternberg (1965) & A Third Face, by Sam Fuller (2002): I cheated at the beginning, so it’s only appropriate I do so at the close. These cooly enigmatic (Sternberg) and riotously entertaining (Fuller) autobiographies are fascinating reflections of these directors respective artistic personalities. Von Sternberg is dry, ironic, and withholding: “The system of films can be a severe shock to anyone whose mind has made progress since childhood.” Fuller is blunt and hilarious: “If a story doesn’t give you a hard-on in the first couple of scenes, throw it in the goddamned garbage.” Both revelatory in their own way.