The Dream Life and Down and Dirty Pictures

Apocalyptic Intensity Diminished
New books dissected over email.
Jan. 27 2004 3:50 PM

The Dream Life and Down and Dirty Pictures

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Dear David,

I love your post. It's one of the very best posts I've ever seen—the whole reason I got into this business in the first place—and I think it could make a hundred million dollars. But you need to make a few small changes. Nothing major: just cut about 800 words and rewrite the ending. Readers want something upbeat, something they can believe in. Trust me.

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Sorry. I don't know what came over me there, some kind of meltdown induced by the more than 500 pages of ranting, bullying, and strong-arming that make up Peter Biskind's breathless, ungainly, and impossible-to-stop-reading book. In many ways, as you suggest, it makes an odd companion piece to J. Hoberman's suave, scholarly tour-de-force. For one thing, Hoberman is a master of elegant, epigrammatic prose. His book is dialectical not only in method but in style, as nearly every sentence gathers up what had come before and turns around on itself to advance the argument, sending out jet-trails of surprise and enlightenment in its wake. For instance:

Dirty Harry burst out of the darkness at a time when cops were being celebrated as heroes and vilified as pigs and somehow managed to be both—the Dirty Dozen reduced to a single combatant, Patton and the soldier whom Patton slaps, the synthesis of the Patton/M*A*S*H double bill.

This is a thrilling way to write about movies and also a provocative way to think about their history, which consists in Hoberman's account of the recombination and rediscovery of genres and archetypes—the vigilante, the western hero, the cavalry company—and also their inflection by the real world of political strife and social change.

None of which is, at first glance, relevant to Biskind's book, which sees the world of movies as hermetically sealed off from the rest of the culture. Except, perhaps, from the 1990s money culture, of which independent film may turn out, in the end, to be an especially colorful subcategory. (There is, when you think about it, a more than coincidental resemblance between the young filmmakers and the young tech entrepreneurs of the era.) I'm not sure that the fault is altogether Biskind's. First of all, it's obviously unfair to want this book to be a critical survey of American Indie cinema in the '90s, when it is so indecently satisfying being just what it is—a gossipy, insidery business book, differing from, say, the new book on the AOL Time Warner merger or Michael Lewis' earlier tales of Wall Street chicanery only in that it gives supporting roles to filmmakers and movie stars. And it may be that Biskind's emphasis on deals, box office numbers, and the personalities of wannabe moguls and studio bosses may be what makes this book a piece of authentic cultural history. It may be, that is, that the movies have, since the end of the '70s (when Hoberman's book ends, with Shampoo and Blow Out and the election of Ronald Reagan, who rides into town like the hero in Hollywood's version of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit), retreated into themselves and lost the vital, scary, uncanny contact with the rest of the society that they once had.

Which is to say that Hoberman's book has, for me, a bracing feeling of authenticity. His readings of individual movies are always astute and provocative, whether the movies in question are long-dated period touchstones like Easy Rider, ignored-at-the-time works of prophecy like The Manchurian Candidate, or botched productions like The Chase (an overripe southern melodrama with Marlon Brando and Robert Redford that becomes, in Hoberman's reading, one of the central texts of the mid-'60s, a fever dream of Kennedy, Oswald, LBJ, and the incipient student revolt). But what links these movies to campus protests, political machinations, urban violence, and Vietnam always seems to be much more than chronological happenstance or Hoberman's own methodological ingenuity. Dirty Harry and McClintock and Bonnie and Clyde do seem to have been not merely fictional characters, but mythic crystallizations of the tortured and self-divided national psyche.

Which I don't think you could say, really, about movies like sex, lies, and video tape or Pulp Fiction. This is not to disparage those movies or to launch into a moaning session about how much better the movies were back then—because I don't think, as a matter of overall artistic merit, that they were. Somehow, though, the nexus of movies and politics that Hoberman is writing about seems not to have survived: His habit of linking movies and movie genres to presidents (so that we can talk about a "Kennedy Western," an "LBJ Western," a "Nixon Western," and even a "McGovern Western") wouldn't quite work in  the present. The dream life flickers more brightly, perhaps, on television or in popular music, and in any case, from Reagan's election up to 9/11, the apocalyptic intensity that once categorized both our politics and our pop culture has diminished (which is frankly fine by me).

But it does at the same time bother me that filmmakers who attempt to use the medium to illuminate the troubling facts of our collective life are too often on the margins, even in the sector of the industry where they should thrive. One of the more troubling undercurrents in Biskind's book is the one that sweeps away the work, actual and potential, of daring, tough-minded filmmakers like Alison Anders, Todd Solondz, Jim Jarmusch, and Charles Burnett.

I'll conclude today by noting that both books are haunted by a sense of what might have been, and each one pivots around a moment of great possibility that yields disappointment and disaster. In 1964 LBJ trounces Goldwater—a triumph for the Great Society and the peace candidate that leads, instead, to escalation in Vietnam, the rebirth of Nixon, and the wreckage of American liberalism. In 1994 Pulp Fiction wins the Palme at Cannes and makes $100 million domestically, ushering in hopes of a renaissance in personal, provocative, exciting American filmmaking. Instead, we get Shakespeare in Love.

I realize that to compare these things is irresponsible, if not insane, but it seems possible that these very different books might share an unacknowledged theme, which is the eternal American dialectic of idealism and violent disappointment.

That's all for now.

Best,
Tony

A.O. Scott is a film critic at the New York Times.