The Dream Life and Down and Dirty Pictures

The Big Moment
New books dissected over email.
Jan. 30 2004 3:09 PM

The Dream Life and Down and Dirty Pictures

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

Dear David,

In last night's post, you observed—as we've been noting all week—that both the politicized discussion of movies and the political resonance of the movies themselves no longer had the intensity that they did in the era Hoberman writes about. It's worth emphasizing, I think, that this is (at least on my part) not so much a nostalgic lament for a time I never lived through than a historical observation. And as such, it should be expanded beyond the narrow context of movies, something Hoberman does with enviable ease as he dissolves from what's on the screen to what's behind and beyond it. It's not just that movies were different and experienced differently in the 1970s, but that the whole cultural ecology in which they functioned was different. Not only were cinematic spectacles (some of them, anyway) more implicitly political, American politics had become, more explicitly than it ever had been, a spectacle. There is a momentousness, a newness, a craziness to some of the non-movie events he describes that seems almost unimaginable. His narrative circles around to the quadrennial "RepCons" and "DemCons," and it's hard to think of any political conventions in recent memory that have seemed like zeitgeist-defining moments or that would have generated reportage like Mailer's or Hunter Thompson's that could aspire to the status of literature.

Advertisement

One of Hoberman's epigraphs comes from "Superman Comes to the Supermarket," Norman Mailer's Esquire essay on JFK: "America's politics would now be also America's favorite movie, America's first soap opera, America's bestseller." This has the slightly breathless ring that prophecies acquire only after they've come true and become truisms. One of the major texts in the chapter that follows is The Image by Daniel Boorstin, which (in Hoberman's summary) "made the obvious but influential declaration that a ubiquitous, newfangled 'language of images' had displaced the old-fashioned 'language of ideas.' The citizenry had become an audience." And their apt leader was a creature with the splendid space-age name of "Star-Pol."

Hoberman recaptures a moment when such notions seemed scary and new and traces the simultaneous metastasizing of media-spectacle politics and social ferment. It's amazing, looking back at it, to see how quickly the '60s happened—not just how many upheavals were taking place, but how closely they impinged on each other. And the movies provided a kind of running, rapidly mutating allegorical commentary on what was happening at the conventions, in the geopolitical arena, and on the streets, understood as both the locus of urban disorder and youth protest.

It's interesting to note, tangentially, that the movies he takes up are, for the most part, neither art films straining for cultural and aesthetic importance nor high-minded Hollywood "issue pictures," but rather genre films—Westerns, war movies, and urban policiers cross-pollinating like mad and offering themselves up as ideological Rorschach blots. The labels "liberal" and "conservative," now tiresomely thrown around by cultural pundits, are woefully inadequate to describe Dirty Harry or Easy Rider or The Chase or McLintock! The choices, rather, seem always to be between fascism and anarchy, and it's hard to tell one from the other or to predict how the audience will respond.

Those allegories, as you pointed out earlier today, survive in the tired generic conventions of mainstream filmmaking. Revenge has become such an axiomatic response that it's not longer very interesting to wonder whom it's being enacted upon and with what cost. (Just about the only American filmmaker who does seem to make it interesting to wonder is, wouldn't you know, Clint Eastwood).

David, this has been a tonic. If Peter Biskind's book made me worry (as I did in last week's Times Magazine) about the soul of American film culture, and Hoberman's made me long a bit for its earlier incarnation, talking with you has, as ever, bolstered my faith in it.

All the best,
Tony

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

It Is Very, Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

The U.S. Is So, So Far Behind Europe on Clean Energy

Even if You Don’t Like Batman, You Might Like Gotham

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Politics

Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

Nobody Knows How Many Gay Married Couples Live in America—Not Even the Census Bureau

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 22 2014 6:30 PM What Does It Mean to Be an American? Ted Cruz and Scott Brown think it’s about ideology. It’s really about culture.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 22 2014 5:38 PM Apple Won't Shut Down Beats Music After All (But Will Probably Rename It)
  Life
Outward
Sept. 22 2014 4:45 PM Why Can’t the Census Count Gay Couples Accurately?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 7:43 PM Emma Watson Threatened With Nude Photo Leak for Speaking Out About Women's Equality
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 22 2014 7:46 PM Azealia Banks’ New Single Is Her Best in Years
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 6:27 PM Should We All Be Learning How to Type in Virtual Reality?
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 22 2014 4:34 PM Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.