The Book Club

The Big Moment

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.

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,