The Book Club

Unmaking Our Days

Dear Tony,

For Hoberman, Clint Eastwood—that synthesis of “hipster and enforcer”—is a seminal figure in The Dream Life. Eastwood is the embodiment of a new, fascist order come to clean up after what Baudrillard called “orgy time (war, sex, Manson, Woodstock)”—albeit one that is too with-it to ally himself publicly with Republican squares or the “Silent Majority.” Hoberman writes: “Patton, Joe, and Dirty Harry were all war movies, and in each case, the war was waged against the young—although Dirty Harry, as opposed to Dirty Harry, operates by surrogate. (From the movie’s first victim on, violence is directed against two uppity groups, blacks and women.)” That is an extraordinary (and I think, irrefutable) statement, rather blandly expressed: Hoberman is saying that although the audience reviles the hippie serial killer, Scorpio, it feels some satisfaction at his killings—much as audiences would later identify with the hack-’em-up bogeyman who skewers promiscuous kids, the Puritan as psychopath. (To be fair to Dirty Harry—a statement I thought I’d never make—Scorpio also targets priests.) In Dirty Harry, the cop is now the foot soldier, abandoned by a system choked by the combination of greed, cowardice, and liberalism.

But the extraordinary thing, Hoberman notes, is that inner-city audiences embraced Harry as much as the Silent Majority did. He quotes Pauline Kael:

Puerto Ricans could applaud Harry because in the movie laws protecting the rights of the accused are seen not as remedies for the mistreatment of the poor by the police and the courts but as protection for evil abstracted from all social conditions—metaphysical evil, classless criminality.

And Hoberman permits himself a rare exclamation when he quotes a Village Voice account of Lower East Side kids digging Harry’s righteousness: “Fascism works!” It is High Plains Drifter, though, in which Eastwood comes up with a viable myth for the slaying of the counterculture, making the left the repository of all the rage for the loss of the war: It is a “spectacle of quasi-divine punishment visited against a gutless, guilty town that hires—or, rather, drafts—men to do its dirty work, and then discards them.”

I dwell on this section of the book because the legal vigilante/borderline psychopath hero that Eastwood helped to invent would enter the mainstream in the ‘80s and ‘90s—both self-parodic and yet politically potent, shoring up Americans’ support for the death penalty while turning its opponents into “collaborators.”

I love Hoberman’s take on Eastwood, which makes it all the more strange that he should have been such a sucker for that dreary “revisionist” psycho-killer picture Tightrope. You applaud him, Tony, for being less of a scold than Kael, but I think his view of Eastwood is surprisingly close to Kael’s, and he’s coasting a bit on the insights born of her outrage. As I’ve said, Hoberman plays his cards too close to the vest sometimes for my taste.  I miss that extra rhetorical zing that more self-dramatizing critics bring to the party. (I write this as someone who occasionally goes too far in the opposite direction.)

Back to Eastwood: Hoberman notes that George H.W. Bush would later salute Nixon for leading the nation from Easy Rider to Dirty Harry—and Reagan would tell his foreign adversaries, “Make my day.” As image swamps meaning, we’re left with Daniel Boorstin, whom Hoberman invokes in the early pages of The Dream Life on the “pseudo-event” that was the Kennedy-Nixon “Great Debate.” Hoberman quotes Boorstin:

One interview comments on another; one television show spoofs another; novel, television show, radio program, movie, comic book, and the way we think of ourselves, all become merged into mutual reflections.

“So it was written,” Hoberman writes, “and so it will remain.”

Back to your regularly scheduled discussion about Dean’s scream.

Thanks, Tony, for taking time from your day job for this little e-mail chat. I direct readers to your essay in the Times today in anticipation of Mel Gibson’s reportedly sadomasochistic Christ movie. Your work is proof that mainstream criticism can engage as deeply with the politics of movies as it did in the ‘60s (albeit in shorter paragraphs, and with no four-letter words, alas).