The Book Club

What We Talk About When We Talk About Movies

Hi Tony,

It’s a nice change of pace to talk books with you, even if those books are about movies and even if, for one reason or another, they’re incredible downers. I don’t mean that the books themselves are bad: Each is, in its way, an extraordinary publishing event. I mean that one, J. Hoberman’s explosively brainy The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties, conjures up an era—the ‘60s and ‘70s—in which movies were woven into our political and cultural lives in a way they just aren’t anymore. The other book, Peter Biskind’s hot-ticket Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film, sets out to chart the rise and the studio appropriation of what had looked to be a revolutionary movement in cinema, the “independent” film, yet gets all gummed up in a couple of titanic (or maybe sociopathic) personalities. I felt rebuked by the intellectual ambition of the former book and vaguely soiled by my attraction to the gossipiness of the second.

Tony, in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, you used the Biskind book as a jumping-off point for a meditation on the state of cinephilia. We are now, you imply, living in a world in which the average movie nut thinks more about the art of distribution and the politics of awards than about the art and politics of the films themselves. As we begin our dialogue, the Oscar nominations have just been announced; the Golden Globes have just been awarded; and the Sundance festival has just concluded with a flurry of deals involving the likes of Fox Searchlight, Miramax, Sony Pictures Classics, and Focus. I’m aware that some readers will expect us to address all that. I’m also aware that the hot questions surrounding Monster are not the ones it raises about the administration of the death penalty in this country, but whether: 1) Newmarket can sell such a grim movie outside the big art-house markets and 2) Charlize can possibly lose the Oscar to Diane or Nicole.

I look to J. Hoberman, both in his columns for the Village Voice and in The Dream Life, as a corrective to the trend in criticism of which I’m a part. (Before proceeding, let me note that I worked alongside Hoberman for five years at the Village Voice and found him the most affable colleague imaginable. But as fond as I am of Jim, I wouldn’t be writing about this book if I didn’t think it was one of the most vital cultural histories I’d ever read.)

The Dream Life is a switchback ride through two decades of synergistic politics and pop culture. It takes its cue from a 1960 Esquire piece on the Democratic convention by Norman Mailer, in which Mailer predicted that “the incredible dullness wreaked upon the American landscape in Eisenhower’s eight years” would be “swept away by a raging torrent—the subterranean river of untapped, ferocious, lonely, and romantic desires, that concentration of ecstasy and violence which is the dream life of the nation.” It is Hoberman’s achievement to illustrate that prediction with wry and often poetic concision: to take us through the historical events of the ‘60s and ‘70s with tightly integrated side trips into the movies that both reflect and reinforce them. What’s thrilling about the book is not so much the ideas, which are often borrowed from writers like Mailer, Pauline Kael, Dwight MacDonald, Andrew Sarris, Susan Sontag, Daniel Boorstin, Richard Slotkin, Hunter S. Thompson, Abbie Hoffman, and scores of other political and cultural commentators, but Hoberman’s wreathing together of them. It’s the way he uses politics (which also means political spin) to illuminate the tensions within pop culture, and pop culture to illuminate the tensions within politics.

It’s worth emphasizing that Hoberman does not go in for the one-to-one correspondence between politics and culture that we’re used to reading in partisan publications (i.e., movie X is left-wing propaganda that slags the church). His view is considerably more nuanced. “A movie,” he writes, “is an idea that accumulates meaning as it is conceived, produced, exhibited, and received.” As daily critics, you and I tend to jumble all those things together. Partly we do this because we weren’t around when the movie was conceived or on the set when it was made or privy to decisions about its exhibition; we are the receivers. But Hoberman breaks up his discussion of individual films like The Manchurian Candidate, Bonnie and Clyde, and The Wild Bunch and spreads them out over several chapters: A film, we see, might arise out of one historical impulse, be violently upended in the course of shooting, be received in an entirely different spirit, and have an unpredictable influence on the films that follow.

My summary of Hoberman’s method isn’t stylish or entertaining enough to do him justice, so let’s look at just a tiny fraction of his more resonant constructions. John Wayne looms large in the early pages, at a time when the politics are considerably simpler, allegorizing the struggle against international communism in his right-wing propagandistic frontier epic of 1960, The Alamo. But TheAlamo’s “scenario of imminent danger and foreign humiliation” comes, ironically, to seem closer to Kennedy’s political stance than to Nixon’s, and it’s the neoliberal Kennedy who would really provide a glamorous new myth for American expansionism:

Watcher of movies, lover of actresses, reader (and ‘writer’) of bestsellers, John F. Kennedy was both subject and producer of American mass culture. … Careening through the Missile Gap into Cuba, Berlin, and finally, Vietnam, while living a high-style melodrama of realpolitik and apocalyptic betrayal, Kennedy presided over a period of glamour and anxiety embodied by another ruthless, suave, and exciting new figure, the espionage agent James Bond.

Later Hoberman notes that Bond-lover JFK was the first American president—but not the last—to be “the simultaneous protagonist and ideal consumer of American culture.”

As the Kennedy era became deformed by nuclear anxieties and assassinations that scrambled a lot of conventional divisions, a new, nihilistic “sick” humor entered the culture, and even the old-style Western came in for postmodern revision: John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance made “the astounding statement that American history was founded on a necessary lie. … All of the principals (played by actors far older than their characters) appear aged phantoms animated by historical inevitability to reenact a ritual in a deserted theater.” Then there is the hilarious screen trajectory of Henry Fonda.

Once again, I fear the above fragments do no justice to the fluidity of this journey or to Hoberman’s deceptively easygoing yet deliriously compacted prose, which threads history through movie lore through McLuhan-esque media criticism, all with liberal injections of pop music, from the Beatles to Barry McGuire to Sgt. Barry Sadler and his Green Berets. He charts the rise of the romantic, left-wing outlaw who would embody the counterculture’s fantasies of liberation, then (so quickly) its awareness of oncoming catastrophe and death, then its cynical appropriation by the right-wing vigilante genre.

Above all, Hoberman captures the dialectics of pop culture: that the graphic, hyperaestheticized bloodshed of Sam Peckinpah’s nihilistic Western The Wild Bunch could be sold and interpreted as a new naturalism; that Billy Jack, the story of a pacifist “cowboy Indian on a motorcycle” could be both a bleeding-heart liberal and a fascist fantasy; that the same Oscar voters who could award the conclusively antiromantic Midnight Cowboy, in which a Ratso Rizzo implies that John Wayne is “a fag,” could give Wayne a prize the same night for the old-style Western True Grit. Hoberman charts the new era of movie violence and its greatest international icon, Clint Eastwood (pictured behind his long .44 Magnum on the book’s cover) as well as any critic, ever (Eastwood’s cool as Dirty Harry Callahan, he writes, helped to forge “a new synthesis between hipster and enforcer”). The book ends with the counterculture’s morbid dissolution and death throes—with the journey from Antonioni’s Blow Up to De Palma’s Blow Out, with the sex farce of disillusionment Shampoo a vital link.

I’m eager to rip through this book with you in the next few days, Tony, and to hear what you regard as the book’s key themes. A couple of quibbles: Hoberman sometimes plays his cards too close to the vest for my taste, putting his opinions of movies in lengthy footnotes. (His synopsis of Dennis Hopper’s infamous The Last Movie is so exciting that I thought he was on the verge of making a case for it.) I also wish that he’d acknowledged that the connection between showbiz and politics has a long history in this country, that what was unprecedented about the ‘60s was the way in which the public was suddenly interested in hearing about the ways in which it was being manipulated.

Above all, I want to discuss why neither critics nor audiences seem to engage with movies the way they did in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Is it that the blockbuster mentality of the media ends up marginalizing films that, on the basis of their grosses, would have been the focus of much excited debate back then? Or is it that film criticism has been hijacked by bottom-line industry watchers and the Oscar fetishists? Is it that all the taboos have been broken in movies and that the aesthetic breakthroughs (and fall-backs) are now happening on television—spurred by the rise of cable and relaxation of network censorship?

And so to Biskind, very briefly: Down and Dirty Pictures sets out to tell the story of the American independent cinema in the same way that Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls charted the rise of a counterculture that would become the new Hollywood establishment. The book spends some time on Sundance and Robert Redford, who is presented as a flaky, paranoid, self-absorbed movie star whose personal limitations threaten to eviscerate the movement for which he publicly takes credit. But Redford is really just a detour en route to Biskind’s real subject, Harvey and Bob Weinstein and their company, Miramax, and the manner in which they’ve warped independent film.

Unfortunately, the Weinstein brothers also end up warping Biskind’s book. They magnetize him: Every time he moves away from describing their thuggish acquisition and editing practices and sets out in another, more hopeful (or just different) direction, they draw him back. In one of Biskind’s many, many similes, Harvey is like a man who runs over scores of passers-by but stops short of a baby carriage, then leaps out and claims credit for having saved the life of the baby. Now he’s verbally abusing countless Miramax staffers, now he’s bullying directors like Guillermo del Toro and Todd Haynes (he threatens to spend $10 million to keep Julianne Moore from being nominated for an Oscar for Far From Heaven if Haynes doesn’t sign with him), now he’s putting journalists in headlocks and trying to bribe others. People like Matt Damon and Ben Affleck are loyal to the guy who gave them their start, but where is all the money they’re owed for Good Will Hunting?

It’s quite a wallow, this book, and perceptive as far as it goes: Biskind does a service to the artists whose work has been a casualty of the Weinsteins’ “throw it against the wall and see what sticks” approach. But to me, the most damning assessment here involves Biskind’s portrait of the increasing pressure on independent directors to think like their mainstream (and much better-paid) counterparts. The screenwriter Matthew Robbins, who worked on the muddled Mimic, says that Harvey “created the illusion that you are collaborating with him, and yet at the end of the day, in draft after draft, the idiosyncratic and unusual elements just disappeared. To this day, Miramax has a cache of encouraging individual voices, and yet when you are in the room, it’s that aspect that is most under suspicion.”

But as I hurtled through these eye-popping anecdotes, I found myself wishing that the Weinsteins had either been just one chapter—that’s one self-contained chapter—or the focus of the entire book. And I’m sorry: I just don’t find the film-festival trials of acquisitions people all that relevant to what I love about movies.

Have I done either of these books justice, Tony?