Back to the Future

By Adam Nayman

The news cycle waits for no one, not even J. Hoberman. Opening up the former Village Voice critic’s new book Make My Day—the conclusion, following The Dream Life and An Army of Phantoms, of his “Found Illusions” trilogy, which traces the intersection of Hollywood fantasies and American political reality in the transformative decades after World War II—on the same day that The Atlantic published an article detailing Ronald Reagan’s appalling comments to Richard Nixon about the members of a Tanzanian delegation to the United Nations in 1971, I couldn’t help but lament the anecdote’s lack of inclusion in Hoberman’s otherwise comprehensively withering mock-hagiography of the 40th Commander in Chief. Perhaps in a future edition the author will find a way, in his inimitable style, to link the audiotaped evidence of a current and future US President commiserating about “monkeys from African countries” to a contemporaneous Movie Event. I myself would nominate the moment in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) when a racist LAPD commissioner (John Dullaghan) utters a vicious slur at a public press conference—a late-breaking verbal confirmation of attitudes that the film’s African-American characters (and target audience) would hardly consider a surprise. 

That Melvin Van Peebles’ epochal proto-blaxploitation masterpiece—one of the most urgent movies of the early ’70s—barely warrants a mention in Make My Day is at once a bit disappointing, yet also to be expected within the context of its author’s project, which aims its analysis at the mainstream. It’s certainly not the case that Hoberman lacks interest or proficiency in chronicling films emanating from the margins: 1983’s Midnight Movies, co-written with Jonathan Rosenbaum, still stands as one of the most important documents of a cinema of aesthetic and industrial resistance. One of the organizing principles of that book is the idea that the extremity of underground auteurs like Jack Smith and David Lynch, besides providing a lurid lure for viewers looking to prove their own endurance and/or avant-garde bona fides, was also a necessary corrective to the hedging of Hollywood—even the supposed heroes of the ’70s (your Coppolas, Scorseses, Friedkins et al.), whose studio affiliations ultimately dictated elements of their output. 

Where Midnight Movies sought out self-styled culture warriors projecting their head-trips at the witching hour, the “Found Illusions” series seeks something like the reverse, plunging into the collective unconscious of matinee-appropriate movies (and genres) and revealing the ideological demons within. It’s film criticism as a form of exorcism, or, perhaps more appropriately, ghostbusting: the cover of Make My Day features a caricature of the Gipper emerging out of the iconic Ghostbusters logo holding a smoking .44 Magnum, a supernatural Harry Callahan to complement the bodily one that adorned the cover of The Dream Life; beneath the cut line, an army of phantoms (or are they dead-eyed Klansmen?) contentedly munch on their popcorn. Signed by the great cartoonist Art Spiegelman (just recently exiled from a Marvel gig for criticizing Trump), it’s a delirious, semiotically complex image, a visual equivalent to Hoberman’s prose and a perfect evocation of his thesis that Reagan’s presidency represented a kind of ghostly apotheosis: the slow, inevitable ascension of a celebrity into a position of actual rather than symbolic authority, even as symbolism and iconography became the hallmarks of his supremely media-savvy regime. Never a true box-office draw, Reagan was a supporting character in An Army of Phantoms and The Dream Life (which were set in the ’50s and ’60s, respectively), but inMake My Day he emerges as an ironic protagonist, seizing the popular imagination—and with it, political power—near the end of the ’70s and easing into a reign which, counting the proxy figure of his VP George H.W. Bush, cast the entire decade in the artificial sunlight of the old Hollywood backstages where he’d first made his bones as an entertainer: “Morning in America,” no matter how dark the methodology behind the façade.

The most perceptive and timely aspect of Make My Day is its focus on nostalgia as a tool of pop-cultural placation, locating George Lucas’ career-making American Graffiti (1973) and its mass-marketed rallying cry of “Where Were You in ’62?” as a gesture (however unintentional) of erasure against the critical upheavals of the late ’60s. Quoting Frederic Jameson’s observation that Lucas’ immersive ’50s fantasia “sought to embody the mesmerizing lost reality of the Eisenhower era,” Hoberman argues persuasively that American Graffiti (and its putative TV spin-offs Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley) were the heralds of Reagan’s time-travelling rhetoric, anticipating a collective wish to return to the womb-like security of post-World War II moral and political certainties (c.f. Back to the Future [1985], which turned Reagan’s election into a diegetic joke). The relevance of these reactionary fantasies, as well as their seemingly inextinguishable persistence in our present tense, is easily understood, and Hoberman doesn’t shy away from invoking Trump, albeit mostly in an epilogue which posits him more as the end product of an endlessly proliferating (and pustulating) cable-news landscape than a creature of the movies à la Reagan.

Hoberman, obviously, is more interested in the movies, and it’s his acknowledgment of Reagan’s place within that lineage that accounts for Make My Day’s fanatical sense of focus; even its digressions (and they are legion) are on point. This is not a particularly heavy book, tone-wise (it gallops past disparaging Pauline Kael reviews and actual clandestine war crimes at the same breakneck pace), but, through it all, Hoberman’s contempt for his chosen anti-hero is incandescent, never more so than in the extracts from old Village Voice pieces strung through its narrative at irregular intervals. But, like any big-game hunter worth his salt (from Ahab to Robert Shaw’s Quint in Jaws [1975]), he respects his quarry’s capabilities: at times, the tone is almost reminiscent of Hunter S. Thompson’s Rolling Stone broadsides against Nixon, which regularly descended into the language of Universal monster movies. And there is surely something a bit gonzo about the book’s structure, which echoes its predecessors by unfolding chronologically over its chosen historical terrain (1971-1988) as a bifurcated survey of notable movies (including variably detailed overviews of their critical and commercial reception) and concurrent developments beyond the screen, with special attention paid to the electoral cycles of 1976, 1980, and 1984. 

Where in Army of Phantoms and The Dream Life Hoberman had to draw on the films—and commentary—of a bygone era teeming with masterpieces both in and adjacent to the old studio system, the period in Make My Day is connected to his own career trajectory. As a result, he writes with more authority even as the movies themselves are a less enthralling proposition. A few titles stand out as being more or less author-approved: Warren Beatty’s Commie epic Reds (1981); the pungent pulp fictions of James Cameron (The Terminator, 1984) and Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, 1987); the collected works of that now critically revitalized Old Master Robert Zemeckis. For the most part, though, Hoberman substitutes scrutiny for enthusiasm, placing a string of canonical blockbusters—including the inevitable Spielberg trifecta of Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), along with the Star Wars trilogy—under the microscope and observing therein the symptoms (if not root causes) of maladies that still have yet to be fully cured.

Reading between the lines of Hoberman’s sweeping, assertive rhetoric is rarely difficult, as when he cites Leni Riefenstahl ahead of Kurosawa and The Wizard of Oz (1939) in his list of Star Wars’ influences. He stops short of proposing Lucas and Spielberg as full-on equivalents to the modern Republican political machine, yet returns time and time again to the implications of their special-effects-driven spectacles and the imitators they spawned in their wake. The more vertiginous the suspension of disbelief, the less tolerance there is amongst audiences for reality, whether in terms of style or content. The question of whether such hyperbolically escapist entertainments were meeting a genuine demand or manifesting their own form of trickle-down economics—consolidating wealth and influence at the top of the Hollywood establishment—keeps getting cracked open so that Hoberman can slam it (and his case) closed whenever he needs some momentum.

The appeal of a book like Make My Day lies less in its grand unified theories than in the opportunities it affords an able, committed critic like Hoberman to dig into a variety of individual titles, and he doesn’t disappoint: there are bits here that you’ll want to read again even before you’ve finished them. The sections comparing Jaws and Nashville (1975) as crypto-patriotic panoramas (and variations on the disaster-movie formula) is a tour de force, while the passages on the underdog populism of Rocky (1976) (with its wack racial politics subsumed within its pandering prole poetry) and the subversive Flower Power subtext of Philip Kaufman’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) bristle with insight. Spiegelman’s Ghostbusters illustration gets paid off with a thorough lancing of Ivan Reitman’s lazily paradigm-shifting horror-comedy, which Hoberman correctly pegs as both a not-so-secretly conservative comedy (its main human villain works for the EPA) as well as a breakthrough in the merging of narrative and advertising. Where in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) Spielberg had brilliantly deployed product placement to consolidate a sense of authenticity (a gambit kidded smartly by Joe Dante in Gremlins [1984], with its hilarious abuse of an E.T. doll), Ghostbusters dramatized its own brand extension: “the movie is remarkably cynical in its view of capitalism and the marketplace, happily ending with a blitz of ancillary merchandising.” 

Elsewhere, Hoberman excavates every scrap of ideological shrapnel from the monumentally incoherent text that is Red Dawn (1984), with its transposed Cold War paranoia almost cancelled out by John Milius’ admiration for the effectiveness and nobility of Che Guevara-style guerrilla tactics. It’s conflicted, unruly movies like Red Dawn—or John Carpenter’s similarly contradictory They Live (1988), which pits Reaganite aliens against pathetically ineffectual left-wing activists—that sit right in Hoberman’s wheelhouse, and he delights in wrestling with them. It’s also always fun to read him on David Lynch, whose Blue Velvet (1986) gets compared (via the criticism of the ever-underrated Howard Hampton) to Kings Row (1942), in which Reagan was famously maimed: twin portraits of small-town suburbia with dark secrets roiling beneath the surface.

Spielberg and Altman, Lucas and Lynch, Stallone and Schwarzegger: all are capacious candidates for analysis, and yet it’s the very ubiquity of Hoberman’s chosen figureheads that arguably constitutes his book’s biggest flaw. In a superbly considered review of Make My Day in The Brooklyn Rail—one good enough, in fact, to make me wish I hadn’t read it before attempting my own—Madeleine Whittle zeroed in on the precise calculus dictating its contents, an “implicit, common-sense premise that box-office receipts are more or less directly analogous to a popular vote and, by extension, to presidential politics…movies that attract large audiences… [reflect] the zeitgeist in the same way that a President can be seen as a manifestation of the majority’s desires.” While Whittle isn’t saying anything that Hoberman doesn’t cover in his own introduction (and she cedes this very point by quoting him directly on the common denominator between democracy and mass culture), it’s still a worthwhile caveat that makes certain omissions all the more frustrating: even if I’m not exactly hankering for more Hobermanian allusions to Joel and Ethan’s “Coendescension” (limited here to a one-line appraisal of Blood Simple [1984] as “triumphantly snide”), surely the sophisticated neo-screwball hijinks of Raising Arizona (1987), with its cash-strapped white-trash protagonists, purposeful franchise-movie parody (Randall “Tex” Cobb dresses like Mad Max and blows up like Jaws), and mention of “that sumbitch Reagan in the White House” (not meant in jest) could have been thrown into the mix?

The point of this sidelining of American independent cinema—and, with it, its relative plurality of voices (not that the Coens are exactly exemplars of diversity)—may be implicit: in a decade that began with The Empire Striking Back and concluded with the marketizing blitz of Batmania, the rebels (with or without causes) didn’t gain much traction. This is fair enough, but the sum total of strip-mining so many cast-iron blockbusters for fugitive meanings is a feeling that, 30 years deeper into the cultural rut whose digging provides Make My Day with its accelerating downward arc (onscreen and off), a genuinely progressive popular cinema is an impossibility, and also that the role of the responsible critic is simply to survey the damage (cynically or earnestly, take your pick). Hoberman has more than earned the right to look back (with anger or worse) on the period where he made his bones as a critic, and however indulgent certain of his self-citations may seem (e.g., reprinting in full his essays on Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom [1984] and Top Gun [1986]), they’re ultimately reminders of how much it sucks that this writer who knows the enemy when he sees it is no longer on the front lines.

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