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J. Hoberman's The Dream Life


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White House, silver screen

Film critic exposes hidden politics of popular culture

Jeet Heer

National Post

June 24, 2004

Ronald Reagan wasn't the first celebrity politician to bring Hollywood glamour to the White House. As Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman notes in his new book The Dream Life, John F. Kennedy grew up in a movie-star milieu while his tycoon father, Joseph Kennedy, made back-room deals and mergers for studios such as RKO and Paramount.

"There were movies screened every night at Joe Kennedy's house, and young Jack -- who shared his father's fascination -- spent his college vacations out in the movie colony, fraternizing with stars and chasing starlets," Hoberman observes. "The old man briefly considered hitching his son to Grace Kelly before deciding she was too Hollywood. (One of his daughters did, however, marry the British-born MGM ingenue Peter Lawford.)"

The Kennedy family lived at the intersection between entertainment and politics, much to the indignation of newspaper stuffed-shirts who thought any contact with popular culture would besmirch the dignity of statecraft. "The President has no business in show business," the New York Herald-Tribune complained in 1963 when Kennedy permitted a documentary film crew to record Oval Office decision-making. Yet even in the early Sixties, this sort of editorial fretting already sounded quaint. What was the entire Kennedy presidency about except the merging of movie magic with state power?

As Hoberman documents in his book, culture and politics kept mixing it up in the Kennedy years and in the subsequent social upheavals of the Sixties. By now, of course, the Sixties are themselves a filmic cliche, Baby Boomer nostalgia familiar to us from such reheated fare as Forrest Gump. Yet by focusing on the fusion of politics and films during the Sixties, Hoberman manages to make this overly discussed decade fresh and interesting again.

Filmgoers in Toronto will soon have a chance to listen to Hoberman's ideas and test them against the movies he writes about. In an inspired move, the Cinematheque Ontario has invited the critic for its summer lecture series and will screen many of the movies that frame his arguments, ranging from The Manchurian Candidate to Dr. Strangelove to The Wild Bunch.

Hoberman's book starts with John Kennedy and the mystique he inspired. Like his one-time pal Frank Sinatra, Kennedy embodied a sleek masculinity that excited the imagination. As Kennedy defined manhood, his wife, Jacqueline, who once dreamed of being an actress, became a pervasive emblem of feminine grace. Andy Warhol, whose career took off during the Kennedy era, shrewdly realized that the First Lady belonged in the same iconic realm as Marilyn Monroe and Elvis.

The Kennedy White House encouraged the production of films that would bolster their agenda, ranging from the pious biopic PT 109 to the more daring Seven Days In May, a parable warning of a coup by right-wing militarists. In a lighter vein, Kennedy's taste for James Bond novels helped ignite the secret-agent craze that flourished throughout the Sixties, from the sprightly adaptations of Ian Fleming's novels to the comic mishaps of Maxwell Smart. (During this period, the CIA aspired to Bond's cool killer instincts in their many attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro, although in the end they always bumbled like Smart.)

Even Kennedy's assassination had media tie-ins and spinoffs. After Kennedy was killed it became harder to enjoy the nifty 1962 Cold War thriller The Manchurian Candidate, starring Frank Sinatra in a story about a brain-washed presidential assassin. (John Frankenheimer, the director of The Manchurian Candidate, went on to witness a morbid sequel: he worked for Robert Kennedy's 1968 presidential candidate, before the late president's brother was himself assassinated). The defining film image of the 1960s was an accidental creation: Abraham Zapuder's 8 mm home movie that captured by happenstance a president being shot. With its jerky hand-held authenticity, the Zapuder film shaped our understanding of how visual technology can record the unexpected outbreak of chaos.

Kennedy's successors continued his romance with Hollywood. In prosecuting the Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson saw himself as a John Wayne figure, heroically defending the Alamo against the odds. (LBJ also hoped that the Duke's propaganda film The Green Berets would drum up support for the faltering war effort). To nerve himself up for the bombing of Cambodia and North Vietnam, Richard Nixon repeatedly screened his favourite film, Patton. While preparing to meet Nixon, the Chinese leader Zhou Enlai also got a hold of Patton, hoping the movie would help him understand the mind of the inscrutable occidental leader.

"The Hollywood blockbuster is something like the R&D of American politics and vice versa -- they are parallel activities," Hoberman argued in an earlier book. "Both politicians and producers seek to generate consensus by inventing images and fabricating scenarios that appeal to the greatest number of spectator/consumer."

In his account of the Sixties, Hoberman is unusually alert to the full ideological diversity of that decade. Too many books on the Sixties only focus on the New Left and the counterculture, without understanding that conservatives were very active as well. It was the decade of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan as well as Martin Luther King and Abbie Hoffman. Indeed, part of Hoberman's revisionist argument is documenting how the American right reinvented itself by absorbing the anti-establishment energies of the era. After Bonnie and Clyde rebelled against the strictures of society, Dirty Harry rebelled against the rules holding back the police.

The cultural revolution that Kennedy began was brought to fruition by a very different figure. "Ronald Reagan, master of the hyperreal, remaker of history, is Kennedy without tears, John Wayne without Vietnam, a plain-talking Norman Mailer, an affable Dirty Harry, the greatest of all Sixties Survivors," Hoberman contends. (He might have added that shortly before Reagan's death a true heir emerged: Arnold Schwarzenegger.) Fittingly enough, Schwarzenegger married into the Kennedy family, thereby completing the circle of celebrity politics.

Hoberman is unusually deft at drawing the linkage between politics and movies because he has a much wider intellectual range than most film critics. His mind has the hyperlink associative powers of an Internet search engine. All you have to do is mention the name of a movie and he can start listing off unexpected connections between it and the world of politics and high culture.

Before becoming a film critic for The Village Voice in 1977, Hoberman was an independent filmmaker very active in New York's avant-garde circles. His intellectual mentors were Manny Farber (a painter who dabbled in film criticism) and Siegfried Kracauer (a refugee from Nazi Germany fascinated by the political subtext of cinema).

Like Farber, Hoberman responds to the visual surface of films, the way they form part of our ambient environment. Like Kracauer, Hoberman is incessantly on the lookout for the hidden politics of popular culture. From both Farber and Kracauer, Hoberman learned that films cannot be examined in isolation but have to be linked up to the wider world. Engrossing and exciting, The Dream Life is a worthy testament to the intellectual tradition that formed Hoberman's approach to film criticism.

-- J. Hoberman will be introducing The Manchurian Candidate at Cinematheque Ontario tomorrow night at 6:30. For information about Cinematheque Ontario's program on films of the Sixties, go to www.e.bell.ca/filmfest/cinematheque/home.asp

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Okay, that gave me a grin! I misread, thusly, the National Post article Peter quoted;

The Kennedy family lived at the intersection between entertainment and politics, much to the indignation of newspaper stuffed-shirts who thought any contact with popular culture would besmirch the dignity of stagecraft.

At last, I thought, somebody's got it right!

Filmgoers in Toronto will soon have a chance to listen to Hoberman's ideas and test them against the movies he writes about. In an inspired move, the Cinematheque Ontario has invited the critic for its summer lecture series and will screen many of the movies that frame his arguments, ranging from The Manchurian Candidate to Dr. Strangelove to The Wild Bunch.

An inspired move, indeed! I wonder, does Pacific Cinemetheque ever bring in a guest lecturer like that? Wow.

The Kennedy White House encouraged the production of films that would bolster their agenda, ranging from the pious biopic PT 109...

Would that be a piopic?

Edited by Ron

I've posted a couple hundred of my Soul Food Movies write-ups at letterboxd

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