The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2019

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JUL-AUG 2019 Issue

The Long Morning: J. Hoberman’s Make My Day

In his latest book, Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan, the film critic J. Hoberman quotes himself, writing for the Village Voice in the fall of 1980: “Intermittently since Elvis Presley, we’ve been titillated by the vision of a demagogic pop star running for president. When it finally does happen—albeit in the form of a sixty-nine-year-old Hollywood has-been with a cast-iron pompadour—the interesting thing is the media’s blasé attitude. But why shouldn’t they take Reagan for granted? Isn’t the nightly news one more kind of entertainment? And aren’t polls just another form of ratings?”

Hoberman, whose 30-year tenure as a staff writer at the Village Voice cemented his status as a latter-day legend of American film criticism, conceived of Make My Day as the final installment in a trilogy he calls “Found Illusions”—the historical project he embarked upon with The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties (2003) and further developed in An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War (2011). Turning now to the long 1980s, Hoberman defines “the Age of Reagan” as an “entrancing period of American self-absorption and patriotic solipsism,” and tracks the ascendency of what he terms the “Hollywood Freedom Fighter”: an archetype which would become inextricably entangled with the moral topography of Reagan and his presidency.

Make My Day unfurls as a richly narrated timeline in which the passage of months and years is marked by the inception, arrival, and aftermath of totemic “Movie Events.” The text is structured around straightforward accounts of production histories, interspersed with fragments of the peripheral discourse: magazine profiles, filmmaker interviews, and, extensively, contemporaneous critical readings by the likes of Pauline Kael, Vincent Canby, Andrew Sarris, and others. These details appear alongside pointedly resonant summaries of concurrent events taking place on the national and international stages: assassination attempts, invasions, congressional hearings, and presidential campaign drama are all refracted through the apparatus of a grand, unified cultural narrative. Throughout, we are treated to Hoberman’s virtuosically lucid syntheses, delineating how key movies can be read as texts of a distinctly “Reaganite” culture. Drawing heavily on the work of “psychohistorian” Lloyd deMause, Hoberman identifies audiovisual media in general, and the Hollywood film in particular, as the privileged repository for collective symbolic expressions that capture a moment in history: “Call it a political unconscious, a social imaginary, or simply America’s dream life—the place where, as Greek tragedies addressed the Athenian polity’s primal conflicts, Hollywood scenarios and movie stars articulated the public’s inchoate yearnings.” In turn, the substance of Hoberman’s analysis coheres around sweeping, categorical pronouncements that are rendered convincing by the contextual evidence he marshalls: Raiders of the Lost Ark was “the first real Reagan movie,” and Risky Business represents “a paean to yuppie self-actualization” in which “the imperatives of the marketplace effectively blunted the movie’s critical edge [and] tilted it toward sociological propaganda.”

Hoberman’s narrative barrels along at a lively pace, starting with American Graffiti (1973), framed as a harbinger for, and a prototype of, the kind of pastiche-driven, sanitized, selectively prepackaged nostalgia that would characterize the country’s dominant social, cultural, and economic ideologies over the next decade and a half. The first 100 pages are devoted to the latter half of the 1970s (Nashville, Jaws, Taxi Driver), setting the stage for Reagan’s 1980 election; from that point onward, each chapter is constructed as a cross-section of the national zeitgeist over a two-year period, a historical analysis of entertainment spanning Reagan’s first term in office (The King of Comedy, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Ghostbusters) and his second term (Back to the Future, The Terminator, Top Gun).

Hoberman maps the contours of pop-cultural history onto a constellation of astral personalities. Reagan is front and center, flanked most notably by Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Sylvester Stallone, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Hoberman elegantly parses the ways in which these stars became conflated with their iconic characters, their signature psychological archetypes, and the mythological systems that undergird their creations (which, in the case of Close Encounters, E.T., and Star Wars, are shown to amount to a quasi-religious ethos). Pride of place is afforded to the insights of a handful of the era’s prominent critics, as well as to those of a younger, on-the-scene Hoberman. (The book doubles as a kind of professional memoir or scrapbook, with several of Hoberman’s original Village Voice reviews and editorials reproduced in their entirety.)

It will come as no surprise to Hoberman’s readers that his own politics are starkly opposed to those championed by the Reagan administration—a fact which is vibrantly on display in the excerpts he includes—and in his preface, he is quick to identify “the villainous Ronald Reagan” as the “protagonist” of his postwar “Found Illusions” trilogy. Yet, Hoberman’s Reagan is of a piece with the never-quite-scrutable, ambiguously moral, enigmatically ambivalent antiheroes that we now associate with the 21st century mode of “prestige” cable TV drama (i.e., Don Draper, Tony Soprano, etc.).

This complicating effect is one result of Hoberman’s sustained interest in the formation of Reagan’s persona: his past movie stardom and his emergence as a political celebrity. Equally important to Hoberman’s narrative is Reagan’s status as a spectator, both of current events (as depicted, often with startling intimacy, in selected passages from his diaries) and of the movies. Hoberman pays careful attention to the President’s movie-watching habits, noting which films Ron and Nancy screened at Camp David and the White House in the days before and after his administration’s various significant episodes.

Conceptually, the book rests on 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 can be assumed to capture the collective imagination or reflect the zeitgeist in the same way that a President can be seen as a manifestation of the majority’s desires. (In his introduction, Hoberman draws this connection explicitly: “Politicians within a democracy and the makers of mass culture share a common mission, namely to project scenarios that will attract the largest possible audience—or perhaps, using a word derived from the Latin ‘hold together,’ entertain them.”) This guiding principle determines one of the book’s self-imposed constraints: there is relatively little space dedicated to tracing the stylistic trends and thematic upheavals taking place “on the margins,” in the arena of American independent cinema. Even within the foregrounded context of the major studio infrastructure, some unassailable successful products of studio-backed “high concept” filmmaking—most notably Flashdance, the third-highest grossing movie of 1983, and a turning point in the MTV-ification of Eighties film aesthetics—are all but ignored.

Likewise, Hoberman does not attend to the ways in which Hollywood self-consciously deployed its highest-profile properties to symbolically position itself at the center of this period’s big-business, small-government political ecosystem. For a book that has a lot to say about the affective use-value of anti-Communist political rhetoric, Make My Day seldom interrogates the avidly capitalist underpinnings of the entertainment industry itself, beyond the potent observation that “Hollywood was founded on the proposition that scenarios that are naturally hegemonic and usually reassuring will appeal to the largest possible audience.”

Taking the latter point as axiomatic, Hoberman makes the case that Reagan’s wildly popular brand of curated, consumer-friendly nostalgia was uniquely suited to an unprecedented convergence of politics, mediated fantasy, and free-market forces: “In [Reagan’s] rhetoric and scenarios, as in the films of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg and the fictional character Rocky, America’s lost illusions were found, dusted off and deployed one last time. Reagan provided the nation with a new collective memory and a new representation—as well as a representative—of the national past. He was JFK Resurrected, the Duke without Nam, a cross between Dirty Harry and Indiana Jones, the Last of the Cowboys.” Indeed, Hoberman’s 1980 assessment in Village Voice anticipates the pop-political media entanglements not only of Reagan’s imminent presidency, but—even more aptly—of Trump’s: “In a totalitarian state, entertainment is an obvious function of politics. But in the American mediacracy, where TV has hopelessly blurred the distinction between art and life, private and public, great and petty, it would seem that the reverse is closer to the truth.”


Madeline Whittle

MADELINE WHITTLE is a film writer and translator based in New York. She works in film programming at Film at Lincoln Center and as a regular contributor to Film Comment magazine.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2019

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