J. Hoberman

  • “Revolution of the Eye: Modern Art and the Birth of American Television”

    Kennedy-era FCC chairman Newton Minow wasn’t referencing T. S. Eliot when he called commercial television a “vast wasteland”—or was he? The mixed-media exhibition (and accompanying catalogue) “Revolution of the Eye” argues that, particularly in its formative years, network TV was a modernist form. The show draws on some 260 art objects, artifacts, and clips from the late 1940s through the mid-’70s; artists range from ex-Dadaists (Duchamp, Man Ray) and Pop stars (Lichtenstein, Warhol) to the great vulgar modernist Ernie Kovacs, with guest appearances by Dalí and de


    The myths that actually touched you at that time—not Hercules, Orpheus,

    Ulysses, and Aeneas—but Superman, Captain Marvel, Batman . . .

    —Tom Wolfe imagining Ken Kesey’s boyhood in post–World War II

    America, in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968)

    Camp was really being mass-marketed—everyone was in on the joke now.

    —Andy Warhol on the TV show Batman, in POPism: The Warhol ’60s (1980)

    BUT WHAT WAS THE JOKE? And who was the Joker?

    Loved and loathed beyond measure, the televised Batman (ABC, 1966–68) arrived sufficiently late in the day to recognize itself as a manufactured

  • Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice

    IT IS OBVIOUS BY NOW that Paul Thomas Anderson isn’t making individual movies so much as building an oeuvre block by block—the sturdiest, most resilient body of work by a big-time American director since Stanley Kubrick died and Martin Scorsese ran out of steam.

    Big, ambitious, and American are the operative words. Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999) were sprawling ensemble pieces that challenged Scorsese and Robert Altman on their own turf; in their concern with self-invented American Übermenschen and up-front eccentricity, There Will Be Blood (2007) and The Master (2012) engaged Orson

  • J. Hoberman

    1 GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE (Jean-Luc Godard) J-LG’s first 3-D movie bids farewell to one language and invents another, which is pretty much what this transcendent film artist has been doing for more than half a century.

    2 INHERENT VICE (Paul Thomas Anderson) If not as brilliantly unpredictable as The Master, Anderson’s mind-melding adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s ’70s noir parody is still a remarkable follow-up. What other American writer-director’s movies are simultaneous contributions to American film culture and literature?

    3 IDA (Paweł Pawlikowski) Or, “The Jewish Nun.” Returning to his native


    Silent film was not ripe for replacement. It had not lost its fruitfulness, but only its profitability.

    —Rudolf Arnheim, “The Sad Future of Film” (1930)1

    THE DOORS OF EDEN BANGED SHUT. Even so, during the summer of 1929, facing the clamorous inevitability of the talking picture and only months before the crash that would announce the Great Depression, a handful of filmmakers sought refuge in the “natural world” of the soundless movie.

    And so silent cinema ended with two last visits to paradise, made at more or less the same time, their crews going on location to document their human subjects

  • the films of Sigmar Polke

    GREAT FILM INSTALLATIONS—Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho, 1993, say, or Christian Marclay’s The Clock, 2010—use the fact of motion pictures to hypostatize time. Lesser ones raise questions about narrative and intention. The 16-mm films and extended segments of 16-mm footage incorporated into the Museum of Modern Art’s current retrospective of Sigmar Polke’s work do both.

    Not that they were ever intended to bear as much weight—or scrutiny—as the spectacular orchestrations of images cited above. Did an erudite, fecund trickster like Polke ever mean for any of his footage to

  • Michael Snow

    A HUMBLE, RELENTLESS, more or less continuous zoom shot taking forty-five minutes to traverse a Canal Street loft into a photograph pasted on the far wall, Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967) provided twentieth-century cinema with a definitive metaphor for itself as temporal projection—and also burdened Snow with an unrepeatable masterpiece.

    That the artist has a reputation as a painter, a sculptor, a musician, a video maker, and, mainly, a filmmaker gives “Michael Snow: Photo-Centric” a polemical thrust. At the very least, this highly concentrated exhibition supports the Bazinian assertion

  • Jean-Luc Godard’s cinema of coming attractions

    “GUIDING . . . THE SPECTATOR into a desired direction (or a desired mood)” was, for the young Sergei Eisenstein, “the main task of every functional theater.” Or, as Variety declared in a 1994 article on the efficacy of the little movie ads known as coming attractions: “TRUTH ABOUT TRAILERS: THEY WORK.”

    Eisenstein’s montage of attractions, Tom Gunning’s cinema of attractions, Jean-Luc Godard’s coming attractions: The attraction, Eisenstein wrote in 1923, shortly before he would make his first feature film, Strike, is “every element that can be verified and mathematically calculated to produce

  • J. Hoberman

    1 GRAVITY (Alfonso Cuarón) Project it upside down or inside out. Cuarón’s 3-D thriller is blockbuster modernism in the tradition of Intolerance, Napoléon, Olympia, The Birds, and, of course, 2001. “Sort of the human condition,” an artist I know said. I imagine Gravity as a thought balloon in the minds of the people in James Nares’s monument to earthbound evanescence, Street (2011).

    2 “HANNAH ARENDT” Not the Margarethe von Trotta movie or the actual person but Brooklyn-based Barbara Sukowa, who plays the moral philosopher as a feisty, furious living doll.


  • Sophie Fiennes’s Pervert’s Guide to Ideology

    WHEN ANALYZING MOVIES, Slavoj Žižek generally employs the term ideology in the vulgar Marxist sense of a comforting falsehood and uses pervert to mean one who is a counterintuitive thinker. What, then, is the ideology underlying The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology—the second film essay that British filmmaker Sophie Fiennes has made in collaboration with the voluble and prolific Slovenian philosopher—and how is it twisted?

    The Guide begins by sampling John Carpenter’s 1988 They Live, a movie that posited the Reagan Revolution as a virus from outer space. (Žižek calls the film “one of the


    He called his work “Zeitkunst” (Time Art), directing it not to the audience’s

    perception but to their memory of what was perceived.

    —David Polonoff, “The Nether World’s a Stage,” East Village Eye

    All I remember was he performed in the dark with a suitcase on his lap.

    Opened it, shut it, and the next thing I knew the lights were back on.

    —Michael Smith, e-mail to the author

    I REMEMBER RALSTON FARINA. Or rather, I remember being aware of the name Ralston Farina back in the mid-1970s, in the context of work that was not yet called performance but was something newer and funkier than

  • Penny Lane’s Our Nixon

    AMERICA’S ONGOING FASCINATION with the 1960s is in no small part due to the three Shakespearean characters who successively presided during that era: JFK, LBJ, and, strangest of all, Richard M. Nixon.

    For all the sentimental, bipartisan bushwa occasioned by Nixon’s death in 1994, the greatest vote getter in Republican history is a political orphan; the lone US president to resign his office, Nixon has long since been disowned by the party that three times nominated him. Indeed, contemporary Republican politicians have seldom missed an opportunity to socialize his disgrace, regularly equating


    Some artists see an infinite number of movies. . . .

    —Robert Smithson, “Entropy and the New Monu­ments,” Artforum, June 1966

    THE ATOMIC WAR of October 1962 had been averted. There was a heady moment—presaged by the New York World’s Fair that opened in the spring of 1964 and heralded by the appearance of Roy Lichtenstein’s drawing Great Rings of Saturn!! on the cover of Art in America that April: Pop Art merged with Science Fiction, and the Future was Now.

    This was not necessarily perceived as a Bad Thing. The celluloid harbinger of the Now Futurism was Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red

  • Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s Leviathan

    THERE’S NO DENYING the power of Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s splashy shock expressionism. Leviathan—or Leviathan, as it appears, white on black, in the movie’s titles—is not only named for the biblical sea monster; this account of commercial fishing in the North Atlantic is itself something of a prodigy. The forbidding Gothic typeface is part of the meaning, as if to ask, What hath God wrought?

    Castaing-Taylor and Paravel come out of ethnographic film (he is codirector of Harvard’s Film Study Center and perhaps best known for the 2009 sheepherding documentary Sweetgrass

  • Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills

    BEYOND THE HILLS, Cristian Mungiu’s new film, is in some ways the quintessential expression of the Romanian New Wave that broke at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival with the international premiere of Cristi Puiu’s Death of Mr. Lazarescu and reached its high-water mark two years later with Mungiu’s Palm d’Or–winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.

    Like 4 Months, Beyond the Hills dramatizes the predicament of two young women living under patriarchal law, in a manner that is part suspense thriller, part ordeal, and part procedural. (The procedures are weirdly analogous: an abortion in 4 Months, an exorcism

  • Garry Winogrand

    “It has been forty-six years since Garry Winogrand (1928–1984), America’s preeminent photographer of the social landscape, erupted out of moma’s epochal “New Documents” show.”

    It has been forty-six years since Garry Winogrand (1928–1984), America’s preeminent photographer of the social landscape, erupted out of moma’s epochal “New Documents” show. Winogrand’s métier was the urban ensemble, and no photographer had a better instinct for the found arabesque. Though only a fraction of Winogrand’s work was published during his lifetime, now his colleague and friend the photog- rapher Leo Rubinfien (with the help of O’Toole from SF moma and Greenough from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC) has selected

  • J. Hoberman

    1 “Werner Schroeter” (Museum of Modern Art, New York) The late underground genius of the Neue Kino got a massive, massively deserved retrospective, complete with his early work in Super 8. Schroeter’s great period may have fallen between 1969 and 1973, but the radically pragmatic, wonderfully obsessive films he made in those few years more than suffice to put him in the pantheon. Reseeing his 1972 masterpiece, The Death of Maria Malibran, in a beautiful new 16-mm print was for me the year’s peak cinematic event.

    2 Almayer’s Folly (Chantal Akerman) and Tabu (Miguel Gomes) The year’s best imaginary

  • Miguel Gomes’s Tabu

    Every landscape is located nowhere.

    —Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

    AN UNPREPOSSESSING WHITE MAN—bearded, wearing a pith helmet, and identified as a “melancholic creature”—stands alone in the bush at the center of the screen. Where is he? Where are we? A woman materializes—a projection of the nowhere-man’s past. African tribesmen watch as the explorer stands by the riverbank and (offscreen) jumps in to be devoured (also offscreen) by crocodiles, so we’re told. Cut to a frenzy of tribal dancing possibly cribbed from a 1930s travelogue, followed by a nocturnal shot of a


    NOT THE CAMERA BUT THE PROJECTOR; not a representation but the thing itself, a ribbon of once-living stuff preserved in celluloid coursing along, flashing before our eyes: It was neither Muybridge’s 1879 motion studies nor the Lumière brothers’ 1895 actualités nor even Peter Kubelka’s imageless flicker film Arnulf Rainer (1960) that truly manifested the very essence of cinema but the film-object Mothlight, a three-minute-thirteen-second motion-picture collage assembled and printed by Stan Brakhage at more or less the moment this magazine came into being.

    Something like the Stone Age epitome of

  • Mad magazine’s early imitators

    The Sincerest Form of Parody, edited by John Benson. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2012. 208 pages. $25.

    WRITING A FEW YEARS BEFORE the advent of the counterculture, Marshall McLuhan recognized Mad magazine as a primer in dissidence: “The ten-year-old clutches his or her MAD (‘Build up your Ego with MAD’) in the same way that the Russian beatnik treasures an old [Elvis] Presley tape obtained from a G.I. broadcast.” However prescient, McLuhan was looking in the rearview mirror: The comic book that twenty-seven-year-old Harvey Kurtzman created and thirty-year-old William Gaines began publishing in the