J. Hoberman

  • “The Radical Camera”

    PART OF OUR TIME? Herewith “some ruins and monuments of the thirties” that Murray Kempton’s book overlooked: “The Radical Camera,” a survey of the work of New York’s Photo League, a socially minded artists’ collective that was born in the New Deal and expired during the Cold War, explores two not unrelated historical artifacts. The first we might call People’s NYC, the streets and tenements of Depression-era Manhattan’s prole picturesque neighborhoods (Harlem, the Lower East Side, Little Italy) and playgrounds (Times Square, Coney Island); the second is a particular mentalité, a belief that

  • Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film

    Who would seriously contend that the collection of intersecting lines above the text is a pipe?

    —Michel Foucault, “This Is Not a Pipe” (1968)

    THIS IS NOT A FILM certainly is one—but, as Samuel Beckett, or Abbott and Costello, might say, “Watt is Knott?”

    Few presentations at Cannes last May were less ostentatious and no event, not even the expulsion of Lars von Trier, was more dramatic than the appearance of Jafar Panahi’s first-person essay, a home movie produced under house arrest by a filmmaker sentenced to six years in prison and banned for twenty from making films (and giving

  • Aleksandr Andriyevsky’s Robinzon Kruzo

    WAS ONCE, LONG LONG TIME AGO, great big Cold War joke—Russian claim to have invented lightbulb, radio transmitter, and even TV set. Also, to have developed feature-length 3-D movies shown without special glasses—which, in fact, they did!

    The Soviets won that virtual space race by five years. The first postwar stereovision fiction feature was neither House of Wax (1953) nor Bwana Devil (1952) but rather the 1947 Soviet production Robinzon Kruzo, adapted from Daniel Defoe’s classic. And thanks to the lenticular screen developed by engineer Semyon Ivanov, no glasses were needed to experience


    Ten scholars, critics, writers, and artists choose the year’s outstanding titles.


    Imagine that you are listening to a spirited conversation between a French art historian and a German painter. De Rouget and Daimler, as they are called, are at lunch on a recent October Sunday near Pontarlier. It is where Degas vacationed briefly in 1904 and where absinthe is made. In Il était plus grand que nous ne pensions: Édouard Manet et Degas (Paris: Nouvelles Éditions Scala/Collection Ateliers Imaginaires), Éric Darragon, author of a subtle biography of Manet and writings on contemporary German

  • Jack Smith’s posthumous career

    AMONG THE MANY EVOCATIVE ELEMENTS to be found in “Thanks for Explaining Me,” the recent exhibition at Gladstone Gallery in New York devoted to the work of Jack Smith (1932–1989), was the unmistakable sound of the artist’s voice, at once somnolent and hysterical. Even before one had fully entered the show, Smith could be heard loudly complaining about art-world corruption.

    Smith was famous long ago for his scandalous 1963 film Flaming Creatures, and like an insanely protective parent, he took steps to ensure that none of his subsequent work would ever leave the nest. Thus, as positioned by curator

  • Avant la Letterman

    THE FIRST DOZEN YEARS of American network television hardly lacked for lowbrow brilliance—Lucille Ball, Burns and Allen, Jackie Gleason, Sid Caesar, Phil Silvers, the cast of Car 54, Where Are You?, to name only those performers whose product has enjoyed the hardiest shelf life. Their comedy had its roots in radio, vaudeville and burlesque, Hollywood and the Catskills—and then there was Ernie Kovacs (1919–1962), a comic for whom TV created its own reality.

    Kovacs was purely televisual. Though he served his apprenticeship in radio and stock theater, his work was essentially connected to


    The communication system of the twentieth century is, in a special sense, Pop Art’s subject.

    —Lawrence Alloway,

    “Popular Culture and Pop Art” (1969)


    There was always in twentieth-century cinema an implicit promise of inclusion: the sense that the same movies might hold both the mass audience and the avant-garde cognoscenti spellbound, if not always at the same time.¹

    For some, mainly European, early filmmakers, the motion picture was a medium; for others, mostly American, the motion picture was a mass medium—the mass medium. The latter filmmakers, including

  • Norman Rockwell

    THE ILLUSTRATOR Norman Rockwell’s rehabilitation as a painter can be dated to the fin de siècle retrospective that originated at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art in November 1999 and toured the US (Chicago; Washington, DC; San Diego; Phoenix; and the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts) for two years before triumphantly occupying the grand ramp of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York only weeks after the trauma of September 11, 2001.

    Never had cultural comfort food been more welcome. The market responded accordingly (as did the New York Times, which tied its own coverage of

  • Manoel de Oliveira’s The Strange Case of Angelica

    THE MOST EXISTENTIAL OF FILMMAKERS, Manoel de Oliveira has, for decades now, been making every movie as though it were his last. The Strange Case of Angelica, which the 101-year-old Portuguese director premiered last May in Cannes, is one more unique sign-off—drily comic, intentionally stilted, deliberate yet digressive, at once avant-garde and retro.

    An amateur who made a silent documentary, Working on the River Douro, in 1931, then spent decades running his father’s lighting-fixture factory—as well as racing cars—and who managed to make only two features before 1970, Oliveira is


    “I predict that all movies will be animated or computer-generated within 15 years.”

    —Bruce Goldstein, “Flashback: The Year in Movies,” Village Voice, Dec. 28, 1999

    “It is in the nature of analogical worlds to provoke a yearning for the past. . . . The digital will wants to change the world.”

    —D. N. Rodowick, The Virtual Life of Film (2007)


    Can we speak of a twenty-first-century cinema? If so, on what basis?

    Writing in the aftermath of World War II, French film theorist André Bazin characterized cinema making as an essentially irrational enterprise—namely,

  • film November 07, 2008

    On the Road Again

    “NEVER HAVE I experienced so much in one week as here. I feel as if I’m in a film.” So wrote the young Robert Frank to his parents soon after his arrival in the United States in 1947. The Swiss-born Frank is far better known (and vastly more influential) as a photographer than as a filmmaker, but it is arguable that film is more central to his aesthetic project.

    One might even think of Frank’s first photography collection, The Americans (1958), as the prototypical road movie—a journey through America’s vernacular landscape. Frank’s mid-’50s trip to the Strip realm of billboards, drive-ins, and

  • Robert Frank

    “NEVER HAVE I experienced so much in one week as here. I feel as if I’m in a film.” So wrote the young Robert Frank to his parents soon after his arrival in the United States in 1947. The Swiss-born Frank is far better known (and vastly more influential) as a photographer than as a filmmaker, but it is arguable that film is more central to his aesthetic project.

    Steidl’s ambitious three-year plan to publish the complete Frank oeuvre—books, projects, movies—includes the release of nine multi-DVD volumes of his film and video work, as well as a half-dozen tomes in which the artist recycled material


    Anticipated by the German Expressionists, discovered by French aesthetes, beloved by American film scholars, the atmospheric crime stories, paranoid policiers, and hard-boiled detective yarns known as film noir constitute the most stylized, self-consciously artistic tendency in Hollywood history. Compositions in convoluted flashback, tough-guy slang, and precisely adjusted venetian blinds—only bebop, which also developed during World War II, could claim to be a richer form of American avant-pop.

    Noir is its own place, but it belongs to Los Angeles; it is a dark shadow cast by the radiant

  • Watkins’s Edvard Munch

    PETER WATKINS AND Edvard Munch: two singular, intractable, often misunderstood artistic personalities, each enjoying a revival and both bound together by Watkins’s personality-melding biopic. Newly released on DVD to coincide with Munch’s current retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Edvard Munch (1973) is an essay with actors that has the form and tropes of a documentary film: direct address, contrapuntal voice-over, casual framing, vérité zooms. Nearly three hours in length, the movie is densely edited and largely achronological. The dramatic scenes are fragmentary—often a

  • Carlos Reygadas

    MADE FORTY YEARS ago, Andy Warhol talkies like Vinyl and Beauty #2 remain the reductio ad absurdum of behavioral direction, a technique that requires nonactors to cope, with negligible instruction, while the camera grinds relentlessly on until it runs out of film.

    Orchestrating a Warhol is never easy, but ambitious directors have intermittently experimented with this form of situational performance. Lars von Trier’s The Idiots (1998) and Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten (2002), for example, are each predicated on a setup designed to cue on-camera improvisation. And the thirty-four-year-old Mexican filmmaker


    In Chinese society today there are a lot of moments where what’s going on could be called a show.

    —Jia Zhangke, interview with Valerie Jaffee, in Senses of Cinema, July–Sept. 2004

    Milieu is everything in the assured, almost ethnographic work of Jia Zhangke, and with The World, China’s leading independent filmmaker—make that China’s leading filmmaker—emerges from the underground only to enter an officially sanctioned virtual reality. Coproduced by the state-run Shanghai Film Studio, Jia’s latest movie (which made its US debut last October at the New York Film Festival and arrives in theaters this

  • “Chaplin in Pictures”

    Charlie Chaplin was once the most popular man on earth, the personification of modern times, icon of the twentieth century, and Christ’s rival as the best-known person who ever lived. Taking its cue from “Charlot,” the French appellation for Chaplin’s Little Tramp, this show proposes to analyze two myths—Chaplin the man and Charlot the image. Spanning over seventy years, some three hundred photographs, press clippings, production notes, posters, and artifacts from the Chaplin archives are complemented by screenings of home movies, newsreels, and

  • Ernie Gehr

    BEST KNOWN FOR his single-minded, dynamic minimalism, Ernie Gehr has also been the American avant-garde filmmaker most devoted to exploring the “intensification of nervous stimulation” that pioneer sociologist Georg Simmel identified with urban life. Gehr’s oeuvre is a tale of three cities: San Francisco (his home for the last fifteen years), Berlin (which his parents fled before his birth in 1943), and New York (where he emerged as a leading structural filmmaker in the late ’60s). It is the latter that Gehr chose to revisit on the occasion of the Museum of Modern Art’s reopening last November,

  • J. Hoberman on Godard’s Notre Musique and war films

    LIKE MUCH IN contemporary Hollywood movies, the current model combat film was developed by Steven Spielberg. Saving Private Ryan (1998) provided a total immersion in state-of-the-art virtual carnage—the opening D-day landing is the most impressive demonstration of cinematic virtuosity of Spielberg’s career—while conspicuously failing to provide any historical context. Representing World War II but thinking Vietnam, Saving Private Ryan proposed the army’s band of brothers (rather than, say, the Nation or some abstract ideal or even the nature of the enemy) as war’s ultimate source of moral

  • Shooting Kennedy

    IN LATE 1960, a young artist named James Rosenquist juxtaposed a head shot lifted from a campaign poster with shards from glossy magazine ads for a packaged cake mix and a 1949 Chevy. Equating voters with consumers, Rosenquist called his painting President Elect. Thus, John F. Kennedy entered the White House already an object of marketable fantasy, America’s new First Trademark and icon-in-chief.

    Art historian David M. Lubin’s Shooting Kennedy vastly elaborates the Rosenquist technique, allowing JFK—and consort Jacqueline—to hobnob with a promiscuous assortment of fellow images. Lubin locates