J. Hoberman

  • the presidential follies

    STEEPED IN CELEBRITY AND SEMIOTICS, book packages and product placement, has been a thoroughly postmodern coup d’etat. The investigation preceded the crime. The one who pulled the trigger was not a crazed loner but a star-struck groupie. The conspiracy was hidden in plain sight. The dog was wagged out.

    The Contract with America had become a contract on Bill Clinton. A cabal of right-wing plutocrats, well-connected literary hustlers, and political opportunists funded, sold, and promoted a scenario that—whatever objections newsreaders might have had—was far too entertaining for any of

  • the culture trust

    NOW THAT AMERICAN soldiers have learned to make love and not war, and the FBI has been humanized as its own public enemy, and a draft-dodging, pot-smoking, free-loving, TV-weaned ex-longhair approaches the second half of his second term, we understand that the personal truly is the political.

    Jim Bakker’s Christian theme park and Pat Robertson’s TV network notwithstanding, family values are a relative nonstarter in the super-marketplace of multiple lifestyles and consumption identities. At least compared to those of the old counterculture. You can find “free-love” pornotopia at just about any

  • Berlin Film Festival

    IT’S FASCINATING, TN A WAY, to witness the ambivalent triumphalism with which the metropolis of Berlin is merging its disparate halves into a millennial new German capital. As sleepy East Berlin neighborhoods are re-created as international art centers, and the muddy emptiness of Potsdamer Platz churned up into the world’s largest construction site, so too the white spaces of German history are filled in—not least by German films.

    Thus, at the last Berlin Film Festival, Wim Wenders’ Die Gebrüder Skladanowsky (The brothers Skladanowsky) established a Berlin pedigree for the invention of the motion

  • Box-Office Campaigns

    IT WAS A STIRRING vision of interplanetary danger in which America’s youthful president, a slick neo-lib waffler married to an intimidating warrior-woman, reversed his fallen approval ratings by taking a firm stand against the aliens: “Let’s nuke the bastards!”

    Can it be only six months ago that this cold latka—in which a bunch of hopped-up flyboys of varied ethnic persuasions made believe to join forces and decimate a horde of computer-and-latex extraterrestrial locusts—had all Terra in its thrall? The overlong, vaguely camp appreciation of blood and guts, God and country, ultimate sacrifice

  • Bob Dole’s War Story

    HADN’T WE SAID GOOD-BYE to the World War II generation with George Bush? Hadn’t D-Day turned 50? It’s been years since Time ran the commemorative cover “So long soldier” . . . and thanks for the memories. But suddenly, like the thing that will not die, it’s 72-year-old vet Bob Dole seeking one last mission as your president.

    As sumo wrestlers try to shove each other out of the ring, so Washington insiders Dole and Bill Clinton will bump and jostle for the presumed electoral center. Less a matter of party affiliation or ideology, their contest for possession of the national phallus can only be

  • the Remaking of the President

    THE POLITICAL QUESTION, as 1996 grew nigh, was this: Would the American electorate remember Bill Clinton as the last liberal—as a funny fat boy, a dysfunctional ditherer? Scarcely a month before the primary season began, the Louisville Courier had caricatured our president as Saturday Night Live’s Stuart Smalley, reassuring his mirrored reflection: “I’m good enough. I’m smart enough, and darn it, people like me.”

    Step one in the Clinton recovery had been The American President—a muy simpatico portrait of an affable, narrowly elected, pragmatically waffling baby-boom Democrat characterized by a

  • Lost Los Vegas

    IS IT JUST A COINCIDENCE that Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls, Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas, and Martin Scorsese’s Casino, three would-be down-and-dirty 1995 Hollywood tributes to lost Vegas, all went into production at more or less the moment when, led by the refurbished MGM Grand Hotel, America’s fastest-growing metropolis began promoting itself as the new Orlando? Lost Vegas became Vegasland, a wholesome middle-American theme-park resort or, as Nick Tosches calls it in his intro to the recently published, elegiac anthology Literary Las Vegas, “a corporate-run nightmare draped in the cotton candy

  • a New Contract with America

    BY THE TIME A JURY of his peers declared O.J. Simpson not guilty last month, his long-running “first”(?) trial had cost California taxpayers upwards of $8.3 million while generating programming so astonishingly popular it supported several cable channels for most of 1995. The afternoon soaps, meanwhile, lost more than a million households since the beginning of the trial.

    Talk about your state-subsidized art. More than a trial-of-the-century event or a sociosemiotic sign fest, the O.J . show was a cultural dynamo—spinning off all manner of new stars, celebs, and entrepreneurs, not to mention a

  • J. Hoberman

    PAID PARADISE

    Atom Egoyan’s EXOTICA unfolds in several sites at once—most spectacularly in the eponymous table-dance emporium. The main attraction in this mock harem of Roman pillars and potted palms is the enigmatic Christina—lithe, solemn, and dressed in a schoolgirl’s uniform—who wanders out under the blue lights and breaks into a slow-motion, spastic performance, raising her tartan skirt and gyrating to Leonard Cohen’s sepulchral drone. This ceremonial performance informs a series of repeated set pieces, connected by dreamy sound bridges and interspersed with flashbacks. The narrative inches

  • Talk Radio

    BEFORE THERE WAS CYBERSPACE, there was the logosphere—as Gaston Bachelard dubbed the world-enveloping “ionized layer” of the babble transmitted on the radio. For the early century’s avant-garde, radio promised a new common language, a unified consciousness, Whitman’s Body Electric: it was the “immensification of space. . . . No longer visible and framable the stage becomes universal and cosmic” (F. T. Marinetti). If it were possible to broadcast music, some reasoned, why not refined sensations of taste? “People will drink water and think they are drinking wine” (Velimir Khlebnikov).

    As sound,

  • the Election Season

    THE DELIGHTFUL TRUISM that sign supersedes that which is signified, and, consequently, that image rules in America, received additional support during the unusually self-conscious midterm election. This time around, the most popular political special-effect was the morph that transformed Democratic congressional candidates, despite their best efforts, into a sinister image of President Bill Clinton. Late ’94 was a political season when the likelihood of the comprehensive national medical plan that was to be the Clinton administration’s chef d’oeuvre vanished even as NBC’s high-powered hospital

  • FILM

    RICHARD FLOOD

    High Travoltage

    Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs was a perfect little movie. It aspired to nothing that it didn’t do, brilliantly. Tarantino knew how to keep the camera moving while the actors tossed their lines like they were grenades: he fast-forwarded the gangster genre way past the previous innovations of Brian DePalma and Martin Scorsese. Reservoir Dogs was wildly funny, unremittingly brutal, and heroically human. It also knew how to stay small while trying out some big ideas.

    Pulp Fiction is an imperfect big movie. But imperfection has seldom felt so liberatingly giddy. The

  • Catch-22 Redux

    ACCORDING TO THE MAD bureaucratic premise of Joseph Heller’s World War II novel Catch-22, a bomber pilot—such as the book’s antihero, John Yossarian—might be relieved from active duty by claiming insanity, were it not for the fact that the attempt to avoid further missions itself proved the pilot’s sanity.

    Part theater of the absurd, part Phil Silvers sitcom, Catch-22 added a concept to the American vernacular and a word to the dictionary: “a difficult situation or problem whose seemingly alternative solutions are logically invalid.” Scarcely a week goes by when the phrase is not invoked by

  • the Summer of '69

    “THERE WAS A MELANCHOLY to the end of a century,” Norman Mailer sighed in his paean to the space race, Of a Fire on the Moon. “The French, who were the first to specify a state for every emotion, would speak of the fin de siècle. It was the only name to give his own mood, for Aquarius [as Mailer was calling himself] was in a depression which would not lift for the rest of the summer, a curious depression full of fevers, forebodings, and a general sense that the century was done—it had ended in the summer of 1969.” Yes, with a portrait of Aquarius on the cover of Life magazine.

    For those going

  • Jawsn

    INHUMAN, UNSLEEPING, omnivorous, a machine triggered by the scent of blood. . . . It was with Jaws that the culture industry truly began to contemplate itself.

    Twenty years ago this month, a week before Steven Spielberg’s movie went into production on Martha’s Vineyard using three mechanical sharks—collectively nicknamed “Bruce”—powered with pneumatic engines and launchable by a 65-foot catapult, The New York Times Magazine ran a detailed analysis of “the making of a best-seller.” The article tracked the development of the novel Jaws, from Peter Benchley’s initial one-page outline

  • Marilyn Monroe

    MARILYN MONROE, OUR FAVORITE goddess, was born to bridge the gap between life and death, innocence and experience, high culture and low. This fall alone, while the New York Opera was celebrating its golden anniversary with the world premiere of an opera based on her last day, the USA cable-TV network was screening yet another scurrilous docudrama, Marilyn and Bobby: Her Final Affair. Just business as usual: Monroe’s image graced the first issue of Playboy (December 1953) even as Willem de Kooning was painting his own Marilyn, 1954.

    This year, devotees can celebrate the 40th anniversary of Marilyn’s

  • the Dallas/Houston Complex

    Issued a dogtag (hey neat) on entering kindergarten, I always assumed the Bomb would fall during the school day. For years, each time a teacher was interrupted by the ominous cracking of the public address system, I routinely wondered—was this It? And so, when the disembodied voice of a high-school principal disrupted geometry to announce that the president had been shot, I experienced a thrill of vindicated relief. The catastrophe had happened—or, at least, a version of it—yet I was still alive!

    OK, I admit it. I wonder if the many commemorations of the 30th anniversary of the day I learned the

  • SOCIAL REALISM FROM STALIN TO SOTS

    Scientific socialism is the most religious of all religions.

    —Anatoli Lunacharsky, 1907

    The proletariat keeps away from those gloomy and tedious personalities who fear laughter, joking, gaiety, and joie de vivre. For the beauty of Socialist art is the beauty of the fight which millions and again millions are waging under the leadership of the genius Stalin. It is a strong and heroic beauty which pictures the stormy course of events, yet does not sweep the artist away, but uplifts his ideas and brings strength to his arm and courage to his heart.

    —Sergei Dinamov, 1937

    THE BEAUTY (or is it the

  • Bill Clinton

    FAIRYTALES CAN COME TRUE, it can happen to you. . . . But maybe not exactly the way you’d wish. Ever since 1972, if not before, a substantial chunk of the American population has been waiting for the ’60s revival. Now, as presaged by Madonna’s “hippie look” emblazoned on Vogue’s October cover, and by Spike Lee’s simultaneous placement of Malcolm’s X on half the baseball caps in America, that moment is finally upon us—albeit in the affable, overweight person of President Bill Clinton, the Baby Boomer voted most likely to succeed.

    Talkin’ ’bout his generation: “It’s awesome to see somebody who

  • Presidents' Precedents

    THE PRESIDENT WHO WON the Cold War’s last campaign is falling over backward to identify himself with the president who won the Cold War’s first. Is this what was meant by the “end of history”? Or is it only trickle-up post-Modernism?

    As the Republican convention opened, George Bush let it be known that he was reading David McCullough’s just-published bestseller Truman, a book so openly schlepped by operatives of both parties that it has since become the election’s I Ching. “Bush in a Truman Mode,” the New York Times reported on the eve of the president’s acceptance speech; Harry Truman was now