J. Hoberman

  • 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

  • H. Ross Perot

    LAST FALL, WHEN IT WAS widely reported that nearly two-thirds of the nation’s eligible voters were dissatisfied with all the announced presidential contenders, candidate None-of-the Above began to morph from neo-Nazi David Duke to paleoconservative Pat Buchanan to crypto-Republican Paul Tsongas to inside-out-meister Jerry Brown to wind up in the unlikely form of billionaire supersalesman H. Ross Perot.

    Stung by a flurry of Republican attacks, frozen out by the media’s capricious boredom, the thin-skinned Texan withdrew from the race before he declared his candidacy. The last straw, one suspects,

  • JFK

    IF THE MONOGRAM “JFK” is the most contested signifier in American politics, it is because, among other things, President John F. Kennedy was the Democratic Party’s last viable icon.

    You won’t hear too many candidates this season evoking Lyndon Johnson or Jimmy Carter. But each presidential hopeful carries a piece of the JFK combination—Bill Clinton has his studly insouciance, the suspended Paul Tsongas represents his geographic base, Jerry Brown had his “youth” (now faded) and unusual religion. It’s George Bush, of course, who is the closest candidate in terms of class, breeding, and macho

  • Casablanca

    HAVING GOTTEN THROUGH the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor relatively unscathed, we can enjoy a bit more than three years before the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima. In the interim, there’s Casablanca.

    For Americans, Casablanca is World War II. Put in production a few months after the Japanese attack on Pearl, the movie is set days, perhaps hours, even moments, before it. “If it’s December 1941 in Casablanca, what time is it in New York?” wonders Humphrey Bogart’s ineffable Rick. “I bet they’re asleep in New York. I bet they’re asleep all over America.” Made with 20-20 hindsight—replete with

  • Theme Parks

    “IT'S BEEN SAID that this is an adult Disneyland,” the American manager of a bar outside our soon-to-be-abandoned Philippine naval station at Subic Bay wistfully told the New York Times. “Adult Disneyland” may be an oxymoron, but everybody knows what he meant: to call Subic Bay a “Disneyland” is merely to call it a paradise for Americans.

    Disneyland is the grand national metaphor—the concept that distills and compresses the past forty years of TV, suburbs, industrialized leisure, the rise of the Southern Rim, and the reign of Ronald Reagan. (Indeed, Disneyland was first a television show and only

  • Girls with Guns

    FORGET THE DEERHUNTER II, cancel China Beach, ditch Oliver Stone. The Vietnam War is history and its spectacular representations are obsolete—or reduced to a romantic backdrop as in Miss Saigon. The show’s over. Blame or credit those tough little B “operations” Urgent Fury—Grenada, 1983—and Just Cause—Panama, 1989—and the blitzkrieg extravaganza Desert Storm—the Gulf War, 1991.

    Six months after that techno-telewar hypnotized the public, we’re still pondering the experience. Where Vietnam produced a frenzy of alienation, Desert Storm inspired a kind of fascinated disassociating. The viewing

  • the Ugly American

    WHY IS IT THAT of all the adjectives that might have stuck to the proper noun “American,” “ugly” has been the most resilient? The phrase, which has something to do with how we see the rest of the world and thus how we imagine the rest of the world sees us, derives from a novel—or rather a polemic—on the subject of American diplomatic failure in Southeast Asia. Written by retired Navy captain William J. Lederer and Berkeley political-science professor Eugene Burdick, and published in late 1958, The Ugly American is today unread and out of print. It’s arguable, however, that no American fiction

  • Gangster Flicks

    WHETHER OR NOT The Godfather Part III arrives as promised on December 25, America’s Christmas present to itself, the past few months brought a well-remarked-upon season of gangster flicks, with no less than seven examples of the genre opening in New York—Dick Tracy, The Freshman, Goodfellas, Miller’s Crossing, King of New York, State of Grace, and The Krays—as well as the promise of more, including a portrait of Bugsy Siegel and an adaptation of the E. L. Doctorow best-seller Billy Bathgate. Do we have to ponder the source of the appeal? Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas and Peter Medak’s The Krays

  • the Potlatch Principle

    THE U.S. [IS] BECOMING the greatest dispenser of science-fiction entertainments,” remarks a character in Saul Bellow’s 1970 bestseller, Mr. Sammler’s Planet. The speaker, who is a physicist, is specifically thinking of the Apollo moon mission, not sci-fi per se. Still, conversant as we are with the realm of the spectacular, why be literal in our notions of “science fiction” or “entertainment”?

    The most other-directed of world powers, America has played to the grandstand at least since the end of World War II. It’s not just the space race and the missile race that were staged for an audience.

  • American Myths

    JUST LIKE THAT rascally J. R. Ewing to disappear now that we need him. Last spring, when the full dimensions of the savings-and-loan crisis were beginning to be known, the American telecommunity tuned away from the chicanery of the greedy superrich. Now, we were beguiled by the antics of the wacky middle class—America’s Funniest Home Videos, Twin Peaks. The Simpsons in particular made the marketplace quiver. This cynical animated sitcom was more than a new TV show: an estimated 90 percent of the world’s licensed goods are based on images originating in the United States, and The Simpsons

  • American Myths

    RETRACT OUR NUCLEAR UMBRELLA and the U.S.A. stands revealed as a gadget-addicted, debt-ridden purveyor of guns, movies, and cigarettes—the stuff that dreams ore mode of, or stardom. Nobody wants U.S. steel, but a billion people watch the Oscar telecast. Our icons still emblazon the world’s T-shirts: Marilyn, Elvis, Rambo . . . New York?

    Cultural capital shifts at the end of a war, and in the aftermath of the big cold one, one might well wonder whether New York is still that undisputed “world city” Le Corbusier detected in the late 1930s. Certainly the mysterious boom that followed the economic

  • American Myths

    RONALD REAGAN HAD returned to Bel Air, yet the events of late ’89 were enough to induce the sci-fi sensation of living inside his brain. What made that Evil Empire fall apart? Was it wishful thinking? Had we spent them into oblivion?

    Lunging for the zeitgeist (and countering the negative publicity of Michael Moore’s smash documentary Roger & Me), television ushered in the ’90s with a car commercial that used the rhetoric of mid-’80s Reaganmania (and a bit of subliminal auto lingo) to celebrate the collapse of Communism: “It had a bumpy start, this decade,” the narrator intoned, the faulty ignition

  • Baseball

    WHOSE FIELD? WHAT DREAMS? That professional Baseball is in large part a mental construct is suggested by its affinity for abstract representation in box scores, statistics, and Strat-o-matic games—not to mention plummy journalism, popular memory, and the simulated radiocasts that made “Dutch" Reagan a legend among Iowa’s Chicago Cubs fans during the late 1930s.

    Baseball records are such that the least action in a major league game will be preserved—forever. Thus the experience of following Baseball, season after season, decade after decade, is as different from watching any one game as it is from

  • THE CROOKED ROAD OF JEWISH LUCK

    SOME MODERNISMS ARE MORE modern than others: the delay with which “advanced” esthetic ideas penetrated the Czar’s frozen empire only heightened the passion with which Russian artists rushed to embrace them. The years immediately preceding and following the October Revolution saw movements that had taken half a century to unfold in the West replayed in Moscow and Petrograd (and even Vitebsk) with a stunning compression—as in a Futurist movie based on time-lapse photography.

    Doubly isolated and oppressed, Russian Jews were the yeast in this cultural ferment, particularly after 1917. But while

  • American Myths

    NO ONE HAS EVER identified him- or herself as a “yuppie”–– at least not recently. Like the tourist or the ideal viewer of network TV, the yuppie is always another. But the yuppie is also a historical construct: after a generation of “young urban professionals” were defined as a designated voting bloc, Newsweek declared 1984 the Year of the Yuppie (thus bearing out the prediction made by the authors of The Yuppie Handbook in the January 9 issue of People magazine).

    Affirmation built into the very term, “yuppie” was conceived in the afterglow of the military action that made Grenada safe for American

  • American Myths

    THE AMERICAN “1988” was a year in continuous comparison with sometime else. The crash of ’87 had everyone thinking “1929,” but the first half of ’88 was devoted to commemorations of “1968.” With the nominations of Michael Dukakis/Lloyd Bentsen and George Bush, the emphasis changed to “1960,” which, once the Duke proved himself anyone but JFK redux, elided the fabled Thousand Days with endless replays of November “1963.” (Bush, it should be noted, continued to run against “1968”—at one point creating a symbolic polarity between Easy Rider and Dirty Harry.1)

    Before “1989” develops its own personality,

  • American Myths

    BY NOW YOU'VE HAD plenty of time to reforget Patty Hearst, the 34-year-old granddaughter of Citizen Kane, a blip on the national radar screen who enjoyed one of her periodic resurfacings late summer with the release of Paul Schrader’s Patty Hearst. It is Patty’s fate always to be the symbol of something—usually two things, often contradictory. Thus: Patty/Hearst, hippie/heiress, became a revolutionary/victim with her 1974 abduction by the terrorist Symbionese Liberation Army, and now—after the crucible of media notoriety, prison, and marriage—reemerges as her true self, a celeb/suburban matron.