J. Hoberman

  • 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