PRINT November 1987


Hollywood on the Potomac.

MOVIE-GOING HAS LONG CEASED to be a national habit for just about everyone except teenagers, but the movies themselves remain a powerful instrument in the multimedia symphony of American mass culture. Television is a continuum and pop music a way of life, but each new picture is an aspiring Event—its fatal attraction dependent on stimulating the public’s fascination. Entertainment aside, the movies’ function has been to offer metaphors, showcase possibilities, present new personality types, and provide socially cohesive cocktail-party conversation and intimations of the zeitgeist. More: the Hollywood blockbuster is also the r&d of American politics. Both pols and producers seek to generate consensus by fabricating scenarios that appeal to the greatest number of consumers. Once in a while there’s a confluence so resonant it seems world-historic: the coincidence of Rocky and Jimmy Carter in the autumn of 1976 (two underdogs come from nowhere to win) or Ghostbusters and Ronald Reagan in the summer of 1984 (two delirious constructions of total denial).

Something of the kind is happening now. The summer of 1987 edged that of 1984 as the best box-office season in American history. It did so with $1.6 billion in ticket sales, and without, as industry savants were quick to observe, the requisite handful of mega-blockbusters. Instead, there were any number of good-sized hits, supposed proof of rekindled interest in movies among adults, or evidence of a new plurality. Yet these movies had unusual thematic coherence. It was the summer of the authority figure, which, in the movies, usually means the policeman. Not only were the season’s two biggest hits—Beverly Hills Cop II and The Untouchables—both cop movies, so were three out of the next five: Dragnet, RoboCop, and Stakeout. Two hitherto unknown actors, Dennis Quaid and Kevin Costner, became hot properties playing policemen, and the summer fare also featured the latest installments of such comic-book-clean law enforcers as James Bond and Superman. Meanwhile, on TV (where the fall lineup would be dominated by cop shows), there was the uniformed presence of Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, at once a figure of authority and its subject. (It was perhaps this contradiction that accounted for the hula hoop quality of North’s appeal. North was instantly touted as presidential timber—but his movie proved to have shorter legs than any summer release save Superman IV.)

Paying to experience authority becomes all the more significant when seen in the context of the Democratic and Republican parties’ simultaneous search for the same. (The inability of the Democratic candidates to individuate themselves strongly led to their characterization in the media as “the seven dwarfs”—a reference to the summer’s tenth-biggest hit, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, with a built-in invidious allusion to Jesse Jackson.) The selection of phantom authorities ran parallel to the corporeal options. The presold Beverly Hills Cop II (an apt title for Reagan’s second term) and the surprise hit Stakeout purveyed a now-familiar what-me-worry mixture of low comedy, bloody violence, and soulless romance. The dramatically turgid but politically more complex Dragnet positioned itself to the left of Reagan (suggesting, for example, a symbiotic relationship between porn merchants and the Moral Majority) while following the president’s lead in resurrecting, however ironically, a virgin hero of the ’50s, thus staking out a position that, with a bit of imagination, one might use to sell the neolib hero Albert Gore. And The Untouchables operated in a more Cuomo-esque vein, evoking both the chaos of the Depression and, in recycling a classic TV show of the late ’50s, the comfort of the late Eisenhower era.

The most perverse and ominous of the summer’s mythography was undoubtedly RoboCop, a self-consciously “American” movie directed by a clever foreign director, Paul Verhoeven, which both parodied and pandered to the craving for law and order. Dragnet’s Joe Friday and The Untouchables’ Eliot Ness are stiffs, but this cop is a cyborg, a man made into a machine, a Good version of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s implacably murderous Terminator. A social satire of stylish sadism and heartfelt disgust, RoboCop is filled with lethal techno screwups and rude Star Wars jokes; it takes vengeful joy in orchestrating shootouts that splatter the screen with consumer goods as well as people, while presenting American television as the sort of boob tube that revels in precisely this violent, moronic spectacle.

As for the RoboCop himself, he keeps his vestigial humanity only because his memories of his prerobotic life are imperfectly erased. His commitment to social justice is a minor corollary of this psychological leftover. In this, the cyborg suggests those blind-ambition machines who seek to run our lives, the Gary Harts and Joe Bidens who show themselves compelled to enact the same tawdry dramas until they are shot down and relieved by the media. In contrast to the sacred myths of the presidency—the log cabin, the fireside chat—stands the reality of the RoboCandidate, the candidate out of whack, like those out-of-control bombers who leave messages at the scene of the crime reading “Stop me before I kill again.”

J. Hoberman writes on film for The Village Voice. He contributes this column regularly to Artforum.