PRINT December 1988


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.

As the bright mirage of Reagan fades, the counterculture that had been his original political opponent is reemerging in the realm of family entertainment. Still, the ’60s remain a mystifying interlude. Unlike the fondly mythologized ’50s, there’s no consensus as to what happened back then. The 1963–72 period is considered aberrant by liberals as well as conservatives: in Sidney Lumet’s Running On Empty, about the son of a radical couple now 15 years underground, the ’60s is precisely that historical nightmare from which its young hero is struggling to awake. In Schrader’s less humanist bio-pic, the counterculture is visualized as a grotesque acid trip that inexplicably disrupts the life of a blandly privileged postdeb.

Taking its subject’s p.o.v. to the max, Patty Hearst has no context. There are no references to Nixon or to Vietnam. The connect-the-dots narrative proceeds from one media epiphany to the next: the taped messages, the picture of Patty/Tania posed in battle fatigues before the SLA’s seven-headed cobra, the automatic surveillance photos documenting the Hibernia bank robbery, the televised firefight in which the Los Angeles SWAT team incinerated most of the gang, Patty’s arrest and self-description as an “urban guerrilla.” (The latter is toned down: Natasha Richardson’s smirk is a far cry from the demented, openmouthed grin with which Patty greeted her fans.) Although the movie omits Patty’s reconversion—during her trial, she fell in love with her bodyguard and, receiving a presidential pardon, married him on Valentine’s Day 1979, thus closing her story five years to the month after it had begun—it signals her comeback to normalcy. After one screening, Schrader remarked that “Patty Hearst is today as you would think she’d be if this never happened,” a George Bush Republican.

Patty has always seemed the personification of an absence. In congressional hearings on terrorism held at precisely the time she was confined to a closet, Dr. F. Gentry Harris testified that “terrorism ultimately aims at the spectator. The victim is secondary.” Dr. Frederick Hacker was even more blunt: “Terrorism has unfortunately become a form of mass entertainment.” The Hearst case went beyond the sort of tabloid drama that made the family fortune. It was a full-fledged media event, a fantastic pageant in which a gang of crazy, mixed-up, privileged white kids took theatrically third-world names, periodically disguised themselves as blacks, kidnaped a media heiress, precipitated a free-food carnival, committed a bank robbery for the express purpose of having it recorded, and finally met their doom in a televised firefight. (The TV series S.W.A.T., on ABC in 1975–76, may be considered an SLA spinoff.)

The Patty Hearst spectacle restaged the ’60s in somewhat the manner that postrevolutionary Russian crowds used to restage the storming of the Winter Palace. The major difference was the limited cast. (Not long after the show ended, a clever art historian published a parodic piece terming the SLA a “performance group” who used the media as their medium and—elaborating on the work of Chris Burden, Joseph Kosuth, and Douglas Huebler, among others—demonstrated that “political action itself can be no more than art performance.”) Small wonder that many on the left believed the SLA a mélange of CIA plants, police agents, and trained provocateurs, with a few misguided and/or drug-dependent space-cadets for window dressing. Mae Brussell, the queen of conspiracy theorists, described SLA leader Donald DeFreeze as a CIA robot, “the first black Lee Harvey Oswald,” a patsy set up by rogue law-enforcement agencies to discredit the left by spreading terror among the populace. In this paranoid scenario, Patty’s current rehabilitation could be part of former CIA chief George Bush’s election campaign. For the true true-believer, even Schrader could be construed as some sort of Company asset: in writing the scenario for Taxi Driver, 1976, he “naturalized” another putative CIA patsy, would-be Wallace assassin Arthur Bremer.

As Peter Sloterdijk writes of the 1977 kidnaping of Hans-Martin Schleyer, “Through the political staging of the crime and the spectacular interaction of state and terror group, it took on the significance of an epoch-making event. It nourished itself on powerful catastrophile currents and swelled up, becoming the dominant emotional theme of endless days. Sociopsychologically, it brought an hour of truth. It was the substitute for a history in which something moves. . . [and] was greedily lapped up by society as a substitute for struggle, conflict drug, and political catastrophe film.”1 From every angle, Patty was show business. A product of that same dreadful morning-after as Kojak and Karen Carpenter, she achieved media stardom in the year of the disaster film: Earthquake, The Towering Inferno, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Watergate. Such movies offered the spectacle of all-star casts impersonating ordinary, middle-class people coping with the breakdown of institutions thought to be safe (ocean liners, airplanes, cities, the constitution). In the case of the Patty Hearst show, that institution was wealth, privilege, power—and youth. And the breakdown was amply demonstrated by the inept free-food program staged at her kidnapers’ behest, by the inability of the FBI to rescue her, and, finally, by the refusal of Patty—now Tania—to return to her previous life.

The last malfunction was the worst. This revolutionary transformation was definitely not the rebirth for which America was waiting. (That would come with the Bicentennial.) In disaster movies, the catastrophe was invariably worsened by mendacious, corrupt, and incompetent leaders, but these films were fundamentally reassuring: everyone except top public officials demonstrated heroism under stress, thus establishing the fundamental decency of ordinary people. Disaster movies denied that Americans had become permissive or jaded, or that traditional values had collapsed. Indeed, they insisted that these values not only remained intact but also, unlike the positive values in Night of the Living Dead, 1968, enabled people to help each other guarantee society’s survival. Middle-class virtues reigned victorious at the end, just as if the ’60s had never happened. Patty’s reemergence as Tania, by contrast, suggested that the ’60s might go on forever—even though the party was long over and the fall of Saigon was imminent.

Now, it’s hard to decide which was more incredible, Patty’s metamorphosis or the desire to believe in it. One need only consult the special feature that ran weeks after her capture, in two autumn 1975 issues of Rolling Stone, to see how much a counterculture heroine she had become (or how totally she was thought to have internalized her captors’ worldview). Patty, who, it was reported, “had a habit of scanning each morning’s New York Times with a felt-tip pen, x-ing out pictures of political enemies,” personified the idealism of a generation. At the height of her invisibility, during her 17 months underground, she was celebrated by a self-consciously Dylanesque ballad that became a staple of New York’s Pacifica station: “Patty dear, I know your sights are on the Milky Way / And the avaricious scorpion is a-beggin’ you to stay. . . ” was the grotesquely solicitous refrain, the singer winding up with the wistful request that “you can tell us all about it someday.”

Well, she has, and the movie (or rather the remake) is a flop—except, of course, for Patty Hearst (who, this time, had the right of script approval). More a form of delayed feedback than a vanity production, Patty Hearst was made for an audience of one, and according to published accounts, she has seen it three times. In the movie, Patty maintains that her crime was that she lived. Actually, her crime was that she imploded like a vacuum tube. Her tale inspires a certain lysergic queasiness, a horror vacui—there’s a haunting feeling of emptiness.

It’s not her sights but ours that are on the Milky Way. This affinity for the void is perhaps why Patty told People that given a chance to star in a movie, she’d like to play an astronaut: “I’d love to sit on tons of liquid fuel and be blasted into outer space.” That dream is the Patty Hearst remake inside out.

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



1. Peter Sloterdijk, The Critique of Cynical Reason, trans. Michael Eldred, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987, p. 123.