Friday, May 20, 2011

An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War by J. Hoberman

These days J. Hoberman is one of the few film critics  I read with any interest. It's not only that he's perceptive and political without being doctrinaire, but he can write about a range of genres, and able to put them all within a historical context. This is apparent in his journalism and in the books he's written, withsubjects like early Yiddish cinema, Film Culture experimenters like Jack Smith,  film noir, independent film-makers, and the media. Since I've always found myself in a minority when it comes to bridging genres, particularly when it comes to justifying an interest in 1960s New American Cinema film-makers and film noir, I've always though there's at least one critic to back me up. 

His latest work, An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War, is Hoberman  at his best, putting his finger on the pulse of history,  matching events with the films- westerns, apocolyptic sci-fi, biblical spectaculars or film noir- they represent or, at any rate, with which they coincide. The prequel to Hoberman's previous book, the impressive The Dream Life: Movies, Media and the Mythology of the Sixties, Array of Phantoms starts at the beginning of the war, works its way through the McCarthy era, and ends with Ike's second term and the release of Kazan's Face In the Crowd ("a political horror film").

Because it covers such a range of sub-headings- exemplified by such chapter titles as Aliens Among Us, Fighting For Truth, Justice and the American Way, Redskin Menace From Outer Space, America On the Road- Hoberman's prose can be both dazzling and sometimes a bit daunting. There are  moments when An Army of Phantoms feels more like a roller coaster ride through history, with various bits of baggage thrown in for good measure, be they film reviews from the era, including those David Platt's in the Daily Worker, or newspaper reports of significant events. At other times, the reader might sometimes feel they are getting more than they bargained for, though, with a book like this, that probably comes with the territory. Still the deluge does produce the occasional lapse, for the most part insignificant, like calling the site of a 1948 Henry Wallace Hollywood rally, Gilmore Stadium, home of professional football and midget car racing, rather than Gilmore Field, the home of the Pacific Coast League team the Hollywood Stars (as well as midget car racing), and where the 1949 Stratton Story, starring James Steward and June Allyson would be filmed. Niggling, of course, but nagging all the same, if only because it makes one wonder  what other minutiae he might have got wrong.

As Hoberman points out, most of the films produced during this period reflect the dominant narrative,  there are  examples (Kiss Me Deadly, Invasion of the Body Snatchers) of work that, consciously or not,  subvert the prevailing political line and media machine. Or films that create a new narrative, such as  John Ford's The Searchers. Army of Phantoms, like Dream Life, might bear the mark of  Richard Slotkin's monumental work, Gunfighter Nation, but Hoberman's film-as-political history books are more readable and not as dense. In fact, Army of Phantom's introduction alone, with its notes and commentary on Wellman's The Next Voice You Hear ("a study in terror"), is alone probably worth the price of the book.  In the end, Array of Phantoms might well be the most comprehensive book yet on the post-war era and the relationship between film and the culture surrounding it. Though I don't think many would argue against the notion that it's  impossible to understand the texts and subtexts of American films without understanding American policies at home and abroad. However, it's easier to state the case than to demonstrate it, much less as ably as Hoberman does here. For me, Army of Phantoms, along with Dream Life, deserve a place alongside politically-tinged film books like Gerald Horne's Class Struggle In Hollywood and Thomas Douherty's Pre-Code Hollywood. Apparently, Hoberman is  at work on a third volume, Found Illusions: The Romance of the Remake and the Triumph of Reaganocracy. I, for one, eagerly await its arrival.

1 comment :

dreambox sky said...

The film has many strong elements. The visual effects are pretty good, like a moth giant, drawings and other strange creatures. The regulation is one of the best things the film. City close usually are good places to hide an invisible threat, and this film pulls off quite well. Many of the empty buildings, especially in the hotel and police station, a large number of companies for some well-made setpieces.