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.  

Friday, May 06, 2011

One Last Mad Embrace by Jack Trevor Story

I first came across Jack Trevor Story's writing in the Guardian during the 1970s. Those columns, in which the narrator seemed perpetually trying to win back his wayward girlfriend Maggie, would later be collected in Letters to an Intimate Stranger. When I first read them, I enjoyed, and was happily  perplexed by, the way those articles blurred the line between autobiography and fiction. I would later learn it was more the former than the latter. Michael Moorcock, who calls Story "a working class Proust," insists that the wilder bits in Story's writing are invariably autobiographical, while the more mundane parts are those he's made up. Though referencing Proust might be accurate regarding the manner in which Story documents Britain during the last half of the 20th century, it hardly describes his writing style, which is invariably straight-forward, filled nevertheless with playful asides and narrative interjections. 

When I first read Story I was also unaware that he had not only written the novel and script for Hitchcock's Trouble With Harry (for which Hitch paid him all of £150), but had authored under his own name as well as under various pseudonyms, a number of other books, including some Sexton Blake novels and a handful of westerns. Influenced by Saroyan, as well as Orwell and Arnold Bennett, Story was  a cross between an American pulp writer and a modernist.  Yet for many years his work was most often found in the bargain bins of UK charity shops and secondhand bookstores. Surely it was only a matter of time before he would be read again. After all, he has championed by the likes of Moorcock and  Iain Sinclair. And Story definitely deserves to appreciated, though I doubt if the Guardian would publish his work today as it did in the 1970s, so politically incorrect and irreverent is Story's humour and perspective.  

But there is also a dark edge to Story's fiction, as seen not only in One Last Mad Embrace, but going back to The Trouble With Harry. Always anti-authoritarian, Story moves from portraying the police as bumbling idiots, PC Plods, less malicious than incompetent. According to Moorcock, this changes in the late 1960s due to a personal encounter with the authorities. Story's world is also filled with malign and sometimes inexplicable forces engendered by  the state, or those who side with the state in letter or spirit of the state, or the corrupt. 

Like much of his other work, One Last Made Embrace starts as an absurdist comedy, but gradually drifts into surreal farce. Along the way we meet a  cast of characters some of whom have populated previous Fenton novels. Set in the early 1970s, Fenton, thrice married, drives a white Capri, occupies a Hampstead flat  with four nurses and is involved Ariadne, the foul-mouthed daughter of a fading star, who might be 12, 14 or 17, and who might even be someone else altogether, depending on which way the narrative is moving at any particular moment. The story involves a search for £5m, a back-from-the-dead film producer, the staging of a new BBC drama series about an unmarried mother, anonymous postcards and phone-calls, wronged husbands out for revenge, a vigilante student group, a crucifixion, a threesome, an abortion, a car chase to Scotland, a dead sheep, a novel written on a toilet roll by a lunatic, and a clairvoyant landlady who sleeps on a coffin.  One Last Mad Embrace is just the most recent Story novel to be republished. Hopefully others will follow. Certainly, Story has gone unread, or read by only a dedicated few, for too long. And if you can find them, all his books, the Argyle novels-   Live Now, Pay Later, Something for Nothing and The Urban District Lover)-  as well as the Horace Spurgeon Fenton books- One Last Made Embrace, but I Sit in Hanger Lane and Hitler Needs You- are all worth checking out.