In his recently published collection of essays, The Magic Hour, veteran Voice film writer J. Hoberman validates Siegfried Kracauer’s statement that a good critic has to be a critic of society; in The Dream Life he goes further, escorting Kracauer’s Hegelianism to this side of the Atlantic. Treating each interchangeable historical and movie event as both overdetermined and globally imported, Hoberman breezily notes the ’60s’ bacchanals, charting America’s plunge down the post-hegemonic sewer with typical wit and vigor. This subjective popular history crackles with you-are-there-ness.
More “American Pie” than “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” The Dream Life at first glance lacks the Yiddishkeit prevalent in the recent Books of J. (cf. the rollicking Jewish Museum exhibit catalog Entertaining America, with Jeffrey Shandler). Though it’s tempting to compare ’60s America to the waning of the Pax Romana, Hoberman’s sprint through the ideologically charged landscape—no coincidence this era was the last blooming of the western—finds its author in full-blown biblical mode. Hoberman rails with biting wit at the petty, self-aggrandizing behavior of the James Bond-loving JFK, cowboy LBJ, and Tricky Dick (whose shenanigans initiated the reign of conspiracy films that would dominate the ’70s) as if he were Elijah condemning the degenerate lunacies of Ahab and Jezebel.
The gods of America, too, are vengeful ones: in Hoberspeak, iconic Righteous Outlaws, like Bonnie and Clyde, and Legal Vigilantes like cover-boy Dirty Harry. And each president’s reign takes on a broad-ranging theme in its foreign policy and film preferences. Inducing trends through intricate juxtapositions, Hoberman compares The Night of the Living Dead to the SDS, The Exorcist to Patty Hearst, re-ejaculates John Wayne’s Chisum from the dustbin of history, and compacts the decade into a dazzling one-graf reinterpretation of Billy Jack. No seminal film under discussion emerges unscarred; at his most generous, Hoberman sets his phaser to stun, and always hits his target.
Though Hoberman’s orgies of association make the turmoil all sound, well, so much fun, he’s dead serious in his proposition that movies themselves are history, that political events have become movies, and that through the filter of history, old films become ripe with new meaning. (His most powerful metaphor sees the mechanics of war and movie production as one and the same.) With the fantastically overdetermined presidency of Bill Clinton (the thematic underpinning of The Magic Hour), Hoberman dangles two tantalizing possibilities: Has he rewritten history through the filter of post-Reagan America, with Watts replayed as Rodney King, the “Oriental Western” Vietnam as Iraq, and JFK as Bubba—or were the ’90s merely another neat turn of the dialectic?