Book Review: “Film After Film” — The Shadow History of Our Times as Seen on the Big Screen
It may be only a movie, but in his book Film after Film, former Village Voice writer J. Hoberman proves he isn’t just a movie critic.
Film After Film: Or, What Became of 21st Century Cinema? by J. Hoberman. Verso, 296 pages, $24.95.
By Peter Keough.
It never fails: whenever a critic tries to put the latest Hollywood product into a broader context, in particular by demonstrating how it might reflect deeper issues brooding in the communal subconscious, snobs and fanboys and other scoffers will counter with the irrefutable, meaningless rejoinder—“it’s only a movie.” It might be some consolation that Aristotle might well have been rebuked by the statement “it’s only a play.” Or that Siegfried Kracauer probably had his share of sneerers when he showed how the cinema of Weimar Germany prefigured the Third Reich in his masterpiece From Caligari to Hitler.
On the other hand, when pundits do take it into their heads that some blockbuster movie has more significance than just being a product marketed for mass consumption, they invariably turn it into fodder for their own ideological agenda. An amusing example of this occurred last summer with the release of The Dark Knight Rises. Left wing critics condemned it as agitprop for fascist capitalism. Right-wingers, Rush Limbaugh most notably, denounced it as pinko propaganda. Both versions shriveled into inconsequentiality when a gunman entered the jammed Century Theater in Aurora, Colorado at the film’s midnight premiere screening and systematically shot 12 people to death, wounding 58 others. Once again the nightmare of the real confounded anything that Hollywood could throw on the screen.
In the cacophony of strident, numskulled discourse that followed, one voice of clarity was missing. After serving for almost 35 years as their most prominent, clear-headed, and entertaining film critic, J. Hoberman had been canned in January by the Village Voice (he did write a piece on The Dark Knight Rises as a freelancer for the Artinfo.com website). However, he did shed some light on that film’s predecessor, The Dark Knight (2008), in a Voice cover story entitled “What We Learned About the Movies in This Summer’s Movies” (an example of his insight: “Smeared lipstick notwithstanding, one of the scariest things about the Joker is that he has no respect for money”).
The latter is one of the many brilliant pieces included in his new book, Film After Film: Or What Became of 21st Century Cinema? Tantalizingly brief, breathlessly urgent, and necessarily inconclusive, it’s his fourth such volume, joining The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties (New Press, 2003), The Magic Hour: Film at Fin de Siècle (Temple University Press, 2003), and An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War (The New Press, 2011). Together they examine the shadow history of our times as manifested on the big screen.
Or, as is increasingly the case these days, on the little screen. “[T]here are two–or even two and a half–reasons,” Hoberman writes in the book’s introduction, “to consider the possibility that, since, 2001, the nature and development of the motion picture medium has become irrevocably altered.” One of those events was historical: 9/11. The other was mechanical: “the shift from the photographic to the digital.”
The latter change Hoberman discusses in provocative depth and detail in the first section of the book, “A Post-Photographic Cinema,” expanded from an essay he wrote for Artforum magazine. In it, he revisits Andre Bazin’s notion of “Total Cinema,” which posited the ideal goal of the film medium as the fullest possible representation of reality, with every technological advance—sound, color, 3D—serving to advance that purpose. CGI and other computer wizardry would seem to be welcome advances in pursuit of that goal. But, as Hoberman points out, Bazin was thinking of film as a photographic medium, in which the image is a direct imprint of an external reality. Rather than represent reality, this new kind of “film after film” ignores it.
“Bazin had imagined cinema as the objective ‘recreation of the world,’” Hoberman argues. “Yet digital image-making precludes the necessity of having the world, or even a really existing subject, before the camera—let alone the need for a camera.”
So perhaps the rabid naysayers are right—it is only a movie after all—and Hoberman pursues this line of investigation by analyzing one of the top fanboy movies of all time, The Matrix (1999), with its premise of a “Desert of the Real,” as described by Jean Baudrillard, that lies beneath the appearances of real life. It is “‘a real without origin or reality,’” explains Hoberman, quoting the French philosopher, “which might be one way to characterize CGI, as well as The Matrix itself.”
So what of 9/11, that seemingly irrefutable reality, the other event that irrevocably altered the nature of cinema and pretty much everything else? Hoberman poses hard questions: “Did the history-changing shock of this cinematic event plunge the nascent twenty-first century into an alternative universe, one in which motion picture fairy tales actually did come true? Or was it rather a red pill [the disillusioning tablet taken in The Matrix] that parted the veil on a new reality that already existed? The 9/11 Event was understood by some filmmakers as a horrible unintended consequence of their medium and taken by others as a challenge to the notion of the movies as a medium with a privileged relationship to the real.”
In other words, had cinema’s estrangement from its supposed subject somehow encouraged a mentality that describes catastrophic experiences as being “like a movie,” a paranoid consciousness that sets up conspiracy theorists to deny the evidence of their senses and common sense and insist that 9/11 never really happened or, more recently, that the horrific damage done by the Marathon bombers was faked? Hoberman ponders these puzzles in discussions of films ranging from Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) to Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005), from Pixar’s WALL-E (2008) to Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010). As Hoberman would be the first to admit, these are not challenging cultural questions that can be answered after only a decade into the new century, let alone in a 46-page essay.
The bulk of his book does not directly discuss this notion of “film after film.” Instead, in the remaining two parts—“A Chronicle of the Bush Years” and “Notes Toward a Syllabus”—the title of the book takes on a different meaning. Here Hoberman reviews one film after another, at times expanding his reactions into the inevitable “think piece,” with each under-deadline dispatch from the film front illustrating, in varying degrees, his central theses. As such, these parts of the book are at times digressive or repetitive, but all express the urgency, intelligence, and passion of a first class critic in action. As he explains in the book’s introduction, “The 750 word weekly film review is a specific journalistic form: over a period of months and years these topical short pieces document a writer’s attempt to make sense of the ongoing flux of movies amid the ongoing flux of events.”
But why can’t you just enjoy them? So goes the usual follow-up to “it’s only a movie.” As these reviews demonstrate, how can you fully enjoy them otherwise? The movies discussed in Part Three, “Notes toward a Syllabus,” certainly are more rewarding in light of Hoberman’s astute analyses. He examines some of the most challenging films of the recent past and illuminates them with verve and incisiveness. Starting in 2001 with the indomitably cryptic Jean-Luc Godard’s beguiling In Praise of Love (“its tragic grandeur is as graspable as running water and as shifty as smoke”) and ending in 2010 with the eternally young, century-old Manoel de Oliveira’s The Strange Case of Angelica (“for decades now, [he] has been making each movie as though it were his last”), Hoberman should convince any who reasonable doubters (including the rational fanboy or two) that film is indeed an art.
But what of those films that are unabashedly products marketed to the masses to make money? Well, for many critics, that’s where the real fun begins. In Part Two, Hoberman recreates the excitement of a masterful critic fully engaged with the messy flux of movies and events. Though undeniably taking partisan positions, he doesn’t allow his political opinions to distort what he sees but lets them provide a point of view that adds clarity to what otherwise would be the chaos and confusion of the overwrought and ephemeral.
Starting with a discussion dated “September 18, 2001” about Hollywood’s frantic adjustment to the post 9/11 world that includes Adorno’s baleful observation that “He who imagines disasters in some ways desires them,” and wrapping up eight years and 140 pages later on “October 15, 2008” with the anticlimactic release of Oliver Stone’s biopic of the soon-to-be ex-President, W, he puts together a breathless, often hilarious, and invariably astute mini-history of the era as discerned in the fantasies manufactured to entertain us. Of necessity, this section of the book touches only tendentiously on the more tightly argued ideas of the first part: the disparate pieces are connected by bold-faced transitional and contextualizing passages (as well as footnotes) that rival those in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest for their extensiveness.
Some high points along the way follow:
On the Terminator movies
If it’s Terminator time, there must be a Republican president running for re-election. Appearing unheralded on the eve of the 1984 election, the original Arnold Schwarzenegger robot opera, directed by then unknown James Cameron and featuring the most compelling Frankenstein monster in fifty years, provided a dystopian alternative to the Reaganite ‘new morning.’ Released as Bush I girded his loins in the summer of the New World Order 1991, Cameron’s vastly inflated, post-Desert Storm T2: Judgment Day resurrected the president’s fitness advisor as a kinder, gentler killer cyborg . . . [A]nd now, as the Bush II juggernaut gets ready to roll, der Arnold—once hailed by Time as ‘the most potent symbol’ of Hollywood’s ‘worldwide dominance’—returns to save the world.”
On black presidents in movies
[A]ccording to Hollywood, a black man in the White House signifies disaster. In The Fifth Element (1997), with the entire universe under threat of annihilation, there was Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister; in the more provincial Deep Impact (1998), with a meteor hurtling toward earth, our leader was embodied by Morgan Freeman. Lou Gossett presided over the Christian-fundamentalist Armageddon of Left Behind: World at War (2005), as Danny Glover will over the multi-cataclysms of Roland Emmerich’s upcoming 2012.
Only a movie, indeed. The times and the films haven’t gotten any better, and now we don’t have Hoberman’s weekly wisdom in the Voice to guide us, interpreting the mystifying signs flickered by box office beasts like Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness, Man of Steel, and all the rest, as they slouch towards Bethlehem (via big-box cineplexes) to be born.