By J. Hoberman
Reviewed by Al Hoff
For J. Hoberman, the longtime Village Voice film critic, the '60s were the pivotal time when politics, media and publicity merged into a self-reflexive, self-sustaining entity, where "movies might be political events, and political events were experienced as movies." And so films like The Wild Bunch and Dirty Harry -- "these were the movies that America could be said to have given to itself, films that emanated from, and returned to shape, the nation's dream life," as molded by Presidential crises, war and mayhem in the nation's streets.
And condensed as this extra-wide decade is (it begins with the warm family drama of the 1960 Kennedy presidential campaign and concludes after a poorly scripted conspiracy thriller called the Watergate hearings), Hoberman cogently lays out the obvious: America went through some heavy shit, and as result, our mythic heroes mutated as rapidly as if they'd been irradiated in some cheesy '50s sci-fi flick.
Hoberman successfully interweaves several threads: the relaxation of movie production codes that allowed for more onscreen violence, sexuality and a loosening of cinema's "moral authority"; civil-rights movements; the escalation of war in Southeast Asia; an uneasy nation beset with riots and social rupture; and the increasingly spectacular nature of national politics in collusion with an omnipresent media that facilely packaged news as pseudo-events, often with catchy titles and genuine movie-star spokespeople.
By concentrating on political, war and Western films, those films that carry their mythmaking on the broad shoulders of a male protagonist, Hoberman follows our hero from "Hollywood Freedom Fighter" to the "Legal Vigilante." The dissolution of the old dream life can be traced through the decade's films of John Wayne and the de-evolution of the quintessential American moral parable, the Western. Wayne begins the decade gallantly defending the Alamo, cheerfully dying for the right cause, and ends it in a series of '70s twilight Westerns such as The Cowboys, where the Duke -- isolated by rampant lawlessness and moral breakdown -- feebly hands the baton to some kids (kids!), and Cahill, U.S. Marshall, which finds America's Noblest Hero in deep moral murk as a (Barely) Legal Vigilante.
But the dream life can be as much about wish fulfillment in history's hall of mirrors. In the middle of his cowboy decline, Republican mouthpiece Wayne found strength to rally, albeit in one of the decade's most anachronistic films, The Green Berets. A hit -- for it undoubtedly reflected what Americans could only hope for -- in 1968, it nonetheless represented a jarring disconnect with the reality of Vietnam "as seen on TV." In it, a heavily girdled Wayne swaggers into Khe Sanh, and if he doesn't win the war, he at least wins the battle. And significantly, as a propaganda yarn, Wayne converts skeptical journalist David Janssen, thereby converting the press in the film into a win-we-must-at-any-cost tool (take that, leftie media!). The film ends on a smugly sentimental note as Wayne, his paternal arm about a small orphan native boy (there, there, Vietnam), waddles off into the rosy glow of a new day.
Dream Life is dense yet highly readable, despite hundreds of footnotes (the book actually ends on a footnote), and is simply packed with entertaining nuggets of history. Hoberman favors a wry tone and is partial to comically arch characterizations of historical archetypes such as "Star-Pol" and "Secret Agent of History," but he also quotes liberally from contemporary critics, essayists, news sources and other participants on the spot.
As inured as we've become to this marriage of media and politics, Dream Life is a fascinating jolt, a peek behind the curtain at the courtship of a relationship that we now understand as simply standard operating procedure. Today, that cooperation has become so transparent that even the artificial process of media-driven politics has become the story; i.e., media blather over Jessica Lynch's televised rescue, or this season's box-office failure when our current Cowboy President, badly costumed in a puffy jumpsuit, was miscast as the victor in the Iraqi conflict (yet "Mission Accomplished" tested so well with focus groups!). Hence, Hoberman succeeds not only in presenting a fascinating cultural historical account, but also by alerting us that we live still in the heady, dangerous swirl of media, politics and pseudo-events that was so effectively birthed in the '60s.