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January 25, 2004 - How Hollywood Really Drives Politics

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Howard Dean was invented in Hollywood. 

He's really Michael Douglas. 
Political Perspectives from out here in where I live.


Okay, there's this Hoberman fellow who is the senior film critic for the Village Voice and author a recent book - The Dream Life: Movies, Media and the Mythology of the Sixties (The New Press, 2003).  So finding an opinion piece by him is finding an advertisement for his book, of course.  But he says some interesting things. 

See The Dream Machine Is Plugged Into Reality
J.  Hoberman, The Los Angeles Times, January 22, 2004 
[ extensive registration required for access ]

Here's his thesis:


In the U.S., moviegoing has ceased to be a national habit for just about everyone but teenagers and film professionals.  Still, the movies themselves remain a privileged instrument in the orchestra of American mass culture.  They can function as social metaphors, showcase utopian possibilities and provide socially cohesive cocktail-party chatter.  A nation expresses - and defines - itself as the audience for a particular motion picture at a particular time, and it can be analyzed accordingly. 

Weimar-era film critic Siegfried Kracauer, best known as the author of From Caligari to Hitler, was the first to theorize that movies are zeitgeist made material.  The fantasies or anxieties they articulate, he wrote, are evidence of a "collective mentality."  His reasoning: Motion pictures are collaboratively made for a mass audience.  Today, we might add that moviemakers also seek popular consensus; their business is producing fantasies that attract the largest possible audience. 

The process, as Kracauer's book title makes clear, has inevitable political ramifications.  Movies not only create (or implant) collective memories and realize group fantasies, they articulate a national narrative and can sometimes project a leading man.


Well, this is possible, I suppose.  By where does it lead? 

Hoberman claims that there are movies whose back stories as well as their plots reflect the political world: John Wayne's "The Alamo" and Kirk Douglas' "Spartacus," two Cold War allegories released in time for the 1960 election, are his examples.  The first was "Wayne's long-germinating crusade to warn Americans of the Soviet military threat."  Really?  The second, "conceptualized primarily by blacklisted lefties, cast rebellious gladiators in terms of heroic entertainers and their revolution in terms of the aspirations of oppressed peoples everywhere."  Hoberman then invokes Jean-Luc Godard saying something like the history of film is identical to the film of history. 

Do you buy that? 

But wait!  There's more!

Hoberman claims such movies are, in effect, "produced by their audience, and they tend to be handy symbols of political and cultural polarization."  He cites a fact, if it is a fact, that the first President Bush praised Reagan for transforming the U.S.  into a nation that preferred "Dirty Harry" to "Easy Rider" - even though both movies appeared during Nixon's first term.  And he says that ever since Nixon endorsed "Patton," politicians have sought to be identified with popular scenarios. 

It's shorthand, see? 

Of course Dennis Kucinich tries to associate his campaign with the recent "Seabiscuit" movie.  Since that film kind of disappeared - no legs (bad pun) - Dennis has a problem. 

Hoberman asserts that Bob Dole's presidential campaign "as the last World War II hero" would only have been helped if "Saving Private Ryan" had been released a year earlier.  Maybe. 

And Hoberman claims that neither "Black Hawk Down" nor "Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" would have had nearly the same emotional impact or meaning had they not been released after September 11, 2002.  I can see that.  I'm not sure I believe it. 

But when Hoberman claims "Thelma and Louise" took on additional resonance for appearing in the aftermath of Desert Storm, "when the angst-inducing issue of women combatants was still a subject of national debate" - well, no.  No connection.  Bullshit. 

But try this. 

"The American President" - a 1995 movie designed to showcase the man in the Oval Office as a sexy, heroic single dad (Michael Douglas), might have contributed to the mental state of an impressionable intern named Monica Lewinsky, or even the president himself. 

Yep, and seeing Robert Redford in "All the Presidents Men" made me write this very sentence.  Or influenced me to write that last sentence.  Subconsciously.  It's the zeitgeist, dummy!

Lewinsky and Clinton.  Did the Michael Douglas movie "articulate their fantasies - and ours?"

That's a long shot. 

But this fellow is right.  "The American President" made the ongoing alternative reality known as "The West Wing" possible. 

Hoberman then makes the big leap.  The television show "The West Wing" - along with the Internet - called the feisty, liberal New England-based political character "Howard Dean" into existence. 

Oh my. 

And I did see a clip from Iowa last week - Martin Sheen, who stars as the feisty, liberal hero-president on the television show "The West Wing," was standing with Howard Dean, endorsing him. 

Hoberman may be onto something. 

Of course, also standing next to Dean, endorsing him, was Rob Reiner.  I believe a long time ago he played the character named "Meathead" on the television show "All in the Family."  But then the television show "All in the Family" was created and produced by Norman Lear, founder and leader of the left-liberal political lobby group, People for the American Way. 

It's all coming together for me now.  Or not.