An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War by J. Hoberman – A Review

An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War
J. Hoberman
The New Press, 2011, pg 383

I once proposed in an massive paper of 120 pages written during my third year of college that you could see a causal relationship in American attitudes towards the Cold War and the Military Industrial Complex by looking at the films of World War II. For a third year paper the oversimplification of the thesis is forgivable. But ever since the months of wading through the ins and outs of the Office of War Information and its film unit, the Bureau of Motion Pictures (BMP), I have been interested in the shaping of not only those wartime films with their BMP approved messages, but the post war period where the films reflected not only attitudes that were shaped during the war but also reflect those of the dark period the second great Red Scare. J. Hoberman’s An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War investigates just that topic, mixing film history and American history as a method to look not only at the culture of the 1940s and 1950s, but the development of Cold War and how movies and the people who made movies were part of the political intrigues that mark the times.

The book opens with a quick summary of wartime movies and politics which were shaped by new dealers and the necessity to sell Russia as a ally. These two narratives would become create troubles once the war was over. The New Deal had stressed the idea of the common man and many of the movies from the war stressed these themes, usually by highlighting the heterogeneous nature of the soldiers fighting and praising the common soldier. These ideas, straight out of the BMP guidelines, show up in all manner of films, particularly the combat films such as Back to Bataan or Sahara. Films like Mission to Moscow or the North Star, focused on the Russians and painted a sentimental picture of a reliable ally who could be relied on after the war. Many of those involved in the production were either Communist Party members or belonged to the Popular Front, which was an anti-fascist group that was not communist, but had a certain taint as Moscow had directed party members to ally with it starting with the Spanish Civil War. It isn’t the most thorough introduction and one would do well to read Clayton R. Koppes and Gregory D. Black’s Hollywood goes to war : how politics, profits and propaganda shaped Word War II movies. The other issue that will plague the book is his writing style is his strange associative writing style, where he drops seemingly unrelated names and events in the same paragraph without explaining what they are doing together, other than quite often the simple coincidence of taking place on the same day.

Once Hoberman moves into the post war period the book moves a long much better. He describes of the immediate post war period as it became obvious that the Soviets would not be long term allies as one of turmoil. The members of the Hollywood left who expected that the political climate that had taken shape during the New Deal would continue, were slow to see the changes of the coming Red Scare and its often hysterical reaction. For example, the movie Crossfire which dealt with antisemitism was considered suspiciously red, because those involved making the film had left and communist associations, the Daily Worker praised the film, and the film posited a fascist threat from within the US (criticizing fascism was often used as an indicator of communist sympathies ever since the Spanish Civil War). As in the so many cases, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and the FBI were suspicious of anything that even slightly criticized the US. With Crossfire it was the suggestion that American soldiers could hate and kill anther soldier because he was Jewish.

Initially, left leaning Hollywood put up a defense with big fundraisers and assemblies, but soon dissent and the weight of the US government lead to the splintering of resolve. Some of those with Communist party links, whether real or not, went to jail, some became friendly witnesses, and others left the country. Those on the right such as John Wayne and Robert Taylor were only to do their part to counter the menace, lending their support to the Republican party. And the studios? They tried to make a fast buck as always and came out with movies like My Son John, I Married a Communist, and The Next Voice You Hear, all of which contrasted the comically evil red conformity against American virtue.

With the coming of communist China and the Korean war Hollywood found itself under even more attack and it turned to the western and the sci-fi movie as allegory. Hooberman is best here, giving a detailed read of the movies Fort Apache, Rio Grande, and High Noon. While they have come down as classics Rio Grande can be read as a fascistic allegory, and High Noon an attack on the cowardice of the American people, which even in its day raised eyebrows and angered John Wayne intensely (he does not come off particularly well in the book). The preoccupation with communism led the studios to create the biblical epics that were so popular in the 50’s. They were partly designed to battle with television, but they were also an attempt by Hollywood to inject romance and adventure into what otherwise might have been tame biblical history. As in so many cases, Hollywood took advantage of what ever cover they could to make entertainment. Which doesn’t mean people like Cecil B. DeMille were not earnest in their faith, attaching written or spoken prologues to their movies to let moviegoers know how important the film was.

It is this kind of detail placed along side the politics of the time that make the book so interesting. However, as I mentioned earlier he tends to drop little facts into the midst of otherwise well written sections. For example, writing about Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments comes the following paragraph.

Even as Hollywood projects Egyptian splendor, wondrous new pleasure domes are under construction. The Nevada desert has already been transformed into an air-conditioned mirage of Babylonian hanging gardens and Roman bathtubs, while in the sleepy town of Anaheim, Walt Disney is building a $17 million wonderland, ballyhooed by Life as the “most Lavish amusement park on earth.”

While that is all true, it breaks up the flow and doesn’t really say anything specific. Is he trying to say Vegas and Disney Land doomed movies? Or did he just find something interesting to tell us? Except for these strange interludes and his occasional switch to present tense, the book is a welcome addition to the film studies.

No One Knows About Persian Cats – A Review

No One Knows About Persian Cats Poster In FrenchNo One Knows About Persian Cats is a delightful film about musicians in Iran just trying to play music they like, mostly rock, and a totalitarian state that refuses to let them. The film is ostensibly about two indie-rock musicians who are trying to put together a concert for their friends and family, and also get fake passports so they can flee the country to play a show in London. They travel around Tehran trying to put together a band and talking with different musicians in Tehran’s underground music scene. Accompanying them is a promoter who is the ultimate wheeler-dealer with a fast tongue that makes his living bootlegging alcohol, selling pirated and forbidden CDs and DVDs, and otherwise brining his black market sensibilities to the music world. The quest allows the film makers to show the great lengths the musicians have to go to play. Every time they go to a new space it is down a warren of staircases to a forgotten basement that will muffle the music and keep the police away. One metal band even plays at a dairy farm amongst the cows and hay bales. Despite these great lengths it is a world of fear and every musician has been jailed at least once for playing music. All the musicians, except for the rapper, play music that is completely apolitical and in a few cases lacks words, yet the government will not allow almost any form of rock to be played. It is the tension between the musicians simple desire and the politics is one of the primary things that makes the movie compelling.

The other thing that makes the movie so interesting is the music. Sure it is all infuenced by American and European rock and hip-hop, but that is part of the fun. And all of it is very good. There are 2 blues rock bands, one with a female singer with an great voice; 2 metal like bands that are full on hard-core with double bass drums and chorused guitars; a couple jazz jam bands; an indie-rock band; a folk singer; and a hip-hop group. All of these get a couple of minutes to play a song and while they play the film becomes a kind of rock video showing montages of Tehran and its street life. The best performance is from the rap group which performs a great song that indicts the state for the disparities in wealth in Tehran while the montage show scenes of people living on the streets. The raping style and the music are aggressive and underscore the seriousness of their critique. The female fronted blues band was also very good, but what made it even more compelling is everyone in the band was filmed out of focus, mostly likely for their own protection. It was a haunting song set to night scenes of Tehran.

The film might have a bit of the Andy Hardy series of films where Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland put on a musical in a barn, if it weren’t for the political consequences of what they are doing. It is in the political tension and the liveliness of the music that the film is at its best a is a fascinating look at Iran. Definitely worth watching, especially if you like music.

The White Ribbon – A Review

The White Ribbon is Michael Haneke’s austere look at a German village on the eve of World War I. The austerity is not only in the composition, but the lives of the villagers, a place ruled by fear, strict obedience, piety and corruption. The village is a symbol of all that is to come in the twentieth century, a place where the inhabitants are the cowed participants of orders that lead them to their own destruction.

As the White Ribbon opens the village doctor is coming home from riding his horse and he suddenly felled by a thin wire that is strung across his path. It is a suspicious event because he has ridden that same path time daily. When it is investigated, the wires are suddenly missing. The accident is one of many mysterious events that occurs in the village and gives the movie a fearful sensibility.

While the mysterious events occur, the film examines the lives of the villagers. There is the baron, a man who thinks nothing of firing a family from his farm if one member is disobedient. In one particular example, the wife of a farm worker dies in an accident in the Barron’s mill. The oldest son of a family destroys the Barron’s cabbage patch as revenge and as punishment the father is let go. All this time the father, instead of blaming the Barron for not keeping his mill working, he accepts what comes to him as a matter of course.

The village minister is the embodiment of austerity and discipline whose sense of righteousness is unshakable. He believes in tying white ribbons to his children to remind them of the goodness that they should strive for. His punishments are strict, a moral discipline he expects from everyone.

As the incidents continue, it becomes more and more obvious that the village is filled with secrets that show the powerful can get away with anything and the weak have no way to resist and go along with the whatever they are told. Only the school teacher and the Baroness can see these problems. The Baroness tries to leave the village, saying that she is tired of the brutality that is everywhere in the village. The school teacher, as an outsider, has not been worn down by fear and is willing, within the limits the German society allowed, to investigate and not let things lay as they are. But then the war comes. The last scene is of the village gathering in the church after Austria and German have declared war. It is a kind of righteous farewell to a world that is about to change.

The White Ribbon is a dark film with cruel mysteries that indite a certain way of life with its obedience and brutality. The movie is not a hopeful one, except, perhaps, in that the world of the village no longer exists. Haneke does not spare anyone from his indictment and White Ribbon is sure to leave one wondering how the people could endure such things, but just watch how the inhabitants keep their heads bowed in fear and you will know.

The Trailer:

(500) Days of Summer – A Review

Romantic comedies are formulaic—boy meets girl, or some variation therein—and so it is a welcome change when a film can use those elements and tell an interesting story and even better, do it with a style that that is fresh and adds to the story telling. (500) Days of Summer is the story of a short relationship, 500 days, between Summer and Tom, two people who seem to share all the same interests—The Smiths, the Pixies—and get along so well, yet the relationship doesn’t work, and Tom is left wondering why.

What sets the film apart is how it goes about telling that story. The film is constructed around a non-liner plot where Tom tries to understand what went wrong. The non-linear structure allows the film makers to mix the happy scenes with the ones that show the problems, but also include commentaries from his 13 year-old sister who gives him dating advice, and his friends who know nothing. These elements allow the story to underscore not only his confusion, but Summer’s seemingly contradictory stance on relationships: shed doesn’t want a boyfriend, and yet instigates the relationship with Tom. Overlaying all of this is an occasional narrator who helps transition certain scenes and introduce the fundamental elements of the characters: Tom likes 80’s bands; Summer’s parents got divorced when she was a child and she said she would never make that mistake. Through these elements the story bounces between the idyllic and the disappointing and one is left to make sense of what really happened. In one effective use of split screen which seems influenced by Amelie, the director shows what Tom wanted to happen at a party and what really happened. It is a cleaver technique which illustrates well what Tom is thinking.  The film also relies heavily on musical montages to convey mood, rather than heavy expressions of dialog and it gives the film an impressionistic quality.

The characters, too, are a welcome change. Summer and Tom are both a bit quirky. He wears retro 60s suits with skinny ties, listens to alternative music from the 80s and dreams about changing the downtown LA architectural plan (Downtown LA’s classic architecture is a bit player in this film). She listens to the same music, thinks Ringo Starr was the best Beatle and dresses in 60s retro clothes, too. From the outset they play against romantic stereotypes, and the relationship seems marked more by what it isn’t, a couple looking for the wedding and children, then what it is a boy who wants a relationship with someone who says that will never happen. In this sense, the movie is much more interesting than most romantic comedies because it asks the question: if you don’t want to be tied down by a relationship, why are you in one? Summer instigates the relationship, so it seems she wants one, but them is to cynical, or afraid, or something to admit she wants one. If a relationship is confining, what is the alternative. For Summer it will be exactly what she claims it isn’t.

(500) Days of Summer is the right blend of style and reworking of the genre and shows that the romantic comedy (although there is a fair amount of drama, too) doesn’t have to be insipid.

Up In the Air – A Review

Ryan Bingham is the perfect symbol of the corporate world—a detached, almost faceless man whose two purposes in life are to fire people and get air miles. He cares little for relationships, considering them an encumbrance that one should work to dispense with. He believes it so much he gives a seminar where he tells the attendees this with a perfectly straight face.  Perhaps, in his line of work it makes the most sense to be detached, unafraid of becoming emotionally evolved in each layoff victim’s problems. Whatever his reasoning, he is so detached as to be almost soulless and incapable of intimacies.

At the beginning of the movie his one great love is getting to 10 million air miles. It is the replacement for human relationships with a corporate relationship. It is also one that while not particularly fulfilling, gives Ryan a sense of his importance in the world he inhabits. Like human relationships, he also knows that the corporate relationships he has are artificial, but he accepts that as just the way things are. He posits a way of life that is solitary, but connected through commercial bonds. In an age of constant marketing it makes perfect sense.

The isolation changes when he meets two women: Alix, a frequent traveler like him, and Natalie, a young up and comer at the company he works with. They represent two sides of the relationship question. Alix believes in casual acquaintances; Natalie the longterm. For Ryan, Alix’s detachment is the perfect accompaniment to his. Natalie, on the other hand, is an anathema and is everything that is wrong in a world that believes in love, marriage, and family. Except that Ryan doesn’t exactly believe it. While the corporate relationships he has sustain him, he finds that they are not enough. There is something to human relationships, something that a membership card can never give. The problem, though, is corporate cards, as long as you meet your obligations, rarely lie or cheat. Ryan can choose between the smooth and impersonal corporate relationships he has, or he can risk the something else.

In the end Ryan finds he wants the other, but that it is seldom as one would like, but messy and given to failing apart. One could say the film suggest that the only human relationships that succeed are those where they are suffused with the same detachment Ryan first espouses. A better read might be that the more detached the more lonely, the more attached the more the risk, something Ryan has studiously tried to avoid. However, a little skepticism when approaching Natalie’s idea that marriage always equals eternal happiness, is perhaps not a bad thing. One just needs to come to some compromise between the two. Up in the Air doesn’t answer the questions, as it shouldn’t, but leaves Ryan up in the air, knowing that there can be, at times, more, but it doesn’t always work. Perhaps, he will go back to the old life, perhaps change. The cynic and the optimist each have their choice, the film is open to either.

Crazy Heart – A Review

Crazy Heart is one of those films that relies on one’s ability to add the back story. For Crazy Heart this is all the broken lives and self-destruction that has marked country music greats like Hank Williams, Waylon Jennings, Tommy Collins (Merle Haggard’s Leonard) and Lefty Frizzell, all who problems with drugs and most died early, their careers long since over. The back story fills every moment of Crazy Heart as Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) stumbles along in irrelevance, going from small city to city, playing in small bars or even bowling alleys, a bottle of whiskey always at hand, always asking his manager for a better gig, but unwilling to understand he’s an alcoholic, albeit a functioning one who has “never missed a gig.” His journey through the small clubs is a good picture of what happens to musicians when the market has long since left them behind. The fans are still there (and country fans are very dedicated) but you make little money and it can hardly seem worth driving 500 miles or more between gigs.

Eventually, Bad Blake meets a younger woman begins a somewhat improbable romance. What could make a broken down country singer 20 years your elder seems so interesting is a little hard to understand. Nonetheless, Blake sees in the woman and her 4 year-old son a past he lost, a past he destroyed with his career. In the relationship he wants as much to recapture the past as start something new. When he breaks his leg he has the chance to move in with them for a while and his better side comes out and he seems like a relatively responsible man.

Once his leg heals he heads back to his home in Texas, which is 800 miles from his girl friend. In Texas he returns to his ways and although he is trying to write new songs he can only drink. His girlfriend visits and it is going well until he loses the boy in a mall and she blames it on his drunkenness and leaves. It sends him into a tail spin of drinking. Yet unlike so many stories of this kind, he actually get sober. It was a refreshing change. How many times does addiction lead to some sort of destruction? This is where the movie leaves the back story. But Crazy Heart isn’t a recovery story, either and the sobriety story is almost nothing. As the movie ends, it is clear he has been sober for sometime and has gotten his career back together and is opening for a major star.

Crazy Heart is a movie that loves its subject: the country musician. It is filled with good live performances by Jeff Bridges and Collin Farrell and celebrates the music as much as the story. You are meant to want him to succeed, and by extension have his music continue. At times, though, it makes the story seem a little bereft of content. On the one had, you know what made him a good singer, on the other you only see the bullet points of his troubles. At the end of the movie, you may be left with the sensation that it was entertaining, but it seemed so easy. That said, Bridges is excellent as a likable looser who you want to win, but whose bad habits keep him from getting close to what he wants. And the film doesn’t dwell in the deep anguish of addiction and loss, so even its darkest moments it isn’t overwhelming. Perhaps that is a good thing, but it makes the film seem as if it never really hit its stride. Ultimately, Crazy Heart is a heart-felt mix of country, addiction, and Americana that is happiest when the music is playing.

A Single Man – A Review

A Single Man
A Single Man

It is a rare movie that can use style as a character, but Tom Ford’s A Single Man with its sparse dialog and rich cinematography uses that to its full power. Perhaps it is fitting that a fashion designer would use the perfection of one’s suits to signify a fastidiousness, yet it is more than just a movie the revels in the style of the early sixties, although with its nod to Mad Men it certainly does. It lets the physical describe the emotional, lets it be a mirror for the character’s emotional state.

The story is simple enough: a gay professor, George Falconer, spends the day preparing for his suicide while he flashes back at the life he led with his lover who was killed in a car crash. So overwhelmed with grief and isolated by the secretive live he has to lead he wants to die. It is almost comical when he finally tires to shoot himself and cannot because of the mess it will make.

All through the movie, though, what he finds though is not a uninterested world, but one that exists even in spite of his grief and which he can find something redeeming in. Which is not to say he is free to live an open life, but there is the suggestion that he is not isolated both in grief and socially. What makes the isolation even more stark is not just emotional, but the almost perfect world he inhabits: perfectly pressed suits; a glass house that is kept perfectly; a car without the least spot. He has ensconced himself in a perfection that he did not have when he met his departed lover at the end of WWII. Everything is so perfect that there is no room anything else. He has to either carry on or give up, since all he has is a perfection that cannot change. And it is in this sense that style becomes such a strong presence that it demands a certain response, a certain immobility. Ultimately, it is youth that saves and while it might be a cliche the young student is not as enamored with the fastidious life and can do without his suits and other things. Yet one has to wonder as the camera longingly gazes on the student can George break free of such hard worn habits.

A Single Man is a refreshingly gorgeous film that doesn’t waste its style on the fallacious, and its emotional depths will stay with one as long as the visual style.