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.

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Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression – A Review

Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression
Morris Dickstein
Norton, 2009, 598 pg

Morris Dickstein’s Dancing in the Dark is an impressive piece of scholarship that should last as one of the most important books on the subject for some time. I won’t say it is the most important book of its kind because there are a few gaps in the material but as a work of literary, film and cultural criticism it is a solid work. While one may be forgiven for thinking the books is primarily literary criticism since most of the first 200 pages are an overview of the literature of the period, one of the strengths of the book is his appraisal of the films of the 30s. No cultural history of the time could be without an investigation of film history and his understanding of how the films reflected the times is solid. In particular, when he crosses the genres of film and literature he makes some interesting cases.

He is sympathetic to Stienbeck (perhaps the most famous and most criticized depression writer) who he sees as a good writer of the times, someone who did not get caught up in the proletarian novel like Michael Gold in Jews Without Money, and instead was more interested in observing as a scientist. This led to his weakness as an artist, because he tended to write in terms of types, but it also allowed him in books like In Dubious Battle to see the labor leaders not as heroic martyrs with a degree of complexity. His take on the Grapes of Wrath is positive, calling it one of the better books of the decade, even though it has some silly slang (I remember the use of tom catting as particularly egregious) and he finds the ending too much. It is when he mixes the his film criticism with his literary that his take on the Grapes of Wrath takes its full power. For Dickstein, Grapes the book cannot be understood without the movie. It is the movie that makes the book iconic. The faithful reproduction of the book as a film amplifies the power of his lost eden and smoothes over the awkward moments. It is an interesting take, because it forces the book to be appreciated in terms of another work, and while many works need context to be understood, works typically can stand on there own at some point.

Dickstein sees several trends in the works of the times. One is a sense of mobility that expresses a freedom and a sense that things will get better. Whether in the dance films of Rodgers and Astaire or the Screwball Comedies with their irreverence, they are not so much an escape into the fantasy of being rich, but a moment of complete freedom. These he contrasts to the desperate works that marked the early years of the depression. Books such as Jews With Money where the proletarian characters have to fight their way out of the slum, or the gangster films which are a kind of nihilistic Horatio Alger story where the gangster, usually from an ethnic background, rises to the top with his own muscle and smarts, but falls, much as the American economy had. These stories show the failure of the American dream and show a people desperate and unmoored from the society they thought would hold them together. This image is reflected in countless books such as Tobacco Road and most powerfully, Miss Lonely Hearts, one of Dickstein’s primer works of the decade.

Not having read or seen many of the works it is hard to gauge some of his claims. But the works I do know I found his take to be insightful and nuanced, even if I didn’t agree with it completely, such as his take on parts of the Grapes of Wrath and the USA Trilogy. His take, for example, on Citizen Kane goes beyond the technical or the political controversies that occurred when it was first released. Instead, he sees it, along with Meet John Doe, as an examination of a dark populism, the kind that led to the rise of Hitler, and began to concern artists as World War II approached. Citizen Kane, Meet John Doe, and Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust, all reflect the end of an idealized dream of the people working together for a better society. It is a quite a change from the initial desperation and despair that led to the rise of the belief in the common man. The belief didn’t die just from a few men, but the works of art began to reflect a fuller picture, one where hope can be channeled into dark desires.

While Dancing in the Dark is an impressive bit of scholarship, it suffers in a few areas, in part I think, because to be as expansive as I would like it would be at least twice the size. First, he tends to concentrate on the best of the era, even if you might not think a particular book is good, it is the best of its class. In literature that isn’t such a problem, but in film I would like to have seen more than a passing reference to the silly films like those of Shirley Temple that were so popular. Another area that is missing, and is often missing in studies of the era, is a discussion of radio. Except for the usual Father Coughlin reference, radio doesn’t seem to exist. The lack of coverage of radio is indicative of the large lack of other cultural products of the area, from magazines to comics. I would like to see more of these ephemeral items. He does talk about musical theater, but I get the impression that is because he likes musicals. Musicals were certainly an important art form of the era and he has some insights, but I couldn’t help but feel he included them because he loves them.

Those criticisms aside, Dancing in the Dark is an excellent book and filled with fascinating insights to the era. It should, as it has done for me, make anyone who reads it want to see the movies and read the books he brings to life with his descriptions.

World War II: Now In HD Color – A Review

I wasn’t sure if the History Channel’s World War II in HD was going to be more over the top disaster/war channel material, the kind of thing that celebrates the extreme nature of the subject, rather than a respectful presentation. But two episodes in, the show seems to be in the latter camp. It is an American history, not only in focus, but in vocabulary: the narrator uses we/our often when describing American forces; and the term greatest generation has shown up once. Yet it isn’t jingoistic, just proud; Steven Ambrose had nothing to do with this, fortunately. Seeing combat in color makes the war seem more recent, as if it was an extension of the Vietnam fotage. Distance gives one a chance to apprase the past; closeness blurs the opportunity, and the remaking of the war in color has the ability to make the war seem rosy again, America’s greates monent—in other words, the return of the Greatest Generation dreams. Yet the show also has some of the most graphic images of that or any war and the film makers haven’t refrained from showing the dead nor the wounded, esspecially those undergoing medical treatment. At times it can be disturbing, but those are the rewards of war and considering the sanitization of the last 3 wars, it is a needed reminder.

I don’t know how many times the war needs to be watched, but if you are going to watch the war it is a quality production wrapped in some HD hype.

How the Beatles Destroyed Rock n Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music – A Review

How the Beatles Destroyed Rock n Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music

Elijah Wald, 336 pg.

The title is inflammatory and in many ways does the book a disservice because most of the book has little to do with the Beatles, or even Rock and Roll. The title after the colon is really what the book is about and for anyone interested in
American popular music from the late 1800’s to through the Jazz era and up to the birth of Rock and Roll the book is an excellent resource. Wald has done an amazing job at exploring the how American music developed and what the people at the time thought of the music, not what latter critics have said about the music.

One of his main themes is that popular music until quite recently was about dancing and that most musicians would have played dance music if not exclusively, then at many times during their career. The demand for dance music, therefore, kept music less segregated. Since people did not have ways to listen to music at home they would go out and would dance. And since the lack of music affected everyone, a broader range of people would go out to dance. The dancers, then, would be diverse and request from musicians not only current songs or dances, but older ones too. Even musicians whose primary music was not the dance hits of the day would know some dance songs. For example, when John Lomax recorded Muddy Waters in Mississippi he was not only playing his blues numbers, but hits like The Chattanooga Choo Choo. Nothing remains, though, of this music because when critics and writers discovered musicians they were looking for what set them apart from other musicians, not what made them similar. The need to create differences continues throughout the book so that many musicians such as Elvis rose to stardom on their differences, but were great fans of the popular music of the day even though they never performed it in public.

Wald continues to point out these connections throughout the book in part to make the case that the history of music has not been by those who listened to it, but those who wrote about it, namely the critics. The critics, according to Wald, are more focused on the artistic aspects of the music, and perhaps the historical, but not on what they meant for the listener. The result is often dismissive treatment of pop hits, which leads latter listeners who use the critics as a guide to older music to take misunderstand the role of the music the critics praise and what was popular. Jazz is particularly prone to this phenomena. For example, the Jazz that Louis Armstrong is most known for is the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, but those were groups formed only for the recordings which were limited to 3 minutes max, and what Armstrong was really playing had a wider range of influences, was dance-able, and had a slower tempo. Like Muddy Waters, none of the more audience oriented music survives.

Jazz is the strength of the book and he details how when Jazz began to sweep the country it wasn’t the improvisational centered music we know now, nor the Hot Fives and Sevens music either, but something people could dance to, and that was assumed to be new and free. However, most musicians could read music and often if they made up the work “faked it” they would play it over and over as it created.  Long solos and fast tempos did not work for those who came to the shows to dance. There were other opportunities for people like Duke Ellington later to break free of the dancers, because they were playing for professionals at the Cotton Club and were not quite as constrained. Wald also does not think the history of white musicians robbing blacks of ideas is exactly accurate. Racism prevented many musicians from succeeding like white musicians, but a figure like Paul Whiteman has is responsible some developments in Jazz that he is often not credited with, namely the introduction of the arrangement styles that latter grew into Swing. There were better arrangers, Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, but Whiteman was the most popular Jazz musician and Wald believes that even if his music is to sweet now, he is relevant.

All of this underlies Wald’s idea that what we claim is great now, is really transitory and as the music changes so does the interpretation of its relevance. This may be a novel insight in music criticism, but in other fields such as literature and film this isn’t exactly new. One gets the impression that he sees The Beatles loosing their throne; at this date I don’t see it. The title, which I have yet to explain, refers to how Rock and Roll which had been more dance oriented and coming out of a mix of country and rhythm and blues was change into a more pop sensibility that was made more for listening and less for dancing. It wouldn’t be until Disco that dance would really be part of a musical trend.

Ultimately, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock n Roll is a good history of American Popular music, but once it gets to the Rock and Roll era it begins to loose a little steam. His insistence that popular music is dance based muddies the story once Rock and Roll comes along. He is correct, though, in noting how American Popular music has gone from a more cross cultural and cross generational music to a very niche based music, much to its detriment.

The Ugly American An Appreciation in the NY Times

MICHAEL MEYER in the NY Times has a very good appreciation of the Ugly American. It is one of those mid fifties books that were held so much cache in there day, but not seem lost in to a different time as literary styles change. Yet there is a salience in reading them. Despite its weaknesses The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is still interesting and Meyer makes The Ugly American seem so too, not so much as a piece of literature but of Americana, a time capsule.

The novel is a series of linked sketches of real people that Lederer, a Navy captain who served as special assistant to the commander in chief of United States forces in the Pacific and Asian theater, and Burdick, a political scientist, encountered overseas during the buildup to Vietnam. The book was originally commissioned by W. W. Norton as nonfiction, but an editor suggested it might be more effective as a novel. “What we have written is not just an angry dream,” the authors note in the introduction, “but rather the rendering of fact into fiction.” Yet the book’s enduring resonance may say less about its literary merits than about its failure to change American attitudes. Today, as the battle for hearts and minds has shifted to the Middle East, we still can’t speak Sarkhanese.

<a href=”http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1568582463?ie=UTF8&tag=bythefir-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=1568582463″>The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit</a><img src=”http://www.assoc-amazon.com/e/ir?t=bythefir-20&l=as2&o=1&a=1568582463&#8243; width=”1″ height=”1″ border=”0″ alt=”” style=”border:none !important; margin:0px !important;” />