“The Movie Industry’s Great Triumph”: J. Hoberman on Make My Day, Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump
The narrative in which New Hollywood was wiped out by Jaws, Star Wars and the rise of the blockbuster that followed, paralleling the elections of Reagan and Thatcher in a retreat from the rebellions of the ‘60s and ‘70s, is a very familiar one. J. Hoberman has written a trilogy of books exploring the interwoven histories of the US and its cinema: The Dream Life: Movies, Media and the Mythology of the Sixties, Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War and now Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan. Drawing on his work from the period when he began working for the Village Voice as a film critic, Make My Day engages with now-forgotten movies like Iron Eagle, as well as far more iconic films like Ghostbusters, E.T. and Back to the Future to explore how the ideology behind Reagan’s rise was reflected even in seemingly innocent genre fare. It also treats Reagan as a creation of the media—he was the first movie star president, and he knew how to market a persona created by his history as an actor, paving the way for Donald Trump to ride The Apprentice to the presidency.
Filmmaker: It seems like other presidents have been creatures of the media of their times: newspapers long before cinema existed, while JFK benefited from TV. Your book sees Reagan as a cinematic president. Does Trump’s presidency fit a period where cinema has lost its central currency in the culture?
Hoberman: The short answer would be yes. I think that Trump is maybe the most media-savvy president so far, but unlike Reagan or even JFK, his medium isn’t the movies.
Filmmaker: One thing that surprised me about the book was the number of movies Reagan sees and that he had fairly broad taste. Richard Peña criticized Bush Jr. for not seeing any foreign films, but the idea that Trump would even see something like Lady Bird or a Wes Anderson film is unthinkable.
Hoberman: Reagan looked at movies from a professional point of view. He went back to the early ‘30s and revisited movies that he must have seen when he was a youth. He kept up movies to a surprising degree. He didn’t like movies that were too violent, he didn’t like horror films, although he did watch some of those things. But what struck me about his viewing pattern was that he was still emotionally connected to the industry.
Filmmaker: Your writing about films like Iron Eagle and Top Gun has a tone of amused disdain that’s missing from most political film criticism now, which is a lot more angry.
Hoberman: I think those reviews made my objections very clear. Maybe that’s just my nature. It was enjoyable for me to mock those movies as I criticized them, but I did really hate them. I was disgusted. Maybe it’s healthier, or it was for me, to laugh at them at the same time.
Filmmaker: There’s now a fair amount of acclaim for Tony Scott. Spielberg has always been fairly respected, but starting a bit before Scott’s death, there was a reevaluation of him as a great visual stylist without much concern for his films’ politics. When you’ve taught these films, have you come across a certain nostalgic attitude from your students?
Hoberman: I only taught Top Gun once, in Cooper Union. I showed it in conjunction with Wall Street. It’s hard for me to remember, but I think I had to alternate reels. The technology for doing double projections got worse and worse as time went on. I am aware that Tony Scott was a big factor in the notion of vulgar auteurism, and I understand what people were saying, but I can’t really look at Top Gun from a formalist viewpoint. To me, it was odious in 1986 and still is.
Filmmaker: The first part of your trilogy about U.S. politics and cinema, The Dream Life, was published back in 2003. When did you first conceive of this project, which is now very extended?
Hoberman: Oh my goodness. I had an idea like this when I was an undergraduate in the late ‘60s, which would’ve been when I read Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler and thought “Oh, there should be a book called From Strangelove to Reagan,” but I didn’t really get into it till the early ‘90s. At first, it was going to be one book, but it got so unwieldy that I realized it would have to be several volumes. I started with the ‘60s because in some respects, I’m a lazy writer and I like to do the easiest things first. Writing about the ‘60s for me was pure pleasure.
Filmmaker: One thing I find most interesting in the book is the emphasis on a forced innocence starting around 1975 as a backlash against the disillusionment of the counterculture. Most people would say a film like Close Encounters of the Third Kind isn’t about politics, but it’s about a family man in his 30s who has an experience that renders him increasingly childlike and helpless. You can say that’s what’s happened to America in the ‘80s, without trying to turn it into a simplistic allegory.
Hoberman: That’s quite valid, but it’s not a simplistic allegory because I don’t think it’s a conscious one on Spielberg’s part. Spielberg was operating on his own instincts as an artist. One reason the movie struck such a chord with audiences is that it did provide a metaphor for something that was going on couched as a transcendent experience.
Filmmaker: You have a chapter called “Nashville Vs. Jaws.” It feels now like there was this real dialogue going on in Hollywood cinema during the period, even if the more conservative films basically won. I think American cinema is really suffering from a sense that we’re missing the possibility of that back-and-forth.
Hoberman: It began to happen in the late ‘60s. You no longer had this hegemony which had existed in Hollywood since the mid ‘30s, with a few exceptions. Film noir was a pessimistic mode, and there were individual filmmakers like Sam Fuller and Robert Aldrich who made dissident movies. But it really happened on a large scale in the ‘60s, particularly with Westerns. When the industry retrenched in the ‘70s, it became more monolithic. The possibility for really critical movies disappeared. There are a few films that I talk about in Make My Day which represent the end of that. Cutter’s Way, The King of Comedy and Blow Out are among them, but nothing like what you had in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s when the industry went into crisis and the public was so polarized.
Filmmaker: One thing the book brought back was the feeling that when Oliver Stone made Salvador and Platoon and Platoon turned into a huge hit, he felt like a breath of fresh air. He seemed like he could be a rebel in the mainstream in a way that Alex Cox turned out not to be able to. By the early ‘90s, I got very sick of Stone and he seems much less interesting now. Did you have that sense at the time?
Hoberman: I thought that Oliver Stone’s early films, going into Born on the Fourth of July and JFK or even The Doors, were messy but powerful and interesting. For me, he lost it with Nixon. There, he seemed trapped in his own limitations as a political thinker. That was not his strong point. Making impassioned, visceral movies around certain charged political scenarios was.
Filmmaker: The idea of entertainment as a crucial part of capitalism and American identity runs through the book. How do you think that was expressed differently in the Reagan era than before?
Hoberman: Everything became ever more evident. Kennedy was a figure in popular culture even before he was president, but with Reagan, it was impossible to ignore. As I say in the book, there was initially a lot of resistance to say that, to see him as someone who emerged from mass culture. By his second term, it was evident to all. He was the movie industry’s great triumph. He came out of the so-called golden age of Hollywood with a bag of tricks which he had completely internalized and was able to make them work one last time on a mass scale. The movies don’t have the same centrality in American culture anymore. Reagan was the culmination.
Filmmaker: Amusing Ourselves to Death, written while Reagan was president, has emerged as a key text to understand how Trump got elected. At the same time, dystopian sci-fi seems like social realism right now. There’s been tons of cultural criticism about this moment which seems really impotent. If you could get Trump’s base to read The Handmaid’s Tale, Brave New World or even Guy Debord, it would never do anything to change their minds.
Hoberman: I don’t think one can reach Trump’s base through rational means, maybe not even through irrational ones. I have to confess I didn’t see Trump coming. I didn’t take him seriously until he started winning the primaries. I thought it was just a publicity stunt. I never saw The Apprentice, so what did I know? My sense of Trump was completely based on living in New York when he was a tabloid fixture. I used to think that if the rest of the country had the Village Voice of the ‘80s and ‘90s, when Wayne Barrett and other reporters were skewering him on a weekly basis, they would’ve understood he was a fraud. As far as Trump’s base goes—without being unduly hysterical about this, one has to look at the history and appeal of fascism. The appeal of a demagogue goes beyond fascist ideology. Understanding the media and even things that are new and awful as a result of the internet will only get you so far. You have to understand why this stuff appeals to people. I wrote a review of Enzo Traverso’s new book on fascism for Bookforum and wound up with this quote from Adorno, where Hitler’s lies and exaggerations and clownish behavior were intrinsic to his appeal. [“The fascist agitator is usually a masterly salesman of his own psychological defects […] Hitler was liked, not in spite of his cheap antics, but just because of them.”] You’d think you could criticize it and people would turn away from him, but they liked that. It’s the same thing with Trump.
Filmmaker: At the Village Voice, you wrote frequently about Hollywood films but it was clear that you had an aesthetic which didn’t treat them as the center of cinema. That’s now very rare for anyone with a fairly large platform. Do you see any possibility of that sensibility returning?
Hoberman: Print has become so diminished that it’s hard to see it returning there, on a regular basis. I was very lucky to be writing for the Voice in that I was able to advance my own interests and agenda. I don’t know where else that would’ve been possible.
Filmmaker: Well, there was a circuit of alt-weekly papers where, for instance, Dave Kehr and Jonathan Rosenbaum were able to write 3,000-word essays. The Chicago Reader still exists and I think Ben Sachs is doing quite good work for it, but he has much less space. Most alt-weeklies have gone out of business. There was a promise the internet could replace them, but even on sites that purport to be about progressive politics, you get four articles about whatever Hollywood film they think will be big that week.
Hoberman: I don’t want to make it seem like I was the only person doing this. What I meant was that the Voice, at least when I started writing there, was essentially a writer’s paper. That wasn’t just true for film criticism, but also for theater, art and music. Here was a context for what I did there. I just don’t see that anymore. It’s not just that there’s no space for that kind of film criticism, it’s that there’s no platform for cultural reporting tied to a specific place, in my case New York City and a particular editorial mission. The internet is what we have now, and if anything, the audience is even more divided.