Thursday, 12 August 2010


The Dream Life is not only a fascinating look at what might the most interesting time in modern cinema, but it's also as good a study of the Sixties as I've read. Yet it's most compelling point may be one it never makes explicitly, namely that although movies helped create the mythology of the Sixties, they actually lagged far behind it; music, in that sense was a far more important medium, and Hollywood was acting a channel for the lifestyle that music not only celebrated, but helped create.

This is not to sell short the effect of films like Bonnie And Clyde on the nation's consciousness, although, as J Hoberman also makes plain, the effect B&C had on other filmmakers might have been even more telling. Yet Hoberman's focus is always on the bigger picture and the wider scene; to his credit he follows the stories so well he helps us remember just how chaotic the Sixties actually were, as well as how lame some of Hollywood's attempts to take part and cash in on it were. Its title is ironic; a life of dreams as we see on screen, but also the dream life of idyllic indulgence we were promised by sex drugs and rock and roll. His ability to involve you in the moment, of conjuring up the realities of the time, is that of an astute historian, which as an acute film critic, he must be.

Hoberman's Sixties start with the election of John Kennedy, and extend to the deposing of Richard Nixon. Generally I tend to think of it more as beginning with Kennedy's assassination (the same month as the Beatles first release in the US) and ending with Nixon's election, but it's the same ballpark, and it allows Hoberman a chance to deal with the specific differences between PT109 and John Wayne's The Alamo. From that starting point, through the paranoid strain of early 60s political novels/films (Advice and Consent, Seven Days In May, Manchurian Candidate) we watch the era morph into one of rebellion, violence, and nihilisim.

Here he gives Peckinpah his full due, but there isn't space for Sergio Leone (or indeed many foreign films, apart from Blow Up, and a little bit of El Topo, which to me may be the quintessential Sixties movie) and he even gets the title of Fistful of Dollars wrong. . There's also no mention of the revolution of porn; Hoberman talks about 'Deep Throat' the source, but not Deep Throat the film, which was the source (in the other sense) of the nickname. Deep Throat (and Behind The Green Door) were hugely influential in changing attiitudes toward sex, and provoking considerable feedback. He dismisses The Devil In Miss Jones, porn's attempt at Bergman, as a gross out a la Pink Flamingos (another film of significant cultural impact).

The central figure in all this turns out to be Warren Beatty, with Parallax View, Bonnie And Clyde and Shampoo all being seminal Sixties movies (and, I'd suggest, Reds being a kind of eulogy for a Sixties that never was). His instincts are good and his heart is often in the right place. But as the counter-culture morphed into the over-the-counter culture, Beatty can also be seen as the poster boy for the shallowness of Hollywood, the overwhelming triumph of ego and greed, over story and sense, of surface over shadow, of market over manifesto. There's a whole book to be written there!

What Hoberman is exceptionally good at is making connections between seemingly disparate films and the events they reflect, like Dirty Harry, Joe, and the tv series All In The Family. He's also cogent in tracing the lingering effects of the Sixties in Seventies classics like The Conversation, which leads me to consider what I'd think are revisionist versions of the Sixties, films like American Graffiti or Animal House. But what strikes me most of all is the importance of westerns in the first era when people were proclaiming the western dead. There are important parts for Ulzana's Raid, for Dirty Little Billy, for Doc, for The Culpepper Cattle Company, Bad Company, and many more. The self-destructive figure of Sam Peckinpah stands out, as he should. It's easy to see in his lashing out at the indulgence permitted him, the kind of Peckinpah who helped make Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, the ultimate spilling out of Fifties frustration. Hoberman's book is the kind of study which not only covers it own subject well, but suggests far more connections to follow. It's a must-have reference work.

The Dream Life by J Hoberman The New Press, £12.99 ISBN 1565849787


Anonymous said...

To suggest that Beatty is shallow is preposterous. He is extremely well read and intelligent.

Michael Carlson said...

You're right in the literal sense, and my point wasn't quite as clear as it ought to have been. I praised his movies during this period...but
at the same time cant lose the perception that Hollywood began following the superficiality of lifestyle trends...and not all that well...rather than set them (as Bonnie and Clyde did, arguably...