Subtext-spotting is a fun parlor game and one of the pleasures of this profession, but in An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War (out March 15 from the New Press), senior Village Voice critic J. Hoberman attempts something far more comprehensive (from which I’ve already begun cherrypicking). In this “prequel” to 2003’s The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties, Hoberman stacks newspaper clippings, FBI files and production memos from the era of the Red Menace alongside word of atomic tests and geopolitical rumblings, juxtaposed with cinematic fantasies of war with the redskins and invaders from the red planet. Writing in sardonically breathless present tense, with a self-referential critical vocabulary, he puts the reader on red-alert, alive to cinema and culture’s push-pull authorship of American archetype. It’s an encyclopedic riff, and you can play along when BAM screens key films from the book February 18-24, and Mondays in March.
An Army of Phantoms begins during World War II, as the Daily Worker heralds Warner Bros’s Mission to Moscow: “I’m intrigued by the fact,” Hoberman told me over email last week, “that Hollywood’s wartime height was also the period when American communists enjoyed maximum influence—the industry and the movement declined together, although not in the same way.” The fall of the American Left parallels TV’s leveling of the Hollywood monolith—the movies becoming, Hoberman notes, just another segment of what was about to be called “the media.” The HUAC neutralizes Hollywood’s consciousness-raising New Dealers and Reds, and after Korea the movies read as manifestations of national fads in an economic climate where even six-year-olds are avid consumers (of Davy Crockett coonskin caps, for one). The book’s structure traces a parallel arc, its initial focus on production histories and obsessive name-naming shifting to more cultural noise: following the cults of McCarthy and Monroe, James Dean and Elvis, the book ends with guilty lefty apostate Elia Kazan’s celebrity-culture cassandriad, A Face in the Crowd, though Hoberman sees “a somewhat optimistic trajectory,” suggesting to me that “the ‘cultural noise’ of 1956 set the stage for the development of a new left,” with which The Dream Life picks up.
At BAM, Hoberman picks personal favorites and curios from Army of Phantoms‘s many case studies, from the iconic—Don Siegel’s rivetingly economical doubled-edged allegory Invasion of the Body Snatchers—to the somehow emblematic: will a flood of partisans drown out catcalls when The Fountainhead screens in NYC for the first time in years? “Americans are suckers for the cult of individual action,” Hoberman said by way of explaining the subversiveness of leering, on-the-make noir antiheroes like Ralph Meeker in Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, or Richard Widmark in Sam Fuller’s Pickup on South Street. In Army of Phantoms, Widmark’s self-interest even in matters of atomic security is cast as an affront to a populace frequently inspired by John Wayne’s go-it-alone cavalry officers and G-Men, who take up the barely comprehensible burdens of the free world. The word “mobilized” appears frequently in the book, but, Hoberman explained, “You don’t necessarily inspire mobilization by showing a mobilized populace. It has more to do with constructing heroic and/or inspirational movie star leaders”—like the public health official, also played by Widmark, suppressing contagion and the press in Kazan’s Panic in the Streets (also noteworthy for its jazzy open-air cinematography, on location in New Orleans).
An Army of Phantoms‘s prologue, director William Wellman and superproducer Dore Schary’s 1950 The Next Voice You Hear, must, ironically, be seen to be believed: oozing presumption from its scripture-citing opening credits, the film concerns God, who interrupts the regularly scheduled broadcasting on the radio—not, Hoberman notes, the television—for six consecutive nights, on all stations, in all languages. The Word is filtered, naturally, through the perspective of the Smith family, of Suburbia, USA, whose financial and emotional stresses are eased by the seemingly personal reassurance of the divine, as the film offers a thoroughly vague, wildly ambitious synecdoche for the postwar world order.
Pregnant mother Mary is played, virginally, by tremulous Nancy Davis, who had just met her future husband: Ronald Reagan. Hoberman told me that nostalgia (“as we know it, a post-60s formulation”) and “TV and MTV” will face off in The Dream Life‘s sequel, currently in production and titled Found Illusions: The Romance of the Remake and the Triumph of Reaganocracy—a rise which climaxed just as Hoberman began reviewing regularly for the Voice. “Having Reagan in or recently out of the White House,” he said, “was, from a cine-historical point of view, an incalculable gift.”