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Act One of the media circus

The Dream Life: Movies, Media and the Myth of the Sixties; J. Hoberman; The New Press: 462 pp., $29.95

October 12, 2003|Richard Schickel | Richard Schickel is the author most recently of "Woody Allen: A Life in Film." His latest documentary film is "Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin."

One of the best movie critic-historians we have is J. (for James) Hoberman. He has a syncretic sense of the past and a shrewd sense of the many ways it affects the present. He is an excellent analyst of individual works, with a keen eye for telling details and a thoughtful way of locating them in the overall context of a career or the zeitgeist of their moment. And he writes well -- a clear, sober prose that presents his judgments in a muted, but never muddy, manner.

That said, it must also be said that his new book (the third to bear his byline this year), "The Dream Life," is for me a deeply depressing work. This has little to do with Hoberman's skills -- though, as you will shortly see, I do have one quarrel with him -- and everything to do with his topic, which is summed up in his subtitle, "Movies, Media and the Myth of the Sixties."

To greatly oversimplify his thesis, he holds that in that period the relationship between what we used to call "the press" and what we used to call "current events" changed radically. The instrument of that change was, of course, television, with its premium on imagery, its inability to convey any idea requiring more than a few seconds to explicate.

Simultaneously, as Hoberman says, "recording technology ... rendered reality malleable." This was more than merely a matter of rearranging that reality by, say, compositing photographs. It was, more subtly, a matter of creating images by which political and quasi-political figures came to stand for ideals (or fears) that were melodramatically and absurdly heightened -- to the point at which these figures detached themselves from fully rational consideration or control. As Hoberman says, "American social reality" became "a media circus arranged for the benefit of an image-gorged audience."

All right, the tabloids had been doing this sort of thing for years. But it became an imperative, which the other media -- radio, magazines, newspapers -- were incapable of resisting. On the last page of his book, Hoberman presents this arresting portrait of what Ronald Reagan's "morning in America" really looked like: "Elvis blurs with Nixon, JFK and AuH2O [Goldwater] combine. Bonnie and Clyde are dead at the Alamo, but Davy Crockett dances in the dream life with Dirty Harry. Eldridge Cleaver and Patty Hearst will join the Republican Party."

He could go on and on. He does go on and on in "The Dream Life," which is not so much a social history of its chosen decade but an all-encompassing history of the ways in which that history was distorted by its media representations. The entire book is based on secondary sources -- it is rich almost to the point of excess in loopy quotations from TV and print sources about the events (and pseudo-events) they both covered and created -- because, come right down to it, there are no primary sources for the story he has to tell.

That's why Hoberman's book is so depressing. We can see in the events, now some 40 years past -- in, for example, the almost totally fraudulent youth and black "revolutions" (which existed largely in the minds of their instant "stars," turning out threatening crowds for the TV cameras and posturing menacingly for the lenses) -- the beginnings of our own reality. These mob scenes were fueled by a gathering paranoia, a sense of repressive conspiracies surrounding "the kids." This, in turn, created the answering paranoia of the Johnson and Nixon administrations, pursuing their manifestly unjust war, which eventually led to the more sophisticated spin-doctoring of subsequent administrations, which guarantees our passive acceptance now of equally dubious foreign adventures.

There is, I think, a direct line from the "media circus" Hoberman describes to the image of the president hopping out of a fighter jet on a picturesquely situated aircraft carrier, in full "Top Gun" regalia, to announce the end of a war that had not -- has not, in fact -- ended. In short, lying by imagery has now become systemic, the "circus" our only public reality, with the media largely supine participants in their own manipulation, selling the shards of their souls for access to liars.

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