As a principal part of popular culture, cinema both resembles and resists its time. This was particularly true during the Cold War era as the movies proved themselves to be not simple, escapist entertainment, but a malleable medium, shaped by the filmmakers’ own beliefs, altered by the obligations of a commercial industry, and finally buffed by the political order.
J. Hoberman’s recent book, An Army of Phantoms, is a brilliant, nimble, and nuanced look at a tumultuous decade, 1946 to 1956, and how cinema articulated the chilling moods and manias of the era. His agile, jocular, often startling take on this heated period places cinema squarely in the middle of a politically induced hysteria that melds Joe McCarthy’s witch-hunts, the rise of civil rights, the Korean War, a nascent youth culture, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and a significant unsettling of the film industry itself. With films selected by Hoberman, this eponymous film series replicates the hysteria with its anxious, cautionary, and sometimes paranoid parables of the age. From William Wellman’s delirious drama about God’s own radio show, The Next Voice You Hear, to Elia Kazan’s alarmist exposé of a coming plague, Panic in the Streets; from Sam Fuller’s gritty chronicle of the cruelties of war, The Steel Helmet, to Laslo Benedek’s tabloid telling of a new generation of rebellion, The Wild One: An Army of Phantoms captures the hottest decade of the Cold War with all the unnerved, high-spirited, and irrational emotions that combative moment could muster.
J. Hoberman has curated this series for us, based on his newest book, An Army of Phantoms, which was released in 2011 and will be published in paperback this month. Until recently, J. Hoberman was the senior film critic at the Village Voice where he elevated the astuteness, breadth, and readability of its pages, mixing his reviews with coverage of the mainstream and media works of more renegade intention, such as Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, which Hoberman nominated in a Sight and Sound poll as the greatest film ever made. His attention has also settled upon book length studies, including The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties, Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds, Vulgar Modernism: Writing on Film and Other Media, and Midnight Movies, his paean to the lowly, written with Jonathan Rosenbaum. In 2008, the San Francisco International Film Festival honored Hoberman with the prestigious Mel Novikoff Award, "bestowed on an individual or institution whose work has enhanced the filmgoing public’s knowledge and appreciation of world cinema."
Hoberman introduces two of the films and, on October 7, presents an overview of An Army of Phantoms before the screening of John Ford’s Fort Apache; a book signing follows. In addition, as part of our ongoing series Afterimage: Filmmakers and Critics in Conversation, Hoberman joins filmmaker Alex Cox following the screening of Walker on Saturday, October 6.
Steve Seid, Video Curator