Category: Slow Writing

Reagan at the Movies

Reagan at the Movies

You can take the movie actor out of Hollywood, but you can’t take Hollywood out of the actor. That’s right, this is about Ronald Reagan. Now that he has become our first filmgoer, movies have taken on a new significance in our political discourse. But not without some resistance. Reagan’s incessant plugging of Eleni and his suggestion that Rambo: First Blood, Part 2 had helped to guide his foreign policy have probably not won him any new friends. His praise of Eleni did not slow its progress to commercial oblivion, and Rambo remains beyond the pale for conservatives with pretenses of literacy. Even Robert Novak, who seems to regard himself as Reagan’s conservative superego, prefers to think that Sylvester Stallone is a liberal faker trying to discredit jingoism through parody. And Reagan’s confusion of movies with real life has inspired some ridicule, even from 60 Minutes, which not so long before had produced a fawning interview with Nancy Reagan.

Once upon a time, presidents were larger than the movies. The real or mythical exploits of Teddy Roosevelt were the subject of many one-reelers in the early years of the century, and Douglas Fairbanks based his screen persona on the Roosevelt legend, even imitating Roosevelt’s appearance in The Mollycoddle. Teddy’s cousin FDR didn’t quote movies, they quoted him. Republic Pictures once produced a film based on a mystery story sketch written by Franklin Roosevelt, and they titled it The President’s Mystery.

American presidents, unlike their Soviet counterparts, have not been known for their patronage of the movies. John Kennedy, the last president to inspire a biopic in the Teddy Roosevelt mold, apparently saw a lot of movies while he was president, but he kept quiet about it. Richard Nixon claimed to find inspiration in Franklin Schaffner’s Patton, but I suspect his enthusiasm for the film was more feigned than real, part of his carefully calculated construction of a mad bomber image.

Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, seems to be quoting movies all the time — both consciously and unconsciously. He can’t claim to be larger than the movies, and he can’t claim to be indifferent to them. His relationship to the movies is inevitably a part of his public persona. When he was running for governor of California in 1966, he played down his movie actor past, but that allowed his political opponents to control the public image of that past. Bedtime for Bonzo replaced King’s Row as his most celebrated film. As president, however, Reagan has taken charge of his movie past. He knows that even the most forgettable entertainers can become sentimentalized national treasures if they live long enough. Or perhaps he has just decided that if Shirley MacLaine can quote Kant in her memoirs, he should be able to quote movies.

Some would say the problem isn’t that Ronald Reagan still likes movies, it’s the movies that he likes. But I think the commentators who find Reagan’s support of Rambo unbecoming have missed the point. Reagan’s special genius as a politician has been his ability to make ressentiment seem virtuous and respectable. People like him because he makes them feel good about their anger. This is no small achievement. He succeeds so well because the rage and frustration he expresses is felt sincerely. He managed to keep his own sense of ressentiment alive against all odds. At the height of his fame and fortune as a movie star, he was able to feel passionately and keenly the injustice of the progressive income tax (and his apparently quixotic forty-year crusade against it has finally ended in a remarkable victory — a happy ending more improbable than Jimmy Stewart’s triumph in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). When he ranted about welfare chiselers, you knew he meant it. Her could count the dollars they were stealing from him.

Films like Rambo appeal to the same sense of popular ressentiment Ronald Reagan draws on so powerfully. These films have been around since the mid-1960s, but until the end of the 1970s, they were made for the worker who would like to take his job and shove it but has to accept a steady diet of shit; they weren’t made for Ronald Reagan. Then Hollywood discovered the special frustration of the lower middle classes: the perceived war on patriotism. It dropped the authority-baiting that seemed on the verge of subversiveness during the 1970s, in films like Rage, White Line Fever, Vigilante Force, and Over the Edge, and it began to make movies Ronald Reagan could be proud of once again. Who can blame him for welcoming this mutation in Hollywood’s product?

Of course, the rest of us don’t have to follow him. The sense of individual powerlessness Hollywood responded to during the 1970s was often real; the sense of national powerlessness that animates Hollywood’s “new patriotism” is contrived and hysterical. When Goliath imagines himself to be David, it can be dangerous. To see what happens when a “pitiful helpless giant” is unchained, we need look no farther than the Godzilla films. Or we can look at Tex Avery’s 1947 cartoon King-Size Canary. A cat, a mouse, and a canary discover a magic enlarging potion. A single gulp makes them grow tenfold. But as they bloat up to ridiculous and then frightening proportions — each trying to outgrow the other to survive — their nature does not change.

In the end, as the cat and mouse chase after each other, oblivious to everything around them, they innocently destroy entire cities, even the Grand Canyon. Finally the earth itself is threatened, but it’s only a seven-minute cartoon so they run out of “the stuff” before they can crush a continent. This is the one movie I’d recommend to Ronald Reagan.

Originally written in 1984 but unpublished until its appearance in Slow Writing: Thom Andersen on Cinema (The Visible Press, 2017).

 

What’s Wrong with this Picture? Almost Everything

What’s Wrong with this Picture? Almost Everything

As a Jesus-fried guru of ontological-hysteric cinema, George Landow once asked, “What’s wrong with this picture?” Almost everything, in the case of The Desert People, a movie which will have its first—and probably last—Buffalo showing tonight at 8 p.m. at the Waterfront Community Center, 95 4th St., Buffalo, as part of a documentary film series sponsored by Media Study/Buffalo.

A frisson-inducing first impression is left by a rock ‘n’ roll muzak score so insipid it might have been composed by Mike Curb after an overdose of Elavil. This to accompany a series of highway tracking shots that stare over-insistently on the model name of the car the five main characters are riding in (Gran Torino) or lose sight of the car entirely and end up strobing over a broken white line. Against these charming distractions appear the titles superimposed in the manner of late Roger Corman or the Universal optical department in the days when every picture from that benighted studio looked like every other.

What follows this mindless credit sequence is nothing less than a biker movie about intellectuals—a genre with neither a past nor a future. Most of the film’s fifty or so minutes are occupied by five long monologues delivered by five mid-twentyish city-billies who have apparently just travelled together to the Papago Indian reservation in Southern Arizona where they spent five weeks. These monologues are punctuated by more highway shots, more benumbing rock ‘n’ roll, and brief sequences of desultory conversation among the five as they ride in their white Torino through those peculiar Southern Californian landscapes which seem to promise a murdered husband in every yucca-covered culvert.

During the monologues, the camera always manages to station itself too close or too far away from the speakers, and they are forced to unburden themselves of their experiences with the Indians in incomprehensibly distracting—or, at best, irrelevant—settings that could have suggested themselves as appropriate only to the most psychotic location scout. The first desert person to make his appearance, a scholarly sort who might be a fledged anthropologist, is filmed while he stands on the sidewalk abutting a commercial district street that might belong to a small town as easily as to the semi-urban shopping-center extensions of a metropolis. His attempt to relate what he has learned of Papago culture is compromised by several embarrassing revelations—he is finally led by the momentum of his words to confess that the Indians wouldn’t tell him any of their legends because he missed the folklore season.

The scene drifts to one of those sandstone and Plexiglas restauranterias which represent California’s most archetypal contribution to Western civilization and are now beyond the farthest reaches of descriptive prose. Here we meet the first of the two female people who sojourned with the Papagos, a pristined beauty with straight center-parted blonde hair and turquoise bracelet, nursing a cup of coffee in a back booth. A middle-class existentialist, she could pass as a Godard heroine whose brain had been rotted by too much transcendental meditation. But however profound her reticence, she is continuously upstaged by the insidious rapport between the green vinyl upholstery of this anomieous coffee shop and the reversal color stock, which is imbued with a fateful predilection for the rancid end of the spectrum. But she is treated with more sympathy than the other woman in the film—a journalist from an East Coast feminist mag, who must deliver her monologue in a composition dominated entirely by the foreshortened hood of her rented Chrysler. A composition perhaps appropriate for an old-fashioned macho automobile commercial, hardly so for a discourse on feminist consciousness among Papago women.

And the fourth speaker is placed in front of what appears to be a large hotel. Yellow taxis load and unload in the background, and a figure in an incongruous grenadier’s uniform complete with plumed hat keeps this traffic moving with over-expansive arm gestures. Finally we meet the fifth traveller, himself a Papago Indian now living away from the reservation, who served as guide to the others. He speaks of the necessity and difficulty of preserving the Papago culture, first in English, then in Spanish, and finally in the language of the Papagos. This soliloquy is characterized in the publicity handout as “very moving and emotional.” Perhaps, if you understand the Papago dialect. As he speaks, he is standing in what appears to be a sand-barren desert with perhaps a dry lake as a boundary—but why is that lifeguard tower lurking over there in distance?

I have been asked not to reveal the ending of the film, so I will only say that it is, indeed, schematic enough to be ruined by the telling. And I will add that the special form of oblivion reserved for desert people is so appropriately off the wall that this ruination would be a loss.

The perpetuator of this devious violation of cinematic proprieties is David Lamelas, who according to the sparse information made available by Media Study/Buffalo, is an Argentinian artist who has emigrated to the land of the lotus eaters and bitten the hand that soothes him. His talent is negligible. With The Desert People he has realized the movie Tom Laughlin might have given us were he a punk rocker instead of a billy-come-lately hippy. And not even Michelangelo (Antonioni) has captured so astutely as David the special banality of the Southern California landscape, which here appears as a single superhighway in search of some place (any place) to go.

Rounding out the program at the Waterfront Center are three one- or two-reelers which pose equally vexing questions about the intimacy between film and reality: I, An Actress by George Kuchar, the founder of the lumpen Hollywood sensibility which John Waters has made commercially viable; Accident from the National Film Board of Canada, a quite chilling reconstruction of a glider plane crash; and Werner Herzog’s Precautions Against Fanatics, which got the benefit of the doubt from me just for its title. I understand it was made by the same Werner Herzog who directed such worthy films as Aguirre, the Wrath of God, and Stroszek (which will be unspooled later this term in the Squire Conference Theatre). This is an “early work,” but had Herzog produced nothing else, his place in the history of the practical joke—if not the cinema—would be assured. 

All in all, these movies make up a program that can be recommended to lovers of the eccentric, if to no one else. At the least, they demonstrate that oddball sorts can make films for less serious purposes than the solicitation of compassion for victims of UFO sightings.  

Originally published in The Spectrum, an independent student paper of SUNY Buffalo, to promote a screening organised by Thom Andersen at Media/Study Buffalo in February 1978. The essay appeared under the pseudonym Aurora Floyd.

 

Reagan at the Movies

The Verso Books blog has posted online the complete text of Thom Andersen’s essay “Reagan at the Movies”. The article was originally written for Artforum magazine in 1984 but feels particularly pertinent to the current political climate. The essay remained unpublished until its recent inclusion in “Slow Writing: Thom Andersen on Cinema.” An excerpt is below, and the full article can now be read online at Verso Books.

“Some would say the problem isn’t that Ronald Reagan still likes movies, it’s the movies that he likes. But I think the commentators who find Reagan’s support of Rambo unbecoming have missed the point. Reagan’s special genius as a politician has been his ability to make ressentiment seem virtuous and respectable. People like him because he makes them feel good about their anger. This is no small achievement. He succeeds so well because the rage and frustration he expresses is felt sincerely. He managed to keep his own sense of ressentiment alive against all odds. At the height of his fame and fortune as a movie star, he was able to feel passionately and keenly the injustice of the progressive income tax (and his apparently quixotic forty-year crusade against it has finally ended in a remarkable victory — a happy ending more improbable than Jimmy Stewart’s triumph in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). When he ranted about welfare chiselers, you knew he meant it. Her could count the dollars they were stealing from him.”
(Thom Andersen, Reagan at the Movies, 1984)

Slow Writing Frieze Review

The first review of “Slow Writing: Thom Andersen on Cinema” has appeared in the October 2017 issue of Friezeand is authored by Nick Pinkerton. Frieze subscribers can access the review online

“Because he has never made a living as a writer, Andersen has been free to pursue a criticism of enthusiasms, though one gets a sense of how much in commercial cinema fails to meet his standards. There is a stern loftiness in his authorial voice that makes me want to quibble with his conclusions even when I happen to agree with them. Yet, Andersen’s killjoy persona is hard to square with the man who, in The Thoughts That Once We Had, pays tribute to Maria Montez in Robert Siodmak’s South Seas fantasia Cobra Woman. Andersen rebuts one reviewer’s judgement of his film’s ‘tiresomely doctrinaire; and ‘quaint’ Leftism by noting that the audience at its public screening was a young one, and I think there’s much evidence that overtly ideologically grounded criticism of the sort Andersen practises is far from dated. […]

“In his review of the 2004 book The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood by David Thomson – a figure identified in the voice-over of Los Angeles Plays Itself of loving ‘everything about America except what’s worth loving’ – Andersen states that Thomson’s books ‘are fun to argue with.’ This is high praise of a kind that Slow Writing deserves. Andersen’s book is periodically brilliant and rarely less than absorbing; even, or perhaps especially, when you’re thinking about booting it across the room. It makes for a fine companion – and a worthy, vigorous opponent.”

—– Nick Pinkerton, Frieze, No. 190, October 2017

 

Thom Andersen in The Brooklyn Rail

The October 2017 issue of The Brooklyn Rail includes an except from our recently published book “Slow Writing.” Thom Andersen’s essay on David Lamelas’ 1974 film The Desert People is reproduced in full, alongside a new introduction by Mark Webber. The complete article can also be read online on the Rail’s website.

Thom Andersen explains some of the background to this curious article in the introduction to “Slow Writing” :-

“Occasionally I did feel like writing something about one of our shows—program notes that were sometimes written afterward and never published. I wrote for myself, in a style that would now be called ‘snarky.’ Maybe the words came easy for once; all I had to do was take dictation from my unconscious. I did manage to get a review of The Desert People by David Lamelas published in the student newspaper at SUNY Buffalo, despite an evident conflict of interest. I took advantage of the connections some students in the university film society had with the newspaper, and of course I used a pseudonym. My namesake, Aurora Floyd, was the protagonist and ostensible author of a middling Victorian novel. Although I loved The Desert People and I wanted to write about it, I thought a positive review was not appropriate, given the conflict of interest, and a seemingly hostile review might attract more students to the show. It didn’t.”
(Thom Andersen, Why I Did Not Become A Film Critic, 2017)