My concern is with a general movement of reaction and conservative reassurance in the contemporary Hollywood cinema.
— Andrew Britton in Blissing Out: The Politics of Reaganite Entertainment (1986)

Certain critical terms – not unlike Andrew Britton’s “blissing out”, derived from Pauline Kael’s description of E.T. as a “bliss-out”, and used to describe the unifying stylistic tropes of eighties Hollywood movies – retain their critical cache. They can stand in for whole positions of thought explicated over many pages, and can evoke, with a brief phrase, all the ideas and feelings behind the term. As useful short-hand they justify themselves as jargon. A quick, common language we can all use to refer to things far more complicated, perfectly summed-up in a concise phrase. Ultimately it is language, and it lasts because it is useful.

J. Hoberman, long time movie reviewer for the now defunct The Village Voice, can lay claim to such a term. His place in film critical history is largely immutable because of it, though he is the author of countless books and volumes of essays. “Vulgar modernism,” the now well-known term, was coined by Hoberman in an essay of the same name for Artforum in 1982. In it he describes a certain kind of art that is low in cultural status (vulgar), but innovative in its irony, self-reflexiveness, and formal playfulness (modernism). This review is not an explication of Hoberman’s lovely term, but I for one can not watch Jerry Lewis, Frank Tashlin, or Tex Avery without thinking of the term and of Hoberman. He will essentially be watching over my shoulder every time I watch Lewis or Tashlin, in the same way that Bazin whispers in my ear every time Chaplin marches (or is he waddling as Bazin suggests?) to the gallows at the end of Verdoux: “Look what we’ve done to the Tramp.”

Hoberman’s newest book, Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan, is a filmic, cultural, and political history of the eighties, in which the three don’t stand separate, but merge into one history of the Reagan era. A Frankfurt school critical inquiry of the Hollywood movies and politics of the decade, some of the text’s key touchstones include Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, especially early in the book. The parallels with a seminal Frankfurt school text, Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler, are hard to ignore. Both are studies of an era marked by the resurgence or the inchoate days of reactionary politics (Weimar Germany/Reagan America) seen through the lens of the popular cinema of their respective times. Both texts ask: how do the movies of such an age, both stylistically and thematically, reflect and inform the anxieties and aspirations of its people? In the case of Kracauer, German abstract expressionism was not a mere formalist trend, but an expression of deep Weimar-era psychological anxieties, and the failure to adequately address them led to the rise of fascism. Indeed, the subtitle of his seminal text is A Psychological History of the German Film. For Hoberman, the escapist and feel-good movies of the Reagan era are not merely corporate money-making instruments of the big studios, but reflect and inform the cultural nostalgia of their days.

From Caligari to Hitler by Siegfried Kracauer

Hoberman unites the various Hollywood blockbusters of the eighties – including the Spielberg and Lucas feel-goods (movies once described by Jonathan Rosenbaum as “founded on the exaltation of arrested development as a higher principle”), Back to the Future, the Rambo series, The Terminator, Sudden Impact, Ghostbusters – as all containing, in their various ways and to varying degrees, a current of reactionary nostalgia. They mark a resurgence of the illusions of America following the disillusionments of the sixties and early seventies, a sort of re-illusionment. Hoberman writes:

If the Sixties and early Seventies were, at least in part, periods of disillusionment, the late Seventies and Eighties brought a process of re-illusionment. Its agent was Ronald Reagan. His mandate wasn’t simply to restore America’s economy and sense of military superiority but also, even more crucially, its innocence. Lyndon Johnson’s war, Richard Nixon’s crimes, and Jimmy Carter’s willingness to reduce “America” to the level of common sense made Reagan not only possible but necessary. (p. 17)

He goes on:

Reagan’s movie was America – or rather, America as it imagined itself […] Sincerely cornball, he reversed the process of disillusionment. In his rhetoric and scenarios, as in the films of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg and the fictional character Rocky, America’s lost illusions were found, dusted off and deployed one last time. Reagan provided the nation with a new collective memory and a new representation – as well as a representative – of the national past. He was JFK resurrected, the Duke without Nam, a cross between Dirty Harry and Indiana Jones, the Last of the Cowboys. (p. 350)

Consider for example the Rambo series, particularly the second installment, Rambo: First Blood Part II. Released in 1985 and wildly successful, the movie broke numerous box office records, selling an estimated 42 million tickets, and taking in over $300 million at the box office. The movie follows Rambo on a special assignment as he parachutes back into Vietnam to find and photograph the 2500 missing-in-action American soldiers. Bare-chested, Übermensch Rambo of course saves and extracts the American POWs he finds, while incinerating whole battalions of Soviet and Vietnamese soldiers. The war is, essentially, allowed to be refought. But as Rambo asks his colonel as his mission begins, “Sir, do we get to win this time?”

Hoberman writes:

Rambo escapes and runs amok, the ultimate Cost-Free Conquistador, wreaking havoc on Russians and Vietnamese alike. He single-handedly captures a chopper, blows up the camp, and frees the MIAs – returning to base to confront the treacherous Murdock [the government bureaucrat who betrays Rambo and the MIAs, and by synecdoche the war itself]. He destroys Murdock’s computer bank and, as in First Blood, delivers a powerful statement regarding the war. […] Permanently unreconciled, Rambo positions himself as the embodiment of unrequited patriot love, speaking for all Vietnam veterans and demanding unconditional admiration: “I want what they want – for our country to love us as much as we love it.” (p. 237)

Stallone himself said of the movie, “This is the point: frustrated Americans trying to recapture some glory. […] What Rambo is saying is that if they could fight again, it would be different.”

Rambomania, and its merchandising, took off. Rambo collectibles included $150 aluminum replicas of the hero’s mighty bow and custom-crafted fifteen-inch survival knife ($2250 in its special limited edition), trading cards, action figures, water pistols, T-shirts, bandanas. Rambo reportedly replaced the image of Uncle Sam in some army recruiting sites. Nicely summarising the reactionary current Hoberman and Britton argue defines Reaganite entertainment, Stallone, discussing Rambomania in a Time magazine piece, said, “People have been waiting for a chance to express their patriotism. Rambo triggered long-suppressed emotions that had been out of vogue. Suddenly, apple pie is an important thing on the menu.” The savage violence of Rambo, a violence committed against the sinister other, has a long history in American movies and American society. It is as American as apple pie, as Stallone suggests. That this violence should resurface to re-illusion its people after an era defined by extremely unsettling disillusionments regarding American might and its place in the world – that is Rambo’s particular role.

“Ronbo” poster

Did Reagan watch Rambo? In June 1985, terrorists hijacked TWA 847 en route from Athens to Rome, taking 39 Americans and crew-members hostage. While monitoring the negotiations and impending release of the hostages, Reagan screened Rambo at the White House. As the hostages were freed he joked at a news conference the next day, “Boy, I saw Rambo last night. Now I know what to do next time.”

Although other writers have pointed out the conservative reassurance of Reagan-era movies, what makes Hoberman’s book particularly enjoyable is this meticulous research on what Reagan himself was watching. Hoberman catalogues what Reagan was screening at either Camp David or the White House on a week-in-week-out basis, and extensively quotes from Reagan’s diaries regarding his reactions to those movies. Shouldn’t more traditional histories take this into account? Isn’t the cinema the great inoculator of ideology, and wouldn’t we want to know what our world leaders were watching? For example, on August 19, 1981 American F-14 Tomcats shot down two Russian-made Libyan jets over the Gulf of Sidra. I think it is relevant that the President had screened Raiders of the Lost Ark shortly before, and when briefed upon waking, that he “greeted his aides with a performance, miming the quick-draw of a Western gunslinger or Indiana Jones.” (p. 130)

Ultimately Reagan was of the movies, and they played on his consciousness like no other President, nor maybe any other world leader, before. The degree to which he participated in the collective dream factory was unprecedented. As Hoberman himself said, writing in The Village Voice on the day of Reagan’s second inauguration, “The bottom line is, Ronald Reagan knows that showbiz rules.” (p. 223)

His political language was littered with references from his own acting career and contemporary popular Hollywood films. He blurred the line between cinema and politics, in the knowledge that the line between cinema and life is ill-defined. “Film is forever,” he said, recognising its supreme authority in the American consciousness. He was in the dreams business after all; he had been on those screens, and he knew their station as the totem of collective fantasy.

Identifying with the anti-authority authoritarian Dirty Harry, he said while referring to a tax bill before congress, “I have my veto pen drawn and ready for any tax increase that Congress might even think of sending up. And I have only one thing to say to the tax increase. Go ahead – make my day.” The veto pen (presidential authority) as gun, and tax increases as a menace requiring an all-American gun-slinger. All sorts of conservative anxieties merge.

He was a performer and was one of the first to realise that politics is a TV-show, a mediated representation of self in which the representative aspects rule supreme. Hoberman makes the case that he was one of the first to put emphasis on Reagan’s Hollywood career and the importance of the mediated expression of that character. He suggests that other writers at the time dismissed the importance of his screen icon character in the imagination of the American public, and how that imagination won him votes, regardless if it were in the best interest of the electorate.

This of course leads the reader, and Hoberman in the epilogue, to the big elephant in the room – Donald Trump. Hoberman began the book in the Obama era and ended it after the 2016 election, and although Trump is only passingly referenced to outside of the epilogue, his spectre haunts the reader throughout its pages, as she finds herself saying again and again: “oh yes, this sounds familiar.”

In the final pages, Hoberman does address Trump’s similarities to Reaganism, as “a believer in both the gospel of capitalism and elasticised truth as well as the use-value of self-patriotism,” but he warns “he is not simply Reagan redux.” (p.345)

He explains:

Reagan was Hollywood incarnate, a true believer in movie magic, the embodiment of happy endings and uncomplicated emotions, amusing anecdotes and conspicuous consumption, cornball patriotism and bombastic anti-Communism, cheerful bromides. […] Trump is something else. […] He was spawned and nurtured by Hollywood’s successors. Trump is a product of the cable news, talk radio, trash TV talk show, reality TV drama, social media Totality that, in the post-Cold War period, reshaped the nation’s Dream Life. (p. 345)

Indeed, in a nod to his own iconic term “vulgar modernism”, Hoberman titles one of the epilogue sections on Trump, “Vulgar Reaganism.”

But it is not just that the two were alert to mediated representation across two different mediated eras. It’s not just that Reagan mastered the assimilation of the movies into mediated representation and Trump all the forms of media Hoberman lists above which “reshaped the nation’s Dream Life.” There are of course many differences, and lumping the two together would be reductive and, I think, cruel to Ronald Reagan. As Hoberman says:

Reagan’s movie was America – or rather, America as it imagined itself. Far less cornball, Trump’s movie is Trump, as America imagines him. Reagan truly believed Hollywood’s “noble intent” to reveal that “people everywhere share common dreams and emotions” […] Unlike any of his predecessors, Trump has dispensed with unity, reassurance, and inspiration – not to mention good cheer. For him, the Department of Amusement is a megaphone for grievance and negativity. His insight is that when it comes to ratings, love and hate are identical. (p. 350)

It is worth pointing out, as Hoberman does, that Trump’s malevolent campaign slogan Make America Great Again – whose reactionary tone is such a poorly veiled cry to Make America White Again – is an appropriation of Reagan’s 1980 slogan, “Let’s Make America Great Again.” All the world can be found in the simple dropping of this inclusive “let’s.” Wherever Reagan wanted to return to, whether I would want to join him there or not, it was a place – granted, a fantasy place – where he invited all to join. Now it is a command. A command whose exclusionary hostility has resulted in acts of abject horror when it has resurfaced in the past. The camera has documented that. One can only hope this nightmarish television show ends soon.

J. Hoberman, Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan (New York: The New Press, 2019)