The Dream Life
J. Hoberman‘s excellent survey of the cinematic and political scenes of the ’60s, The Dream Life, doesn’t have much to do with underground film, but I’m writing it up for the Underground Film Journal for a couple of reasons anyway. 1) Although scarce and few, Hoberman does include a few underground films that are relevant to this site. 2) This book kicks so much ass, I’d probably come up with some excuse or another to write about it anyway.
It did take me awhile to get into it, though. The opening of the book seemed frustratingly too focused on the politics, recounting the evolution from the Red Scare and Eisenhower eras to the days of Camelot. It also seemed as though Hoberman was only writing about two films for a good long while: the dueling American ideologies of John Wayne’s conservative paean The Alamo vs. Kirk Douglas’ grungy leftist Spartacus.
But as soon as Kennedy gets into office, Hoberman starts looking at the president’s identification with James Bond in Dr. No and providing some of the inspiration for The Manchurian Candidate. Then there’s the nuclear threat triple whammy of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove. However, the text really kicks into overdrive during the Johnson administration, the arrival of Bonnie and Clyde and the rise of civil unrest. The cast of characters in the book also expands to include White House occupants, activists like Abbie Hoffman and Eldredge Cleaver, and the stars of young Hollywood like Warren Beatty, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda. The list of films and people that Hoberman includes in his survey is staggering, all contained in a vastly entertaining, cogent narrative.
One of the threads that Hoberman follows in detail is the evolution of the Western genre, which is where we somewhat surprisingly find the tie into underground films. Hoberman traces the Western arc from John Wayne’s conservative tinged The Alamo and McLintock! to liberalesque post-Westerns like The Misfits, Lonely Are the Brave and Hud to the brutal Major Dundee and The Chase.
However, the Western starts losing its luster after being gently mocked by Andy Warhol‘s Lonesome Cowboys, the first film he made outside of New York. Shot at the same location of McLintock!, a group of horny cowpokes get all hot and bothered when they meet the only female around, the Warhol superstar Viva. The film was ultimately so shocking and dirty and included a nasty gang rape of Viva that the FBI eventually investigated the film to see if any actual crimes had been committed during filming.
A few years later, Alejandro Jodorowsky made the first truly spiritual Western, the cult hit El Topo, a film that Hoberman also covers at great length in Midnight Movies, the book he co-wrote with Jonathan Rosenbaum. The film totally reinvents the genre by combining a quasi-Eastern mysticism not typically covered in American films with the new love of realistic violence found in pop culture hits like Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch.
The one other quasi-underground film covered in The Dream Life is Norman Mailer’s Maidstone. Mailer is a recurring character in the book with his profiles of JFK and LBJ, his coverage of both Democratic and Republican conventions, his books The Armies of the Night and Of a Fire on the Moon and his ill-fated run for mayor of NYC. Mailer cast himself in the totally improvised Maidstone as a megalomaniacal tyrant, which mirrored his behavior as director of the film. Here you can watch the scene where Rip Torn whacks Mailer on the head with a hammer and the author in turn almost bites his co-star’s ear off.
Although Hoberman’s book is subtitled “Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties,” he actually covers material that extends into the Seventies and Eighties, ending with Brian DePalma’s Blow Out, which came out in 1981. It’s as if Hoberman had so much fun writing about one decade, he couldn’t stop himself from keep going into two more.