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Hoberman Reveals Cinema’s Cold War Secrets

By Richard S. Beck, Crimson Staff Writer

According to his Top 10 list published in the Village Voice, film critic J. Hoberman’s favorite film of 2006 is “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” a stylistically innovative meditation on death, illness, and bureaucracy by Romanian director Cristi Puiu.

His second favorite film is “Borat.”

A visiting lecturer this semester in the Visual and Environmental Studies department, Hoberman’s genre-jumping critical sensibility has informed nearly two decades of work as the head film critic for the storied alternative weekly.

Now, an ongoing series at the Harvard Film Archive comprising films suggested by Hoberman reflects the same distinctive taste. “Poetic Horror, Pop Existentialism, and Cheap Sci-Fi: Cold War Cinema 1948-1964” will continue through the spring.

The films, which reflect the syllabus of an identically-titled course Hoberman is teaching this semester, document a cinematic culture of anxiety, shame, and fear, a zeitgeist born of the horrifying revelation of the Holocaust and the apocalyptic mood of the newly inaugurated atomic age.

“These two events in the War seemed unprecedented,” says Hoberman. “We’re dealing with basically a traumatized cinema.”

The inclusive term “cinema” is an appropriate one. As the films at the HFA demonstrate, the cultural anxieties of the Cold War did not confine themselves to a single genre. The semi-documentary “Panic in the Streets” (Elia Kazan, 1950), the noir masterpiece “The Third Man” (Carol Reed, 1949), and the low-budget sci-fi romp “Rocketship X-M” (Kurt Neumann, 1950), are equally suffused with dread, uncertainty, and black humor.

“City of Fear”(Irving Lerner, 1959) is a particularly acerbic mixture of wit and worry. As the Los Angeles Police chase down an escaped convict who has accidentally stolen a cylinder of radioactive Cobalt-60 (he thinks it’s heroin), debate rages as to whether the public should be informed. Though it’s hard-bitten noir with a fierce political edge, the emotional climate of “City of Fear” is distinctly oppressive. Even the roadside billboards seem to be watching.

Hoberman says this sort of thematic juggling-act is characteristic of Cold War-era films. He cites anti-communist sentiment and the fear of dehumanization at the hands of a totalitarian power as important concerns. “They’re themes that different filmmakers apply themselves to and that different audiences respond to,” Hoberman says.

Hoberman says that to divide Cold War-era films into hard-line, anti-communist propaganda pieces and free thinking anti-McCarthyite films of resistance would be an oversimplification of a complex history. Though he notes that the animated film version of George Orwell’s anti-communist allegory “Animal Farm” was partially funded by the CIA, Hoberman says some studios that produced right-wing Cold War films were just being intelligent.

“It was the studios that were making these movies,” Hoberman says, “and if they were making them as a hostage to fortune they didn’t care really.”

“It was not a thought-out position,” he adds, “but [the studios] did know that they did not want to be investigated anymore, that they were accused of being communists, so if they could make a movie that would placate the FBI, then they would do it.”

So while R.G. Springsteen’s “Red Menace” (1949) may be the work of a true anti-communist believer, Hoberman argues that “Pickup on South St.” (Samuel Fuller, 1953), which features communist spies and a McCarthyite hero who is also a criminal, “seems like it might be one of the anti-communist movies but is actually much crazier.”

Hoberman suggests that films in genres like science fiction, fantasy, and the Western have frequently been able to address cultural anxieties that might be too sensitive for a more realistic narrative. He cites Ishiro Honda’s “Gojira” (1954), a grim allegory of the destruction wrought by the atomic bomb, as a particularly strong example.

“[Science fiction films] can really be quite fantastic in their metaphors,” Hoberman says. “They’re very free to express certain things, and consequently a lot of these metaphors are very strong.”

And if sci-fi films deal effectively with the Cold War, Hoberman says “the place where you have to go to see movies about Vietnam is Westerns.” He ascribes a similar ability to construct strong metaphors to the Western, but he cautions that some cultural anxieties overload the films that try to deal with them.

“I also think [the Vietnam War] ended the Western,” Hoberman says.

Hoberman says he does not see a similar profusion of films that effectively address the Iraq War, though he cites “Children of Men” (Cuarón, 2006) and “The Situation” (Haas, 2006) as exceptions to the rule.

“I think that for good or for ill, [films] just don’t have the same central position in the culture at large, and it’s harder to make good popular movies,” Hoberman says. “They’re too expensive.”

He adds that television shows may play the same role today that films did during the Cold War, though he’s not sure that television will address the issue with a similar degree of subtlety.

“‘24’ would be the most widely seen of these,” says Hoberman. “It’s one of those things that if you watch it ideologically you just can’t watch it,” he says, referring to the show’s frequently observed right-wing stance. “But it’s hard not to be charmed by it. It’s such a lunatic premise.”

—Staff writer Richard S. Beck can be reached at rbeck@fas.harvard.edu.

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