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J. Hoberman: The CIA’s Animal Farm, 5 July 2007

... In the annals of American intelligence, the mid-1950s were the golden years: the CIA overthrew elected governments in Iran and Guatemala, conducted experiments with ESP and LSD (using its own operatives as unwitting guinea pigs), ran literary journals and produced the first general-release, feature-length animation ever made in the UK. It was Howard Hunt who broke the story that the CIA funded Animal Farm, John Halas and Joy Batchelor’s 1954 version of George Orwell’s political allegory of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, played out in a British farmyard ...

At the Grey Art Gallery

J. Hoberman: Inventing Downtown , 29 March 2017

... Should​ the street be considered one of the fine arts?’ Fernand Léger asked in 1928. He was thinking of the objects displayed in Parisian shop windows. Others have been more impressed by junk, debris and things abandoned. The street as both source and inspiration is everywhere apparent in the exhibition at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery (until 1 April), Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City, 1952-65, in particular the grungy byways of a Lower Manhattan not yet gentrified as SoHo or rebranded as the East Village ...

First Movie in the White House

J. Hoberman: ‘Birth of a Nation’, 12 February 2009

D.W. Griffith’s ‘The Birth of a Nation’: A History of ‘The Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time’ 
by Melvyn Stokes.
Oxford, 414 pp., £13.99, January 2008, 978 0 19 533679 5
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... The Birth of a Nation may not be the greatest movie ever made (whatever that might mean), but it is the one that has had the greatest impact on America and, indirectly, the world. Never was a movie more aptly named; and rarely have quotations marks been more superfluous than in the subtitle of Melvyn Stokes’s informative book. What did Griffith bring into the world? Imagine an unholy combination of The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11, a movie as violent and sentimental as Saving Private Ryan and as tricksy as Forrest Gump, landing with the force of Titanic in the nickelodeon universe of 1915, where the typical attraction was 20 minutes long ...

You’ve got three minutes

J. Hoberman: Sitting for Warhol, 20 July 2006

Andy Warhol Screen Tests: The Films of Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné: Vol. I 
by Callie Angell.
Abrams, 319 pp., £35, April 2006, 0 8109 5539 3
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... For two years, beginning in January 1964 and ending in late 1966, hundreds of individuals trooped through Andy Warhol’s midtown Manhattan studio (the vast, silver-painted loft known as the Factory), there to sit before a 16mm Bolex camera and have their portraits made on film. The portraits, each of which used a single 100-foot roll of film, required just under three minutes to make and, as Warhol usually projected them at a slower speed, took slightly longer to watch ...

Building an Empire

J. Hoberman: Oscar Micheaux, 19 July 2001

Writing Himself into History: Oscar Micheaux, His Silent Films and His Audiences 
by Pearl Bowser and Louise Spence.
Rutgers, 280 pp., £38.95, August 2000, 0 8135 2803 8
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Straight Lick: The Cinema of Oscar Micheaux 
by J. Ronald Green.
Indiana, 368 pp., £21.95, August 2000, 0 253 33753 4
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... in the extreme, exceeding those of the posthumously celebrated ‘bad’ film-maker Ed Wood Jr. Twenty years ago, I concluded an essay entitled ‘Bad Movies’ with the thought that if Micheaux’s astonishing mistakes were deliberate aesthetic strategy, then he was surely the greatest genius cinema ever produced. Now it seems as though his intentions ...

Donald Duck gets a cuffing

J. Hoberman: Disney, Benjamin, Adorno, 24 July 2003

Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant-Garde 
by Esther Leslie.
Verso, 344 pp., £20, August 2002, 1 85984 612 2
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... In 1931, a Nazi journal called the Dictatorship complained about the amazing popularity of Mickey Mouse: ‘Have we nothing better to do than decorate our garments with dirty animals because American commerce Jews want profit?’ That same year in Berlin, Esther Leslie reports, Walter Benjamin was also thinking about Mickey mania. After talking to some friends, including Kurt Weill, Benjamin made a few notes in praise of this insolent, lowlife, magically animated creature ...

Steaming Torsos

J. Hoberman, 6 February 1997

Westerns: Making the Man in Fiction and Film 
by Lee Clark Mitchell.
Chicago, 352 pp., £23.95, November 1996, 0 226 53234 8
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... were the female gunslingers who populated the 1994 releases, Bad Girls, The Ballad of Little Jo, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Outlaws and The Quick and the Dead. Unforgiven, which – as Mitchell points out – culminates in a masculine resurrection that makes sure we get what we’ve paid for, both looks and feels like a Western. What it lacks is any ...

Franklin D, listen to me

J. Hoberman: Popular (Front) Songs, 17 September 1998

Songs for Political Action: Folk Music, Topical Songs and the American Left, 1926-53 
edited by Ronald Cohen and Dave Samuelson.
Bear Family Records, DM 390, June 1996
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... The Ephemera of 20th-century popular music have never been more monumental. CDs transform collectors into completists and completists into archivists. Why be content with the Beach Boys’ greatest hits when you can invest in a boxed set, complete with alternate takes, unreleased masters, demo tapes, and radio air checks? Long defunct record labels are catalogued and repackaged as the CD ‘revolution’ churns up all manner of forgotten material ...

Bohemian in Vitebsk

J. Hoberman: Red Chagall, 9 April 2009

Chagall: Love and Exile 
by Jackie Wullschlager.
Allen Lane, 582 pp., £30, October 2008, 978 0 7139 9652 4
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... At the time of his death at the age of 97 in 1985, Marc Chagall was, if not the world’s best-known living artist (as much trademark as painter), certainly its best loved. The School of Paris’s last surviving master was dismissed by some as a purveyor of high-class kitsch and hailed by others as one of the 20th century’s truly popular artists, but no one denied Chagall’s power as a colourist or the distinctiveness of his iconography: the embracing lovers, joyful barnyard creatures, tumbledown villages and Jewish musicians, among other free-floating symbols ...

Moguls

J. Hoberman: Did the Jews invent Hollywood?, 7 March 2002

Hollywood and Anti-Semitism: A Cultural History up to World War Two 
by Steven Alan Carr.
Cambridge, 342 pp., £42.50, July 2001, 9780521798549
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... To be anti-Hollywood was, in a sense, to be anti-semitic.’ So said Budd Schulberg, the son of a pioneer film producer, a successful screenwriter and author of the quintessential Hollywood novel, What Makes Sammy Run? (a book that was itself accused of a self-directed anti-semitism). To be anti-Hollywood has also, at various times, been a way to enlist the rhetoric of anti-semitism to express sentiments that are anti-modern, anti-urban, anti-New Deal, anti-internationalist, anti-capitalist, anti-Communist or anti-American ...

Subject, Spectator, Phantom

J. Hoberman: The Strangest Personality Ever to Lead the Free World, 17 February 2005

Nixon at the Movies: A Book about Belief 
by Mark Feeney.
Chicago, 422 pp., £19.50, November 2004, 0 226 23968 3
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... like’), but a movie in which Nixon can be extracted from both the powerful gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker and the eager publicist Sidney Falco. More productive is the notion of Nixon as an avid, solitary consumer of movies. Feeney devotes a chapter to the most famous of Nixon’s celluloid obsessions, the biopic Patton, which he screened at least three ...

America comes to the USSR

J. Hoberman: The 1950s’ Soviet Dream, 6 January 2011

Red Plenty: Industry! Progress! Abundance! Inside the 1950s’ Soviet Dream 
by Francis Spufford.
Faber, 434 pp., £16.99, August 2010, 978 0 571 22523 1
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... The Russians have everything in name, and nothing in reality,’ the Marquis de Custine observed in 1839, comparing the empire to a blank book with a magnificent table of contents. ‘How many distant regiments are there without men, and cities and roads which exist only in idea!’ The entire country was but a façade pasted on Europe – or, as might have been said of the Soviet period, an ideological simulation of reality ...

Thunder in the Mountains

J. Hoberman: Orson Welles, 6 September 2007

Orson Welles: Hello Americans 
by Simon Callow.
Vintage, 507 pp., £8.99, May 2007, 978 0 09 946261 3
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What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? A Portrait of an Independent Career 
by Joseph McBride.
Kentucky, 344 pp., $29.95, October 2006, 0 8131 2410 7
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... Like Dead Elvis and Dead Marilyn, Dead Orson is very much with us. He lives on, not only in the restored ‘director’s cuts’ of his re-released movies, the posthumously completed projects and newly adapted screenplays of never-made films, but as a character in other people’s novels, plays and movies. He haunts the murderous teenagers of Heavenly Creatures as ‘the most hideous man alive’, matches wits with Kenneth Tynan and Laurence Olivier in Austin Pendleton’s play Orson’s Shadow, and has even been fingered posthumously as a suspect in the 1947 Black Dahlia murder ...

Business as Usual

J. Hoberman: Hitler in Hollywood, 19 December 2013

Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-39 
by Thomas Doherty.
Columbia, 429 pp., £24, April 2013, 978 0 231 16392 7
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The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler 
by Ben Urwand.
Harvard, 327 pp., £19.95, August 2013, 978 0 674 72474 7
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... It’s easy not to be a Nazi when no Hitler is around,’ Hans-Jürgen Syberberg commented in his filmed interview with the aged, unashamed Führer-familiar Winifred Wagner in 1975. Eighty years after Hitler came to power in Germany, is it possible to imagine the world when the Third Reich was new? Before September 1939 and even after the Second World War began, the West was full of enablers and apologists ...

A Particular Way of Looking

J. Hoberman: NeoRealismo, 19 November 2019

NeoRealismo: The New Image in Italy 1932-60 
edited by Enrica Viganò.
Prestel, 349 pp., £49.99, September 2018, 978 3 7913 5769 0
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... Futurism,​ the first organised avant-garde art movement of the 20th century, appeared in Italy in the years before the First World War. Fascism, the original self-identified totalitarian political ideology, no less brashly expressive of modern times, emerged in Italy in the years immediately following the war. Neorealism, a spontaneous development without leaders and with few manifestos, which took shape in the last days of the Second World War, was in some sense a negation of both Fascism and Futurism ...

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