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J Hoberman Brings the Eighties to the Wex

Hope Madden Hope Madden J Hoberman Brings the Eighties to the WexImage via wexarts.org
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Film critic and author J. Hoberman makes a return trip this weekend to the Wexner Center for the Arts. The frequent Wex collaborator and longtime Village Voice reviewer shares excerpts of his latest book, Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan to kick off a weekend-long series of films that fit the theme.

Make My Day is the third book in a trilogy, including The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties and An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War. Each title examines the Cold War through the movies of an era.

“Originally I was going to do a single book that would pick out a key movie from each presidential election year and use that as a way to discuss movies and the Cold War,” Hoberman says. “Ultimately it couldn’t be contained in a single book.”

The capstone of the trilogy digs into the changing cinematic paradigm of the 1980s and the ways the culture of the era is reflected in both films and politics.

“People who are film critics and cinephiles tend to think of the early Seventies as a kind of golden period, a great period in Hollywood, and there’s a lot to be said for that. But what it was not was an enormously successful period,” Hoberman explains.

He pins a redirection in cinema on George Lucas.

“His first feature, THX 1138, was critically well-received but it was seen as a downer, a bummer by audiences. Lucas thought it was time to make movies that made people feel good again,” he says. “This may not sound like a radical thought, but in 1973 it was. So American Graffiti was a true sleeper. Studios didn’t get it and it turned out to be an amazing success, and the same thing happened with Star Wars.”

Not that Lucas was alone.

“Rocky was another example of this,” Hoberman says. “Rocky was the quintessential feel-good movie.”

Americans were not only looking for positivity onscreen, though.

“I tie this to Reagan,” he says. “I think Reagan had a similar realization about politics. Reagan was kind of a proponent of feel good politics. He’s somebody was who indelibly formed by being a Hollywood star, even though he was a secondary star. He really internalized Hollywood’s values: optimism, simple storylines, black and white and feel good. And so he did the same thing in the political sphere that Lucas and Spielberg and Stallone were doing in movies.”

Fittingly, the Wex’s program slots in a double dose of Reagan himself alongside Eighties blockbusters like First Blood and gems such as The King of Comedy. Friday evening’s screenings include the former president’s speech in favor of then-presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, running against Lyndon B. Johnson. The speech didn’t help Goldwater win the election, but it did give Reagan a doorway into political life. The Wex follows the speech with one of Reagan’s  more unusual onscreen performances as a sleazy mob boss in Don Siegel’s 1964 crime heist, The Killers.

“Unlike all the other politicians, Reagan knew how to hit his marks, he knew how to deliver a line,” Hoberman says. “In the land of the bind the man with one eye is king.”

He sees a thread from Reagan to the current administration, but believes there is a significant difference.

“Reagan comes out of Hollywood, which has a whole ideology of consensus and happy endings and making people feel good about themselves—optimism,” Hoberman explains. “Trump does not. He comes out of a completely different media ecology. It’s not just that he grew up with television, but that his experience of show business is aligned to talk radio and reality TV and professional wrestling and so on. These are much more divisive forms. These are forms that thrive on division. They’re not about bringing people together. And he did very well there.”

Hoberman says Trump does become a minor figure in the book. The author will read from the book at 5 p.m on Friday, January 16.

Full lineup:

Thursday, January 16, 5:00 p.m. – J. Hoberman reads from his book Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan

Thursday, January 16, 7:00 p.m. – River’s Edge

Friday, January 17, 7:00 p.m. – “A Time for Choosing” | The Killers

Saturday, January 18, 11:30 a.m. – Gremlins

Saturday, January 18, 2:00 p.m. – The Terminator

Saturday, January 18, 4:30 p.m. – First Blood

Saturday, January 18, 7:00 p.m. – The King of Comedy

Read more from Hope at MADDWOLF and listen to her weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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