Essays (book reviews)

Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan
by Robin Wood
(Columbia University Press, 1986


The Wood and the Trees

2023 Note: The following review, written in 1988 for an Australian publication and reprinted intact here, refers only to the first edition of Wood’s book, not the “revised and expanded” edition of 2003, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan … and Beyond (Columbia University Press). Nothing has led me to suspect that Wood (who died in 2009) ever read this piece. My approach to some questions of culture and criticism raised here have changed and evolved in the 35 years since, but I largely stand by my critique of the post-mid-‘70s, left-political phase of Wood’s work – a critique that, as far as I am aware, has hardly ever been made, in any terms, by anybody in public (I have just now become aware of this excellent 2003 piece by Joe McElhaney, which I missed at the time); his friends, fans and exegetes are a tough and loyal band of warriors.

Alongside The Classical Hollywood Cinema by David Bordwell, Janet Staiger & Kristin Thompson, and Gilles Deleuze’s tomes on cinema (The Movement-Image and The Time-Image), Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan by Robin Wood is unquestionably among the major film books to appear in English in the latter half of the 1980s.

As Dana Polan has remarked, they are all fierce and cogent position books, demanding that each reader clarify their own position in relation to them. Yet the uptake on all these books generally has been slow and, in Australia, virtually non-existent. Wood’s book is serious, polemical, and often brilliant; its importance demands a considered and fighting response rather than the balanced niceties of a modest, respectful promo-appraisal.

Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan: there are two vast totalities in that title, one cinematic and the other historical. Wood is adamant from the first sentence that his book is “not a survey” and “not, in the usual sense, a history” (p. 1). The usual film history, I guess, is one with encyclopaedic pretensions, listing all significant films, directors, actors, studios, economic contexts, and so on in a given period (has such a history actually been written yet?). Wood’s history is not empirical in that sense, but it is realist. It aims to grasp “a decisive ‘moment’, an ideological shift, in Hollywood cinema and (by implication) in American culture” (p. 2), a shift essentially from the 1970s to the 1980s.

Surely we are entitled to interrogate, then, whether or not Wood’s choice of films and directors to discuss in the rest of the book is (unintentionally) rigged, constructing not a real but a peculiarly inflected version of this cultural history from Vietnam to Reagan.

The book is, to my mind, astonishingly selective. Let’s take the selection of auteurs. Wood highlights Arthur Penn, Robert Altman, Brian De Palma, Larry Cohen, Wes Craven, George Romero, Martin Scorsese, Michael Cimino, William Friedkin, and a few others. He apologises for “finding it very difficult to make any meaningful contact with Coppola’s work” (p. 2), but this qualification is curious in the light of the host of significant American directors that he omits. A random list: Terrence Malick, Monte Hellman, Bob Rafelson, Jonathan Kaplan, John Cassavetes, Penelope Spheeris, John Sayles, Jim McBride, James Toback, Walter Hill, John Hughes, Amy Heckerling, Ron Howard.

The point of such a list is not a facile complaint of the ‘why oranges when lemons?’ order (e.g., ‘why should Wood talk about Cimino when he could have talked about Toback?’), but a lever to help complicate or explode Wood’s totalising interpretation of this period of the New American Cinema.

Wood’s thesis is one of a general decline from the cinema of the 1970s (when, it is rather remarkably claimed, “the dominant ideology almost disintegrated”, p. 69) to that of the 1980s (which he has called elsewhere “a cinema of empty and irresponsible escapism”). His particular (and quite obsessive) political focus is on the representations of sexuality made available and deemed suitable by popular cinema in tow with dominant ideology. During the last ‘good’ years of the ‘70s, significant films (Wood claims) veered between despair over the patriarchal status quo (the horror genre) and positive glimpses of a better, bisexual tomorrow. In the age of Reagan, however, heterosexual monogamy, the nuclear family and the Law of the Father become reaffirmed in films from Star Wars (1977) to Terms of Endearment (1983).

But what about – for a critique of masculine icons – Breathless (1983), Southern Comfort (1981), Fingers (1977), Cockfighter (1974), The Boys Next Door (1985)? And what about – for the embrace of many kinds of Otherness – Suburbia (1983), The Brother from Another Planet (1984), all Cassavetes, even The Breakfast Club (1985)?

This trading in auteurs and titles could proceed indefinitely, and would reveal a few of the structural and logical problems in the book’s argument: Wood’s handy elision of, on the one hand, the ‘70s mainstream cinema that was as blandly ideological as anything from the ‘80s; and, on the other, the marginal, independent, narrative cinema of today (Wayne Wang, Mark Rappaport, Bette Gordon) which continues jabbing in various ways at dominant value systems.

However, the problem is that such a discussion would leave us imprisoned within the terms and parameters that Wood has already defined. It is more useful here to go right to the heart of Wood’s critical system, and attempt some sort of deconstruction (in the true sense) on it.

Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan is a realist book: by this, I mean that Wood is concerned (feverishly) with criticism’s ability – its political function – to state clearly what this or that film is, what it says and how it works. This ethos of assertive statement leads immediately to a process of evaluation – a savagely righteous differentiation between progressive and regressive, or radical and reactionary works, with all kinds of strange and dubious provisos determining how borderline cases can be seen to err more one way than the other.

These evaluations wallop a powerful Truth Effect, and indeed serve to intimidate anyone who might want to take issue with them – particularly given Wood’s opening pronouncement that his book is truly “serious”, whereas “most contemporary film criticism, and virtually all journalist criticism, seems to me trivial”. Gulp.

Yet some of us trivial types don’t consider cultural reality to be either as transparently schematic or as critically cutthroat as Wood asserts – and who believe, furthermore, that part of the very complexity of this reality is its constant making and remaking, the diverse ways it can be, and is, fashioned and appropriated. Writing itself (as a tool of rhetoric rather than a reality-probe) enters into this drama of contesting the space of reality, waving as evidence (a film, for example) what it is in fact helping to construct for a particular occasion, a specific time and place.

Wood’s writing also does exactly this, spectacularly – but is oblivious to the relativity of such a gesture (I can persuasively claim The Evil Dead [1981] to be ‘x’ on Monday, and just as persuasively ‘y’ on Tuesday, given a good reason to do so) due to the dogged belief in the possibility of a real view, and a true opinion.

Take note: I am not sounding the flat trumpet call of ‘postmodern relativity’ here. Rather, I (and plenty of others) believe that mass culture is a much messier tangle of emergent and residual values than Wood ever senses – and that all these values are up for constant repositioning. Film criticism is, from one angle, exactly that process of active repositioning – or can, at any rate, contribute to it.

Classic problematics of sex and gender are, naturally, still in play (in Wood, they attain an overly exclusive status), but newer problematics (of power, capital, leisure, work, subjectivity, technology) have been busy complicating and transforming many of the relations in our particular Western social and cultural space.

These developments demand a newly imaginative kind of criticism – less precious, more truly open to contradiction, more attune to the potential powers of obsession and necessary amorality; more adept at moving around non-totalised bits and pieces in a mobile montage.

Wood (and his confrères including, most eloquently, Andrew Britton) risks appearing archaic in his continued insistence on prescribing what art should do today in order that it be of value in our shared struggles. I would guess that, out of Ferris Buller’s Day Off (1986), Mixed Blood (1984), The Princess Bride (1987), Wings of Desire (1987) and Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens (1979), none would be granted entry into Wood’s Pantheon of Value. But who can presume to adjudicate or moralise about the reserves of wit, insight, buoyancy and reflective melancholia these films might variously afford to their (very various) viewers? If it works for you, grab it and make something of it, I say!

Wood, in a witheringly traditional move, bemoans the “acquiescent” responses of blissed-out movie audiences in the Reaganite era (“It is a profoundly depressing and alienating experience to sit in a packed auditorium watching these films with an audience who actually cheer their grossest moments” [p. 207] – he’s referring to Urban Cowboy [1980] and Terms of Endearment). One doesn’t have to go to the other extreme of a naively celebratory populism to intuit, in the complex reality of individuals’ moment-to moment responses within the flux of mass culture, something more than acquiescence.

Small, testy resistances to the system can be expressed in an identification with Debra Winger (Wood’s example of the supreme Reaganite anti-feminist star, p. 207) as much as in an appreciation of the Freudian psychodynamics of Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982); and survival skills for everyday life might, for some, depend as much on a taste for gore and low comedy as on eye-opening tutorials about the radical implications of Heaven’s Gate (1980) or Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982). The category of ideology – and ideological subjection – becomes a very difficult one to uphold as a central explanatory keyword in a world thus conceived.

Wood has little feel for the messy energies of popular cinema, and less for the messy emotions of its audience members. An affective economy of mass culture (of the kind proposed by Lawrence Grossberg) is well and truly beyond Wood’s adoption of what amounts to a short-reaching and in fact depressingly old-fashioned aesthetic – one with a grasp of only what is strictly representational, narrative and thematic in popular art.

I often feel that if Wood had worked only from the scripts of the films he discusses, he would have reached much the same conclusions. He’s still preoccupied, as he has always been, with films as organic wholes, total statements or reflections – except that now he would prefer them to display the X-ray skeleton-scenario of a positive and progressive life according to the book of Marx-&-Freud, which limits him still further.

He can’t deal – as Richard Dyer or Raymond Durgnat, more astute critics of entertainment, can – with bits of films, detachable layers, levels or edges of films which, as key aspects of the popular experience of cinema, are often non-representational; i.e., more rhythmic, affective, performative or hallucinatory than strictly dramatic or theatrical. Sure, Gremlins (1984) might well have “pervasively sick imagery” (p. 174) – but what does that imagery do for those who love it?

Lacking an affective economy of this sort, Wood’s much-vaunted treatment of the horror genre (a large part of the book) is all symptomatic reading (the films bring to light what society represses, etc.) and no surface texture, rendering it incredibly one-sided. Can we be so sure of a critique which betrays not a single twinge of curiosity about that part of the world which includes Fangoria magazine, the Evil Dead films, psychotronics, Joe Bob Briggs, et al … and, indeed, behaves not a little superior to it?

The horror example shows (to me, conclusively) just how far away Wood is from the complex effects and flows of mass culture – revealed in his myopic determination to read these films for their latent or manifest meanings, while not even seeing the surface effects that precisely make them of interest to many adoring and/or appalled audience members.

Wood, predictably, has a hard time recognising the further complications induced in mass culture by the emergence of postmodernism (granting that term at least some diagnostic pertinence). Significantly, on one of the few times that (to my knowledge) Wood has even mentioned postmodernism, it has been to damn both it and nasty ol’ Blue Velvet (1986) in the same sentence! Yet every textual and cultural phenomenon that the tie-up of postmodernism and popular film has produced – the delirious intensification of spectacle and a kind of particle-flux drifting away from narrative and thematics, the undecidable mixture of knowingness and naïveté, the weird double takes on what constitutes cultural authenticity today (e.g., Madonna) – all these, taken together, pose crucial questions to the critical function that presumes, still, to be able to see clear and point the way ahead.

Wood’s critical practice is, finally, a curious one. He tries to maintain the difficult task of a dual engagement with the oppositional and the popular. But he has chosen the deadliest, least productive form of such an engagement. For oppositional does not mean to him what it means to, say, Framework magazine: Wood has never shown the slightest interest in (in fact, only disdain for) questions of national cinema, avant-garde cinema, and independent cinema in general. He sticks (for the most part), tenaciously and polemically, with the most trans-nationally visible, dominant and accessible of cinemas: Hollywood.

On one level, that is fair enough. Yet, the popular cinema Wood scours for oppositional potential is, in many respects, purely a pedagogical construction of his own invention – only someone with the appropriate interpretative training could spontaneously share with Wood the significant, subversive pleasure he finds in the Blakean symbolism of Blade Runner (1982) or the psychoanalytic subtext of Raging Bull (1980).

This pedagogic assumption is not per se a bad thing – his book is after all dedicated to “students of all ages” (p. 10), and teaching is one of the myriad ways in which culture constantly rewrites itself. But Wood lacks a working, speculative theory of what sense films make to people in everyday life and everyday culture – not just their mythological significance (which he in part addresses), but how the films get emotionally used or processed by viewers, and to what ends.

Having rendered himself thus unable to experience the wonder and richness of media phenomena like Pee-wee Herman or Crocodile Dundee, the ideologically impure madness of Larry Cohen, or the techno-bricolage-pragmatism of Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, Wood remains a somewhat sad case. Hollywood under Reagan – and beyond? – will surely continue only to disappoint and anger him. He’s missing out on a lot of pleasure: critical, political, aesthetic and cultural pleasure. I cannot follow him on this stoic quest of radicality into who-knows-what heaven … or hell.


© Adrian Martin September 1988

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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