In the U.S., moviegoing has ceased to be a national habit for just about everyone but teenagers and film professionals. Still, the movies themselves remain a privileged instrument in the orchestra of American mass culture. They can function as social metaphors, showcase utopian possibilities and provide socially cohesive cocktail-party chatter. A nation expresses -- and defines -- itself as the audience for a particular motion picture at a particular time, and it can be analyzed accordingly.
Weimar-era film critic Siegfried Kracauer, best known as the author of “From Caligari to Hitler,” was the first to theorize that movies are zeitgeist made material. The fantasies or anxieties they articulate, he wrote, are evidence of a “collective mentality.” His reasoning: Motion pictures are collaboratively made for a mass audience. Today, we might add that moviemakers also seek popular consensus; their business is producing fantasies that attract the largest possible audience.
The process, as Kracauer’s book title makes clear, has inevitable political ramifications. Movies not only create (or implant) collective memories and realize group fantasies, they articulate a national narrative and can sometimes project a leading man. A media star years before he was elected, thanks to his looks, money and well-publicized wartime heroics, John F. Kennedy was not simply the president of the United States or the leader of the free world. Decades in advance of George W. Bush’s Forrest Gump-like performance in a two-minute “Top Gun” or Arnold Schwarzenegger’s easy ascension to public office, Kennedy was a kind of cinematic idea come to fruition, the protagonist of the American drama. Then Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon would headline the next divisive “movie” of the 1960s, and a new national narrative would find fulfillment by 1980 with the election, finally, of an outright movie star and TV personality, Ronald Reagan.
Given that films typically take two or three years from conception to release, and may be in development far longer, how is an up-to-the-minute movie-zeitgeist connection even possible?
For one thing, the making of motion pictures is not indifferent to social trends. Indeed, there are movies whose back stories as well as their plots reflect the political world: John Wayne’s “The Alamo” and Kirk Douglas’ “Spartacus,” two Cold War allegories released in time for the 1960 election, are fascinating examples. The former was Wayne’s long-germinating crusade to warn Americans of the Soviet military threat. The latter, conceptualized primarily by blacklisted lefties, cast rebellious gladiators in terms of heroic entertainers and their revolution in terms of the aspirations of oppressed peoples everywhere. To paraphrase Jean-Luc Godard, the history of film is identical to the film of history.
Some motion pictures make more overt “statements” -- “Easy Rider” and “Saving Private Ryan” would be two -- but more interesting and unusual are those movies, like “Bonnie and Clyde” or “Dirty Harry,” that articulate a fantasy that people didn’t recognize they had until they saw it on the screen.
Such movies are in effect produced by their audience, and they tend to be handy symbols of political and cultural polarization. Indeed, the first President Bush praised Reagan for transforming the U.S. into a nation that preferred “Dirty Harry” to “Easy Rider” -- never mind that both movies appeared during Nixon’s first term. Ever since Nixon endorsed “Patton,” politicians have sought to be identified with popular scenarios. Dennis Kucinich’s attempt to hitch his wagon to “Seabiscuit” is a recent example (and the movie’s disappointing performance does not augur well for his).
There are movies that miss their political moment -- Bob Dole’s presidential campaign as the last World War II hero would only have been helped if “Saving Private Ryan” had been released a year earlier. There is also the miracle of a fortuitous release: Neither “Black Hawk Down” nor “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” would have had nearly the same emotional impact or meaning had they not materialized in the wake of Sept. 11. “Thelma and Louise” took on additional resonance for appearing in the aftermath of Desert Storm, when the angst-inducing issue of women combatants was still a subject of national debate.
When Gary Hart put adultery on the public agenda in 1987, the hapless candidate paved the way for “Fatal Attraction,” the most popular movie of 1987. And, speaking of Michael Douglas, who is to say that “The American President” -- a 1995 movie designed to showcase the man in the Oval Office as a sexy, heroic single dad, did not contribute to the mental state of an impressionable intern named Monica Lewinsky, or even the president himself?
Even if it didn’t, the movie nevertheless articulated their fantasies -- and ours. Among other things, “The American President” spawned the ongoing alternative reality known as “The West Wing” -- which, along with the Internet, called the feisty, liberal New England-based political character “Howard Dean” into existence.
J. Hoberman is senior film critic for the Village Voice and author of “The Dream Life: Movies, Media and the Mythology of the Sixties” (The New Press, 2003).