J. Hoberman

  • Totalitarian Recall

    There was a time, according to A. B. Magil and Henry Stevens, authors of the urgent 1938 tract The Peril of Fascism: The Crisis of American Democracy, when “fascist” was “the most commonly used epithet in the American political vocabulary.” Do tell!

    What existed back then was an entrenched, self-identified fascist regime in Italy; a newer, kindred one in Nazi Germany, which had adopted the Italian ideal of a “totalitarian state”; a quasi-fascist government in Japan; and a fascist-inspired revolt in Spain, not to mention sympathetic parties and youth movements throughout Europe.

    But what do

  • I Put a Spell on You

    Quaint to think that not even fifty years ago—when network TV reigned supreme, the underground press flourished, and El Topo invented the midnight movie—there was an amorphous thing called the Counterculture. Now, of course, there are hundreds.

    Back then dog-eared head-trips like Clans of the Alphane Moon by the still-unknown Philip K. Dick circulated among the cognoscenti. So did Richard Brautigan’s twee Trout Fishing in America and Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier’s blithely footnote-free The Morning of the Magicians.

    Morning’s first part concerned the secret society of the “Nine Unknown

  • Seasons in Hell

    A certain condition intuited by Franz Kafka, H. G. Adler lived—and lived to describe.

    As if in a dream and for no rational reason, Hans Günther Adler (1910–1988), Kafka’s younger countryman and coreligionist, was transformed from a pedagogue into the powerless subject of an arbitrary regime under which untruth was ubiquitous and criminal behavior elevated to absolute law. One’s past and possessions were confiscated. Terror was the natural state. In that realm, Adler later wrote, “it was a fatal error to behave as if the world still was normal” rather than “a bottomless abyss of coercion” in

  • Society and the Spectacle

    FDR grasped the potential of radio in 1936. Ike made pioneering use of television in 1952 (as did his running mate Richard Nixon). JFK triumphed on live TV in 1960. Ronald Reagan, a veteran screen performer, exploited the televised photo op in 1984. Bill Clinton recognized the power of MTV. With the rise of social media, Barack Obama had YouTube, Hillary Clinton has, in a negative sense, e-mail, and the master of reality TV Donald Trump is defined by . . . Twitter?

    It’s sobering, at least in this election cycle, to think that the candidate with the greatest affinity for newfangled communications

  • Literary Rant

    Even before he began writing, the splenetic, xenophobic, racist, reclusive, reactionary, antimodernist, neurotic, if not hysterical, French novelist Michel Houellebecq found a soul mate in the form of the splenetic, xenophobic, racist, reclusive, reactionary, antimodernist, neurotic, and certainly hysterical American pulp writer of weird fiction H. P. Lovecraft. Houellebecq discovered Lovecraft at age sixteen. “I had not known literature was capable of this,” he writes in his book-length biographical appreciation, H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life (translated by Dorna Khazeni,

  • Mock Art

    Last year’s museum-quality Ad Reinhardt show at the David Zwirner gallery, complete with an atrium devoted to Reinhardt’s career-capping black canvases, prompted the thought that this cantankerous art-world maverick might be the quintessential mid-twentieth-century American painter.

    A lifelong abstractionist and card-carrying member of the New York School, complete with a youthful WPA stint, Reinhardt made systemic, antiexpressive paintings that engaged those of the heroic action guys and wrote manifestos attacking the art world to propose a Jacobin notion of art-as-art. He anticipated the

  • Personae of Interest

    The Communist experience, Vivian Gornick wrote in her classic oral history The Romance of American Communism, is “a metaphor for fear and desire on the grand scale, always telling us more—never less—of what it is to be human.”

    Now more or less confined to the historical imaginary, that romance lives on, travestied with appropriate fear and desire (and shock and awe) in Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens, and writ strategically small in Eleanor Antin’s comic girlhood memoir Conversations with Stalin, slyly named after the 1961 book that landed Communist dissident Milovan Djilas back in a

  • Manifesto Destiny

    Author of The Soviet Novel, a classic analysis of socialist-realist fiction of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, and a professor of Slavic literature at Yale, Katerina Clark here reads the text of High Stalinism. In Moscow, the Fourth Rome—a series of linked essays following an adroitly plotted historical narrative—she recounts a scandalous episode in art history, while making a significant contribution to the understanding of 1930s European political culture and providing a lucid guide to the late-’30s period of mainly Soviet collective mania.

    Clark ranges from literature to cinema to theater to

  • Rain of Terror

    Like a science-fiction time traveler or the radio character Chandu the Magician, Satantango is an entity with multiple—or at least two—coequal manifestations, a monument of late-twentieth-century cinema and a modern Hungarian literary classic. There is Satantango the mind-boggling seven-and-a-half-hour movie by director Béla Tarr, and there is Satantango the legendary novel by the movie’s screenwriter László Krasznahorkai, published in 1985 but only now translated into English.

    How does one distinguish between these entities—and should one dare? Let’s begin by acknowledging the unique creative

  • INTO THE MYSTIC

    An antitechnological, antirational, and antimodern modernist, Andrei Tarkovsky was, with Bresson, Dreyer, and Brakhage, one of twentieth-century cinema’s great solitary figures. No less than they, Tarkovsky saw his art as a quasi-religious calling and, having more or less reinvented film language to suit his interests, regarded himself as essentially unique. Although he evidently considered Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest to be the greatest of films, his own vision was not nearly so austere. The inventor and master of the Soviet sublime, Tarkovsky realized himself with a singular convulsive

  • KING OF THE THRILL

    Though he lacks Will Eisner’s urbane, insouciant spirit and Jack Cole’s sensuous, ever-surprising plasticity, comic-book artist Jack Kirby (1917–94) more than deserves the royal sobriquet with which he’s been crowned. King Kirby embodies the drama of his medium as well as the drama of its history—how, starting on the eve of World War II, a bunch of mainly working-class, first-generation Jewish kids created a garish, subliterary mythology of fantastic supermen. Kirby’s first such creature, created with Joe Simon, was Captain America: The premiere issue, which appeared nearly a year before Pearl

  • Best Adaptations

    FRANCINE PROSE

    HOUSEHOLD SAINTS (Nancy Savoca, 1993) Perhaps it’s narcissistic, but I have to say that my favorite adaptation is of my novel. By now, the book and the film have so melded in my mind, I picture Lili Taylor and Judith Malina when I think of the grandmother and granddaughter I created.

    WISE BLOOD (John Huston, 1979) This adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s novel features the great Harry Dean Stanton as the blind preacher.

    THE TIN DRUM (Volker Schlöndorff, 1979) The little boy is amazing, and the eel and horsehead scene is just as upsetting as it is in the novel.

    THE GODFATHER