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An Army of Phantoms: American Cinema and the Cold War

October 5, 2012 - October 27, 2012

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As a principal part of popular culture, cinema both resembles and resists its time. This was particularly true during the Cold War era as the movies proved themselves to be not simple, escapist entertainment, but a malleable medium, shaped by the filmmakers’ own beliefs, altered by the obligations of a commercial industry, and finally buffed by the political order.

J. Hoberman’s recent book, An Army of Phantoms, is a brilliant, nimble, and nuanced look at a tumultuous decade, 1946 to 1956, and how cinema articulated the chilling moods and manias of the era. His agile, jocular, often startling take on this heated period places cinema squarely in the middle of a politically induced hysteria that melds Joe McCarthy’s witch-hunts, the rise of civil rights, the Korean War, a nascent youth culture, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and a significant unsettling of the film industry itself. With films selected by Hoberman, this eponymous film series replicates the hysteria with its anxious, cautionary, and sometimes paranoid parables of the age. From William Wellman’s delirious drama about God’s own radio show, The Next Voice You Hear, to Elia Kazan’s alarmist exposé of a coming plague, Panic in the Streets; from Sam Fuller’s gritty chronicle of the cruelties of war, The Steel Helmet, to Laslo Benedek’s tabloid telling of a new generation of rebellion, The Wild One: An Army of Phantoms captures the hottest decade of the Cold War with all the unnerved, high-spirited, and irrational emotions that combative moment could muster.

J. Hoberman has curated this series for us, based on his newest book, An Army of Phantoms, which was released in 2011 and will be published in paperback this month. Until recently, J. Hoberman was the senior film critic at the Village Voice where he elevated the astuteness, breadth, and readability of its pages, mixing his reviews with coverage of the mainstream and media works of more renegade intention, such as Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, which Hoberman nominated in a Sight and Sound poll as the greatest film ever made. His attention has also settled upon book length studies, including The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties, Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds, Vulgar Modernism: Writing on Film and Other Media, and Midnight Movies, his paean to the lowly, written with Jonathan Rosenbaum. In 2008, the San Francisco International Film Festival honored Hoberman with the prestigious Mel Novikoff Award, "bestowed on an individual or institution whose work has enhanced the filmgoing public’s knowledge and appreciation of world cinema."

Hoberman introduces two of the films and, on October 7, presents an overview of An Army of Phantoms before the screening of John Ford’s Fort Apache; a book signing follows. In addition, as part of our ongoing series Afterimage: Filmmakers and Critics in Conversation, Hoberman joins filmmaker Alex Cox following the screening of Walker on Saturday, October 6.

Steve Seid, Video Curator

Friday, October 5, 2012
7:00 p.m. The Next Voice You Hear
William Wellman (U.S., 1950) Archival print! Introduced by J. Hoberman. An ordinary family tunes their radio into “the voice of God” in Wellman’s arch drama from the Nuclear Age. “A study in terror; it acknowledges an actual anxiety and, however pitifully, responds to a real sense of helplessness” (Hoberman). (82 mins)

Saturday, October 6, 2012
9:00 p.m. The Steel Helmet
Samuel Fuller (U.S., 1951) Archival print! Introduced by J. Hoberman. A gruff American sergeant and a South Korean orphan make their way through enemy territory in Fuller’s ruthlessly unsentimental war film. (84 mins)

Sunday, October 7, 2012
6:00 p.m. Fort Apache
John Ford (U.S., 1948) Archival print! Lecture by J. Hoberman, followed by a book signing. The first entry in John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy, Fort Apache sets the nineteenth-century war against the Indians within the sensibility of post-WW II combat. With Henry Fonda, John Wayne, and Shirley Temple. (127 mins plus lecture)

Friday, October 12, 2012
7:00 p.m. Invaders from Mars
William Cameron Menzies (U.S., 1953). Student Pick! A terrified thirteen-year-old witnesses an alien invasion, in Menzies’s paranoid Cold War-era yarn. “Stylized and almost avant-garde in its use of minimal forms, forced perspective, and bursts of color-field frames, Invaders from Mars suggests a Cold War Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, complete with added dream ‘frame’” (Hoberman). (78 mins)

Friday, October 12, 2012
8:40 p.m. Pickup on South Street
Samuel Fuller (U.S., 1953). Pickpockets and cheap whores battle Commie provocateurs along the seedy New York waterfront in Sam Fuller's noirish potboiler of gutter-level loyalties, both personal and political. With Richard Widmark. (80 mins)

Sunday, October 14, 2012
6:15 p.m. Storm Warning
Stuart Heisler (U.S., 1951). Ginger Rogers, Doris Day, and Ronald Reagan are among the unlikely innocents caught up amidst Ku Klux Klan intimidation and oppression in a small Southern town. “The first movie to focus on an unwilling informer, Storm (Warning) was (producer) Wald’s comment on post-HUAC Hollywood” (Hoberman). (93 mins)

Saturday, October 20, 2012
8:45 p.m. The Wild One
Laslo Benedek (U.S., 1953). Marlon Brando leads a gang of leather-clad cyclists descending on YOUR small town in this classic of disaffection and outlaw life. What are you rebelling against? “Whaddya got?” Brando infamously states, against a engine-fueled roar. (79 mins)

Sunday, October 21, 2012
6:30 p.m. Panic in the Streets
Elia Kazan (U.S., 1950). Richard Widmark is a doctor scouring the streets of New Orleans for the carrier of a deadly disease in this gripping but alarmist tale of a “plague” traveling from abroad to our complacent shores. With Jack Palance, Barbara Bel Geddes, and Zero Mostel. (96 mins)

Saturday, October 27, 2012
6:30 p.m. Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Don Siegel (U.S., 1956). Anytown U.S.A. gets clobbered again. This time alien pods replicate full-fledged citizens, turning them into unfeeling collectivized conformists. And the threat is not a bug-eyed alien or insidious Commie, but Mom, Dad, and Little Timmy. “They’re already here. You’re next! You’re next!” (80 mins)



Series curated by J. Hoberman. Program notes written by Steve Seid, inspired by J. Hoberman’s An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War. With special thanks to J. Hoberman; the Library of Congress Motion Picture Division; the UCLA Film & Television Archive; the Academy Film Archive; and Kit Parker.