Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan by Robin Wood: Perhaps The Finest Volume of Film Criticism Ever Published

Serious film criticism is quickly becoming a lost art. Not the least in part because so few serious films are made anymore; critics are being forced to find meaning where there may, in fact, be little or none. The heyday for serious film criticism was the ’70’s and early 80’s before the era of the CAA-package masquerading as a movie took over the business. Back then filmmakers had a little freedom to use cinema to make comments on society; even from within the framework of seemingly empty genres such as horror or the western. One of the last truly great critics of cinema is Robin Wood and he wrote what may well be the defining volume of criticism of films from this period.

Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan covers a selected number of films made during that contentious period of American history. What separates Wood’s book from so many that cover the same era is that Wood chooses not to focus on the movies that one probably expects to find in such a work. You will find no chapters in here devoted to such seminal works of the 70s as The Godfather, A Clockwork Orange, or Chinatown. In fact, the book kicks off with an in-depth analysis of one of those movies that few people know, but that contains a veritable who’s-who of Hollywood history. That film is Arthur Penn’s The Chase, starring, get this: Marlon Brando, Robert Redford, Jane Fonda and Robert Duvall.

But The Chase is hardly the most obscure film that Robin Wood covers in detail in Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan. In fact, the most intriguing and brilliantly conceived chapters of the book focus on the psychological meaning that can be derived from low-budget horror films ranging from I Walked With a Zombie to It’s Alive. Wood’s fascinating deconstruction of the horror film as a subtext for the overheated repression necessary to keep a society humming along is worth the price alone. Later on there is an equally impressive overview of the horror films of the 80s that explains with precision, despite increasing budgets and popularity, they fail to delve into the subconscious in quite the same way.

The primary concern of Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan is the socio-political content of movies released during this time. While Robin Wood does take a few pages to dive headlong into analysis of certain big-name films of this period such as McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Taxi Driver, the book really comes alive when he so easily proves that profundity can be
discovered even within such surprisingly movies as the original Last House on the Left. Wood comes at this horror flicks from the Freudian view that they are in many ways retellings of the myth of Oedipus; Wood demonstrates why modern day horror films leaves us underwhelmed by showing that the best horror movies are bad dreams come to life with the attempt to escape the other as their signature symbolic meaning.

Also of interest is a chapter on Brian DePalma’s early works, you know, back when he was talented. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about when I say the level of film criticism has fallen to new lows, the subtitle of this chapter is The Politics of Castration and it takes as its thesis the idea that DePalma’s early films-such as Sisters, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out and Obsession-all work within a specifically Freudian milieu of the Oedipal drive and its subsequent obsessions with authority and manliness.

Several other chapters examine such topics as the effect of Reaganomics and the swing to the right brought on by Reagan’s election, as well as feminism and how the images of women evolved in movies of the 70’s. One of my own favorite chapters review Martin Scorsese’s best movies from the early 80s, Raging Bull and The King of Comedy. Your jaw may drop as you work your way through Wood’s highly controversial re-examination of Raging Bull as a film that is all about its homosexual subtext. But by the time you reach the end of his Oedipal analysis of The King of Comedy, you should be completely convinced that Rupert Pupkin is the second coming of the ancient king of Thebes.

Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan concludes with chapters covering the incredibly quick rise and fall of Michael Cimino as a director of note. All I can say about these chapters is you need to prepare yourself from truly subversive criticism, as Robin Wood concludes that it was Heaven’s Gate that was Cimino’s masterpiece, and not the Oscar-winning The Deer Hunter.

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