J. Hoberman’s books include Film After Film (Or, What Became of 21st Century Cinema?) and An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War.

Raunchy, Raucous Coney Island

Steeplechase Funny Face, no date

Perhaps for Freud, Coney Island was America—a realm where fantasy was made material and the pleasure principle ruled. So it is with the bountiful exhibition “Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008,” at the Brooklyn Museum through March 13.

Crackpot Gothic

Jim Shaw: The Jefferson Memorial, 2013

The Los Angeles artist Jim Shaw is an esoteric populist who doesn’t only make art but, since he began exhibiting found “thrift store paintings” in 1991, has created his own tradition, an American vernacular surrealism that might be termed “crackpot gothic.”

The Truth in Midair

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Philippe Petit in Robert Zemeckis's The Walk, 2015

Like many post-9/11 films, The Walk is, in part, experiential, partaking in the simulated “new real-ness” which with cinema, as an institution, has responded to the loss of authenticity brought about by relentless digitalization. Petit’s actual walk was approximately three times as long as the filmed sequence but the difference is that, through the magic of digital cinema, Zemeckis is able to place the audience with Petit, on “an island floating in mid-air on the edge of the void.”

The Boys in the Cage

One of the Angulo brothers in a home-made Batman costume, in Crystal Moselle's The Wolfpack, 2015

In their way, The Wolfpack and The Tribe represent the classic Lumière/Méliès dichotomy—do motion pictures reflect or construct reality? The opposition has existed since the medium was invented. But here there is a twist. The Wolfpack is a documentary that delights the viewer with proliferating fictions. The Tribe, more brutal, is an invented story founded on a discomfiting bedrock of documentary truth.

The Mind of the Photo

Lili Kracauer: Siegfried Kracauer, Stamford, New York, 1950

In his writing about photography, Siegfried Kracauer, the Frankfurt School’s freelance intellectual par excellence, was less concerned with the intention of the photographer than with the logic of the medium—a radical view that prized the unforeseen correspondences and inadvertent revelations that may be found in dated news photos or old family portraits, photographs where initial associations fade and vanish so that the image “necessarily disintegrates into its particulars.” Part of the pleasure of a new book of his family photos is finding these very sorts of revelations in the Kracauers’ generally artless snapshots.

The Great American Shooter

Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle in Clint Eastwood's American Sniper, 2014

For all its patriotic rhetoric, Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is not a moral lesson but a tragedy. The causal link Eastwood establishes between the trauma of September 11 and the catastrophe of Iraq is less the dramatization of history than an illustration of historical paralysis—elaborating the implications of an endless, unwinnable war.

Brash, Bold, Insolent Ungerer

Tomi Ungerer: left, Black Power/White Power, 1967, right, Eat, 1967

It may be that everyone has their own Tomi Ungerer. His drawings, posters, and books have been part of many people’s childhoods, others’ countercultures, still others’ outrage, and, at one point in his career, every straphanger’s New York. Mine is the artist whose late 1960s promotional posters for The Village Voice (“expect the unexpected”) still had pride of place in the newspaper’s offices when I began working there in the late 1970s.

The Passion of Marion Cotillard

Marion Cotillard with factory coworkers in Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's Two Days, One Night

Featuring Marion Cotillard in what may be the most self-effacing, yet bravura performance of the year, the Dardenne brothers’ Two Days, One Night traffics in suspense and is a sort of thriller. But as a search for a lost (or stolen) livelihood, it is also a descendant of The Bicycle Thief, the neo-realist classic that implies a world in which “the poor must steal from each other to survive.”

David Lynch’s Bad Thoughts

David Lynch: I Am Running Home from Your House, 2013

Is David Lynch a celebrity painter? Or, put another way: Would the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) be exhibiting four decades of his work, were he not 1) a world-famous movie director and 2) the most famous PAFA alum since Mad magazine cartoonist Don Martin or Thomas Eakins or maybe ever? Impossible to answer and pretty much irrelevant, as Lynch’s paintings and assemblages place his movies in the setting of his art work and not vice versa.

Grotesque, Garish, Exuberant American Art

Karl Wirsum: Junior Messing with the Kid, 1968

“What Nerve! Alternative Figures in American Art, 1960 to the Present,” the provocatively-titled exhibit at the RISD Museum in Providence, presents a bracing alternative to one prevailing way of telling the story of postwar American art. Generally speaking, the art is grotesque, garish and exuberant, cranky, sometimes menacing, often hilarious and, in the case of the Hairy Who and Destroy All Monsters, particularly fresh.

Taiwan’s Master Timekeeper

A scene from Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Puppetmaster (1993)

I first became convinced of the genius of Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien when I saw The Puppetmaster (1993). Until then I thought of Hou as the maker of extraordinarily fine, quasi-autobiographical youth films. The Puppetmaster went much further, showing a profound sense of motion pictures as a way of exploring the passage of time.

Revolt on the Polar Express

A scene from Bong Joon Ho’s film Snowpiercer

Bong Joon Ho’s Snowpiercer is a madcap addition to the comic-book-derived movies that have dominated cinematic summer fare for much of the twenty-first century. At once streamlined and ramshackle, it doesn’t have a plot so much as a premise—or rather, a ruling metaphor.

Eleven Visits to the Sky

A scene from Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s Manakamana

Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s Manakamana documents Nepalese pilgrims as they are conveyed via cable car up to a Hindu temple. There are five ascents to and six descents from the mountain, an eleven-act vaudeville show in which the trips are separated by a clattering landing and an invisible cut made during the darkness of the turn-around.

Sex: The Terror and the Boredom

A scene from Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac

Although too capricious (or should we say promiscuous?) to be a taxonomy, Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac is designed to illustrate and exhaust every popular theory of nymphomania, including, of course, the idea that the condition exists only as a male fantasy.

News from Space

Cristina de Middel: Iko Iko (from the

Does a museum show occupy space—or should it send us hurtling through it? Such is loosely the premise of two very different New York shows this winter, the New Museum’s “Report on the Construction of a Spaceship Module” and the Studio Museum in Harlem’s “The Shadows Took Shape,” both featuring art inspired by 1960s and 1970s science fiction films.

When the Yellow Press Got Color

On October 18, 1896, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst went to war against Joseph Pulitzer. His opening salvo was The New York Journal’s five-cent color supplement, The American Humorist, which Hearst called “eight pages of iridescent polychromous effulgence that makes the rainbow look like a piece of lead pipe.”

David Cronenberg’s Visual Shock

Jennifer Jason Leigh in David Cronenberg's eXistenZ (1999)

To the general movie-going public, David Cronenberg is likely best known for The Fly (1986), a luridly operatic remake of a 1950s drive-in horror film, in which a scientist played by Jeff Goldblum inadvertently transforms himself into an insect. But many career-long Cronenberg concerns (body horror, cyberpunk, regendered sex acts) and tropes (viral epidemics, organic glop in institutional settings) have parallels in the work of gallery artists, and he is one of the few filmmakers whom artists regard as a colleague and perhaps a model. This fall, Cronenberg is the subject of three new exhibitions in his native Toronto—the main one devoted to his film work, another curated by him, the third consisting of artworks commissioned in his honor.

Drowning in the Digital Abyss

Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity

A survival drama set almost entirely in the unfathomable emptiness of outer space, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is something now quite rare—a truly popular big-budget Hollywood movie with a rich aesthetic pay-off. Genuinely experimental, blatantly predicated on the formal possibilities of film, Gravity is a movie in a tradition that includes D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, Abel Gance’s Napoleon, Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, as well as its most obvious precursor, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. Call it blockbuster modernism.

Prague’s Savage Spring

Marketa with her father in František Vláčil’s Marketa Lazarová

František Vláčil’s Marketa Lazarová is easy to watch but difficult to follow. Thirty years after its release, it was named overwhelmingly by a poll of Czech critics and filmmakers as the best movie ever produced in Czechoslovakia, yet it remains little known outside its native land. The movie opens on a note of mordant self-deprecation (“This tale was cobbled together and hardly merits praise”) and goes on to represent thirteenth-century Bohemia as a backwater of Conan the Barbarian’s Hyperborean Age—the province of halfwits, rapists, and brutes.

New York in Slow Motion

  A still from James Nares's Street, 2011

James Nares’s Street, an engrossing and celebratory hour-long, oversized video projection of life in New York City, is a monument to evanescence. Now installed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 27, the work was fashioned from sixteen hours of material, recorded in six-second bursts from a vehicle moving through city streets at a rate of thirty miles per hour. The molasses-paced tour opens in Times Square and, occasionally revisiting the midtown area, goes through Harlem, Chelsea, and parts of the Bronx, with extended crosstown trips to transverse busy 125th, 34th, and 14th streets, accompanied by Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore’s unamplified twelve-string vamping.

‘Girls’ Gone Wild

Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers

Spring Breakers, the new film by Harmony Korine, opens with an impressively staged shot of pure pulchritude—a mass of golden bodies gyrating on a Florida beach—rendered somewhat absurd by the cartoonish sounds of Skrillex’s wacky techno distortions. The luridly saturated colors are pure Pop Art. The casting is conceptual. Korine employs a pair of Disney teen princesses—Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens—along with TV soubrette Ashley Benson and his wife, Rachel Korine, to play a quartet of co-eds who escape from their emphatically non-Ivy League college to join in the spring break frenzy. That these students are too busy establishing their sexual bravado to heed their professor’s droning lecture on the civil rights movement, however, signals that Spring Breakers has more on its mind than youth’s inalienable right to party.

Tolkien vs. Technology

The Hobbit, directed by Peter Jackson

There is a good deal to be said about Peter Jackson’s long-awaited and exceedingly long adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, most of it bad. I speak as a former, if long-lapsed, member of the Tolkien cult—one who vividly recalls a 12-year-old’s impassioned assertion that he had the right to borrow books, namely The Lord of the Rings, from the library’s Adult Section, who searched in vain for anything even remotely comparable, who, a few years later, saved up and sent away to a London bookstore to purchase his own hardbound copies of the trilogy, and who was soon after shocked to see the books appear here as garish, unauthorized Ace paperbacks.

Trick or Truth?

Grete Stern: Dream No. 1: Electrical Appliances for the Home, 1949

“Every photograph is a fake from start to finish,” the photographer Edward Steichen asserted in the first issue of Camera Work in 1903. In what amounts to a backhanded defense of photography as art, Steichen explained that “a purely impersonal, unmanipulated photograph” was “practically impossible.” “Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop,” an exhibition now up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (later traveling to the National Gallery and Houston’s Museum of Fine Art), makes a vigorous case for understanding the medium as Steichen did.

Trapped in the Total Cinema

Tron, 1982

Can we speak of a twenty-first-century cinema? And if so, on what basis? In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the French film critic André Bazin characterized cinema as an idealistic phenomenon and cinema-making as an intrinsically irrational enterprise. “There was not a single inventor who did not try to combine sound and relief with animation of the image,” Bazin maintained in “The Myth of Total Cinema.”

Obama’s Evil Twin

2016 director Dinesh D'Souza in front of the White House

Surpassed only by The Expendables 2, with Sylvester Stallone, the Dinesh D’Souza political documentary 2016: Obama’s America was the second-highest grossing movie in America the week that it opened—timed to coincide with the Republican National Convention—and is now among the top ten highest earning documentaries in history. Like the RNC, 2016 is designed to show the president as a false prophet and a failed leader; unlike the RNC, the D’Souza film is less interested in the nature of Obama’s politics than in the enigma of his personality. With the Democrats gathering in Charlotte to recapture the Obama story, I sought out 2016 at the Regal Union Square in Manhattan to learn more.

The Lost Futures of Chris Marker

Chris Marker's La Jetée, 1962

At once unsentimentally au courant and fixated on that past, Chris Marker was the Janus of world cinema. His unclassifiable documentaries treat memory as the stuff of science fiction, a notion he shared with his early associate Alain Resnais. Hardly a Luddite, Marker thrived on technological paradox. A half-hour succession of still images evoking motion pictures as time travel, La Jetée, his most generally known work, could have been made for Eadweard Muybridge’s nineteenth-century zoopraxiscope.

When Westerns Were Un-American

A still from A Bullet for the General (1966)

With the escalation of the Vietnam War, every Marxist intellectual, it seemed, wanted to write a Western. The most notable was Franco Solinas (1927–1982), a teenaged partisan and longtime member of the Italian Communist Party, journalist for the Communist newspaper L’Unità, and author. Solinas worked on four Spaghetti Westerns—all included in a three-week-long series at New York’s Film Forum that begins June 1—contributing to this wildly commercial and equally disreputable mode as decisively as director Sergio Leone or composer Ennio Morricone.

Talking Smack About Junk: Shirley Clarke’s ‘The Connection’

The apartment setting of Shirley Clarke's The Connection

Re-released in a lovingly restored print on the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary, Shirley Clarke’s debut film The Connection is an excavated relic of an earlier New York. The movie adapts an off-Broadway blockbuster—Jack Gelber’s “jazz play” of the same name—and concerns a filmmaker’s foredoomed attempt to document a gaggle of heroin addicts while they hang around a cold-water loft waiting for the salvation of their daily dose of the drug they call “junk,” “smack,” or most often “shit.”

The Inner Light of Terence Davies

Leigh McCormack as a movie-loving boy in The Long Day Closes

A nation must have its culture heroes, and current wisdom among Anglo-American movie critics and programmers has advanced Terence Davies to the position of Britain’s greatest living filmmaker. Beginning this week, viewers in New York will have an unusual chance to assess his work afresh, with the US release of The Deep Blue Sea, his new version of the 1952 Terence Rattigan adultery drama of the same name, coinciding with a retrospective of his work at BAM and a revival of The Long Day Closes at Film Forum.

A New Obama Cinema?

A lone lean figure strides purposefully through a dark tunnel, maybe a highway underpass. There’s no fear. A familiar husky voice whispers that “it’s half time—both teams are in their locker rooms, discussing what they can do to win this game in the second half.” One needn’t be a genius like Karl Rove to catch the drift of the two-minute Clint Eastwood-narrated Chrysler spot shown mid-Super Bowl last Sunday and everywhere else ever since. But get it Rove did. First thing Monday morning, America’s preeminent propagandist was on Fox & Friends to whine that “the president of the United States and his political minions are, in essence, using our tax dollars to buy corporate advertising.” What he meant was that a grateful automobile industry was engaging in some sneaky subliminal payback, hiring no less than Clint Eastwood as the mouthpiece for Barack Obama’s reelection bid. Well before the Giants edged out the Patriots, Obama adviser David Axelrod had wiped his boss’s fingerprints off the spot. “Powerful spot,” he slyly tweeted to his followers. “Did Clint shoot that, or just narrate it?”