Something’s wrong, shut the light
Heavy thoughts tonight
And they aren’t of Snow White
Dreams of war, dreams of liars
Dreams of dragon’s fire
And of things that will bite
Sleep with one eye open
Gripping your pillow tight
Take my hand
We’re off to Never-Never Land
-Metallica, Enter Sandman
This week the internet is abuzz with a bit of nostalgia for Steven Spielberg’s HOOK, released a quarter century ago . There are many reasons why I think this is a worthwhile topic to reflect on.
From the outset, let’s be clear, this movie is awful. Not bad, not trashy-but-fun, it is unfathomably and irrefutably awful. It comes from perhaps the oddest period in Steven Spielberg’s career and is verifiably symptomatic of something that requires psychotherapy. While he was filming this picture, he was in the pre-production process for SCHINDLER’S LIST, working to make that film as unbearable and painful as possible. While he is on set directing children to run around in certifiably Nineties costuming and sets, including the Lost Boys in a skateboard park (!), he is going home at night to talk with Steven Zaillian about how to recreate the liquidation of European Jewry in service of what Dr. Norman Finkelstein described as The Holocaust Industry, a weapon of Clintonism used to justify the destruction of Yugoslavia. As a result, we see a major Hollywood player that is over-doing the schmaltz to a degree that would make Frank Capra seem like Stanley Kubrick. Every second of the film is so cringe-inducing one is lucky to still have molars at the end due to the reflexive grinding of the jaw.
This is because of a simple film critique, this is a 1980s cookie cutter kids film that was produced in the 1990’s. An entire genre of films spawned from his success with ET at the start of that earlier decade, from the quite fun GOONIES to the quite stupid MAC AND ME, what I would call the Spielbergian Tween Adventure Film, assembled in a color-by-numbers fashion that would do a Lisa Frank Art Kit proud, had saturated the market not just to the brim but over onto the bathroom floor and out into the hallway. It was a way to rake in big bucks and the studios popped them out like the fluffy cotton candy they were. A dissection of the plot of HOOK sounds like the ingredients list for Easy Bake Oven brownies:
-One stuffy yuppy lawyer (Robin Williams)
-Two ambiguously gay villains (Dustin Hoffman and Bob Hoskins)
-One spunky fairy sidekick (Julia Roberts)
-A bagful of cute child actors
What in the name of God is this? It’s so intentionally sweet I’m going into diabetic shock just looking at the cast list!
But with all this said, I still have a weird warm spot for the film. Why?
There’s several inter-connected reasons.
First, and perhaps most importantly, is the star, Robin Williams. Others pointed it out at the time of his death several years ago but I think it bears mentioning again. If you were born in between 1980 and 1995, Robin Williams was the star of a series of films that defined your childhood. And not in the way that Julie Andrews impacted my mother’s childhood because of her roles in MARY POPPINS and SOUND OF MUSIC. No, year after year Williams was in a series of movies that defined the male and female Millennial generation in the way John Wayne defined the white male Baby Boomers. From DEAD POETS SOCIETY to PATCH ADAMS he was a presence, someone we saw as a reassuring figure that made us feel safe and happy. Our parents remembered laughing out loud at him as Mork but we remember looking up to him in the sort of wonder that one expresses for Big Bird. But instead of being make believe, he was human. All too human. (I still am in tears writing this because Robin Williams isn’t supposed to die! It’s just a law of the universe like Santa being real!) When I read in the press that he had taken his own life because of the onset of Lewy body dementia, my first reaction was probably a bit against the grain but I still hold this opinion: good for him. I watched my grandfather die a painful, multi-decade death from that very same disease. He went from being admitted to Yale at 16 with a double major in law and engineering to a mess in all sorts of pain because of that disease. If Robin Williams wants to stop himself from going through what I saw my grandfather go through, I have zero right to moralize there.
Second, there is the bizarre moment of genuine goodness I remember HOOK coming out during. It was years before the kids at school started calling me faggot, before I started trying to push away those strange feelings for that certain boy, and way before my decade-long romance with various substances of illicit nature. Hangovers to homosexuality were not on my radar. Instead, my brothers, my cousins out in Illinois, and myself were madly in love with this movie. My dad was talking with his sister in the midwest and she asked “Wait, are your kids crowing like in that HOOK movie?” Not only were we crowing, we were bouncing off the walls pretending we were in Never-Never Land! Of course the darker side of this utopianism will be returned to momentarily…
Third, in particular, this movie drove my parents insane. Or rather the video game did. At some point, we rented the Sega Genesis game that was licensed off the film. And very shortly afterwards we lost the game in the living room couch. The search lasted for months and the video store was sending collection agency letters. In the nick of time it was located in between some cushions and the hounds were not released. It is cruel and perhaps wicked to look back at this and say anything other than oops. But at the same time it also is the junior version/premonition of the later fender bender with dad’s car. It carries within it a bit of humor as a moment you made your parents insane and they knew all they could do was be mad.
The Nineties was an absurd decade in America. Wages remained stagnant, the President destroyed major elements of the social safety net while claiming to oversee an economic boom that was in reality a series of bubbles (described with succinct detail by Robert Pollin in his Contours of Descent), the prison-industrial complex as a modern form of human slavery was consolidated, and American imperial project reached its ultimate nexus of hegemony after having been opposed for three decades beforehand. Yet in spite of their country turning into a neoliberal fascist order right before their eyes, white Americans did not seem to notice or care.
HOOK is therefore the type of ideological state apparatus that Louis Althusser described. It was able to enchant seemingly-responsible adults into a kind of daze that would allow for the disaster of Clintonism. To look at it after a quarter century is to see a marker of how we went wrong as a culture. When J.M. Barrie wrote the source material about Peter Pan and his Lost Boys, he was trying to articulate a message about the meaning of childhood, innocence, and the tragedy of growing up. Indeed, he ended up willing the copyright and royalties to the British Great Ormond Street Hospital, an institution for pediatric care.
Spielberg’s film is about the complete opposite, a retreat from the responsibilities of citizenship so to live in a fantasia. The aged Peter Pan, played by Williams, stands in for every white Yuppie and their now-adult Hipster children. Rather than oppose Clinton’s squandering of the peace dividend with Russia, the defenestration of the Kyoto protocols, the wars on Yugoslavia and Iraq, the decimation of Welfare, and so many more of those crimes, he instead uses his proto-superheroic powers in a land of make believe rather than the real world.
Chris Hedges defines this as the betrayal of the liberal class, the act where they became enchanted by their supposedly miraculous neoclassical economic “markets” (which are actually just state-protected but privately administered cartels), vain with their victory hymns about the end of the Cold War (which was in fact just a massive ransacking of the Russian people so to enrich these aforementioned cartels), and engorged by Clinton’s triangulation of Republican policies under the guise of neoliberal identity politics (meaning that whites were given brief financial and political respite from the onslaught of neoliberalism that deluded them enough into thinking it was over rather than being a pause and in turn simply ignored black and brown pleas for mercy as a case of entitlement run amok).
Now these same Yuppies and Hipsters desire to do this all again. They wish, like the Robin Williams character, to return to a kinder, gentler America, much like the Trump base with slogans of ‘Make America Great Again’. Clinton’s campaign is a fusion of an unsaid form of that slogan, with nostalgia for a 1990’s that, like the 1950’s, was actually quite wretched, combined with a politically correct neoliberal disdain for a New York rube who says aloud what Clinton does with a sociopathic smile that is mistaken as a kind of Democratic Party anti-racism that might have existed hypothetically once on paper but has never actually been enacted.
In the end, theirs is a much more dangerous sort of Peter Pan escapism from the responsibilities of citizenship. The willingness to brush aside how the Clinton campaign used dirty tricks right out of the Florida 2000 playbook so to scuttle the primaries that Bernie Sanders would have otherwise swept, complete with voter purges in historic black and brown localities like Brooklyn, parts of California, or Nevada is a prime example of how neoliberalism has created a voluntary complicity in this irresponsibility. At this point those who carry on about these issues are actually belittled, insulted, and marginalized in the cultural discourse rather than being respected for their advocacy not of a candidate in a party as much as the process and right of suffrage. In other words, it is as if on the way to the second star to the right we ended up in Winston Smith’s Oceania.
Of course in the end Wendy let them fly away together. Our last glimpse of her shows her at the window, watching them receding into the sky until they were as small as stars. As you look at Wendy, you may see her hair becoming white, and her figure little again, for all this happened long ago. Jane is now a common grown-up, with a daughter called Margaret; and every spring cleaning time, except when he forgets, Peter comes for Margaret and takes her to the Neverland, where she tells him stories about himself, to which he listens eagerly. When Margaret grows up she will have a daughter, who is to be Peter’s mother in turn; and thus it will go on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless.