Saluting J. Hoberman

Posted by Scott Foundas on 1.6.2012


J. Hoberman (right) moderating a Q&A with screenwriter Walter Bernstein at a recent Film Society event. Photo by Wildman / FSLC.

The headline plastered across the cover of this week’s issue of The Village Voice, “Fly the Scary Skies,” does not refer to a story about the current state of print journalism, but it just as soon might have—a fact underlined by Wednesday’s announcement that the Voice had laid off chief film critic J. Hoberman after 33 years of service. The news, which triggered the now-familiar parade of honorific (if vaguely funereal) tributes to the fallen man and angry missives directed at the paper’s corporate owners, was perhaps inevitable.

Since the 2005 merger of Voice parent company Village Voice Media with the Phoenix-based New Times Media, Jim had survived many rounds of layoffs that had eventually left the 13-paper chain with exactly two staff film critics: him and me. In those same years, the very notion of the staff film critic had increasingly come to seem like a luxury item that most newspapers and magazines were unwilling or unable to afford. Now Jim too joins “the departed,” as the Salt Lake Tribune critic memorably dubbed his downsized and reassigned brethren, including VVM alumni Michael Atkinson, Nathan Lee, Dennis Lim, Rob Nelson and Ella Taylor.

Like most of them, Jim will doubtless land on his feet, teaching and writing books (as he has already been doing for decades) and blogging away on the recently deployed Das Blog of Shameless Self-Promotion. But there’s no denying that his loss as a weekly presence in the pages (both real and virtual) of a publication with the Voice’s national reach is a significant blow—a double left uppercut to the already slackened jaw of serious film culture in America.

It has been one of my great privileges in life to count Jim as a friend and a colleague (most recently as my co-programmer on the Film Society series “Hollywood’s ‘Jew Wave’”). In saluting him today, I fear I can do no better than these words I initially wrote on a far happier occasion, in 2008, when Jim was chosen to receive the San Francisco Film Festival’s Mel Novikoff award, presented annually to “an individual or institution whose work has enhanced the filmgoing public’s knowledge and appreciation of world cinema”:

Anyone who believes that the golden age of American movie criticism died out with the last golden age of American movies clearly hasn’t spent much time reading J. Hoberman, whose arrival at The Village Voice coincided with the box-office tsunami that Jaws brought crashing down on the “new Hollywood” cinema of the 1970s, and whose writing has nevertheless consistently challenged, deepened and radicalized the way we think about motion pictures. Indeed, for Hoberman, the word “critic” seems altogether too limiting. Rather, he is a historian, a political scientist, a rabbi, a cultural anthropologist and an all-around enlightened observer. He is someone drawn to movies not merely for their ability to entertain and inform, but for what they reveal about the times in which they were made and the way we live now. Simply put, some people who write about cinema—some of them very well—tell us what movies we should see; J. Hoberman tells us what we should see in them.

He comes from good stock, having studied under another restless forager of moving images—the avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs—and rubbed shoulders with many leading lights of New York’s burgeoning experimental film scene, back when SoHo was full of anarchic possibility and devoid of Starbucks. In a reversal of the usual pattern, he even flirted with filmmaking for a while before turning to criticism and finding a home at the Voice. There, he has maintained his enthusiasm for the new, the subversive and the consciousness-altering, as well as a healthy distrust for the officially sanctioned and the self-important. Most of all, he is unwilling—incapable, perhaps—of taking anything at face value.

So, in any given week, you may find him tuning his radar to an unknown underground masterpiece (like Craig Baldwin’s Tribulation 99) or a misunderstood piece of big-studio dadaism (Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks!), dissecting the socio-religious implications of the Star Wars franchise, calling out Schindler’s List as softball Holocaust revisionism, or parsing the influence of the Clinton years on Hollywood movies (and vice versa). Whatever the case, these are “reviews” that exist in a realm beyond sacred critical orthodoxies and which stymie efforts to reduce everything written about a film down to pro or con, fresh or rotten.

So it seems altogether fitting that Jim’s unplanned final column consists of an enthusiastic double review of Turkish maestro Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s enigmatic detective story Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and Jacobs’s anti-capitalist frieze Seeking the Monkey King—two films you are unlikely to read about in many other wide-circulation publications, let alone parsed with such elegance, lucidity and wit.

Jim’s spirit will live on at the Voice, in a roster of talented freelancers (including the estimable Nick Pinkerton and Melissa Anderson) and in his own former student, Karina Longworth, who is now the Voice’s last remaining staff film critic. But can any of them reasonably look forward to a Hoberman-like career, sharing the story of cinema with their readers over the span of four decades? I hope so, but I fear for the worst in a cultural climate where hyperbole and thinly-veiled publicity increasingly masquerade as intelligent thought. Of course, there will always be good film criticism written on the blogs of bookish young men and women high on the fumes of intellectual discovery (read primarily by those in their immediate circle of friends), and in the pages of low-circulation magazines whose contributors must grow enured to being asked, “Where did you say you’re writing?” But we are not so far from the time when getting an “expert opinion” may mean reading the Twitter feed of the popcorn seller from your neighborhood googolplex, and when those who remember that it was ever another way find ourselves hopelessly lost in the dark.

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