Film Criticism After Film Criticism: The J. Hoberman Affair

Halftime in America

By Mark Peranson

In a subconscious sense, the impassioned cris de coeur that rippled through the internet following the shocking, but not surprising, dismissal of J. Hoberman from his position as senior film critic for the Village Voice on January 4, 2012, are evidence of an anxiety that springs from the changing nature of the relationship between film and reality, encapsulated by the pending disappearance of celluloid. As Hoberman analyzes in his upcoming book Film After Film (his twelfth, an elaboration of an article originally published in Artforum), the answer to the question “What Is Cinema?” is in the process of being reworded. What the Hoberman Affair shows is that we are equally afraid that, with the disappearance of print journalism, film criticism threatens to become a Matrix-like simulation of what criticism once was. So what can film critics do when the medium’s ontological basis is changing in front of their eyes—when their own reality is threatened.

Though the list of laid-off critics continues to lengthen—and it includes a number of friends and some somewhat respected colleagues—it’s still hard for me, and most members of my generation, not to take this one personally. Hoberman means a lot to us, those who he taught, worked with, mentored, and even those who only know him through his writing; his leaving the Voice is the end of an era. Hoberman’s first piece for the Village Voice, on Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963), was published in 1972, the year of my birth. While studying something in New York that wasn’t film, a number of events conspired to impel me towards criticism, one of which was reading Hoberman—in print. Hoberman has trademarked the practice of situating one’s critical writing on film as not just a social reflection, but an avenue into contemporary historical analysis. His invaluable collection Vulgar Modernism (what a title, still) struck me as a legitimate, reasoned, political, in-between academic and journalistic modus operandi for approaching cinema. I might have been led to it by Hoberman’s influential (to me, at least), typically jazzy review of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995). (This review is not available on the Voice site, but hopefully it will turn up on the Blog of Shameless Self-Promotion,

Like Hoberman, I stumbled into a spot as a third-string critic (though my alt-weekly was at best a vehicle for porn ads back in the late ‘90s), but with each passing year I could never imagine myself maintaining the stamina or interest needed to write weekly criticism. Subsequently, out of lack of interest, impatience, laziness, or time constraints, I’ve written and read less criticism in its traditional form, though I have broadened the definition of what film criticism means to me without ever explicitly spelling it out—a way of coping in this post-film criticism world. (I have no idea what to put on immigration forms when asked for an occupation.) So let’s say the ideal of Hoberman still exists in my mind, though I stopped being in tune with the reality on a weekly basis. I still dip in to compare Cannes reports, to see where Cronenberg’s latest placed on his year-end Top Ten, to follow the Great Hoberman-White Greenberg Dustup of ‘10, and I was always reassured to have him there.

In the brief period since being laid off—with, by his estimation, two million Voice words in the bank!—Hoberman has written articles for the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, the Guardian, been interviewed alongside his mentor Ken Jacobs for Film Comment, presented the film performance Land Passion War of the Dead Christ Worlds at Lincoln Center, and, in mid-February, signed on to be the chief film critic for the Montréal-based Blouin—which now makes him the best film critic paid to work in Canada. Hopefully this means that I’ll be able to see him at Cannes, enjoying another Cronenberg film. Don’t worry about the guy, he’ll be just fine, because there are many of us out there who are proud to call ourselves Hobermoles—those who persist in toiling away, blindly, in the dark.

Cinema Scope: Why don’t we begin with the history and then maybe try to find some points of connection (or disruption) to the present, with regards to the occupation and practice of film criticism. What was your attitude towards film criticism when you began at the Voice, both in terms of how you regarded your work, but also how it fit into the general sphere of cultural criticism? To what extent was the type of criticism that you began practicing in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s a function of historical conditions or changes?

J. Hoberman: There’s a nostalgia suggesting the ‘70s as a golden age of film criticism, at least in New York—James Wolcott went so far as to compare Kael, Sarris, John Simon et al. to screening room gunslingers. I had no sense of that. Film criticism was something I fell into. I wanted to be a filmmaker, not even a real director—an avant-garde filmmaker. I produced some work and got a bit of recognition (a cover story in the Millennium Film Journal!), but that kind of filmmaking is really hard and largely thankless. I had been writing, mainly features for counterculture rags and mags (High Times, Crawdaddy), and Richard Goldstein, the arts editor of the Village Voice, invited me to do occasional reviews of avant-garde or off-beat movies. (The first combined a Jon Jost film with Eraserhead [1977].) Suddenly I was in Jonas Mekas’ old spot, although I parlayed the regular critics’ lack of interest in documentaries and “difficult” foreign films into a beat; I was amazed that I got to review Céline et Julie vont en bateau (1974), for example. Sarris and the second-string critic Tom Allen just didn’t care! For the most part, I was able to cover whatever I wanted so long as people could still see it (post-mortems were rare). It was fun, and I got a lot of positive reinforcement. My desire to make avant-garde movies waned, although that was still my source of identification. I wasn’t particularly concerned with Hollywood and I didn’t really see myself as a movie reviewer—more like someone happily toiling in the vineyard of film culture and getting paid for it. That would only have been possible at the Voice, which truly believed that critics should buck conventional wisdom and commercial consideration, champion the obscure, and write about what interested them.

Scope: At what point did you come to consider yourself a film reviewer—I note you don’t say film critic—and how did you consciously situate yourself in relation to the other reviewers at the time? I suppose the two critics to discuss further regarding this would be Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael.

Hoberman: I didn’t really take Kael seriously (although I did later take issue with her review of Shoah [1985]) but my relationship with Sarris was complicated. The Voice was, in its heyday, a seriously contentious place, with writers consistently dissing each other. In 1980, when I was pretty much a newbie and had no idea of the Kael-Sarris rivalry, the arts editor contrived a point-counterpoint debate between Sarris and my lowly self (an unwitting Kael surrogate) regarding Dressed to Kill (1980). There were parallel pieces: “Dazzling!”—Hoberman, “Derivative!”—Sarris. Andy was annoyed, and rightfully so—I was the third-string critic and De Palma wasn’t even a real cause of mine. A few years later I baited him, along with all the other reviewers in New York, while beating the drum for Jeanne Dielman (1975). (He responded quite hilariously, accusing me in the next issue of “freaking out on art house acid.”) I was a bit unfair in attacking mainstream critics for being mainstream, but my mindset was still very “1968.” Things changed during the summer of 1984 when Andy was felled by a serious illness and I was called upon to substitute. The first film of “his” that I reviewed was the Clint Eastwood vehicle Tightrope (1984), which I liked quite a bit. (I maintained my punky adversarial stance by panning Resnais’ La vie est un roman (1983) in the same column—some people were outraged.) Andy returned, but there was no going back. I showed I could do it and so I had to review a lot of Hollywood movies, and that’s the point at which I began to hate Steven Spielberg. Because the Voice was the Voice, however, I was able to vent my spleen and infuse my reviews with a lot of politics. I became a reviewer—maybe even a critic. It was the height of Reaganism, and I saw a social role for myself.

Scope: What changed at the Voice and what are the reasons for this change? Is it part of a general movement in journalism? In film criticism? And what do you think led to them laying you off, both in terms of immediate causes and underlying causes?

Hoberman: Print journalism is in trouble, criticism is in crisis, Hollywood sucks, but the decline of the Voice has been going on longer than the death of cinephilia. When I first began publishing there, my friends already thought it was passé. That said, the paper really began its decline when it went free in 1996 and a new “professional” editor was brought in to regulate the anarchic staff. A new venture-capitalist ownership made things worse, even as the highly profitable classified ads migrated online. The quality suffered and there were some atrocious firings, but things became immeasurably worse once New Times took over in 2006—that was like living under occupation, replete with periodic bloodbaths. I’m amazed that I lasted as long as I did. (It’s also remarkable that, faced with shrinking space and unpleasant demands, the New Times-installed film editor Allison Benedikt was able to maintain a credible section.) By the time they got to me they were pretty much out of “high-”salaried writers to lay-off—and I’m sure my role as a union activist was an added value.

Scope: Onto the internet: To what extent is the type of “anarchic” criticism that used to be practiced at the Voice able to find a second life in the new technological age? Or, does the internet lessen the importance of alt-weeklies?

Hoberman: Personally, I’m devoted to print, but it seems inevitable that, sooner rather than later, most periodicals, including alt-weeklies, will migrate online (along with TV) even as movies ascend into the Cloud. As a cinephile and bibliophile, I don’t particularly like the idea, but I can keep my books and DVDs. As a writer and a critic, it’s more problematic. Collective endeavours like newspapers and magazines have more authority than individual blogs, mainly because they attract a larger, more varied readership, and also because they have the potential to pay their writers. A blog is a bit too much like a vanity press. I started my Blog of Shameless Self-Promotion mainly as a way of anthologizing my Voice reviews and publicizing my books. I may occasionally post some bit of news (like, hey, I lost my job!), but I’m disinclined to write original material for it. I want to be edited and published, in print if possible, and make my living doing it.

Scope: That might be the case, but it skirts the problem that one source of the crisis in contemporary film criticism (if not the key one) is editorial. Would you agree that the one subtext of the outpouring of emotional reaction to your being laid off is that your privileged position as someone who had a weekly platform to essentially write what they want, how they want, on films they want is going the way of 35mm film?

Hoberman: Oh, absolutely. I’m not so narcissistic as to identify my losing a paying position to the end of film as we know it, but people did see an historical process at work. In retrospect, I appeared to be like that amiable dinosaur from The Tree of Life (2011), cluelessly doomed to extinction. Regardless of what other cinephiles and film journalists might have thought of me or my writing, they understood I had been expelled from Paradise (even if the Voice mainly felt like Purgatory and sometimes Hell). How many people get paid to do something they love? But you know, Mark, I’m basically a pessimist—which means I have the capacity to be pleasantly surprised.

Scope: You’ve taught film criticism, and have mentored many current critics at the Voice as well. Do you feel that you’ve developed a crowd of Hobermoles? Or do you think Armond White’s antagonism has more to do with jealousy—that the legion he belongs to has been waning in influence, despite the periodic attempts to prop it up?

Hoberman: Teaching has its onerous aspects, but it’s enormously gratifying. I was overwhelmed and amazed by the expressions of support that people emailed, tweeted, posted, and wrote in the days after I lost my job. Still, nothing meant more to me than the response of former students, many of whom I hadn’t heard from in years. I loved it when they referred to things I said in class and had long since (or instantly) forgotten. Inspired teaching, as I learned from my teacher Ken Jacobs, is a form of spontaneous riffing. I’m far more interested in developing colleagues than disciples, but having an appreciative audience is satisfaction enough. I don’t know Armond White well enough to speculate on his pathology. Basically, he’s a self-righteous blowhard with a taste for McCarthy-like slander; it’s despicable when directed at people who may or may not have been students of mine, but essentially harmless. Does he believe his own bullshit? (Did McCarthy?) His main achievement is the creation of a ridiculously truculent public persona, although the guy who tweets as Fake Armond is much better at it.

Scope: In the ten-point list of advice to budding critics recently circulated on the internet, you say “never read other critics.” I assume you mean don’t read reviews of the same films you’re writing on, and not critics in general. Are there critics that you read regularly, and what attracts you to a particular critic?

Hoberman: That list that my former student Matt Singer put out was, as he made clear in his post, drawn from his class notes. I’m sure I had my mantras, but do you really think that I would scrawl the Ten Commandments of film crit on the blackboard? Anyway, your assumption is correct that when I said “never read other critics,” I meant not to read anyone on a particular film before you write on it. As for following critics, I scan the New York Times every day, including the reviews. I’m sent a number of film journals and I generally check the review sections to see if there’s anything I’m curious about. There are plenty of good, smart critics out there (many of whom write for you) but in most cases I’ll read a review more for the movie than the writer.

Scope: Can film criticism be taught?

Hoberman: What a question! My writing classes were mainly vocational education. It may not be possible to teach people to be talented or intelligent or funny, but you can teach practical things. You can help people to master certain writing skills, you can prepare them for the terror of freelance writing, and (at least theoretically) you can teach them to interrogate their own prejudices.

Scope: Along with writing weekly film criticism, in the last decade you’ve embarked on a grander project of critical film history, interpreting film works in the context of American political culture decade by decade. What do you consider the relationship between your more “historical” works and your weekly criticism?

Hoberman: Well, I’ve always been interested in history and the “film of history.” Midnight Movies is, in some ways, a history of the so-called counterculture in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Bridge of Light is both a history of Yiddish-language cinema and Yiddish-speaking Jews in the first half of the 20th century—a yahrtzeit. Finding contemporary movie reviews has been a factor in all of my books; reviews are the first draft of film history. Taken as a single text, the weekly column that I published in the Voice from 1979 or ‘80 through 2011 is a chronicle. I’m reporting on a particular history as it unfolds as seen from a particular perspective. (This is one of the subjects in my forthcoming Film After Film, and one of the meanings of its title.) An Army of Phantoms and The Dream Life were, in some sense, memoirs. They concern events or the aftermaths of events that I lived through, if not always consciously. There’s a certain perspective and distance from the material. The final volume of the trilogy presents an interesting problem for me in that I was reviewing movies during that period—I need to figure out how to use my own first impressions as historical artifacts.

Scope: Have you considered continuing this inquiry through to the present? I suppose the two significant events that may or may not be used as a prism through which to view cinema after the turn of the century have been 9/11 and the election of Obama.

Hoberman: Funny you should ask. Film After Film begins with 9/11, an event I regard as crucial in the history of cinema precisely because it was so cinematic, and ends with Obama’s election—you know that the meteor is about to hit the earth or the terrorist suitcase bomb is set to explode when the black guy becomes president. We’ve been living through the aftermath. If Mitt Romney is the Republican nominee, as now seems likely, he’ll have the South Park guys to thank—they inoculated the electorate with The Book of Mormon.

Scope: Have you ascertained an “Obama effect” on the films of the last four years? Or is it too early to tell?

Hoberman: It’s a bit early, although, to judge from the past, there should be something before the beginning of a president’s fourth year in office. In 2008, I found the longing for Obama (or an Obama) in WALL-E and Milk, but nothing comparable since. There may be a mildly Obama-ist aspect to the unconventional protagonists of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) and Haywire (2011) or even The Social Network (2010)—and I read somewhere that the President screened Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)—but movies like J. Edgar (2011) and Meek’s Cutoff (2010) are still pondering the Bush years. Obama hasn’t really come up with a compelling narrative beyond cleaning up Bush’s mess, and that’s not great movie material. The best Obama movie has been the two-minute Chrysler commercial “It’s Halftime in America” with Clint Eastwood (and directed by David Gordon Green!) that was shown during the Super Bowl. Reagan himself couldn’t have done it better!

Scope: So, late breaking news, you have already found what sounds like a new full-time position as a film critic—online. What were the factors that led to this decision? Were there other offers on the table?

Hoberman: The day after I was laid off I began getting offers to review movies in print, online, and over the radio. None were remotely comparable to my situation at the Voice. As I said earlier, that kind of job barely exists now. I’ve been taking on freelance work and have agreements to contribute regular articles and essays to a few places, including the Los Angeles Times, Film Comment, and, the website to which you refer, isn’t a full-time gig in the sense that the Voice was, nor will I be contributing the same sort of film criticism. It’s an opportunity to publish an ongoing movie journal and get paid for it. I’m up for that, so I guess I have migrated to the post-print world. My full-time job will be aggregating whatever I can on my Blog of Shameless Self Promotion.

Scope: Finally, who would top your list for the best filmmakers at work under 50?

Hoberman: Not sure what “best” means, but here is a provisional list of 11 extremely talented and highly original filmmakers who have made at least two first-rate movies and should be more than familiar to your readers: Steven Soderbergh (48), Lucrecia Martel (46), Cristi Puiu (45), Jim Finn (44), Julia Loktev (43), Apichatpong Weerasethakul (42), Jia Zhangke (42), Carlos Reygadas (41), Gerardo Naranjo (39?), Andrew Bujalski (34), and Jean Vigo (forever young).