Thursday, January 5, 2012

What Next for J. Hoberman, the Village Voice, and Film Criticism in General?

Posted by on Thu, Jan 5, 2012 at 1:14 PM

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Last night, the Village Voice laid off senior film critic J. Hoberman, a regular contributor since Eraserhead played midnights at Cinema Village, a staffer since '83 and the senior critic since '88, and a colossally important figure in American film criticism, with an unparalleled understanding of film (and an individual film's) place in our history and politics, and a deft (and often amusingly truculent) personal style. (Appreciations and lovely pullquotes: Jessica Winter, Glenn Kenny. Fun fact: every time a film critic writes, "The movie could almost be called [clever double cultural reference]," Hoberman gets royalties.)

He told Daily Intel that he was "shocked, but not surprised... It's not the same paper that I started working at," and elaborated on his adulthood-spanning tenure at "the greatest job imaginable," and his thoughts on the paper ("there is unlikely to ever be an institution like that Voice again—unfortunately") in an email to his colleagues, posted on his website.

That website, incidentally, was launched just this past fall, though establishing his own web presence independent of his Voice author archives was "a happy coincidence," Hoberman said when I emailed him last night.

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Hoberman has a book coming out in June—Film After Film, from Verso—and he's working on the Reagan-era conclusion to his Cold War trilogy. He lectures at Cooper Union and has taught a seminar in film criticism at NYU—many of his students, and research assistants, have gone on to distinguished careers in the field, and are unanimous in their avowal of his support and influence—and, he told me, he has pieces upcoming in the usual places: ArtForum, Film Comment; he's also written for Harper's and the New York Review of Books.

That's still an enviable setup even without the demand he's sure to be in, and given that Hoberman will be Medicare-eligible in two years I'd imagine he's not entirely displeased to be released from the yoke of a weekly release schedule (though I'll certainly be saddened not to have his perspective in play week in and week out).

But he loved the paper, and before his pasturing served as yet another reminder of its decline, he served as a link to its past in a number of ways, not least as the Unit Chair of the Voice union ("something like chief steward," he clarified). As chief negotiator during last year's near-strike, he inspired many of his coworkers by preserving for future employees the generous healthcare packages enjoyed by Voice hands of longer standing. Hoberman told me he doesn't know who'll take over his role in the union, but that "there are a number of good unintimidated people there."

He was also the institutional memory as the paper, now affiliated with the national New Times chain, began to purge much of its history (for recollections of that turbulent time, and why Hoberman's employment could never be taken entirely for granted, see S.T. Van Airsdale's 2006 report on the transition and former books editor and film critic Ed Park's reminisces from the pages of The L).

My favorite piece of his, I think, was his essay for the 50th anniversary of the Voice, in which he recalled "Teenage Me... find[ing] the one newsstand in Flushing (and later, Binghamton, New York) that carried the Village Voice," to read Sarris and Mekas, and to wander through the streets and arthouses of a vanished, romanticized New York that's synonymous with the paper, and then his own tenure, with the passionate advocacy, bit-chomping critics, and political sniping between colleagues in the paper's own pages (his recollection of the Voice's Jeanne Dielman coverage is classic).

ERASERHEADs not a movie Id drop acid for, although I would consider it a revolutionary act if someone dropped a reel of it into the middle of STAR WARS. -Last line of J. Hobermans first bylined film review
  • "ERASERHEAD's not a movie I'd drop acid for, although I would consider it a revolutionary act if someone dropped a reel of it into the middle of STAR WARS." -Last line of J. Hoberman's first bylined film review
In that piece, as in all his writing, Hoberman does so well drawing evocative parallels between an era, its signifiers, and its films; the piece is also personal and Voice-centric in a way that's familiar to anyone who's lived in New York long enough. Everybody has their iconic reading-the-Village Voice memory, a way to proudly date yourself. Mine is: fall of junior year at NYU, a week after Bush's reelection, reading Hoberman on Days of Being Wild's Film Forum revival in a projection booth, in between swapping out reels of 16mm student films.

When I emailed Voice editor-in-chief Tony Ortega for comment last night, he gave me the same statement he gave to Intel, that "I can't comment on personal matters"—he had tried to spin last January's Voice purge, when Wayne Barrett was let go and Tom Robbins followed him out—but that the paper "is committed to providing comprehensive film coverage, and will continue to publish our many fine film writers, both in print and online."

Following the cruel dumping of her predecessor, Dennis Lim, Voice film editor Allison Benedikt has done good work rebuilding a new freelance stable, and welcoming old standbys like Melissa Anderson and Mike Atkinson. Though it's disheartening to pick up the print edition and see the reviews so squeezed by ads and each other, and no to see any repertory listings and only occasional coverage, there's still a lot of writing to value, a difference in quantity more than quality from glory days past. (Many of these writers are friends; a number of them also contribute to The L, which like Slant and Time Out and, I suppose, the Voice, is a great place to read thoughtfully snappy, very short reviews by up and coming film critics with day jobs. Pretty much all the same film critics in all the publications, though, because if the day job isn't it film criticism you take as much of the spread-around work you can, wherever it is.) They have, now, every right to be insulted by the presumed valuation put on his work and by extension theirs, but what do you want them to do, lose their best outlet, in terms of regular paying work and stature? Especially when there's so many hungry writers on the outside.

Hoberman told me, and reiterated in his letter to his coworkers, that "I was told that they were eliminating my position—seems like the orders came from corporate headquarters." The Voice film section, then, henceforth seems likely look like it does on the weeks when Hoberman is on vacation or leave, with top freelancers maybe getting the occasional first crack at bigger releases, prestigious lead slot, and slightly longer word couts, alongside slightly more syndicated content from Karina Longworth and her stable at the LA Weekly. It'll be interesting to see what happens, but mostly I would expect the lead page to be a little less essayistic in layout and format (will writers be encouraged to put two movies in dialogue?) and sometimes featuring multiple reviews; filled by a rotating cast of writers; and for the lead space to be more frequently filled by the consensus big-movie releases often eschewed by Hobes (whose last published pieces, he noted with pride in his email to his colleagues, spotlighted two films opening at Film Forum and Anthology Film Archives).

All this, of course, makes perfect financial sense. Why pay somebody a full salary and benefits to write the lead film review when you can get the same volume of content by paying alt-weekly freelance rates? When Wayne Barrett was fired, it was disclosed that he earned a six-figure salary. How much did Hoberman make? I have no idea, really. I hope it was lots. I would hate to think that you could be the best person in America at your job, in the consensus opinion of your peers, and not make lots of money.

But there's not really any justification for that (which is why I'm probably moving to Scandinavia), at least not in terms you can quantify. Yes, good critics are burning out from the pressure of cobbling together a living around what is, economically, essentially a hobby; there's too little support or incentive for people to build up a level of experience and a body of work that is demonstrably above replacement level.

When I heard that Hoberman had been let go, my first response was to Tweet, "If only Hobes had written more about Scientology." Ortega has been hammering the Scientology beat, and seems to be doing pretty well with that—as the departure of classified ads for the web sinks the alt-weekly industry, he's attempting to reinvent the Village Voice as a robust, revenue-generating daily website, featuring as much original reporting as you can feasibly expect to be produced by writers with post quotas.

Maybe even in the pre-pageview days, before you could pinpoint the economic utility of each individual unit of content, it didn't make economic sense to give Hoberman the space and time and job security that he got, but at least nobody knew that, and, because of the objective quality of his writing and the prestige he brought to the paper among readers and writers, he was able to produce writing we're all so much better for having read for so long.

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