Jan 7, 2012

J. Hoberman Laid Off From The Village Voice

It is with a heavy heart to report the news that J. Hoberman was laid off from The Village Voice earlier this week, after having been with the publication since 1983 (becoming its senior film critic in 1988). Jim Hoberman is one of the very few film critics in a name publication who could essentially cover whatever he wanted for his column, without fear of distancing the paper from its demographic. As a result, he would write about mainstream and independent-underground films in equal measure, and when writing about one camp, he would unabashedly make reference to another. (Jonathan Rosenbaum, who recently retired from The Chicago Reader, was another contemporary who had that rare distinction.) In that regard, because he was writing for a publication that remained independent and therefore free of the constrictions of the advertisers' mandate, one could say that his freedom to write about the entire gamut of cinema made him even more powerful than other name critics of the day. (Would-could Roger Ebert do a column on Sadie Benning?)

Hoberman's prose is scholarly without being stuffy, and approachable even to readers who may not be familiar with the non-mainstream works he cites. By the same token, whenever he tackles sacred institutions like Steven Spielberg (as in his savagery of the director's recent effort The War Horse), he isn't doing so with a hipster knee-jerk reaction. Whether he is on the pro or con side of any subject, his responses are well-informed. But still, Hoberman's unique gift to film writing is in his ability to see the virtues within what is perceived in low culture, and is one of the few highbrow film critics who could discuss such fare without a sense of mockery or disdain. One of my all-time favourite pieces of film writing is Hoberman's "Bad Movies", collected in the book Vulgar Modernism. Although the tone of the article may be tongue-in-cheek as he compares the incongruities of beloved "so-bad-they're good" movies to avant-garde experimental films (where the relations of time and space resulting from two films being cobbled together to become They Saved Hitler's Brain evoke an experience similar to that of Resnais), the point however is clear: he is forcing us to consider the values of absolutely everything.

Another of his unique gifts is to discuss the social climate or culture that can shape how a film is made: this trait he also shares with Rosenbaum, and the two authors jointly used that approach in their collaborative book, Midnight Movies- among the many aspects of that project is to study the community that supported these midnight cult film screenings.  Further, in his own books, Dream Life and his recently published An Army of Phantoms, he discussed films in terms of the eras in which they were created.  For instance, Dream Life explores Kennedy-era cinema during a time when the administration was akin to movie stars, and An Army of Phantoms illustrates the cold war sentiments of American cinema in the first ten years after World War 2.

Once the news of Hoberman's layoff reached the internet, there was a tremendous response from fans and fellow journalists alike- and the sentiment was not dissimilar to that as if they were writing an obituary. In one sense, that may be true, as his departure signals yet another casualty in the death knell of newspaper film criticism- a tradition that fades fast in the age of conglomerate media and advertising buyouts, and the continuing migration to the world wide web for news and information. However, one end begets a new beginning- if another press doesn't hire him, at least Hoberman can have more time to fill shelves with more scholarly book-length studies on films and the societies which made them. In one way or another, we'll still have J. Hoberman and be the better for it.

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