Meet a Critic: The Village Voice's J. Hoberman

On the eve of a 30-screening BAM retrospective in his honor, we talk to Village Voice pundit J. Hoberman.

by | March 11, 2008 | Comments

Meet a Critic - J. Hoberman
Name: J. Hoberman

Publication: The Village Voice

Age: 58

Hometown: NYC

Years reviewing film: 30

Prior to his transition into film journalism, New York based writer J. Hoberman began his career making experimental films. Those familiar with his book Midnight Movies know J. Hoberman as a champion of the underground, one as familiar with its rituals as with the principles that give underground films root. While those principles are often the province of film academics, Hoberman doesn’t characterize his approach to film as an academic one. This is likely why he’s as comfortable reviewing Oliver Stone as Hou Hsiao-hsien.

Hoberman has been the senior critic at The Village Voice since 1988 and as such, has weathered the paper’s multiple changes of ownership. Though Jonas Mekas (the “Godfather of the American Avante-Garde”) wrote the occasional review for The Voice, some felt the head critics at the time of Hoberman’s hire were far more interested in mainstream studio fare than the scattered screenings that were cultivating a growing audience in lower Manhattan in the late 1970s. Hoberman was allowed the chance to cover the underground beat, and if one was to connect the historical dots, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to credit Hoberman’s attachment to the tiny screening events with the paper’s longstanding reputation for comprehensive film coverage. But Hoberman isn’t much for self-congratulation and conducts himself in a way that resembles his writing: He’s concise, direct, explains even the tough stuff so clearly a kid could understand, and is perfectly soft around the edges.

How did you become a critic?

J. Hoberman: I was interested in movies. I was doing some freelance journalism and I guess that’s how it happened. That was one of my specialties when I was a freelancer.

I think I read that you made experimental films before but you were getting so much love for your writing that took over your workload.

JH: Yes, you could say that. The kind of films I was making are very difficult to do. It’s kind of a thankless thing, you have to be tremendously committed to make experimental films and I was getting a lot of satisfaction and success at writing.

Do you still produce experimental films?

JH: Not for years, no.

If you were not a professional film critic, what would you be?

JH: That is not easy to answer. If I had kept on the same trajectory I probably [still] would have been some kind of a writer.

What is your favorite film?

JH: Man with a Movie Camera.

Who is your favorite director?

JH: Jean-Luc Godard.

Worst movie you’ve ever seen?

JH: It’s impossible to say but if I had to, Gone with the Wind.

What was the most interesting film of 2007?

JH: Best: I’m Not There. Most interesting: Southland Tales.

How in touch with the movie going public do you think most critics are?

JH: Probably not at all. We rarely go to see movies with the public.

You don’t have word of mouth screenings in New York?

JH: They sometimes have all media screenings in which you have to go to see the film with other people from the media, not just critics, but even those aren’t the public. They’re kind of pre-selected by the distributor.

What other film critics/bloggers/entertainment journalists do you read regularly?

JH: I read the New York Times and Variety. I like all of the Times critics both personally and professionally. I like Stuart Klawans who writes for The Nation and Dave Kehr who writes on DVDs for the Times.

Do you go into films as a “glass half full” or “glass half empty” person?

JH: I’m always hoping for the best, always optimistic.

How has the Internet changed film criticism?

JH: Everybody who writes for print now is pretty much online thanks in part to your website (Rotten Tomatoes). Everything is much more available. I know people who write specifically online, and I make distinctions between online magazines like Slate and Salon, where there are editors and assignments, from bloggers who work for themselves. I would say it [online review] creates additional discourse around films, which is good.

Is the critics community much divided along the lines of print and Internet?

JH: Yeah, I would say. Also, broadcast and print. In New York you tend to have different screenings for print, online and broadcast, and they belong to different organizations. They don’t really see each other. I guess there are exceptions, like since I knew David Edelstein when he was a print critic and then he was online and now he’s a print critic again.

Meet a Critic - J. Hoberman

Does it seem as if online reviewers are treated differently than the writers for print? Do bloggers get the shaft while print writers are pampered?

JH: I have plenty to complain about. You know, anyone who thinks they need you are [going to be] nice. Studio publicists don’t go out of their way for The Voice, anyway.

Do you feel film criticism has changed since you entered the field?

JH: Certainly there are fewer berths for print criticism. I don’t know if that’s compensated for by the fact you can go online and have a blog but it’s harder to make a living doing that, I think. So that’s one change but lots of magazines that used to have regular film reviews no longer have them and there are just fewer newspapers and weeklies and so on. So I think that’s had an effect.

What do you think about the state of film criticism?

JH: I don’t think we’re in an iron age, if you know what I mean. I don’t think that there’s a decline necessarily. In fact, there are probably more educated critics now than there have been at any other time it’s just that it’s harder for them to find places to write for. I don’t think the quality of criticism has slumped. I think there are certainly far fewer print outlets and it’s possible that the movies themselves don’t occupy as central a part in the general culture so film critics might not seem as important as they did 30 years ago.

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

JH: A writer.

The Voice has seen a number of ownership changes in the last 20 odd years. How has work at there changed as a result?

JH: It’s been an ongoing alteration that also has to do with this continual crisis in print journalism. The Voice has changed; certainly in the 1980s, when Rupert Murdoch owned it, it was more robust in that period.

Your famous Top 10 poll stopped in 2005. Will it return?

JH: It started in 1999. It was started by the then film editor Abby Nolan. The first year after the consolidation with New Times, which would have been 2006, there was no poll, or it was at the LA Weekly, which is a sister publication of ours. It just came back for 2007.

You received a Masters in Film Production from Columbia in the late 1970s. Do you feel that education has benefited your work as a critic?

JH: I think it’s always good, if you’re writing about something, to have a good idea about how that thing comes into existence; some practical experience, that can’t hurt. It’s always helpful. But actually it had no bearing, I think, other than that, on my writing. But it did make it easier for me to get other jobs like teaching jobs and so on.

How do you balance your jobs teaching with your writer/editor duties at The Voice and Film Comment?

JH: I’m an adjunct professor at Cooper Union New York. They work well together. It’s not like I’m teaching chemistry.

Would you characterize your approach as academic?

JH: No.

Tell me about your particular fascination with (sense of obligation to?) counter-culture film. It seems like you’ve written a lot about lesser-known films to simply record their existence.

JH: I’ve written about films I’m interested in.

Sure, but how many books are there on Flaming Creatures for example? And in Midnight Movies you do a lot of record keeping.

JH: Oh, I see what you mean. Though, Midnight Movies was a commissioned book. There was a smart young editor at Harper — it was Harper and Rowe then, before Murdoch bought it — he noticed there was this thing going on, “Movies at Midnight.” He noticed in the early 1980s when the whole thing was just about ending, but The Rocky Horror Picture Show, that cult was still viable and so on. So he thought this would be a good idea for a book and he got in touch with me and he got in touch with Jonathan Rosenbaum who was then the critic for the SoHo Weekly News, the then competitor of the Voice, figuring that only one of us would be interested but since we were both interested it was kind of like a shotgun marriage. It turned out well. In terms of sales, it’s the most successful book I’ve written so far.

Teachers use it for classes on underground film all the time.

JH: And yet it somehow hasn’t paid back its advance. Can you imagine that? I get a check for $40 or $50 each year.

You’re kidding!

JH: It’s a racket.

But it doesn’t sound much different than the plight of the filmmaker.

JH: No it’s not, it’s just a more impoverished version of it.

What might you consider the connecting thread between your fascinations/obsessions? On the one hand you have dedicated a lot of time to the underground but then you’ve written books like Dream Life about 1960s mainstream cinema.

JH: It’s hard for me to be objective about that but I’ve always liked underground and experimental films — things that seemed crazy or offbeat — ever since high school. I think that’s stayed with me though my sense of what’s offbeat has expanded.

Your book On Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (and other Secret Flix of Cinemaroc) is about Jack Smith’s 1962 experimental film Flaming Creatures. This was a film you gave good space in Midnight Movies. Might you be lobbying for a DVD release? Has Janus shown interest?

JH: It was out on VHS for a while. I’ve written three books since the Jack Smith book, they came out almost simultaneously. The Magic Hour, Entertaining America which I wrote in conjuction with a big exhibition at the Jewish Museum, and The Dream Life.

Plans for another book?

JH: I’m working on a Dream Life prequel.

What’s the purpose of reviewing film?

JH: Well, here’s a very quick answer to a very complicated question. First of all, understand that I’m not speaking generally but only for myself: 1) I’m a journalist; a lot of what I do is report on what’s out there and what I see. But, 2) I also report on my own response to what I see and in such a way as to hopefully engage as well as inform the reader. And 3), in addition to the reader, I have a responsibility to something larger than the movie at hand and also more important than my opinion, namely “film culture” (just as a book critic would have to literature). I try to make a contribution.

For more of J. Hoberman’s work, visit the Village Voice website. A thirty-film retrospective of films that inspired some of J. Hoberman’s favorite and most stimulating reviews plays now through April 3 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in New York City. Full listings here.

Read more Meet a Critics interviews in our column archive here!