In Praise of Film Critic J. Hoberman

It's the end of an era for alt-weekly The Village Voice—and the perfect moment to celebrate a great career.

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Courtesy Everett Collection

A couple of years ago, a certain contentious movie critic coined the term “Hobermanbots” to deride the many fans of the longtime film critic at New York’s alt-weekly The Village Voice. Those of us who learned how to think and write about popular culture by reading J. Hoberman’s books and weekly reviews were delighted to be assigned our very own epithet, even if we might have preferred something a bit less clunky — maybe Hoberbots, or Hobercrafts, or Hober Sapiens. (I was a lucky Hobermanbot indeed: my first job out of college was as a junior editor at the Voice, where my most significant contribution to Jim’s oeuvre was in suggesting a relevant Homer Simpson quote to use in his review of David Lynch’s The Straight Story.)

The Hobermanbots were clanking and swarming Wednesday evening on social media and elsewhere, as news emerged that Village Voice Media had abruptly severed ties with Jim. This after three decades of elegant, erudite, ambitious, and wondrously droll arts and media criticism, which ranged easefully from Brakhage to Bruckheimer, from high-altitude views of a movie’s historical and sociological context to surgical attentions paid to performance and mise en scène. The Voice’s Phoenix-based parent company has a habit of canning its best writers and editors; at this point, a pink slip from Phoenix is akin to a certificate of merit, and there are undoubtedly entire battalions of H-bot editors clamoring for Jim’s byline as we speak.

So at this moment, we come to bury the Voice, and to praise Jim. Below, I’ve compiled an incomplete list of reasons why Jim’s work matters to discerning filmgoers and pop-culture citizens-at-large. Think of it not only as a look back at a tremendous career but a preview reel of Hobermasterpieces to come.

Because his first-ever Voice review assignment in 1977 could not have been more auspicious:

The lede: “It is the future, I think, which is the setting for Eraserhead…”

The set design: “Their apartment looks like it was furnished by brain-eaters from Night of the Living Dead.”

Possible pull-quote for the movie poster: “a murky piece of post-nuclear guignol”

The kicker: “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.”

Because his rave reviews are ecstatic events.

On Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love: “Governed by laws as strict as the old Hollywood production code, it’s rhapsodically sublimated and ultimately sublime.”

On Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood: “an Old Testament story of cosmic comeuppance and filicidal madness—American history glimpsed through the smoke and fire that the lightning left behind.”

On Hitchcock’s Vertigo: “A mystery that only improves with knowledge of its ‘solution,’ Vertigo is the ultimate movie—a movie that is, after all, concerned with being hopelessly, obsessively, fetishistically in love with an image.”

Because his media and political coverage is a perfect complement to his film writing.

An extract from an expert scrambling of media clichés about the Clintons, 1994: “Costar Hillary reconfigured her name and, spinning the wheel like a self-actualizing Vanna, in the heat of the ratings war, undertook her own succession of makeovers…Evita of the Ozarks? A feminazi from Hell? The Florence Nightingale of Socialized Medicine? Donna Reed or Designing Woman?…And just what did that make Bill? Dagwood to her Blondie? John Goodman to her Roseanne? And, the ultimate sitcomic question: Who’s the Boss?

Because nobody writes better about Spielberg.

On Jaws: “Coalescing a whole nexus of submerged feelings and sadistic sexuality, the film opened with one of the most blatantly eroticized murders in the history of cinema—and one which openly encourages the audience to identify with the killer.”

On A.I.: “Unlike the puppet Pinocchio…David has no need to demonstrate emotional growth or, indeed, any sort of negativity. He’s been designed as a perfect reproach to humanity, hard-wired for innocence.”

And this, from his legendary pan of Schindler’s List: “The movie achieves its nadir when a group of Schindler Jews, as they are known, find themselves in Auschwitz, heading for the showers…Spielberg unbelievably plays the scene for thriller suspense and last-minute rescue. Will an Allied bomb fall on the gas chamber? Does the Red Army arrive? The U.S. cavalry? Is there a telegram from Mr. Zanuck? Perhaps you have dreamed yourself into an Auschwitz gas chamber; Steven Spielberg wants to own that nightmare too.”

Because he wrote this about Andrei Tarkovsky, the auteur behind forbidding masterpieces such as Solaris and Stalker: “Something tells me he’s an unwelcome guest, one more orphan of the storm toting a shopping bag full of junk across upper Broadway. Like, who invited this long-winded Russian prophet into the world? I mean, who needs this guy whose movies pretty much demand to be seen twice or not at all?”

Because these words from his book The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties are a flexible mission statement for any film lover: “My emphasis is on cinema as shared fantasy and social myth. In that sense, Spartacus, The Manchurian Candidate, Dr. Strangelove, Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, and Dirty Harry may be understood as movies that, in effect, directed their directors. (Filmmakers may make movies, but they do not necessarily make them as they please.)”

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