Yesterday’s news that the Village Voice had laid off its longtime chief film critic J. Hoberman sent shockwaves through the worlds of movie journalism and independent film distribution. Aside from Roger Ebert, it’s hard to imagine a current critic who’s been at his post longer, who’s had more impact on the indie film world and on other critics, or who’s departure would leave a bigger void. His layoff marks the end of an era in criticism and may herald the beginning of an uncertain new era for independent filmmakers, who are losing one of their loudest champions.
Hoberman started as a freelance movie critic at the Voice in 1978, joined the staff in 1983 and had been its lead critic since 1988. In recent years, readers of the Voice and its affiliated papers outside New York City had come to see him as an institution, along with such writers as chief music critic Robert Christgau and columnist Nat Hentoff, who had also been there for decades, and who helped give the paper its brand identity. Over the last half-dozen years, all those institutional voices were laid off (though Hentoff returned as a freelancer). Hoberman was the last to go, and he said in his statement that he was “shocked, but not surprised” by his own dismissal.
Hoberman’s absence won’t just affect the Voice and its readers, many of whom are now losing their last connection to the newspaper of their youth. It could also affect the fortunes of the independent film distributors who depended on Hoberman to trumpet their work. Five years ago, when the Voice laid off several less senior movie critics, some indie companies threatened to stop buying ads in the Voice if Hoberman were let go as well. No word yet on whether they’ll make good on that threat now, but independent distributors can’t be happy about his ouster, since they depend on the goodwill of critics like Hoberman to reach their target audience.
Under Hoberman, the Voice set the standard, followed by other alt-weekly newspapers across the country (including the 12 others owned by Village Voice Media) for comprehensive coverage of indie film releases, festivals, and local film series. In a statement yesterday, Voice editor Tony Ortega said the Voice remains “committed to providing comprehensive film coverage,” but that will be difficult with fewer writers (especially in New York, with its overwhelming number of indie film offerings each year), none of whom has earned the trust of both distributors and readers the way Hoberman has.
Hoberman earned his influence not just through sheer longevity but through the power of his ideas, the clarity of his observations, the daunting breadth of his knowledge, and the example he set as both a professional critic and as a teacher at New York University and elsewhere. Countless film critics, especially in the alt-weekly world (but also such mainstream-paper critics as the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis), learned their craft either from his reviews or his classes. (One of his acolytes, Karina Longworth, is his heir apparent at the Voice. It’s no knock on Longworth, who is young and full of promise, to say that her writing has yet to equal his in terms of its impact upon readers and distributors.)
Hoberman has been one of my most influential teachers as well, though I don’t know him personally. (Disclosure: I reviewed movies for the Voice from 1996 through 1999 as a freelancer working off-site, so he and I didn’t interact.) His reviews taught me that all movies are inherently political, in that they all make a statement (conscious or not) about the way the world is or the way it could be. He also taught me to pay closer attention to the way movies are put together, from the performances to the visuals that fill the frame. Politically, aesthetically, it’s all about what the director chooses to include, and what he or she chooses to leave out. (Over at IFC Fix, Matt Singer has some other good film-criticism lessons he learned in Hoberman’s class. And fellow critic Glenn Kenny has collected nine choice passages from 35 years of Hoberman’s reviews.)
I’m not too worried about Hoberman himself. He’ll land on his feet. He’ll soon be blogging at his “blog of shameless self-promotion!!!” And he can always teach or write another book (he’s written five, including one I was re-reading just yesterday, as part of my research for an upcoming article: 1991′s ‘Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds’). But he’ll probably never have a platform as far-reaching as the one the Voice gave him.
The Voice itself will be poorer for his loss, but so will film criticism, especially if the Voice’s action inspires other outlets to accelerate the purging of their most distinctive, well-established critics or cut back on independent movie coverage. And if that happens, mainstream movies probably won’t be affected (with their enormous marketing budgets, they’re not so dependent on what critics say), but independent movies will be hurt. That would be a shame for moviegoers who search off the beaten path, either for films they might not otherwise hear about, or for the critics who help start the conversations about those films. Here’s hoping that Hoberman can continue to be a forceful advocate for such movies, and that his voice won’t be lost in the wilderness.
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