Why Would the Village Voice Fire J. Hoberman, New York's Most Revered Film Critic?

Why Would the Village Voice Fire J. Hoberman, New York's Most Revered Film Critic?
A video still from Jack Smith's controversial "Flaming Creatures," a film which J. Hoberman reviewed extensively
(Courtesy The Film-Makers’ Cooperative, New York)

J. Hoberman, unquestionably the most influential American film critic of the last thirty years, yesterday became the latest casualty of the Village Voice’s bizarre strategy of eliminating its most distinguished writers. Hoberman (the “J” is for Jim) follows music critic Robert Christgau, political columnist Wayne Barrett, and columnist and jazz critic Nat Hentoff out of the Voice's door, among other gifted journalists.

“I’ve seen a lot of people lose their jobs there in the last five years,” Hoberman is quoted as saying in New York Magazine’s Daily Intel. “It would be disingenuous to say I hadn’t considered that this would happen to me eventually. I was shocked, but not surprised. It’s not the same paper that I started working at.”

Hoberman’s firing by the Voice is in line with the "dumbing down" agenda of Village Voice Media (formerly New Times Media), which acquired the alternative weekly in 2005. Immediately, the company set about stripping the Voice of its bohemian, agitational identity and turning it into a tame mainstream vehicle. It remains to be seen whether this commercial gambit pays off. The Voice’s film advertising, particularly that for the specialized and often iconoclastic films that Hoberman tends to champion, is certain to suffer.

And so the purge on the nation’s print film critics continues, a direct result of the democratization of film criticism on the Internet and the sidelining of arts journalism across the board.  Similarly, the New York Observer canned the venerable Andrew Sarris in 2009 and Variety let go of Todd McCarthy in 2010. McCarthy, the pre-eminent trade film critic, quickly found a berth at the Hollywood Reporter and it will be surprising if Hoberman (who also teaches film studies) doesn’t find a regular gig — not that there is a surfeit of alternative venues.

Hoberman, 63, first contributed to the Voice as a pseudonymous freelancer in the 1970s, initially writing on Jack Smith’s “Flaming Creatures,” which remains his favorite film, and then, in a more official capacity, on David Lynch’s “Eraserhead” in 1977. He joined the paper as a staffer in 1983 and took over from Sarris as senior critic in 1988. As an occasional Voice contributor, I was introduced to him there in 1986 by then film editor Karen Durbin. With Hoberman, Sarris, David Edelstein, Amy Taubin, Katherine Dieckmann, and later Manohla Dargis writing reviews, it was a halcyon moment for the paper’s film coverage. There was a resurgence under the stewardship of Dennis Lim in the 2000s, but Lim was let ago by the new owner in 2006. Hoberman was able to steer his way through the upheavals at the Voice because of his brand-name authority and sheer critical prowess, which, until yesterday, was recognized as indispensable to the paper.

The American critical community became incensed once it emerged that Hoberman had been fired. Tweets and Facebook traffic responded to the news as Yankees fans of the mid-1920s might have greeted the news that Babe Ruth had been let go. And with good reason. For many New Yorkers, Hoberman’s reviews and essays were the single most important reason for reading the Voice. He has no peer in contextualizing movies socially, politically, and in terms of cinema history, or in analyzing news events — such as 9/11—  as mediated spectacles. Written in a sober but thrilling pop-cultural style, his reviews and essays are underpinned by a fierce intellectual energy that never topples into showy erudition. Many of them can be read in his anthologies “Vulgar Modernism” and “Magic Hour: Film at Fin de Siècle” and at j-hoberman.com.

With Hoberman gone, Karina Longworth, the 31-year-old film editor and senior critic at L.A. Weekly, is likely to become more prominent at the Voice, where she is already syndicated by Village Voice Media, which owns the Los Angeles paper.  A perceptive writer with a tart, persuasive style, she has a different taste to Hoberman, who has long endorsed experimental cinema, though she still favors challenging independent and foreign films over mainstream pablum. Her favorite film of 2011 was Kenneth Lonergan’s controversially underdistributed “Margaret.” Hoberman’s was David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method.”