Among the questions I used to get asked a lot on the back-nine of my newspaper days, “Who’s the best film critic working today?” didn’t pop up as frequently as, say, “What’s the best way to get into jazz?” or “What’s your all-time favorite movie?” or “What’s that on your shirt?” Nevertheless, I was always prepared with an answer – and very careful of whom I gave it to. After all, I was colleague to all these critics and friendly with most of them and if their egos were anything like mine, they would bruise like ripe peaches. And, no, I never answered with my name – as I remain certain that none of my aforementioned colleagues did either.
But throughout the time I worked as a full-time film reviewer, the answer I gave most often to that question was J. Hoberman of the Village Voice. I say “most often,” because on some occasions I would say Stuart Klawans of The Nation. Pinned to the mat, I might say that Jim — for that is what the “J” stands for — was number one and Stuart was one-A. It was that close. You will have a long wait for numbers two-through-fifteen. I’m still good friends with a lot of those people – though I’d be surprised if any of them would disagree with my numbers one and one-A, even if they didn’t always agree with their opinions. I didn’t either. But I always learned something from their reviews I hadn’t before, saw things differently enough to, if not change my mind, at least broaden my field of vision for the next movie. If I gave a slight edge to Jim, it may have been only because the Voice ran his reviews every week while The Nation runs Stuart’s less regularly.
Note the tense shift in that last sentence. Because, at least for the time being, only one of those guys is still in business.
The Village Voice announced yesterday it was laying Jim Hoberman off after almost 20 years as a staff writer. The once-proud weekly has already lost such longtime distinctive voices as Gary Giddins, Robert Christgau, Dennis Lim, Wayne Barrett, Deborah Jowett and Nat Hentoff (though he still contributes as a non-staffer) and I always thought it was a miracle that Jim lasted as long as he did after the corporation formerly known as New Times (now Village Voice Media) became the paper’s owners five years ago.
Jim said he was “shocked, but not surprised” by the decision and that pretty much sums up everyone else’s reaction, except mine. Nothing about this avaricious, crabbed, chronically short-sighted period in corporate publishing surprises OR shocks me anymore. As noted, I’m more surprised when someone like Hoberman survives in the prevailing atmosphere of perpetual cutbacks in both personnel and writing space. I’m even more surprised when people persist in seeing such upheaval and uncertainty as a relatively recent phenomenon. Wiser, larger heads than mine date the decline from the mid-1970s, when journalism was supposedly basking in post-Watergate glory. Someday, when we’ve touched the ocean floor on this era, we’ll be better able to look up and see precisely when we started tumbling.
I’m not too worried about Hoberman. His reputation should carry him to better places than the one he’s leaving, though I should hope it’s someplace where I could read him regularly. Maybe I shouldn’t hope. There aren’t many venues around where someone who thinks as deeply about movies as Jim will be given a platform. Nor am I optimistic that the exquisite sense of history with which Jim frames everything he writes will be seen as anything other than excess baggage in a media world, on- and off-line, where snark and knee-jerk contrarianism are better situated to grab the peanut galleries illegally downloading the latest 3D Hollywood product. When people wonder if I miss (or don’t) professional movie-going, I can now at least bring up this latest egregious insult to whatever’s left of said profession, though I admit it’s still amazing that these same people even bother to ask whether I miss it.
And I still don’t have a clear answer yet. Soon. Maybe.