Film critic J. Hoberman got axed from the Village Voice today, and old-school cineastes are rending their garments in grief and crying “Oh the humanity!”
Personally, I hate J. Hoberman and the film criticism he rode in on, and I only wish he’d tripped and broken his neck on the way out the door.
Oh, all right, if that’s too harsh, let’s say I wish he’d broken his arm. His writing arm.
J. Hoberman is one of several dreary senior citizen critics who’ve been around for thirty or forty years, hogging the few paid gigs that still exist, like David Denby at The New Yorker and Richard Corliss at Time. They all came of age in the 1970s and are pompous old coots whose superior attitudes and infuriating writing styles were already firmly in place when they were pompous young coots. Just look at this much-quoted line from Hoberman’s first review for Village Voice, of Eraserhead, in 1977:
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.
You know you really hate a writer when you agree with his basic position—Hoberman is praising Eraserhead here—but you despise everything he says anyway. That tony attempt to seem hip with the drug reference—that lumbering wordplay of “drop acid” and “dropped a reel”—that heavily humorous tone of the privileged lefty taking his Marxist tenets out for a spin. Hoberman started out as an experimental avant-garde filmmaker, and I can’t think of anything worse to say about him than that you can really tell. He’s got all the typically stupid high-culture attitudes in spades. The more punishingly dull and politically pious a film is, the better he likes it. When he condescends to approve of a popular genre film, he does it in the smirking, snuffling voice of a black-tie aristocrat at the local county fair. So earthy, these popular amusements!
Here’s a quote from his review of Inglourious Basterds:
Inglourious Basterds is something sui generis—a two-fisted Hollywood occupation romance, in which a Jewish special unit wreaks vengeance on the Nazis….Violence is not immediately forthcoming—Inglourious Basterds is as much talk-talk as bang-bang. Or rather, as Andrew Sarris described the characteristic Budd Boetticher Western, it’s a “floating poker game,” in which characters, many of whom have assumed false identities, take turns bluffing for their lives.
To elucidate further, as I once told Pauline Kael, apropos of nothing, that whereas the characteristic Vincente Minnelli musical is more kiss-kiss than bang-bang, Inglourious Basterds favors bang-bang and talk-talk, while also containing a soupcon of kiss-kiss. Unfortunately, Pauline failed to appreciate my remark, because she was dead at the time.
Yeah, I admit the second paragraph is mine.
You remember how great Joe Bob Briggs was? He was clearly invented to counter the effects of creepy critics like Hoberman.
I’d have hated Hoberman anyway, but he proved himself to be a truly rotten figure when he scorned the films of the Coen brothers. Stridently anti-Coen from the word Go, Hoberman has only recently come around to the point of offering Coen films his patented backhanded praise that’s worse than any insult. Here’s a quote from his supposedly positive review of True Grit (2010):
The Coens are still themselves. As one colleague remarked—unprompted—upon leaving the screening where True Grit was previewed for New York critics, “They always do something to make you hate them.” (In my case, the moment happened early on with a gag based on the hanging of a—dare one say—Native American.) But True Grit’s most serious lapse is more aesthetic than ethical—and less Hollywood than film-school. The brothers repeatedly invoke a superior movie—not the 1969 True Grit, which is, Wayne’s built-in mythic valence aside, in every way inferior to the Coen version, but the 1955 classic Night of the Hunter, whose recurring hymn, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” is repeated throughout the new True Grit.
Note this knotty style of Hoberman’s which is often referred to as “erudite,” perhaps because every sentence makes you go, “Huh?” You get the overall impression of snottiness, but you have to dig a bit to grasp the exact insults being slung. Here’s a translation:
The Coens are still themselves. [The Coens are such reprehensible beings they should be trying as hard as possible to be somebody else. Hoberman would be happy to recommend a couple of avant-garde European filmmakers they could be like.] As one colleague remarked—unprompted—[Hoberman is assuring us that he didn't try to get this colleague to suck up to him by saying something disparaging about the Coens that would accord with Hoberman's own well-known anti-Coen stance.] upon leaving the screening where True Grit was previewed for New York critics, “They always do something to make you hate them.” [Everybody who's anybody in New York City hates the Coens.] (In my case, the moment happened early on with a gag based on the hanging of a—dare one say—Native American.) [Can't translate this one—don't understand what he means here by the phrase “dare one say.” Though it sounds ejjicated, don't it?] But True Grit’s most serious lapse is more aesthetic than ethical—and less Hollywood than film-school. [The Coens have grievously erred in such a tricky way you need an algebraic formula to figure it out, and only Hoberman knows the formula. That's why he's a paid film critic. Or WAS. Ha!] The brothers repeatedly invoke a superior movie—not the 1969 True Grit, which is, Wayne’s built-in mythic valence aside, in every way inferior to the Coen version, but the 1955 classic Night of the Hunter, whose recurring hymn, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” is repeated throughout the new True Grit. [ Hell, I don't know. Something about how it's a terrible thing to allude in any way to a great movie in your own movie. You should only refer to or draw upon inferior movies. Is it really possible that Hoberman is making such a nutty claim? Your guess is as good as mine.]
Well, I could go on and on quoting and disparaging J. Hoberman, reveling in the way 2012 is starting off on such a high note. But we must stop and face the sober fact that people like Hoberman never really go away. Plus there are a lot of Hoberman acolytes out there. One of them, Jessica Winter of Time magazine, has compiled a series of appalling quotations from Hoberman reviews in her tribute piece, and she ends on a chilling note: “Think of [this tribute] not only as a look back at a tremendous career but a preview reel of Hobermasterpieces to come.”
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