Kings and Queens

Andrew Hultkrans on J. Hoberman at the Museum of the Moving Image

New York

Left: New York Times film critic A. O. Scott with Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman. Right: Museum of the Moving Image director Rochelle Slovin with artist and filmmaker Ken Jacobs at the reception. (All photos: Ixiana Hernandez, courtesy of Museum of the Moving Image)

Who knew that the real Tinseltown was Queens, New York? I sure didn’t. Not, at least, until last Saturday, when I attended a celebration of film critic J. Hoberman’s thirty-year tenure at the Village Voice. I suppose I should have been tipped off by the borough’s retina-scorching holiday lawn art, but this was news to me. Given that both Hoberman and his legendary predecessor Andrew Sarris grew up in Queens, however, and that the evening’s venue, the noble Museum of the Moving Image, is in Astoria, the proclamation by chief curator David Schwartz that we were sitting in the heart of film culture had, at least, some provisional validity. The Mets, the Ramones, film culture . . . why not? MC Shan once sold a lot of records and started an interborough battle by claiming that hip-hop began in Queensbridge, so, for tonight, let’s just pretend.

Soon after Schwartz gave big ups to the borough, he began to praise the evening’s honoree, noting that Hoberman’s top-ten lists were great and offering one of his own. He spoke so quickly that I couldn’t catch all ten, but he did reveal to the uninitiated that the iconic J. stands for Jim. This after a joke relating how, in response to a Hoberman review of Shoah, an anti-Semitic reader wrote, “I know what the J. really stands for.” This got big laughs. Next, Schwartz introduced Hoberman’s interlocutor for the evening, New York Times film critic and comrade-in-initials A. O. Scott, who was, I realized when looking at the program, in my college class. I probably should be jealous of his cushy job, his free movie tickets, his Cannes junkets, but I didn’t know the guy back then, so I guess I’ll be high-minded and say, “Go, A. O., go.” All praises due to the alma mater. If only the career counseling office were still open to twenty-year alumni.

A. O. took the stage, looking like a close relative of Thomas Frank. (An obscure physical reference, I know, but film critics don’t look like movie stars; they look like other writers.) He noted that he was once mistaken for Hoberman on a reserved seating list at Cannes (the initial thing, I guess). He briefly introduced J., who then appeared onstage, looking like a writer, but not a known one. A. O. mentioned J.’s essay “The Film Critic of Tomorrow, Today” and read a paragraph from it aloud, saying that it served as inspiration for the younger critic. He talked about the 1970s American film renaissance that Hoberman grew up during and asked J. what that was like. Hoberman, in a slight borough accent, described the wealth of repertory theaters and grindhouses available to the film-obsessed New York teen and went on to say that the “mythologized” era was coming to a close by the time he took up the critic’s pen. His first Voice review was of David Lynch’s Eraserhead, then playing to stray weirdos at Cinema Village in 1977. J. and Jonathan Rosenbaum would go on to write Midnight Movies, a book about the dying era of the cult film, which became a calling card for both critics.

Left: Filmmaker Albert Maysles with Rochelle Slovin. Right: Museum of the Moving Image chief curator David Schwartz.

A. O. then posed the film critic’s dilemma: underpaid cheerleader or serious historian? J. responded that there is such a thing as film culture, and it should be treated with the same spirit of inquiry and breadth of analytic reference as any body of history. A. O. asked what happened to the historical-reclamation project that drove Cahiers du Cinéma and auteur-theory film criticism. J. replied that today it is usually artists who resurrect and champion forgotten old movies, though he noted that Donnie Darko followed the cult-movie pattern—opening to tepid reviews, closing quickly, but playing at certain repertory houses for months on end until it built up an obsessive fan base. The two then got into current movies. J. said that No Country for Old Men was “academically constructed”—not exactly a pejorative, but close. A. O. countered that I’m Not There—one of Hoberman’s top ten for 2007—also seemed academically constructed, straight out of the Brown semiotics department. Ho, ho! Academically constructed humor. A. O. said he is impressed by J.’s use of history to write about film and vice versa. J. responded that “movies are like time capsules” and cited Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler as a foundational text that shaped this aspect of his criticism. “Reagan made this obvious,” he added.

The two critics discussed the evening’s screening, Julia Loktev’s low-budget, claustrophobic suicide-bomber thriller, Day Night Day Night, another of Hoberman’s 2007 picks. Loktev is in the audience, they noted. Then, unceremoniously, the two men thanked each other and parted. The audience was treated to two shorts—a 1977 Situationist-style film by Hoberman that scores quick-cut close-ups of Maoist propaganda art with an old recording of “Shanghai Lil,” and a nighttime documentary of 1967 Times Square by Rudolph Burckhardt. Day Night Day Night began, and while it was very promising, I decided to leave during the five-minute sequence of the suicide bomber scrubbing, shaving, and cutting her toenails. My stomach was rumbling, so I bid ta-ta to Tinseltown and walked out onto the grim Steinway Strip, where it was raining.