Geoff Pevere: Wither the Critic

Okay, so it’s not the end of the world, but it’s certainly the end of something. I refer to the news last week that two of the most influential, articulate and generally inspiring movie critics writing anywhere today were let go by their respective publications. J. Hoberman, chief film critic for The Village Voice since the 1980s, and David Thomson, The Guardian‘s film columnist and the author of the indispensable Biographical Dictionary of Film, will no longer be enriching the pages of either organ.

That it really comes as no surprise will offer little comfort to those – like myself – for whom these two guys were essential. Movie criticism has taken a fatal beating in the past decade, as newspapers have scrambled to survive in the digital era and downsized according to priorities that hold good critical writing in low regard. With the enforced departure of Hoberman and Thomson a kind of final nail is embedded in the coffin, and one is left reasonably worried about the future. If those that are so inspiring are no longer there to inspire, it’s hardly unreasonable to wonder where, and if, subsequent generations of smart mass-audience cultural commentators will come from.

I came across the work of both writers during the 1970s, and the encounters were revelatory: here were people who were obviously as captivated by movies as I was, and who engaged with the medium in a way that not only made you want to see what they saw in movies, but made you want to write, or at least try to write, as excitingly as they did.

In the Voice, Hoberman established an approach that was as insightful and penetrating as it was articulate, accessible and versatile. He could not only write as eloquently about Arnold Schwarzenegger as he could Jean-Luc Godard, but he could find connections between the two if they were there. The result was a critical practise that took high art as seriously as it did junk culture, and which respected the existence of both. If our culture produced it, it said something about that culture, and that’s where Hoberman shone: in the illumination of the context and climate the produced movies, and in the reading of that culture from which the movies sprang. In a word, he made me want to write the way he did.

As did Thomson, if in a different way. Where Hoberman was dyed-in-the-wool New York, with a background in avant-garde art that always informed the way he watched and responded to popular culture, Thomson was a product of the British school of movie criticism that was both energized and completely transformed by the auteurist critical revolution that was happening in France. More than anything, it was the work of the critics (many of whom became filmmakers) writing at Cahiers du Cinema that breached the categorical battlements that separated high from low in movie culture, and that made it every bit as respectable – if not necessary – to take Alfred Hitchcock as seriously as Ingmar Bergman.

Both men had curiosity, energy and ambitions that overflowed the restricted column boundaries imposed by newspapers and magazines – although those boundaries were infinitely more far flung than they are now – which meant they produced books of criticism that functioned as landmarks in the field of cultural commentary: Hoberman’s The Dream Life was a superbly stimulating and comprehensive account of how movies and politics synergistically interacted during the 1960s, and Thomson’s Biographical dictionaries – among his few dozen other volumes — were nothing less than seminal. Whether or not you agreed with everything they said – and really, how could you? — you were always left humbled and amazed by the sheer passion with which they wrote. They took movies seriously, they took writing seriously, and they took their readers seriously.

When I first started writing about movies, I wanted to be these guys. Later on, as I grew more comfortable being myself, I still turned to them as reminders of what criticism at its best could and should be. Moreover, their mere presence gave me hope: there was both room and a role for movie criticism that couldn’t be reduced to the arching of thumbs upward or downward, and that always found something of value to say no matter how abject the movie itself might be. This was the critical duty: to provide analysis that was valuable and vital on its own, and that provided fresh ways of looking at even the stalest of spectacles.

This news came just a few months after I was nudged out of my own newspaper, and more than one person has mentioned by way of comfort that at least I’m in good company. It’s a sweet sentiment, but not entirely – maybe not even remotely – true. The main thing is it was the presence of critics like Hoberman and Thomson that made me even want to try to be somebody worth reading, and their absence now, at least in a mainstream media that no longer values their contribution, leaves me mourning for those who might also have been as motivated by what they did as I was.

Geoff Pevere’s column appears every Friday.

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Geoff Pevere has been writing, broadcasting and teaching about movies, media and popular culture for over thirty years. He can’t help himself. His column appears every Friday.

3 Responses to “Geoff Pevere: Wither the Critic”

  1. Nice piece, Geoff. It appears it’s hunting season on all entertainment criticism. Keep at it. I enjoy your blog for carrying the torch.

  2. I had a friend, Geoff, who would have read every word you write. He was a Village Voice-ite to the degree that you had to negotiate your way through stacks of them when visiting his house. He organized them by date and revisited articles and reviews periodically. He loved movies more than anyone I have ever met and turned me on to the fringe and lost movies on a regular basis. I do believe that if he were alive today, he would print this column out and tape it to his refrigerator door just to be reminded of why he sat through year after year of as many of the Seattle Film Festivals’ offerings as he could squeeze in. In fact, I think I’ll print this out and do just that. We all need a reminder now and again. Another stellar column.

  3. Dustin Hoffman’s character in The Graduate is not Jewish.

    If it’s Jewish just because Dusty is in real life, then so was every character played by Tony Curtis, Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, Cornel Wilde, and (why not, to throw you a bone) Walter Matthau.

    For future reference:
    Actors of fully Jewish background: -Logan Lerman, Natalie Portman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mila Kunis, Bar Refaeli, James Wolk, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Julian Morris, Adam Brody, Esti Ginzburg, Kat Dennings, Gabriel Macht, Erin Heatherton, Odeya Rush, Anton Yelchin, Paul Rudd, Scott Mechlowicz, Lisa Kudrow, Lizzy Caplan, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Gal Gadot, Debra Messing, Robert Kazinsky, Melanie Laurent, Shiri Appleby, Justin Bartha, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Margarita Levieva, Elizabeth Berkley, Halston Sage, Seth Gabel, Mia Kirshner, Alden Ehrenreich.

    Actors with Jewish mothers and non-Jewish fathers -Jake Gyllenhaal, Dave Franco, James Franco, Scarlett Johansson, Daniel Day-Lewis, Daniel Radcliffe, Alison Brie, Eva Green, Emmy Rossum, Rashida Jones, Jennifer Connelly, Nora Arnezeder, Goldie Hawn, Ginnifer Goodwin, Amanda Peet, Eric Dane, Jeremy Jordan, Joel Kinnaman, Ben Barnes, Patricia Arquette, Kyra Sedgwick.

    Actors with Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers, who themselves were either raised as Jews and/or identify as Jews: -Andrew Garfield, Ezra Miller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Alexa Davalos, Nat Wolff, Nicola Peltz, James Maslow, Josh Bowman, Winona Ryder, Ben Foster, Nikki Reed, Zac Efron, Jonathan Keltz.

    Oh, and Ansel Elgort’s father is Jewish, though I don’t know how Ansel was raised.

    Actors with one Jewish-born parent and one parent who converted to Judaism -Dianna Agron, Sara Paxton (whose father converted, not her mother), Alicia Silverstone, Jamie-Lynn Sigler.

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