SFIFF: Critic's choice

In praise of J. Hoberman and In the City of Sylvia
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SFIFF J. Hoberman — trenchant weekly critic, book author, programmer, teacher — is celebrating his 30th year at the Village Voice, an unheard-of stretch for a film writer. (Pauline Kael's famous tenure at the New Yorker lasted 23 years.) Freshly garlanded with a three-week program at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and an Anthology Film Archive screening of his early forays in experimental filmmaking, Hoberman continues his prize tour with this year's Mel Novikoff Award.

The recent programs at BAM and Anthology highlight attributes that made Hoberman an essential buttress against the sycophantic rivalries flowing from Kael's 1960s showdowns with Andrew Sarris. Over the phone from his New York office, Hoberman told me about his early days at the Voice: "I created a beat of things the other critics weren't particularly interested in, and that took in a lot of stuff. Originally they had brought me on to write about avant-garde and experimental film, but pretty soon I was writing about documentary, animation, revival series, foreign films that weren't from France ... all kinds of things."

Hoberman's BAM program was accordingly unwieldy, covering Andrei Rublev (1969) and Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Ernie Gehr and Martin Scorsese. Cinephilia Hoberman-style seems to be everywhere at once, encompassing Looney Tunes, No Wave New York, Jeanne Dielman (1975) and Yiddish cinema. It's eclecticism with a program, matched by a willingness to chase the rabbit down its hole — but never at the expense of analytical rigor.

Although Hoberman is a professed admirer of the puzzling jazz in Manny Farber's criticism, his prose is solidly explicatory and instructive. He knows how to open a discussion: "In its tireless attempts to mean everything to everyone and empirical willingness to try anything once, the American culture industry intermittently generates its own precursors, parallels, and analogues to local or European avant-gardism." He's an apt profiler: "Pain and Fear — and the convulsive desire for public recognition — are Scorsese's meat." And he's not afraid to take a stand, as with a recent rave for David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises (2007): "From Videodrome (1983) through A History of Violence (2005), neither Scorsese nor Spielberg, and not even David Lynch, has enjoyed a comparable run."

He's also an accomplished facilitator of Jean-Luc Godard's idea that the history of cinema is synchronous with the history of the 20th century. We can count on Hoberman to connect Terror's Advocate (2007) with La Chinoise (1967), to draw a line from a prescient film like A Face in the Crowd (1957) to Watergate and Nashville (1975). When his interests come together — as with an appreciation of Southland Tales' (2007) avant-gardism, midnight movie appeal, and socio-political currency — sparks still fly. Talking about an upcoming "prequel" he's penning to his 2005 decoupage of '60s cinema, The Dream Life (New Press), Hoberman muses, "I think that now, or at least since [Ronald] Reagan, it's sort of customary to see movies as political scenarios." To the extent that this is true, Hoberman is due significant credit — his meditations on that movie-land president, for one, are as adroit as that of any policy wonk.

Historical markers notwithstanding, Hoberman's film selection for his special night is likely the most unabashedly sensuous movie not starring Asia Argento to play this year's festival.

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