Film critic J. Hoberman (Jim to friends, Jimmy to cousins and a few aging relatives) was born in Brooklyn, brought home to Manhattan (a block from the still extent Third Avenue El), and schooled in the depths of Queens (Francis Lewis ’66). His brand-new baby boom high school was on triple session during senior year, so he was out by 12:30 to take the E, F, or 7 into the city to go to movies at MoMA or wander around the Village. He first saw Chelsea Girls in the basement of a midtown skyscraper.
Formative summer jobs included working as ward clerk in Queens General Hospital and an under assistant gardener at the Pomonok housing project. Like most of his high school friends, he felt destined for Queens College but thanks to a Regents Scholarship wound up at SUNY Binghamton at the height of the craziness (1966-71) there conceiving the idea of a book to be titled From Strangelove to Wallace or Reagan or Worse and meeting many of the crucial people in his life: Shelley Katowitz (later Hoberman), Bob Schneider, Art Spiegelman, and Ken & Flo Jacobs.
Back in New York by way of Mexico, he made underground movies and collaborated with Bob Schneider on a number of mixed media performance (the Theater of Gibberish), drove a taxi (briefly serving as Ruby Keeler’s chauffeur during the summer of ’72), appeared in Ernie Gehr’s Still and Richard Foreman’s Sophia = Wisdom, Part II: The Cliffs, and lived in Chinatown, before wangling an MFA in the Film Department at Columbia University, thanks to the generosity of Professor John Belton.
After freelancing for hippie pubs like High Times and Crawdaddy, he fell into a job at the Village Voice and has been there ever since—going on staff in 1983 and succeeding Andrew Sarris as senior film critic in 1988. He’s also taught intermittently at NYU, once at Harvard, and, for the last 20 years, regularly at Cooper Union, currently as Gelb Professor of Humanities. He served two terms on the New York Film Festival selection committee, 1982-84 (when he was the youngest member) and 2007-09 (when he was the oldest).
Also many magazine pieces, some guest programming, curatorial work on a few museum shows (including the epic Jack Smith show at P.S.1 and the Museum of the Moving Image, 1997, and Entertaining America, with Jeff Shandler, at the Jewish Museum). Two daughters, a happy marriage, and eleven books aside, the thing of which he’s most proud is surviving for over 35 years in New York without the benefit of a normal job.
Hah! That took a turn on January 4, 2012, when my employer told me that my job was no more. Here is the text of an email I send the following morning to my co-workers at the Village Voice.
Yesterday afternoon I learned that my position at the Village Voice had been eliminated. I’ve been a staff writer at the Voice since 1983, a regular film reviewer since 1978, and sold my first free-lance piece (an article on Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures) as a virtual toddler back in 1972. In fact, I grew up reading the Voice–in addition to spending most of my working life in its employ. But, nothing lasts forever, and I’ve had a pretty good run in what, for me, was the greatest job imaginable. I learned nearly everything I know about writing and a good chunk of what I know about life at the Voice; the paper gave me space to invent myself (that is, develop my own particular interests and means of expression), as well as the opportunity to work with some of the smartest, most interesting and most creative people I’ve been fortunate to meet—and I’m not talking about on-screen or in interviews. It’s safe to say that I’ll never love an institution as much as I first loved the Voice because there is unlikely to ever be an institution like that Voice again—unfortunately. I have no regrets and whatever sadness I feel is outweighed by a sense of gratitude. Thirty-three years is a long time to be able to do something that you love to do, to champion things you want to champion, and to even get paid for it. I feel lucky that my last piece praised two movies that I greatly admire (at Film Forum and Anthology no less) and allowed me go out with a plug for Occupy Wall Street! I feel honored too that I had the opportunity this past summer to represent many of you in our union negotiations.
Be well, stay strong, and good luck, Jim
January 12, 2012
Heartfelt thanks to everyone who wrote, phoned, emailed, blogged, tweeted or, at the New York Film Critics Circle dinner, articulated their support after I was “retired” by the Village Voice on January 4. My appreciation as well as to those reported on the event in print or online. I’m grateful to and astonished by the many readers who expressed their outrage on my behalf. As gratifying as it was so see some of the two million words I estimate I published in the Voice over the years read back, I particularly appreciated hearing from former students who reminded me of things I said or did in class and had long since—or, more likely, immediately—forgotten. (Anyone who has ever taught knows how much riffing and improvisation is involved).
The whole thing was really overwhelming, I felt like Tom Sawyer attending his funeral. I even got a kick out of the curmudgeons who expressed their glee that another old-timer had finally been let go. (We’re all 16 at heart—OK, some people are 14.) The only truly annoying comment came from the guy who churlishly suggested that, since writing movie reviews wasn’t really work, I should never have been paid for it—an example of an oppressed person trying to universalize their misery. I haven’t led a charmed life but I have been lucky.
People ask me what I plan to do next. I have some books to finish, I’d like to do some programming, I’m still teaching. I will continue to write about movies, if not necessarily review them. It’s unlikely that I’ll ever have another megaphone like the Voice. I don’t plan to produce much original copy for this blog although I will be publicizing everything I publish and linking to it when possible. Thanks again for your good wishes. I’m OK.
FILM FORUM NEWSLETTER – Wednesday, February 15, 2012
The rediscovery of Mission to Mongo!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Note: The person who acquired the movie for the Queens Museum is incorrectly identified. Her name is actually Debby Silverfine!