The Yahoos Are Winning
Two unrelated but oddly congruent events riled up the movie blogosphere at the turn of the year. One was the inclusion of Forrest Gump—the 1994 Best Picture winner about a Candide-like naïf (Tom Hanks) stumbling through the 20th century from Kennedy's New Frontier to Reagan's morning in America—in the National Film Registry's annual choice of 25 "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant films" worth preservation by the Library of Congress. The other was the Village Voice's January 4 firing of senior film critic J. Hoberman after 24 years in the top slot and a decade more than that of contributing to the paper.
Besides the timing, one link between the two was how many of the same people were dismayed about both. In other words, a certain sensibility felt under threat, while—in Hoberman's case, anyhow—a brasher one shaped largely by backlash against the first was making merry. And neither kerfuffle was apolitical.
To be sure, some earnest cinephiles objected to Gump's inclusion on the grounds that the National Film Registry's priority should be older and/or more marginal moom pitchers in actual danger of vanishing from sight. Yet the choice wasn't all that out of the ordinary. Because a bit of crowd-pleasing never hurts in generating PR for a good cause, the Film Registry list—while not as crassly "Welcome, philistines! Fund us!" as AFI's bubble-brained "Top 100"—has tossed a few attention-catching, not exactly time-tarnished titles into the mix pretty much every year. The selections in 2010, for instance, included The Empire Strikes Back and, endearingly, Airplane! along with the usual vintage classics and genuinely rescue-worthy (silent, experimental, or simply emblematic) esoterica.
Nope, the real problem is that, while Gump has a few champions in Critville, most film buffs old enough to be knowledgeable about the times it depicts—an important qualifier, believe me—can't stand the damn thing. Gump is the boomer It's a Wonderful Life at a level that leaves you admiring Frank Capra's superior honesty, from its gimmicky sentimental premise (Everyman prevails by not reasoning why, despite living through an era when reasoning why was urgent) to its mainstream-friendly rip-off of Woody Allen's Zelig (besides meeting the young Elvis, Everyman keeps getting inserted into real-life footage of JFK, LBJ, Richard Nixon, and John Lennon).
For lefties, the aversion goes deeper. Not only does the movie's celebration of know-nothingism literalize the idea that ignorance is bliss but 1960s anti-war activists—including a spectacularly witless caricature of Abbie Hoffman, who had more wit on a bad day than Spiro Agnew's whole speechwriting crew—are depicted as charlatans in contrast to the cretinous nobility of the Vietnam-vet hero. The counterculture in general gets its lumps via the heroine's sad odyssey through its pitfalls. In Gumpland, critical intelligence of any sort becomes unpatriotic by implication; little did we know that, besides valorizing Reagan's America, the movie was also prefiguring George W. Bush's.
If you take the National Film Registry's formula at face value, none of this exactly undermines Gump's "cultural, historical or aesthetic significance." Personally, the ringer on the 2011 list I bristle at more—and I say so as someone who'd rather drink Lysol than sit through Gump again—is the similarly Oscar-heaped but repellent Silence of the Lambs. But I also don't get worked up about it any more than I do when my rock-crit colleagues froth about who is or isn't among the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's new inductees. I guess institutionalized merit just isn't my thing.
To whatever extent Gump's selection legitimizes the movie's idiot's-delight view of American history, I suppose that is cause for distress. (One shudders, for instance, to imagine high-school teachers using it to teach kiddies about the Vietnam era—unless they already are.) But if the disgruntlement at its elevation boils down to "the yahoos are winning," Hoberman's ouster fits the same bill in ways I care about more.
While we're unacquainted beyond knowing what the other one looks like, I was Hoberman’s fellow Village Voice staff writer from 1994 to 1999 and had freelanced regularly for the paper long before that. Watching the Voice lobotomize itself over the past decade or so—a process pretty much complete now that he's been canned—has been something I can't help feeling a personal stake in, even though business is business, and I should know better.
Whether or not he'd care for the title, Hoberman, along with The Nation's Stuart Klawans, is the most honorably anti-yahoo movie critic in the country. The art of film is his beat, and that's all there is to it; when it comes to deciding what's consequential and what isn't, compromises with the non-cinephile public's proclivities aren't in the cards. In his Voice Top Ten lists since 1977, the occasional more-or-less mainstream Hollywood release (rarely more than a couple per year) looks positively groggy to find itself in the exalted company of the latest from Chantal Akerman or Taiwan's Hou Hsiao-hsien. That's not for want of reverse eclecticism, though—the Farelly brothers' There's Something About Mary made his list in 1998.
Apart from theater critic Michael Feingold, Hoberman was the last survivor among the independent-minded, cracklingly intransigent critics who once made the Voice's arts coverage a lodestar for anyone craving more than the conventional wisdom, starting with his own predecessor Andrew Sarris and including, among others, Deborah Jowitt (dance), Robert Christgau (rock), and Gary Giddins (jazz). Though Jowitt still writes for the paper, she's been bumped down to freelancer; Giddins split in 2003. Christgau was fired in 2006.
With Hoberman's departure, the paper has gone from being a shell of its former self to a shell of its former shell—a process most people blame exclusively on finky New Times Media, the Voice's owner since 2005 and the single outfit most responsible for gutting the alternative press in general. Yet in the Voice's case, the hollowing-out began in the 1990s, when the previous management decided to overhaul the paper's wild-and-woolly editorial ways (and fired Jules Feiffer in the bargain). We writers still got to have our say, of course, but within new limits—of space, presentability (no more indulging our inner nut), and increasingly bottom-line-oriented priorities.
Even when I worked there, I never thought Voice-style criticism should be the whole story. That would have defeated its adversarial purpose. I've done my share and then some over the years of mocking the downside of the kind of bohemian elitism the Voice used to cater to by definition: its vanities, its fear of being tainted by ever agreeing with the yahoos, its paradoxical provincialism. Not to mention how easily its rejections of mainstream values could turn too reflexive and petty to be useful insights. The upside of informed bohemian elitism, on the other hand, is that it's absolutely vital to ye olde cultural dialogue.
Hoberman exemplifies the upside and little if any of the downside. Because he knows more about film than most of the directors he writes about and couldn't dumb himself down at gunpoint—and also because, politically, he's an unabashed soixante-huitard—he naturally gets jeers from post-millenials fed up with Dad. Intellectually and aesthetically, the rising generation may be more dismissive of anything predating its existence than any since—um, whaddya know—the boomers themselves. "Movies … deserve to be free of the tastes and prejudices of people who grew up without Quentin Tarantino," one Natasha Vargas-Cooper proclaimed in GQ last September—incidentally cheering me up no end, as I'm the same magazine's movie reviewer. "Let's be untethered from history, ignore the tug of the familiar, and resolve that any movie made before say, 1986 has received its due respect and move on."
Oh, well—at least Forrest Gump makes her cut-off date. So does Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, which seems to be post-millennial cinephiles' notion of Citizen Kane if not D.W. Griffith. (Bet anything that Tarantino—who turns 50 next year—will soon be demoted to fuddy-duddyhood himself.) It's inevitable that cultural narratives change; lord knows my peers did a fair amount of impertinent deck-clearing themselves to arrive at their version. Finding ourselves on the receiving end—suddenly defending the uses of tradition, appalled at our juniors' disrespect for all we hold dear, and so on—has its comic side. For old-school movie critics, though, it's their profession that's growing obsolete; while the blogosphere is crammed with good movie writers, the kind of platform that makes anyone's opinion matter much is yesterday's papers, the now nugatory Voice included. As I cling to my own perch with increasingly weathered talons, all I can say is that Hoberman will be sorely missed come the next head count at the Alamo.
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