Drawing on his roots in the fecund 1970s East Village avant-garde film scene, critic J. Hoberman has spent his three decades at the Village Voice introducing readers to the more adventurous cinematic worlds awaiting beyond the realm of Hollywood. He is the author of nine books, most recently The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties, which was described by Slate as "an extraordinary publishing event." To commemorate his thirty years at the Voice, BAMcinématek has invited Hoberman to select films that have sparked some of his most stimulating reviews and articles, as well as a few personal favorites.
The series begins Monday with Eraserhead, David Lynch’s first film and the subject of Hoberman’s first Voice review, and continues with a varied mix of avant-garde, international and mainstream selections (such as Scorsese’s The King of Comedy), concluding April 3rd with Ritwik Ghatak’s A Cloud-Capped Star. Peruse the schedule here.
In your first review for the Voice in 1977, you describe Eraserhead as “not a movie I'd drop acid for, although I would consider it a revolutionary act if someone dropped a reel of into the middle of Star Wars.” How do you think 2007 matches up to 1977? Well, actually this past year was a pretty good year. I think the current state of movies is comparable. There aren’t as many venues and I don’t know if the audience is as big because of various home delivery systems but I think the movies are still as good.
So you wonder if people are still watching these great movies? Yeah, I wonder if there is as large an audience as there used to be or, to put it another way, if it’s as essential to general culture as previously.
Are you referring to the films you thought were the best of 2007? Yes.
Films like Offside and Day Night Day Night. You don’t think these are appreciated the way they might have been in ’77? I think films like that might have been more widely seen and appreciated then. But, now that you mention it, I’m not entirely sure that that’s the case.
If you were solely in charge of picking the Best Picture nominees this year, how would your list differ? Okay. Well, they all have to be English language pictures. The only one in the current list I would have nominated is There Will Be Blood. I would have nominated I’m Not There and Southland Tales – that would be pretty utopian.
You were a big champion of that one. Right. Maybe the Assassination of Jesse James. I guess Day Night Day Night is an impossible movie to add. Do I have another Hollywood film in my top ten?
Well, Zodiac was an honorable mention. Oh, yeah. Then Zodiac definitely.
You wrote that 2007 was “a year in which avant-garde movie ideas (particularly those associated with the post-Warholian structural cinema of the '70s) filled quasi-commercial independent productions.” What is this structural cinema, in a nutshell? Structural films were films that were very much concerned with issues of filmmaking. In other words, you watch them and you are always aware of them as a constructed film. But also, they drew attention to themselves not just as film but as formal ideas. A lot of them will use a kind of serial structure or narratives where you saw exactly where it was going to go from the beginning. So examples of that in 2007 would be I’m Not There. Southland Tales is certainly avant-garde but it’s much more chaotic. Day Night Day Night. Offside. Redacted.
This year there was some dissent from your colleague Armond White about Lumet getting a NYFCC career achievement award. Do you think he’s worthy of that distinction? Well, I voted in favor of it. I mean, he’s not my favorite filmmaker by a long shot. But I thought he had a good year; I liked Before the Devil Knows Your Dead and he’s certainly had a varied and distinguished career. He’s not Robert Bresson. But I like the idea of him having this association as a New York filmmaker.
In his column about Lumet, White names some of his quintessential New York movies. (My Man Godfrey, A Man’s Castle, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Gentleman’s Agreement, On the Corner, The Taking of Pelham 1,2,3) What are some of your selections for quintessential New York movies? Well, starting with the Lumet films I would say Bye Bye Bravermen, Dog Day Afternoon, Prince of the City. Then there’s Woody Allen; Manhattan mainly. The other ones I tend to think of would be more marginal or underground films.
Manhattan is one that critics seem to have dismissed as a “New York film.” That was especially true when it was released. I wrote something that talked about the objections to it when it was released and how I feel about it now.
And you’ve come to love it? I don’t love it, but I enjoy it. I mean, I actively disliked it when it came out and I don’t feel that way anymore.
What is it about your perspective that changed? I think I probably don’t take it as personally. When it came out seemed to me to be a completely spurious view of New York. Don’t forget, it came out in a period when the Lower East Side was not only not gentrified but was sort of the last stronghold of a kind of underground scene in terms of filmmaking and music and theater and so on. And Manhattan was a very uptown, bourgeois view of things that just seemed totally false to me at the time. And uninteresting. And when I saw it again I realized it was Woody Allen’s fantasy, like the Emerald City of Oz. I found that more touching, in a way, than I did when it came out.
Speaking of that avant-garde film scene in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, what remnants of that do you see still thriving in New York today? It’s remarkable that Anthology Film Archives and Millennium Film Workshop are still around and the various museums are supportive of avant-garde film. It’s a regular feature at the New York film festival and so on. So there is kind of a structure there to support it. I have to say I don’t follow it as closely as I did; I do see things from time to time that impress me but I’m not up on it in a way that I once was. But by no means has it died out despite all the indications that it might.
But do you think the quantity and quality is being produced as it was then? Well, some individuals certainly are. The James Benning films – 13 Lakes and Ten Skies – are some of the best films he’s ever made. He’s hardly somebody starting out but it’s something to produce your best work at that part of your career. And there are other filmmakers from his generation that are still making terrific work. Ernie Gehr is one, Ken Jacobs is another. In terms of younger filmmakers it may be that the energy has gone into more straightforward quasi-narratives like Day Night Day Night.
You made some avant-garde films in the past, do you have any desire to step behind the camera again? I don’t know. I still have some ideas for things I was never able to realize twenty odd years ago but I don’t know that I have the necessary desire. It’s tough to make avant-garde films. You have to really will this stuff into the world.
Have you ever gotten a response to one of your reviews that made you reconsider what you’d written? Not in terms of my evaluation but from time to time I’ve gotten a response that I’ve paid too much attention to the director at the expense of the writer. I regret that; it’s easy to succumb to the cult of personality of directors, even for writers who should be more sensitive to the fact movies are written.
Besides Manhattan, can you cite some films you reviewed that you feel differently about now? There are some films I like less, certainly. I liked Diva when it came out but I don’t think that held up as well. There are some movies I possibly appreciate more now than when I first saw them and Eraserhead would be one of those. I liked it but I didn’t realize how good it was when I saw it. I think there were filmmakers I was initially cool to; Abbas Kiarostami would be an example. It took me a while to appreciate what he and others were doing.
What places around the world besides the U.S. are yielding the most exciting films in recent years? China, of course, and that covers a lot of ground because you have the official films, the independent films, the Hong Kong films and I guess what’s left of Taiwan. And East Asia in general, South Korea, Thailand and Japan. There are strong filmmakers still in Iran although I don’t know whether that’s run its course. There have recently been some extraordinary films from Romania. And there’s kind of an unbroken tradition of good filmmaking in France.
If somebody who hasn’t seen any avant-garde films whatsoever could be persuaded to come on one of those nights during your BAM series, what should it be? I think in some respects the No Wave super-eight films might be more accessible. Although it might be strange to see something produced on such a limited scale. But they might be amazed by those; they’re also period pieces in a way so you’re getting a sense of certain attitudes that were very prevalent in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s. And there’s an entire night devoted to Ernie Gehr, who’s one of those structuralist filmmakers. And his films are very rigorous; they’re not at all like conventional movies or documentaries. But I think seeing several of them in a course of an evening – and they’re varied – might be a revelation and change the way someone thinks about film in general.