History of Film Criticism at the Village Voice

By J. Hoberman

Not exactly trekking to the one-room schoolhouse six miles across the tundra but a schlep nonetheless for the Teenage Me to find the one newsstand in Flushing (and later, Binghamton, New York) that carried the Village Voice. The paper ran many interesting things, to be sure, but (for the TM) the must-reads were Jonas Mekas's "Movie Journal" and Andrew Sarris's "Films in Focus."

How fortunate, for a young cineaste, to grow up in central Queens in the mid-1960s with high schools so overcrowded the Board of Ed instituted triple sessions and a senior like the TM finished classes by noon and had the rest of the day to take the number 7 train to the city and go to the movies. How unbelievably lucky to have revival dumps like the Bleecker Street, the New Yorker, and the Thalia — not to mention the 42nd Street grind houses and the Museum of Modern Art. And how utterly essential were the Village Voice listings and the excitements of Messrs. Mekas and Sarris.

"The French call adolescence the 'age of film-going,'" I would write in that same Village Voice some twenty years later. "And it may be that the movies you discover then set your taste forever." It will be years before the collected writings of Mekas and Sarris are enshrined between the Library of America's glossy black covers—although, in his native Lithuania, the former is a celebrated poet. Mekas's Movie Journal: The Rise of a New American Cinema and Sarris's The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968 are classic books, but writing is the least of it. Between them, back in the day, these guys knew everything that was happening, movie-wise, in New York. The TM expected no less. I didn't buy the Voice (which, for many years, maintained economic parity with two other local necessities, a subway token and a slice of pizza) to confirm my taste. I wanted an education—and the Voice movie pages provided that.

An impoverished poet, 16mm film diarist, and little magazine editor, Mekas was not as interested in reviewing movies as in remaking cinema. (Also, film criticism: in its firsthand account of the underground film scene, "Movie Journal" was a blog avant la lettre.) He didn't just report on underground movies, he was a tireless advocate who organized distribution co-ops, film series, and cinematheques. "It is not my business to tell you what it's about. My business is to get excited about it, to bring it to your attention. I am a raving maniac of the cinema."

Mekas left the Voice, along with another avant-garde proto-blogger, Jill Johnston, in the paper's first great "normalization," following its 1974 purchase by New York magazine mogul Clay Felker. There has never been another Mekas. (Closest was the erstwhile actor/ performance artist/filmmaker Amy Taubin, who wrote for the Voice from the mid-1980s through 2001, mixing polemical reviews with advocacy reportage.) But traces of his mania remain.

While Mekas was totally committed to the new, Andrew Sarris was the first regular movie reviewer who consistently and programmatically put current movies in their film-historical context. As Mekas illuminated the underground, Sarris explicated the past—specifically, the Hollywood past—with his so-called auteur theory. He didn't review movies, he wrote the ongoing sagas of heroic directors. (His first Voice review hailed Psycho as a great avant-garde film.) Giants still bestrode the earth, not just Hitchcock but John Ford and Howard Hawks. (If it weren't for Sarris, who of us would have ventured to 42nd Street to see El Dorado in 1967 — not the TM, that's for sure.)

Mekas was an inspired propagandist; Sarris was a gifted pedagogue. In some respects, his greatest role was guiding readers through the history of American cinema, still in heavy rotation on New York's independent TV stations. I vividly remember Sarris—who for a time broadcast "Films in Focus" over listener-sponsored WBAI — simply going through the week's TV listings, pointing out the 3 A.M. must-sees.

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(During the late 1970s and into the 1980s, this function would be performed at the Voice by Sarris's devoted acolyte Tom Allen.)

Although Sarris frequently (and hilariously) quarreled with Mekas over the significance of avant-garde film, his interests were not restricted to Hollywood. He was one of Robert Bresson's early champions. His 1970 review of Au Hasard Balthazar is a landmark, and his 1974 review of The Merchant of Four Seasons was, without doubt, the most crucial review R. W. Fassbinder would receive in this country.

In short, both Mekas and Sarris were devoted to making film culture —not surprisingly, the name of Mekas's magazine —and because of them, the Voice was as well. Molly Haskell, who joined them around 1970, was the first regular movie reviewer in America to write from an explicitly feminist point of view, creating a precedent that exists at the Voice to this day. (The ideological analysis of mainstream movies became a house specialty after Ronald Reagan was elected president.)

From time to time, the Voice's notorious fractiousness carried over into movieland, with the staff contributing its (mostly negative) opinions of some current sensation. As a youngster, I participated in one such pile-on in response to Bob Dylan's Renaldo and Clara; Sarris was understandably incensed when the staff took issue with his praise for Manhattan. Those amateur hours notwithstanding, the paper published an impressive number of distinguished or promising film writers. (In addition to those already mentioned, these include Michael Atkinson, Georgia Brown, Stuart Byron, Katherine Dieckmann, Terry Curtis Fox, Tad Gallagher, Dennis Lim, William Paul, B. Ruby Rich, Jonathan Rosenbaum, P. Adams Sitney, Elliott Stein, and Jessica Winter. Other erstwhile Voice film writers — Manohla Dargis, David Edelstein, and Carrie Rickey, as well as former film editor Lisa Kennedy—have gone on to high-profile careers as daily critics. And Oliver Stone, who contributed a review of Breathless, enjoyed another sort of fame.)

If movie reviews are understood as a form of journalism, Voice critics broke a number of stories. Obscure underground filmmakers (Stan Brakhage, Michael Snow) were championed, along with "difficult"

directors from Senegal or Iran. Once unknown and ignored genre flicks like Night of the Living Dead, Halloween, and The Evil Dead received partisan reviews. The Voice was the first paper to review "midnight" movies like El Topo and Pink Flamingos (the latter by Jack Smith, no less). The first review I was assigned, in late 1977, was David Lynch's Eraserhead, then playing to audiences of four and five at the Cinema Village. And where else could the ex-TM have reviewed Todd Haynes when he was working in Super-8 or Wong Kar-wai before his movies played above Canal Street?

Not only did the Voice give Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman double coverage when the movie had its U.S. opening at Film Forum, but it made that event its cover story—a tribute to the passionate advocacy of film editor Karen Durbin. (I remember that Karen also fought successfully to find double jump space for me to review Claude Lanz-mann's Shoah—and, as used to happen with some regularity in those days, I needed the extra room to take issue with another critic's notice.)

It was precisely because the Voice was so site specific, so committed to film culture as it was being made and experienced in New York City, that its coverage engaged not only the Teenage Me but cineastes all over the country and even the world. There's been an erosion of space and an imposition of format, but I'd like to believe that this readership is still there and that the commitment remains. These reviews are a testament to those readers and that faith.

Adapted from an essay published in the Voice's fiftieth anniversary issue, October 26, 2005.

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