The Mel Novikoff Award, named after the pioneering San Francisco film exhibitor (1922–1987), is bestowed annually on an individual or institution whose work has enhanced the filmgoing public’s knowledge and appreciation of world cinema.
An Evening with
Sunday, April 27
Sundance Kabuki Cinemas
1881 Post Street (at Fillmore)
Now celebrating 30 years as senior film critic for the Village Voice, Jim Hoberman is this year’s recipient of the Mel Novikoff Award, bestowed on an individual or institution whose work has enhanced the filmgoing public’s knowledge and appreciation of world cinema. Hoberman will be interviewed onstage by Film Comment editor-at-large Kent Jones and will then present a screening of In the City of Sylvia.
By Scott Foundas
Anyone who believes that the golden age of American movie criticism died out with the last golden age of American movies clearly hasn’t spent much time reading J. Hoberman, whose arrival at the Village Voice coincided with the box-office tsunami that Jaws brought crashing down on the “new Hollywood” cinema of the 1970s, and whose writing has nevertheless consistently challenged, deepened and radicalized the way we think about motion pictures. Indeed, for Hoberman, the word “critic” seems altogether too limiting. Rather, he is a historian, a political scientist, a rabbi, a cultural anthropologist and an all-around enlightened observer. He is someone drawn to movies not merely for their ability to entertain and inform, but for what they reveal about the times in which they were made and the way we live now. Simply put, some people who write about cinema—some of them very well—tell us what movies we should see; J. Hoberman tells us what we should see in them.
He comes from good stock, having studied under another restless forager of moving images—the avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs—and rubbed shoulders with many leading lights of New York’s burgeoning experimental film scene, back when SoHo was full of anarchic possibility and devoid of Starbucks. In a reversal of the usual pattern, he even flirted with filmmaking for a while before turning to criticism and finding a home at the Voice. There, he has maintained his enthusiasm for the new, the subversive and the consciousness-altering, as well as a healthy distrust for the officially sanctioned and the self-important. Most of all, he is unwilling—incapable, perhaps—of taking anything at face value.
So, in any given week, you may find him tuning his radar to an unknown underground masterpiece (like Craig Baldwin’s Tribulation 99) or a misunderstood piece of big-studio dadaism (Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks!), dissecting the socio-religious implications of the Star Wars franchise, calling out Schindler’s List as softball Holocaust revisionism, or parsing the influence of the Clinton years on Hollywood movies (and vice versa). Whatever the case, these are “reviews” that exist in a realm beyond sacred critical orthodoxies and which stymie efforts to reduce everything written about a film down to pro or con, fresh or rotten.
Here he is recently, writing about Andrew Dominik’s film maudit Western, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford:
“Although not as radically defamiliarizing as Jim Jarmusch’s avant-Western Dead Man, Jesse James has the feel of an attic ransacked for abandoned knickknacks. There are intimations of what Greil Marcus called the “old weird America”—a sneaking sense that Dominik might have preferred to shoot the whole thing through a pinhole camera or fashion his story out of musty daguerreotypes. But then, as demanding as the movie is, maybe it’s just old-fashioned crazy.”
Is that a rave? A pan? A conditional maybe? Only this much is certain: You’re unlikely to see any of it excerpted in the studio’s TV and newspaper ads. As the critic Manny Farber once told an interviewer, “The last thing I want to know is whether you liked it or not—the problems of writing are after that.” And it is thanks to Hoberman that today, even in the relative mainstream—for let us not forget that the “alternative” Voice is now part of a shore-to-shore newspaper syndicate that includes outposts in some 16 markets—Farber’s spirit lives on.
Having said all of that, I’ve only just scratched the surface. For Hoberman is also a teacher—not just to his readers, but to his students at NYU and Cooper Union. And he is the author of a small shelf of books that includes anthologies of his criticism (Vulgar Modernism and The Magic Hour), sweeping surveys of Yiddish-language cinema (Bridge of Light) and the rise and fall of Communism (The Red Atlantis) and a masterpiece about the myths and realities of the ’60s (The Dream Life) that embodies on every page Jean-Luc Godard’s famous maxim that “the greatest history is the history of the cinema.”
Hoberman himself quotes Godard near the end of his prescient 1998 essay, “The Film Critic of Tomorrow, Today,” before going on to speculate:
“That history will force those critics refusing the role of underpaid cheerleaders to themselves become historians—not to mention archivists, bricoleurs, spoilsports, pundits, entrepreneurs, anticonglomerate guerrilla fighters, and, in general, masters of what is known in the Enchanted Palace as ‘counter-programming.’”
Jim: As you celebrate your own 30th year inside the Enchanted Palace, it is clear that you have become one such master. Long before I met you, I considered myself a fan. Today, it is my privilege to write alongside you (albeit with 3,000-odd miles in-between) as a colleague. But above all, I remain your humble pupil.
Scott Foundas is film editor and critic for L.A. Weekly, in addition to which his writing appears regularly in the Village Voice and other Village Voice Media publications. Since 2007, he has been a member of the New York Film Festival selection committee.
In the City of Sylvia
Mel Novikoff Award previous recipients
2007 Kevin Brownlow
2005 Anita Monga
2004 Paolo Cherchi Usai
2003 Manny Farber
2002 David Francis
2001 Cahiers du Cinéma
San Francisco Cinematheque
2000 Donald Krim
1999 Enno Patalas
1998 Adrienne Mancia
1997 Judy Stone
Film Arts Foundation
1996 David Robinson
1995 Institut Lumière
1994 Naum Kleiman
1993 Andrew Sarris
1992 Jonas Mekas
1991 Pauline Kael
1990 Donald Richie
1989 USSR Filmmakers Association
1988 Daniel Talbot
Mel Novikoff Award Committee 2007
Francis J. Rigney, chairman
Linda Blackaby, ex officio
Helena R. Foster
George Gund III