I first encountered J. Hoberman’s work around ten years ago, when stray issues of Film Comment started popping up in an international bookstore in Kraków. I remember the shock of discovering how inaccessible most of the articles were for someone who prided himself on speaking decent English. (I had soaked up the basics from movies and assorted textbooks). Suddenly, the language revealed itself in all its descriptive splendor; though it was virtually impenetrable, it was also strangely alluring. Of all the Film Comment contributors, J. Hoberman was the one who used vocabulary so unfamiliar as to be positively dumbfounding to me. My infuriated internal geek drove me to read his pieces compulsively—highlighter in hand—marking all the words I wasn’t familiar with. By the end of a session like that, the glowing orange page nearly lit up the room.
Hoberman educated me in the powers of English, but it wasn’t until later that he truly restructured the way I thought about movies. In 2009, as I was working on my Ph.D. on Pauline Kael (another influence, to be sure), I became a visiting scholar at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts’ Cinema Studies department, where Hoberman taught a course titled “Cinema since 9/11.” I jumped at the opportunity to see the guy whose immense vocabulary I’d been trying to assimilate for years.
J. Hoberman has championed films that went on to become classics of international, experimental, art and mainstream circuits for decades. Here are some of Hoberman’s past year-end picks that are now featured in the Fandor catalogue.
1. Tribulation 99 (1981)
2. Caravaggio (1986)
3. Happy Together (1997)
4. Irma Vep (1997)
5. The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun (2000)
6. The Captive (2001)
7. Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2003)
8. Cowards Bend the Knee (2004)
9. Climates (2006)
10. In the City of Sylvia (2008)
11. The Beaches of Agnès (2009)
12. The Juche Idea (2010)
Hoberman’s teaching style was aloof yet exciting. Associations percolated in our minds as he created a veritable video-gallery show. He rubbed movies against one another in hope of drawing sparks, turning classroom screenings into full-blown installations. At one point, there were no less than three movies playing at the same time, Calvary-style, with The Passion of the Christ (2004) regally at the center, and two other howls of post-9/11 dread: 28 Days Later… (2002) and War of the Worlds (2005) at the extreme right and left (“the two thieves,” Hoberman called them).
His installations were mostly about movies clashing, but sometimes involved near-organic instances of one work morphing into another (eXistenZ became The Matrix halfway through), or one work being inscribed into another, as was the case with Julia Loktev’s Day Night Day Night (2006), which we watched steadily embedded within the experiential frenzy of United 93 (2006), as if it were a mesmerized Jonah staring at us from the whale’s hyperactive belly.
Hoberman may be the most Hegelian of American film critics, endlessly fascinated with dialectics, forever seeking the synthesis of seemingly disparate elements. His most beloved rhetorical device is the litany of opposites that find reconciliation solely within the work he’s reviewing. It should come as no surprise that the most baroque verbal string of that kind came when he was describing his favorite movie of all time, Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963), which he found “at once primitive and sophisticated, hilarious and poignant, spontaneous and studied, frenzied and languid, crude and delicate, avant and nostalgic, gritty and fanciful, fresh and faded, innocent and jaded, high and low, raw and cooked, underground and camp, black and white and white-on-white, composed and decomposed, richly perverse and gloriously impoverished.”
After the course ended, leaving me with piles of notes I cherish to this day, Hoberman was kind enough to give me an hour-long interview about Pauline Kael (with whom he famously feuded over her review of Shoah, 1985). It was during that conversation that I pitched an idea of a Polish translation of Midnight Movies, the book he co-authored with Jonathan Rosenbaum in 1983. He agreed, and exactly two years later I was welcoming both him and Rosenbaum in Wroclaw, at the Era New Horizons Festival, where my freshly published translation had its premiere, accompanied by a series of midnight movies I programmed. The succession of on-stage conversations we all had was as exciting as anything that ever happened to me (one of them, however underlit, is partially available here).
Translating Midnight Movies was a challenge, since both Hoberman and Rosenbaum have highly distinctive personal styles. Of the two, it’s Hoberman who’s more difficult to render in Polish, though. His prose, relying heavily on the descriptive riches of English vocabulary, doesn’t translate easily into a language much poorer in adjectives. Besides that, his fiercely cerebral, supersaturated sentences are often pure sinew. His description of the title characters of Natural Born Killers (1994) as “a pair of dada punk cartoon cracker l’amour fou-struck thrill-killer Mansonettes” can make your head spin; or, if you’re the Polish translator, lead you to pull the hair out of that head.
Hoberman’s chief achievement as a critic lies in his use of disparate cinematic realms. He draws parallels between the most avant of avant-garde and the main-est of mainstream (for instance, he boldly juxtaposed Jack Smith’s Normal Love, 1963, with Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, 1984). Compared to Pauline Kael, with whom he both clashed and coincided, Hoberman is endlessly more adventurous, and more blatantly devoted to what most moviegoers thought for number of years to be (at best) wacky outskirts of “real” cinema. He boldly reverses thinking of that sort, having suggested in his 1987 all-obliterating quip that “a film critic who takes no account of Stan Brakhage or Yvonne Rainer has as much claim to serious attention as a historian who never heard of the Civil War.”
Hoberman points to his own TV-saturated childhood as the source for the eerily harmonizing cacophony of film texts populating his mind. “As a movie-struck adolescent, I encountered Dr. Caligari and Dr. Strangelove in the same year. Grffith and Eisenstein were as contemporary as Godard and Truffaut.” At times, he pushed a notion of what “movie” is to hilarious extremes, as when he included the 1986 World Series’ Game Six on his end-of-the-year 10-best list. All of his historical books (be it Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds, or Dream Life: Movies, Media and the Mythology of the Sixties) habitually treat all of history and culture as one huge text, of which particular works of art are mere chapters of or footnotes for.
In what I see as his single best piece of writing, an essay on the Rosenbergs called “My Nuclear Family,” included in The Red Atlantis: Communist Culture in the Absence of Communism, he himself transcends the boundaries of history-describing and history-making. The piece opens in the mode of straight investigative journalism, only to morph into an imagined account of two minds struck with a bright vision of utopian future, and finally ends up in the realm of personal (even if history-fed) reverie.
Among other things, that single piece reveals just how immense, how fierce an intelligence is at work in Hoberman’s writing. In fact, it’s often mind-boggling how much insight he’s capable of packing into a regular-sized review, all the while keeping it giddily readable and genuinely funny. Another outlet is advised to snatch up Hoberman as quickly as possible. His voice is already acutely missed.
Michał Oleszczyk is a contributor to Kino, the Polish film monthly, and author of the first Polish monograph on Terence Davies (Bitter Exile, Kraków 2008).