November 15, 2006

The Voice in the Wilderness

A look inside the Village Voice's troubled film section reveals acrimony, disappointment -- and maybe even a future

By S.T. VanAirsdale

For everyone fretting about the changes sweeping the celebrated film section of the Village Voice, you can relax: Jim Hoberman is staying. There is that. The interim replacement for fired section editor Dennis Lim may have lasted only two days before giving his notice, the budget may roughly amount to just a third of its size prior to last winter's merger with the New Times chain, the popular year-end critics' poll may have been cancelled, a number of respected freelance critics and feature writers may have disappeared from its pages and its de-emphasis on local independent and repertory releases may end up alienating some of its advertisers, but at least you have that one institutional continuity to bank on. Everything else is anybody's guess.

"It's really complicated," said Nathan Lee, who joined the paper as a full-time staff critic last month after accomplished stays at The New York Sun and The New York Times. "The truth of the matter is that for everyone at the Voice -- (editor in chief) David Blum, Jim, myself, I think even the new owners and, of course, the readers -- a lot of this is, 'Wait and see.' We're not entirely sure how the page is going to shape up."

It's one of the last existential crises gripping the Voice, where readers have witnessed the last six months' turnover and attrition spin the 51-year-old paper into a somewhat benign -- some would say banal -- version of its former self. In late August, arts editors including Ed Park (books), Jorge Morales (theater), Elizabeth Zimmer (dance) and of course the estimable "dean of American rock critics," Robert Christgau, had preceded Lim to the exits at Cooper Square; departed film critic Michael Atkinson held the door as Lim packed his desk. But of all the traumatizing staff shake-ups, there was something especially seismic about those affecting the film section; after all, this was the former home of genuine New York icons like Jonas Mekas and Andrew Sarris, a berth wielding international influence and a crop of distinguished alums like Tom Allen, Manohla Dargis, Amy Taubin, David Edelstein, Georgia Brown and now Lim and Atkinson. (The soon-to-be-published Village Voice Film Guide, edited by Lim, anthologizes five decades of the section's most enduring work.) However pointy-headed, earnest or arcane its content became, it reflected generations of readership and over-the-moon cinephilia that, at its best, informed contemporary cinema in general. Even Oliver Stone once wrote about film for the Village Voice.

And even as many of those names' own relationships with the paper ended in acrimony ("[It] was so eaten away by the time this latest episode began that it doesn't seem worth protesting," Taubin told me via exceedingly brief e-mail), not until New Times merged with Village Voice Media did the atmosphere acquire a certain evolutionary dread. As the flagship of the 17-paper empire, the Voice now functions as the hub of a syndicate sharing writers from sister weeklies around the country. The upside is that New Yorkers can read superb critics like L.A. Weekly's Scott Foundas, the Minneapolis City Pages' Rob Nelson and the Nashville Scene's Jim Ridley every seven days. The downside? Dispiritingly facile work by others including Luke Y. Thompson and Jean Oppenheimer, not to mention a system that leaves little to no room for reviews of new releases and revivals playing only in New York.

As such, some onlookers view the changes as more than administrative; they actually have the potential to totally alter the city's film culture.

"I have real issues with how the Voice writes about film," said Matt Zoller Seitz, the former New York Press film critic who came up in the New Times system and was a 1994 Pulitzer Prize finalist. "The language they use; the tone that they take; the political attitudes that are infused into almost every single piece that runs. But the breadth of their coverage? Nobody can touch it. It's the gold standard. Nobody comes close, not even The New York Times, because The New York Times won't bust out some little off-the-wall, American independent film. They won't run an 800-1,000-word feature on a filmmaker from Asia or Europe just because they think they're interesting. The Voice has been traditionally the only game in town; they're the guys who have been holding down the fort for eclectic filmgoing. And either they're going to continue to do that or they're not. The tone that the writing takes is secondary to the breadth of the coverage, and that's what I'm going to be looking for."

NATURALLY, SEITZ ISN'T the only one. Besides a readership that has watched critics' recommendations disappear from the Voice's listings (and then watched the critics themselves disappear from the Voice), some independent film distributors and exhibitors in New York are so frustrated with the syndicate's seeming disdain for local content (and, by association, local writers) that they've considered pulling their advertising from the Voice.

"We haven't done anything, but if they dump Hoberman, we will," said Magnolia Pictures president Eamonn Bowles in an e-mail to The Reeler. "It's just reducing the pool of idiosyncratic voices in search of that creamy smooth homogeny (which unfortunately is also too reflective of the current independent audience's appetite)."

Both Hoberman and Voice editor-in-chief David Blum confirmed that the legendary critic is neither interested in nor in danger of leaving the paper, and Blum told me that he has not heard anything about any potential advertiser boycotts. But he also expressed confidence in the New Times syndicate as the most effective, efficient way to handle film coverage across the chain. "My position is that you just publish the best film criticism possible, and whether it's being written in Minneapolis or Kathmandu is less relevant than the quality of the work," Blum said. "Film doesn't change according to the location of the screen it's being projected on, nor do I think that there's something in the sensibility of living in the city of New York that makes you more qualified or less qualified to write about film. I also happen to think that all the critics in the syndicate are qualified to write about film and do it well.

"That's not to say that anyone's pretending at first blush the decision wasn't an economic one," he continued. "It would not make sense to share virtually anything else in the Village Voice. I did think it made sense to share film reviews; in an era of diminished financial resources at newspapers, it was a reasonable decision, it seemed to me, as a money-saving venture and what it cost in terms of quality."

Quality, of course, being wildly subjective but not too hotly debated under the circumstances. As Bowles and others are quick to point out, with the exception of some nostalgic notes of displeasure sprinkling the paper's letters section each week, readers have not surged to the barricades in the paper's defense. And whatever their level of distress at a system that can single-handedly wreck a film with the same negative review splashed across 17 markets, New York's industry insiders have yet to mount even a semi-organized campaign -- behind the scenes or otherwise -- summoning an alternative.

"Unfortunately, I think what happens is that you do lose the local voice in criticism -- whether it's in the L.A. Times or the Village Voice -- and nobody really seems to notice or raise an eyebrow about it," said L.A. Weekly's Foundas. "I've had people who live in New York, working in the film industry, express surprise to me when I've mentioned to them that we're all part of this big syndicate. They haven't noticed. And in the interest of doing a little deconstructing of an urban legend here, the idea that the New Times has come in and suddenly all the reviews in the Village Voice are being written by some hicks who don't know anything about movies from God knows where -- it's really not the case."

But despite arguably improving its in-house staff by inviting Lee to replace Atkinson, it's the magnitude, capriciousness and general sloppiness of the Voice's takeover that has disheartened so many people I spoke with. "It's ironic that when the new owners first visited, they told the editorial staff how much they liked the art coverage, film in particular," Hoberman said in an e-mail. "I have no idea if that was really true and, if so, what changed their minds."

Indeed, Atkinson was immediately hired on full-time after more than a decade as a freelancer, and New Times editor in chief Michael Lacey and managing editor Christine Brennan attended meetings in New York in February praising the Voice's arts coverage and the film section in particular. Yet even as far back as last January, at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards dinner, Lim was said to be expressing doubt about his future with the paper; not long afterward, as Lacey and Brennan took more active roles in leading the transition, Lim said he faced complaints that his section's tone was too "intellectual" and that it focused too much on "esoteric" films. (Lacey referred my request for comment to David Blum; Brennan did not respond to a similar request.)

Later, after taking over the job of syndicate editor in July, even editors from other New Times papers routinely griped that his staff's work was too "thinky" and "dense." Lim's own work duties had also changed radically for the worse. "The editorship as it was redefined bears almost no resemblance to the job I once had," he said via e-mail this week from the Torino Film Festival. "There was very little room for creativity once they combined the jobs of Voice film editor and Village Voice Media syndicate editor -- it became largely clerical. I was in fact repeatedly told that they didn't expect the film editor to attend screenings or film festivals."

Meanwhile, Lim said, new ownership had slashed the film section's budget by about two-thirds. This effectively curtailed the use of well-liked union freelancers like Jessica Winter and, in the cases of certain non-union freelance reviews, reduced the pay rate from $110 to $75. The cuts were the owners' prerogative, of course, and in some ways made things easier from a management point of view. "We never really had a budget before," said Joshua Land, a Voice staffer who succeeded Lim as syndicate editor. "Under the old regime, there was one, but we were never really told about it. It was like if you spent too much you got yelled at. If there was one good thing about New Times taking over, it was that at least they were upfront about what their expectations were in that area. But in practice, it could have been 50 to 75 percent; it's hard to say because there was never a set number before."

CHRISTGAU, PARK AND SIX other editorial colleagues were dismissed Aug. 31; Atkinson was fired soon afterward. Lim was the last to go on Oct. 5. Land took over the editorship on an interim basis but submitted his two weeks' notice after two days on the job. "It's fair to say that I did go in there with some amount of baggage," Land admitted. "Like having been not particularly pleased with not only the direction of the film section, but also that the paper in general had taken over the last several months. But I kind of went in there with the idea of trying to make it work -- trying to come up with a compromise of my vision of what I thought the film section should be and what I was sensing was New Times management's vision. And it just became clear pretty quickly we were not going to be able to do that; we were not going to be able to find any meaningful common ground and that I was going to have very little control over the section. Basically, once they told me I wasn't going to be able to assign pieces to myself, it just became, 'Why am I doing this?' "

Rumors soon circulated that Foundas was (and remains) a candidate for the editor position, but he demurred. "For maybe five seconds, there was a whiff of an idea that I should take that job, but it was never formally proposed," he said, adding that from what he had heard the New Times ownership couldn't see the logic in moving a winner to New York and having to replace him in L.A. Lee, 31, who had worked with Blum at The Sun but never actually met him until discussing the job at the Voice, declined to discuss whether or not he was approached about or offered the section editor job. But he emphasized that Blum assured him a comfortable level of autonomy in choosing movies to review; after all, this is a full-blooded Sarris disciple (a Film Comment regular!) whose favorite film of 2006 is the oblique Thai import Syndromes and a Century -- not quite the reader-friendly studio fare that Lacey is said to favor.

Still, Lee said he and Hoberman got Blum's word, which is all he said he needed. "Dave, Jim and I are committed to smart local coverage," he told me. "As much as we have a mandate now to have this kind of syndicated national reach, in my first two weeks I'm reviewing movies at Film Forum, movies at Anthology Film Archives, movies opening at IFC Center and nowhere else. We're all very clear about this as a priority. Jim and I are picking the movies we want to review, and we're not being questioned."

But few are attributing the last word to Blum, Lee or Hoberman. "I was told several times -- by Brennan and other New Times editors -- that big films needed to get more space and more prominent placement and I should stop emphasizing small films," Lim said. "In fact, the Cleveland-based editor who handled the syndication before I took over told me that his main criterion for assigning was that studio releases get long reviews and indies get short ones. It would be wonderful if Jim still gets to write about what he wants, but the section as a whole is being steered away from coverage of art house and specialized programming. That's not an opinion but an empirical fact."

A more general rule of thumb to remember with New Times seems to be that Lacey backs his own hires loyally and makes life impossible for the rest. Seitz, a homegrown Lacey find who experienced something of a falling out with the editor after leaving the Dallas Observer for the Star-Ledger, said he appreciates what he described as his former boss's "sensitivity and pride" in nurturing young talent, and thinks that the same factors may partially play a role in Lacey and Blum's hiring of Lee. Really, it may be the only way the hire makes sense.

"Nathan's serious, you know?" Seitz said. "He's got very eclectic tastes, and he's a combative son of a bitch. He won't back down in an argument, and he has his own very definite ideas of what's good and what's bad, and there's no arguing him out of it. And in the end, Lacey's a pragmatist. If he gets the sense that it's going to impact his bottom line if he changes the film section substantially, then he won't change it substantially. It's that simple. Whatever he may think personally -- and I know in my bones from having worked with him that he doesn't like the way that the Voice covers film. It's not the sort of writing he's interested in, it's not the sort of writing he likes to read."

FOR HIS PART, Lee acknowledges joining a less-than-optimal corporate climate when he started Oct. 23. But there was nothing he could do about any of the firings or turbulence that have afflicted the section for decades, which even its patron saint Andrew Sarris couldn't escape in the end. "I've never had a staff position before," he told me. "I've never had health benefits in my entire adult life. Dental care, health care, none of it. I have that now. So we can talk about the reputation of the New Times and the drama and the horror of the things they've done, but I have a job to do: I see movies and I write about them. For me it's very simple, and for other people it's not. I anticipate getting some flak for taking this job, but it's just a job. I review movies. It's what I do for a living."

And today, he's doing it without a full-time editor. Interim section editor Allison Benedikt, formerly of the Chicago Tribune, says she considers herself a candidate for the staff job; Blum agrees, though he is still crafting a short list from the dozens of resumes that came over after he placed solicitations both in his own letters section and on Craigslist. Lee said he and Hoberman have been consulted to some extent about the hiring process, but he declined to discuss details of its progress. Hoberman simply said that his ideal candidate is "someone as smart, knowledgeable and committed to film culture as Dennis." The vacuum scuttled the plans for the eighth annual critic's best-of poll that closes out the year; it was a feature on which Lim often worked for at least a month with one paid assistant and two or three interns. Lee said the current staff had originally planned to give it a try but realized by Nov. 7 that it was spread too thin to handle the logistics; he insists it will return in 2007.

In the meantime, Lee remains upbeat. "I came into this at a point where the Voice had been bought," he said. "The change was done; it had happened. I'm coming into it afterwards and my sense is, 'What is still valuable here; what can we still do? How can the Voice continue to have a strong, lively, influential and really smart sense of film coverage?' That's what I'm really invested in at this point."

Advertise on The Reeler

Comments (22)

Jeez, Stu, what did I ever do to you?

Thank you for your cogent description of what's going on at the Voice. I'm extremely concerned about the future of their film section, but I just don't have the insider knowledge necessary to decipher the meaning of all these firings. At long last I feel like I now have a clear sense of what's happening. This will come in useful when I'm composing long letters to the New Times management about the state of their film coverage...

Not sure I totally agree with you on Luke Thompson.

He seems to have a very decent a REAL style that is missing from much of the "big reviewers" who are carring studios on their back.

It's a nice change of pace for once.

Great reporting.

You did the same thing to "Stu" that you did to the rest of us, LYT: You wrote dispiritingly facile reviews.

Notice how your name comes up again and again re: this story, almost always in a negative light? You might want to ponder that. You might also want to think about how many respected film critics sell personalized merchandise on a website called [Myname]rules.com. (Hint: Just you.)

think you've shortchanged oppenheimer and thompson, two relaible critics. does anybody know where atkinson has landed--if anywhere yet? terriifc article.

"My position is that you just publish the best film criticism possible, and whether it's being written in Minneapolis or Kathmandu is less relevant than the quality of the work," Blum said. "Film doesn't change according to the location of the screen it's being projected on, nor do I think that there's something in the sensibility of living in the city of New York that makes you more qualified or less qualified to write about film. "


What I omitted from my brief remarks to you is that the importance of the Voice's film section was a result of its placement for some 30 years within the paper's larger progressive cultural and political discourse. That context, rather than individual film critics, made movies matter intellectually and creatively. And when the Voice as a whole began to seriously dwindle in the mid-90s, it took the film section down with it, which is why I said that it had been at least a decade since the Voice was worth defending. J. Hoberman, in whose company I'm proud to have written for over 15 years, is a great critic, but there's a limit to what he can do when reduced to 800 word pieces and in an atmosphere where ideas are viewed with contempt. The same is the case for the talented critic/editors Rob Nelson (vastly underrated) and Scott Foundas. Instead of moaning about the demise of the Voice, it would better for us in the film and arts communities to figure out a way to convince one or two of its billioniares to bankroll a new publication that would take the measure of and be an inspiration to the times in which we now live.

But that would imply the existence of worthy films dealing with the times in which we live -- and on that count the pickins' are small.

Still I'm glad Jim's staying in place.

Is the poster, Matt, who came to LYT's defense...LYT himself? The link to LYT's homepage would suggest so. If so, "Booooooo, LYT!"

>>does anybody know where atkinson has landed--if anywhere yet?

Happy to say he's doing our weekly DVD column over on IFC News (http://www.ifc.com/news). We update every Monday.

Good piece Stu.

As someone who views the shakeups in the Voice's music section as far more troublesome (Christgau out / Chris Ott IN?!), and at the risk of turning this whole comments thread into a debate on Luke Y. Thompson, I have to say that I consistently get a huge kick out of the guy's reviews (the endless column inches given to which actresses take their clothes off are a bit tacky, if honest). There is more than enough room in the world of film criticism (and the world of the Voice, as well), for someone who treats movies that are generally condescended to by all other press outlets as being as worthy of writing about as the latest stuff at the Angelika.

There's a lot of us film fans who would take a Times Square AMC matinee of a slasher flick over Nuri Bilge Ceylan's "Climates" at the Film Forum (they don't even have BUTTER for the popcorn at the Film Forum, for Christ's sake!). If Thompson is the one covering those movies, I'm fine with that.

Excellent article; I'll link to it at my blog.
As for the other postings -- I see some colleagues for whom I have great respect here, David Ehrenstein and Amy Taubin -- I stopped reading the Voice when it became clear that the pirates from New Times planned to gut the paper I grew up with and replace it with the sort of rag that puts pop stars on its front page anytime it can. So I have never read the embattled Mr. Thompson and have no opinion on his writing. Nor do I find it inherently objectionable that "mainstream" movies be covered by the Voice; after all, this is where Andrew Sarris pioneered the American variant of the auteur theory, writing lovingly about Ford and Hawks and Hitchcock and Aldrich and Preminger, etc., etc. The problem is, in part, that the contemporary equivalent of studio product is such utter and complete crap. What people like Mr. Bletcher seem not to understand is that the Voice had and probably still has the power to make or break the smallest alternative venues simply ignoring them. If the marketplace were fair enough to allow for artistic diversity, to provide a place for Climates and for "a slasher flick" then the changes in the Voice film section would be quite a bit less important. The point is that it doesn't, so they are.
And if you measure the quality of a screening room by whether you can get butter on your popcorn, I sincerely hope you enjoy the coronary you are racing towards.

"You might also want to think about how many respected film critics sell personalized merchandise on a website called [Myname]rules.com. (Hint: Just you.)"

You mean I'm respected? AWESOME! About damn time.

"Is the poster, Matt, who came to LYT's defense...LYT himself?"

Nope. You think an egomaniac like me with personalized merchandise would use a pseudonym? Really?

I think most of us would be more amenable to your stylings, Luke, if you showed a modicum of wit or insight in one of your reviews. There's nothing wrong with being the anti-critic if you're able to do it with some flair. But, as proven by your comments here, you have a poor sense of humor and you're not very bright.

I get a kick out of LYT!

Excellent article on the decline of the Voice. I'm fascinated to read that Hoberman's reviews are now available throughout the New Times empire, since what we usually get in the Bay Area NT papers is three lines from any one of his reviews. What's next, haikus?

Are there any longish reviews in that paper or is it all short briefs? Just curious...

Michael Atkinson appears to be writing regularly for "The Phoenix" chain (Boston). His articles are listed here:

LYT referenced Star Wars in his review of Kiarostami movie. 'Nuff said.

Thanks for a very informative article, and comments by critics I admire like Amy Taubin, David Ehrenstein and Ed Gonzalez. As a reader of the Voice film section for over 30 years, I'm one of those people who wrote a letter of displeasure to the editors over what's happening to the film section and to the paper overall. Until today I didn't know that the invaluable Take 8 poll would also be a casualty of the shakeup. Many thanks to Dennis Lim and indieWIRE for keeping it alive.

I certainly hope for the best for Hoberman and Nathan Lee (his hiring is the only encouraging sign so far). They face an uphill battle to maintain the integrity of the Voice's great tradition of "strong, lively, influential and really smart...film coverage."


Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference The Voice in the Wilderness:

» REELER: What's Up at the Village Voice? from Buzz / Rumors
For weeks now, indie film insiders have been bemoaning the steady stream of departures at The Village Voice. In a lengthy 3,000 word story at The Reeler, S.T. VanAirsdale takes a close look at the paper and the big changes... [Read More]

» The Cinemaniacs of Cinemania from (A Superhero Named) Tony
Recent [Read More]