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T. Holly on: J. Hoberman: Critic. Filmmaker. Feminist?

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The Reeler Blog

J. Hoberman: Critic. Filmmaker. Feminist?

By Miriam Bale

New York is in the midst of celebrating our good luck at having J. Hoberman as our weekly film critic for 30 years at the Village Voice. Next month Anthology Film Archives will screen the experimental films he made before his life as a professional critic, and BAMcinematek is currently showcasing an eclectic series of films selected by Hoberman. Included in the series on March 31 is Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080, the 1975 film directed by Chantal Akerman and made by an all-woman crew. Hoberman commented in a recent conversation with me that he thought Jeanne Dielman crystallized a lot of questions -- particularly regarding female spectatorship -- that were in the air in the mid-'70s and then through the early '80s, during which there was a vanguard of women filmmakers on many levels of production, both the European art films and various types of experimental films.


Delphine Seyrig in Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080, screening March 31 as part of BAM's tribute to J. Hoberman

Jeanne Dielman is made up of long segments of domestic repetitions—“cleaning, shopping, straightening, cooking, shopping, and fucking,” Hoberman wrote in his 1983 review. "At once spectacle and antispectacle, Jeanne Dieleman not only criticizes the dominant mode of representing women but challenges the dominant mode of representing itself." This valuable self-conscious questioning about not only content but also the forms of narratives themselves is a natural byproduct of the feminist theory and filmmaking in the era Hoberman referred to above. In telling stories about the primary experiences of women—as opposed to stories of women observed—it becomes clear that these female-centric narratives need to be told in entirely different structures from the usual forms; therefore the standard forms are male-centric narratives. Another key film of that era, Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating, also from 1975, is about a playful female-centric narrative that collides with and mocks a traditionally male-centric narrative. (Celine and Julie is another Hoberman favorite that he said he felt lucky to have reviewed in his first year as a critic simply because no one else would touch it.)

In a review of another Akerman film, Hoberman wrote: "It takes no great powers of imagination to see Les Annees 80 as a movie about how women learn to play their roles--as lovers, workers, 'women', and movie directors." This identification of role-playing and experiments in narrative, especially within more mainstream narrative features, is one of Hoberman's key strengths as a critic. For instance, most reviews recognized that Cronenberg's A History of Violence was an extraordinary movie with something to say about violence, but Hoberman’s was one of the only reviews to recognize the brilliant edge of self-parody in the performances, which illustrated the problem of maintaining a single identity. "In one romantic scene, Mortenson and Bello pretend to be teenagers; in their next tryst, they no longer know who they are." He explicitly points out that "the performances slyly merge acting with role-playing." Hoberman's avant-garde background clearly helped sensitize him to these self-conscious experiments in form, but could it also be that those feminist film themes so active in Hoberman's early years as a critic helped form his particular critical eye?

"I certainly feel that I learned things from that movement, and it changed the way that I thought about things," Hoberman recently told me. "So I'm sure that it would reflect itself in my film criticism." “It’s interesting,” he said as he then recalled that Karen Durbin, a self-declared sex-positive feminist (and current film reviewer for Elle), was his editor at the Voice then, and that his many conversations with her were probably assimilated into his view. Durbin said in a recent panel at the Woodstock Film Festival that Hoberman is indeed one of the most feminist men she knows, but when I asked if he considers himself a feminist film critic, he said that he was hesitant to be called any "-ist."

There’s a reverse echo of the reluctance to claim this word in Hoberman’s own 1983 cover story championing Jeanne Dielman, in which he writes, "Akerman has always resisted characterization of Jeanne Dielman (or any other of her films) as 'feminist.'” Though hesitant to apply it to himself, that word and that topic appears more frequently in Hoberman’s reviews than almost any other critic of his stature. His sensitivities to gender, role-playing, and gender as the ultimate role to play are to all of his readers’ benefit.

Seduced and Abandoned is a regular feature about repertory cinema highlights in New York. Miriam Bale programs the monthly series The Movie Night Disco at Frank's Lounge in Fort Greene. Read her previous columns here.

Posted at March 26, 2008 3:32 PM

Comments (1)

Great article, it gives the program a little narrative, which is hard to get unless awards are given out. Come to think of it, it's kind of like a premiere neutral film festival without a jury. Wish the program went on the road like a travelling film festival.

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