SFIFF: Critic’s choice

Pub date April 23, 2008
WriterMax Goldberg
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

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SFIFF J. Hoberman — trenchant weekly critic, book author, programmer, teacher — is celebrating his 30th year at the Village Voice, an unheard-of stretch for a film writer. (Pauline Kael’s famous tenure at the New Yorker lasted 23 years.) Freshly garlanded with a three-week program at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and an Anthology Film Archive screening of his early forays in experimental filmmaking, Hoberman continues his prize tour with this year’s Mel Novikoff Award.

The recent programs at BAM and Anthology highlight attributes that made Hoberman an essential buttress against the sycophantic rivalries flowing from Kael’s 1960s showdowns with Andrew Sarris. Over the phone from his New York office, Hoberman told me about his early days at the Voice: "I created a beat of things the other critics weren’t particularly interested in, and that took in a lot of stuff. Originally they had brought me on to write about avant-garde and experimental film, but pretty soon I was writing about documentary, animation, revival series, foreign films that weren’t from France … all kinds of things."

Hoberman’s BAM program was accordingly unwieldy, covering Andrei Rublev (1969) and Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Ernie Gehr and Martin Scorsese. Cinephilia Hoberman-style seems to be everywhere at once, encompassing Looney Tunes, No Wave New York, Jeanne Dielman (1975) and Yiddish cinema. It’s eclecticism with a program, matched by a willingness to chase the rabbit down its hole — but never at the expense of analytical rigor.

Although Hoberman is a professed admirer of the puzzling jazz in Manny Farber’s criticism, his prose is solidly explicatory and instructive. He knows how to open a discussion: "In its tireless attempts to mean everything to everyone and empirical willingness to try anything once, the American culture industry intermittently generates its own precursors, parallels, and analogues to local or European avant-gardism." He’s an apt profiler: "Pain and Fear — and the convulsive desire for public recognition — are Scorsese’s meat." And he’s not afraid to take a stand, as with a recent rave for David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises (2007): "From Videodrome (1983) through A History of Violence (2005), neither Scorsese nor Spielberg, and not even David Lynch, has enjoyed a comparable run."

He’s also an accomplished facilitator of Jean-Luc Godard’s idea that the history of cinema is synchronous with the history of the 20th century. We can count on Hoberman to connect Terror’s Advocate (2007) with La Chinoise (1967), to draw a line from a prescient film like A Face in the Crowd (1957) to Watergate and Nashville (1975). When his interests come together — as with an appreciation of Southland Tales‘ (2007) avant-gardism, midnight movie appeal, and socio-political currency — sparks still fly. Talking about an upcoming "prequel" he’s penning to his 2005 decoupage of ’60s cinema, The Dream Life (New Press), Hoberman muses, "I think that now, or at least since [Ronald] Reagan, it’s sort of customary to see movies as political scenarios." To the extent that this is true, Hoberman is due significant credit — his meditations on that movie-land president, for one, are as adroit as that of any policy wonk.

Historical markers notwithstanding, Hoberman’s film selection for his special night is likely the most unabashedly sensuous movie not starring Asia Argento to play this year’s festival. Spanish director José Luis Guerín described In the City of Sylvia (2007) as a "simple" film at last fall’s Vancouver International Film Festival, and it certainly does offer a distilled vision of cinematic paradise: gazing and grazing faces, old Strasbourg, and a slow stitch of sound and image.

Our inlet to Sylvia is a whiskered young man, haunting the city at a dreamy remove. He sits in an outdoor café with his notebook, sketching the faces of radiant women while Guerín orchestrates fractal cutting, multilevel staging of faces, and intricately gradated sound design into a sun-dappled symphony. After changing seats, the dreamer recognizes a woman sitting behind a pane of glass. She leaves and he follows, locked in an ambiguous reverie inscribed with resonant detail and sweet ambiguity.

Sylvia fulfills the cinephile’s dream of disembodiment. "It’s a narrative that comes organically from the fact of making the movie rather than dramatizing a story situation," Hoberman opines. "There’s a real love of cinema, the process of it." Each of the film’s handful of extended passages is distinct in its precise design, but this blissful lucidity Hoberman describes is Sylvia‘s central melody and romance.

Late in Guerín’s film, after a yearning bar scene set to Blondie’s "Heart of Glass," the young man sits at a tram stop, considering the waiting women and rushing window reflections for some clue as to his own loss. In a virtuosic eliding glimpse of a passing bus, Guerín dissolves the sounds and images of shots already superimposed by the panes of glass. A quick succession of several more multi-tiered, unexpectedly conversant portraits of women ("Elles," the dreamer notes in his book) finally lands on a mesmerizing rear-angle of a woman’s hair blowing wildly in the wind. The young man can’t put pencil to paper. He’s as enamored as we are with this siren song from what the director calls "the continent of cinema," a place J. Hoberman knows all too well.

AN EVENING WITH J. HOBERMAN (includes screening of In the City of Sylvia), Sun/27, 6 p.m., Sundance Kabuki

IN THE CITY OF SYLVIA Tues/29, 4 p.m., Kabuki; May 2, 9 p.m., Kabuki

>SFBG goes to SFIFF 51: our deluxe guide