Over the past quarter-century J. Hoberman of The Village Voice has distinguished himself as one of America's finest film critics. In this collection of his film criticism of the nineties he quotes one of the first great writers on film, Siegfried Kracauer who states that the good film critic can only be a critic of society. And this is undoubtedly the case for Hoberman, who is fiercely opposed to chauvinism, complacency and militarism that infects so much of American public life. In this collection we read about the cult of Star Wars, the decline of the American Western in an age of increasing moral uncertainty, as well as the class and ethnic aspects of Quiz Show. Hoberman devotes a whole chapter to the Clinton presidency. While looking at such ultimately hollow films as Bob Roberts, Dave, The American President, Pleasantville and The Contender, Hoberman notes the image of Clinton, at one point the image of a new "progressive" generation and at another the two-minute hate of the Republican party. In the meantime, the reality of Clinton's fundamentally conventional, manipulative and conservative persona is ignored.
A person opening the book at random may find on a single page allusions to Howdy Doody, Leave it to Beaver, The Beverly Hillbillies, Arsenio Hall, Kenny G and Andrew Lloyd Webber. One may view Hoberman as simply a kibitzer of names. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although witty and amusing, Hoberman is also very serious and very sharp. He is a dedicated admirer of film and an insightful and appreciative critic of popular culture. (Who can forget his essays in his previous collection Vulgar Modernism in praise of Krazy Kat and The Honeymooners.) Yet almost no film critic has higher standards and is less likely to be duped by sentimentality and easy manipulation. He is a dedicated internationalist, in contrast to the lack of curiosity of not only Hollywood but most film critics. So in this book he praises such filmmakers as Kiarostami, Sokurov, Wong Kar-Wei, and Ron Havilio. Looking at his top ten lists from 1991 to 2000, one finds two best picture winners (Unforgiven and The Silence of the Lambs), three best picture nominees, and such unexpected Hollywood fare as Groundhog Day, Dead Man, Portrait of a Lady, The Cable Guy, Boogie Nights, Magnolia and The House of Mirth. But no other critic has gone out of his way to search out for foreign films that are often criminally unreleased in the United States. The best pictures of 1993 and 1999 come from the Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien. The best picture of 1994 is from China, while 1995 comes from Germany, 1996 from Hungary, 1997 from the Czech Republic, 1998 from Russia and 2000 from Israel. At the same time few critics have his knowledge of film history, as we see in his pieces on Fritz Lang, Sergei Paradjanov, Oscar Michaeaux and Vertigo.
But let us consider his sharpness as a critic: Hoberman is witty enough to describe JFK as the most baroque snuff film in American history. He can point out how Three Kings seeks to become more conventional as it goes along and eventually succeeds. He notes how in the magical world of Pleasantville, everyone at the end is as white and middle-class as they were when the picture started, except now that they get to have sex as well. (A verdict, one feels, all too applicable to the United States since the sixties). Although we do not receive his full review of Titanic we do get a properly acidic paragraph as he notes the contrast between Cameron's profligacy and his sneers at the rich, and at the way he desecrates the tomb of the dead, while demanding a moment of silence for those interred, mostly played by digitalized extras. He reminds us that The Cable Guy is a far more frightening and provocative film than the fundamentally facile The Truman Show. One of the problems with Eyes Wide Shut, he notes, is that it has the least interesting musical score of all of Stanley Kubrick's works. He is always nuanced and complex, as he can criticize A.I., yet praise Joel Haley Osment's performance as the best of the year. And finally, one must recall Hoberman's review of Schindler's List, probably the most admired film of the nineties. He points out the essential sentimentality of a Holocaust movie with a happy ending, and contrasts it with Shoah "a film about death in which, over and over and over and over, no one ever escapes." There is a special power in his review's last line, a special power of indignation that is most powerful for being understated. Spielberg's movie won't upset one's dinner. "It's a tasteful movie."