The Village Voice Ends Its Sixty-Three-Year Run

On Film / The Daily — Aug 31, 2018
Detail from the cover of the November 20–26, 2013, issue, featuring a profile of Spike Lee 

Many saw it coming and had been dreading the all but inevitable for the past few years now, but Friday’s announcement that the Village Voice would cease editorial production still comes as a shock. “Today is kind of a sucky day,” owner Peter Barbey told his employees in a conference call, according to Alexandria Neason of the Columbia Journalism Review. Half the staff was laid off immediately, and the other half will be kept on indefinitely to “wind things down” and create an online archive of sixty-three years’ worth of the journalism, criticism, and cartooning that won the paper three Pulitzer Prizes and countless other awards and accolades. Barbey, described by the New York Times as “an heir to a Pennsylvania retail fortune,” bought the Voice in October 2015 after it’d been changing hands for decades. Last fall, he discontinued the print edition, assuring his staff and readers that the Voice would thrive “as a brand with its digital platform.” Then came the sucky day.

Founded in 1955 by Ed Fancher, Norman Mailer, and Dan Wolf—and some would argue that Jerry Tallmer, a theater critic who created the Obies, the Off-Broadway awards, and British journalist John Wilcock were the fourth and fifth founders—the Voice was one of the first alternative newsweeklies in the country and, throughout the second half of the twentieth century, unquestionably the most influential. It had struggled for several years, though, before hitting pay dirt. In a fascinating history of the cultural influences on the paper’s founders and the Voice’s impact, in turn, on what would become the New Journalism, Louis Menand notes in a 2009 piece for the New Yorker that, by 1967, “it was the best-selling weekly newspaper in the United States, with a single-day circulation higher than the circulations of ninety-five percent of American big-city dailies.”

The key to the Voice’s success, according to Leslie Savan in the Nation, was that it “specialized in (at least) three types of stories that you’d rarely find elsewhere: unique personal accounts, like Karen Durbin’s ‘On Being a Woman Alone’; investigative reporting that the mainstream media would not touch, either because it might offend advertisers or the powers that be; and original, boundary-busting music, art, and culture criticism.”

In 2005, when Dennis Lim was the film editor at the Voice, he put together a collection of film reviews, The Village Voice Film Guide: 50 Years of Movies from Classics to Cult Hits. “Written by and for cinephiles, the paper’s film section has filled the void left by the timidity and the complacency of mainstream movie reviewing,” Lim wrote in his introduction. “The Voice’s film pages recontextualized Hollywood and explored the avant-garde—no other mass publication has produced a body of criticism as politically engaged and historically grounded, as dedicated to seeking out the new, the marginal, and the underseen.” And Lim, now the director of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, singles out three critics “who, more than anyone else, defined the identity of the Voice film section and established its legacy: [Jonas] Mekas, [Andrew] Sarris, and J. Hoberman.”

Mekas, a Lithuanian poet who’d escaped a German prison during the war with his brother Adolfas, emigrated to the U.S. in 1949 and immediately bought a Bolex 16 mm camera. He threw himself into the avant-garde cinema scene in New York, not just as a filmmaker and tireless organizer of screenings and co-ops—his Film-makers’ Cinematheque would eventually become Anthology Film Archives—but also as a critic and editor. In 1954, he and Adolfas launched Film Culture, a magazine publishing the likes of Stan Brakhage, Manny Farber, P. Adams Sitney, Gregory Markopoulos—and Andrew Sarris. In 1958, Mekas asked Jerry Tallmer why the Voice didn’t have a regular movie column, and Tallmer’s response was to invite Mekas to write one. A collection of those columns has been gathered in Movie Journal: The Rise of a New American Cinema, 1959-1971.

When Sarris joined Mekas at the Voice in 1960, his first review was a rave for Psycho. This was at a time when few Voice readers thought of Alfred Hitchcock as a great artist. But Sarris had been hanging in Paris with Godard, Truffaut, and the rest of the Cahiers du cinéma crowd who’d been arguing that the director is the true author of a film—and that some of the best directors had made blatantly commercial Hollywood movies. Sarris brought back to the States ideas that would inform his landmark 1962 essay, “Notes on the Auteur Theory,” and Lim credits Sarris with originating “the idea of canon formation as criticism” in his 1968 book, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929–1968.

In an essay that opens the Film Guide, Hoberman writes that, while Mekas “was totally committed to the new, Andrew Sarris was the first regular movie reviewer who consistently and programmatically put current movies in their film-historical context. . . . He didn’t review movies, he wrote the ongoing sagas of heroic directors. . . . Mekas was an inspired propagandist; Sarris was a gifted pedagogue.”

Hoberman began writing for the Voice in 1977, joined the staff in 1983, and was the paper’s senior film critic from 1988 to 2012, when he was let go as part of a series of cost-cutting measures that had already cost Lim and critics Michael Atkinson and Nathan Lee their jobs. Introducing an interview he conducted with Hoberman a few months later, Cinema Scope editor Mark Peranson wrote that “Hoberman has trademarked the practice of situating one’s critical writing on film as not just a social reflection, but an avenue into contemporary historical analysis.” During their conversation, Hoberman told Peranson that “reviews are the first draft of film history. Taken as a single text, the weekly column that I published in the Voice from 1979 or ’80 through 2011 is a chronicle. I’m reporting on a particular history as it unfolds as seen from a particular perspective.”

The female perspective, too, was hardly ignored at the Voice. In his Film Guide essay, Hoberman notes that Molly Haskell, who began writing for the paper “around 1970, was the first regular movie reviewer in America to write from an explicitly feminist point of view.” Hoberman also singles out “erstwhile actor/performance artist/filmmaker Amy Taubin, who wrote for the Voice from the mid-1980s through 2001, mixing polemical reviews with advocacy reportage.” Manohla Dargis, now a chief film critic for the NYT, had two columns in the Voice on avant-garde cinema beginning in the 1980s. Other regulars have included Georgia Brown, who also happens to be a novelist and the mother of Noah Baumbach; B. Ruby Rich, now the editor of Film Quarterly; Carrie Rickey, who was the Philadelphia Inquirer’s film critic for twenty-five years; Stephanie Zacharek, now at Time; Jessica Winter, the new executive editor at newyorker.com; and Melissa Anderson, the film editor at 4Columns.

As for the men whose names call out for mentioning, Nick Pinkerton, who made the most of his stint at the Voice, wrote a beautiful appreciation for Moving Image Source in 2013 of critic Tom Allen, “one of the first New York critics to give serious consideration to the work of John Waters, George A. Romero, Clint Eastwood, and John Carpenter.” And David Edelstein is the chief film critic for New York, the magazine that took over the Voice in 1974 only to lose it to Rupert Murdoch in 1977.

Alan Scherstuhl, who turns out to have been the Voice’s last film editor, will carry on writing for the Voice Media Group, but the future of principal film critic Bilge Ebiri is open-ended. Ebiri is a truly gifted writer who doesn’t shy away from revealing how his personal experiences inform his criticism. Last November, he wrote a marvelous piece on a review that “in many ways changed my life.” The year was 1992, Ebiri was eighteen, a college freshman, and that review prompted him to immediately drop his classes and take a two-and-a-half-hour ride to New York from New Haven to catch that movie. The film was Orson Welles’s Othello (1952), and the review was written by J. Hoberman.

The long line of inspiration and influence at the Voice that has helped shape American film criticism over the past six decades now comes to an end as the paper joins a disheartening list of former alt weeklies that includes the Philadelphia City Paper, the Boston Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and on, and on. The LA Weekly is still around, but since it was sold last November to Semanal Media LLC, there have been widespread calls to boycott the once-great paper. “The two most important alt weeklies died this year,” tweeted film critic Amy Nicholson on Friday, “yet I still believe in the readers and the writers and the need. What I don’t believe in: corporations and hero billionaires. Like the papers’ original founders, we gotta figure out how to do this ourselves.”

At least one such effort is already underway in the form of The LAnd, a publication soon to be launched both online and in print by former staffers, editors, and contributors to the LA Weekly, along with other journalists in Los Angeles. A similar effort is 48 Hills, a site run since 2013 by former editors and publishers of the Bay Guardian. Karina Longworth, who’s written for the Voice and is now known for her podcast You Must Remember This, has put out a call on Twitter to “anyone who can figure out the infrastructure and economics” to “make something to fill the void” of coverage of repertory cinema, at least in New York and Los Angeles. So far, the replies have been enthusiastic but also lacking in concrete and specific steps toward setting up such a platform. Speaking for myself, I’m for any solution that allows us to carry on reading Bilge Ebiri.

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