Something's Wrong at the Village Voice

by Anthony Kaufman
February 21, 2006 8:50 AM
20 Comments
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For those who grew up loving (or still love) the Village Voice -- its liberal fire, passionate criticism and witty turn-of-phrase -- get ready to be disappointed. Once again, corporate evil has struck, and the merger of the Village Voice with New Times, the other alt-weekly juggernaut, is finally having an impact on my beloved left-wing weekly.

This week, cinephiles will notice two new bylines in the Voice's famed film section -- once the domain of critic-legends like Andrew Sarris and Jonas Mekas. These two new critics are Texas-based Robert Wilonsky and Hollywood-based Luke Y. Thompson, whose names may be familiar to readers of New Times pubs like the Cleveland Scene, Dallas Observer and Miami New Times. Their reviews are tiny and Hoberman still reigns, but I fear for what's next: No disrespect to Wilonsky and Thompson, who I'm sure are fine gentlemen and cinema-lovers, but writers filing reviews for the Village Voice should be based in New York, should breathe New York.

Film culture is different in Gotham; and there's a reason that people live here and think here and digest movies here, and it's unique and distinct from other parts of the country. Call me elitist or pretentious, but if you live outside of New York, you shouldn't be regularly reviewing for a New York paper (Manohla Dargis, honorary New Yorker, gets a pass, I guess). While cineastes can lament the whittling away of the Voice's edge and the coherence of its cultural coverage, there is also a very real and dangerous impact of this merger on indie film: When Wilonsky or Thompson pan a movie, these reviews will appear in every market. Their strangehold on alternative film criticism is unprecedented.

And I must pick on Thompson for a moment, because I think his taste decidely contradicts everything the Village Voice's criticsm has stood for over the last 50 years. His 2005 top ten list, which appears here, for example, features a top three of 1.) "Star Wars: Episode III," 2.) "The Devil's Rejects" and 3.) "Oldboy". And 6, 7, 8 and 10 aren't so promising either: "Shopgirl," "Sin City," "The Jacket," and "The Chronicles of Narnia." Recently, he has bashed such art and indie films as "Mysterious Skin", "Mean Creek," "Maria Full of Grace," "Red Lights," "Bright Leaves," "Strayed," and get this, he even disses "Annie Hall" on his website:

"Fundamentally, my problem is this: why should I care about a whiny nerd who doesn't have the balls to take any chances, yet somehow manages to date women way out of his league, only to totally screw up his relationships with them?" he writes. "And why is it funny when he digs up hoary old jokes like the Groucho Marx one about joining a club? Nowadays we call that "re-gifting." Or "postmodernism." I want to slap the guy and take the chicks he's driving away with his B.S."

I'm sorry, Luke, but you don't belong in the Village Voice. Film culture is already suffering enough as it is; we don't need your help.

I also noticed Ward Harkavy's Bush Beat blog "has been canceled by new management," Toni Schlesinger's "Shelter" column seems to be AWOL, and Press Clips is also missing, along with venerable reporter Sydney Schanberg who resigned because it was clear to him that Village Voice Media executive editor Michael Lacey "didn't want a press column," according to this Boston Phoenix story, which also suggests legendary lefty Nat Hentoff's column may be next on the chopping block. I'm afraid this is only the beginning.

AN UPDATE:

If anyone is still reading this thread, I need to clarify. (It's my own damn fault for getting all gushy about New York up above, but people in the comments section below have misconstrued what I was trying to say.) I don't care what Luke or anyone else writes about in other papers. And I back off my contention that only New Yorkers can write for New York papers (it's true, there are some writers not based in New York that I'd be happy to read in a New York paper.) This isn't the main point. The main point is that the Village Voice has been a bastion of a particular type of film criticism (and political point of view) for 50 years. What's happening at the paper has far more to do with my beef with a particular critic. I probably shouldn't have focused so much on Luke above, because that's what most people have latched onto (everyone loves a fight and he was an easy target), instead of the larger, more important issue: This is about the gutting of an institution's soul, corporatizing it, homogenizing it, nullifying it.

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20 Comments

  • Amy Alkon | February 27, 2006 1:28 AMReply

    Perish forbid somebody might wake up the readers of the Voice with something they didn't read without first knowing exactly what it was going to say.

  • IP | February 25, 2006 8:54 AMReply

    Anthony:

    THANK YOU for being one of many now closely following the Village Voice since it's recent change in ownership. For those of you folks reading, THIS IS JUST THE VERY BEGINNING. They have only started to make some changes, but be certain, you won't like this paper in a year or two years. The changes don't happen overnight, they happen in bits and pieces. If you are luke warm on the Voice now, you'll be sorely missing it soon enough. I've watched the ownership take over, cut up and reduce quality locally owned alternative newsweeklies in city after city over the years. And as sad as it is to see in those cities, it just sure as hell shouldn't happen to the Voice! Alas, it has and it will. So, all you New Yorkers (of which I am not), find and support a real local publication doing quality journalism from a progressive point of view. Those sources of information need your readership more than ever. Competing against a corporate giant like the Voice with all its resources is now going to be harder than ever. Sadly, nothing you can do, no amount of blogging or letters to the editors at the Voice, is going to make a damned bit of difference. If you don't believe me, do your homework on New Times.

  • Phil Hall | February 25, 2006 4:34 AMReply

    For the record, the New York Film Critics Circle has four members who live in California: Peter Rainer, Joe Morgenstern, Richard Schickel and David Ansen. Ironically, the NYFCC will not give membership to Frank Scheck of the Hollywood Reporter because the newspaper is HQed in California (even though Frank lives in Manhattan). Oddly, the NYFCC had no problems giving membership to fine writers from non-New York publications, including David Sterritt of Boston's Christian Science Monitor, Godfrey Cheshire with that alt-weekly in North Carolina he writes for (can't recall is name) and the late Bruce Williamson of Chicago's Playboy.

  • leigh | February 25, 2006 2:02 AMReply

    Luke would rather have a drink with Joe Bob Briggs than Woody Allen, wouldn't you?

    Luke is smart, very, very smaht. He likes comic books and dyes his hair in rainbow colors. Sometimes it is good to get out of town.

  • The real LYT | February 24, 2006 11:23 AMReply

    Wow, I have never had such a vocal reaction to anything I've written, ever, anywhere else. I must be doing something right at last.

    To Ted - you're right about the Running Scared capsule - it's a condensation of a much longer review that was far more than summary. I tend to find that people reading the capsules prefer to know what the movie's about more than anything else, so the condensation was plot heavy. Judge me by the long review...if you're still willing.

    To everyone else -- your complaints about me seem to boil down to the fact that I don't have the same sacred cows you do. It's easy to find art house movies I've disliked and mainstream movies I've liked -- it would be equally easy to pick and choose indie movies I've championed (my #1 film of 2001 was the still-undistributed TOMORROW NIGHT)and mainstream movies I've disliked (GLADIATOR, for a big one). If you want a critic who agrees with you all the time, I'm sorry to say you're never going to find one. That isn't the point of criticism anyway.

    Karina -- funny, I go to comic conventions all the time and am quite familiar with Sith's built-in audience. Most of them seem quite pleased with it.

    Steve - if my really gay T-shirts bother you that much, you're right, I'm probably not the critic for you.

    Anthony -- if I feel like it, maybe I'll find your top ten list and pick it apart sometime. But right now I'm on vacation.

    Thanks for reading, all!

  • Peggy C | February 24, 2006 10:01 AMReply

    Dear Anthony,

    Since you invited the invectives, I'll go ahead and agree that you are elitist and pretentious. G-d knows that only New Yorkers have valid opinions on films.

    Sorry to hear that these columns are ruining what you hold sacred. Silly me, I just ignore columnists that I don't like.

  • Anon | February 24, 2006 7:43 AMReply

    Relax people. Luke actually liked Brokeback Mountain. Doesn't that fact alone make him a part of your cute little critics' club? Also, about bashing top ten lists, can anyone say with a straight face that Crash is better than the last Star Wars movie? Better start complaining about that dude from Chicago - the one who had the stroke. This whole new game of critics criticizing each other is hilarious. Gotta run to catch a screening of Birth of a Nation. Later.

  • David N. Scott | February 24, 2006 6:33 AMReply

    Hey, say what you want about LYT, but he's a unique voice and his reviews are fun reads.

  • ReJeKt | February 24, 2006 6:08 AMReply

    I hope you New Yorkers love completely unnecessary professional wrestling references in your film reviews, because Luke is a workhorse in that regard.

  • Anon | February 23, 2006 7:21 AMReply

    Luke is clearly very, very bad. Worse even than Brian Miller. But Anthony, if I may make a suggestion for your own writing, try substituting the aesthetically pleasing and gramatically correct "such as" in place of the overused and grating "like." You will hear a world of difference. Peace.

  • Tom | February 23, 2006 7:13 AMReply

    Have to say I read the review of Freedomland in the Voice and thought it grossly inadequate (though not inaccurate), before checking the byline – one Robert Wilsonsky. Five mins later greencine led me here...

  • Ted | February 23, 2006 5:26 AMReply

    I would make the point about Luke Thompson more quickly: I judge reviewers by their reviews, and his capsule of Running Scared is 90% boring plot summary and a bland put-down. That, most simply, is why he seems a bad addition. The young staff who write those caps are almost always more interesting than this guy seems.

  • Ted | February 23, 2006 5:24 AMReply

    I would make the point about Luke Thompson more quickly: I judge reviewers by their reviews, and his capsule of Running Scared is 90% boring plot summary and a bland put-down. That, most simply, is why he seems a bad addition. The young staff who write those caps are almost always more interesting than this guy seems.

  • Josh | February 23, 2006 4:02 AMReply

    I'm not the biggest Woody Allen fan (you can read my clumsy diatribe against Match Point on my blog if you want) but Thompson's little rant about Annie Hall sounds like something one might read in Maxim, not the Voice.

    I'm glad that the Voice periodically runs something by Chuck Stephens, even though he doesn't live here, because his area of expertise and his unique perspective are clearly tied in with where he lives. That doesn't seem to be the case with these new guys.

  • Steve | February 23, 2006 3:19 AMReply

    I didn't intend to say anything positive about Thompson, just that the possibility of change at the VOICE wasn't an inherently bad thing. However, after looking at his website, I'm embarrassed I said anything that could be taken as a defense of him. His offer of "really gay shirts" on the merchandise page speaks volumes. As does the fact that he has a merchandise page.

  • Mark Rabinowitz | February 23, 2006 12:50 AMReply

    I agree 100% with Karina. Sith is dreck of the lowest order and placing it @ #1!??? Clearly the work of a weak mind.

  • Brian | February 22, 2006 10:15 AMReply

    Steve, I think you're right that genre films deserve a fairer shake than they usually get from certain publications. But at the same time, I'm don't think a guy like Thompson should be the go-to reviewer for a film like MYSTERIOUS SKIN or STRAYED. His reviews have been an ill fit for San Francisco (we get to read him in the SF Weekly AND the East Bay Express) and I'm sorry to see he's being inflicted on new Yorkers now too.

  • Karina | February 22, 2006 9:41 AMReply

    I agree with Steve, conceptually – I think we're all a little starved for intelligent criticism of non-intellectual films. But even if the above segment on Annie Hall isn't convincing enough that this new hire is the wrong man for the job (unless it's a wicked piece of satire, which seems unlikely), when someone places something like Sith - which has so little respect for its built-in audience that at its best it could only be called borderline coherent - in such high esteem, one must question their very sanity, let alone taste.

  • Swifty | February 22, 2006 4:09 AMReply

    Hm. It IS a pretty weird list. I mean, I'm not dissing him for not having highbrow tastes, but it's definitely one of the most 'unique' top ten lists I've ever seen...

  • Steve | February 21, 2006 11:06 AMReply

    I don't think Wilonsky and Thompson are the people to do it, but shouldn't there be a place for intelligent writing about genre films at the VOICE? is there something inherently wrong with taking THE DEVIL'S REJECTS or OLDBOY seriously or not treating Woody Allen as a sacred cow?

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