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Saturday, June 2nd, 2007
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The Village Voice Film Guide: 50 Years of Movies from Classics to Cult Hits

by Dennis Lim

Distant Voices

A review by Gerry Donaghy

Late last year, there was an editorial equivalent to the Nacht der langen Messer at the venerable New York weekly the Village Voice. Mostly this was focused on their arts columns, and out the door went the bulk of the music and film writers, including the dean of American music criticism Robert Christgau. For devoted readers of film criticism, the departure of film-section editor Dennis Lim was a devastating blow. Choosing to rely more on syndicated pieces from sister newspapers (thankfully they kept Jim Hoberman), the Voice's film section has (for the most part) been neutered of the passion and intellectual verve that made it essential reading for cinephiles.

Think I'm wrong? Go to their website and read their review for Pirates of the Caribbean and compare it to even the first paragraph of Hoberman's review of Fay Grim. Where the former review is vulgar and colloquial, the latter caters to our intelligence, rather than pandering to our funny bone. It's not that the other writers are horrible; it's just that the level of discourse has been noticeably diminished. And, frankly, there are enough writers covering Pirates of the Caribbean. Maybe in twenty years, they'll be cranking out copy on par with the greats of the Voice's past -- such as Amy Taubin, Andrew Sarris, and Jonas Mekas -- but I'm not a betting man.

Thankfully for those of us still wearing a black armband for the Voice's glory days, Dennis Lim has given us an amazing good-bye kiss: The Village Voice Film Guide: Fifty Years of Movies from Classics to Cult Hits, which collects 150 of their most notable reviews culled from the span of the paper's existence. Eschewing many films that have already been extensively written about, The Village Voice Film Guide instead chooses from the wider berth of cult gems and obscure oddities. Sure, the names of some usual suspects are here (Hitchcock, Orson Wells, Scorsese), but there are some names that are doubtlessly unknown to all but the most hardcore cineaste (and I count myself amongst the ignorant): Dziga Vertov, Ousmane Sembene, Jia Zhangke. If these names don't ring a bell, you don't know what you're missing. This book is indispensable for filling in those blank spots of our cinematic education.

Some of the directors featured here are listed for multiple films, and it's interesting to follow the trajectory of filmmakers such as David Lynch and David Cronenberg as they travel from midnight movie obscurity to the edges (and occasional penetration) of the mainstream. As these pieces are contemporaneous, rather than retrospective, they're the film criticism equivalent of lines on your kitchen wall where your parents marked how tall you were on a particular day of your life. Not only that, but you occasionally get to read a review done in the heat of a deadline, only to be contradicted later after further contemplation and/or a second viewing. And, in the case of John Cassavetes's film Shadows, you are able to read the director's comments to the critic, lending an interesting insight to how this particular film was changed over time.

What's even more special about this book is how evocative it is of the city where the films were viewed. It's a snapshot of a time and place that exists only in legend and Woody Allen films; an era where moviegoing was a much more cultural and social endeavor (when was the last time you heard something along the lines of "would you rather go to the Bergman double feature or see the new Godard movie?"). When writing about Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo, Glenn O'Brien writes:

It's midnight mass at the Elgin. Cocteau's Blood of a Poet has just ended, and the wait for El Topo is a brief grope for comfort before sinking back into fantastic silliness. The audience is young. They applauded Cocteau's sanguine dream as though he were in the theater, but as credits appear on screen, they settle again into rapt attention. They've come to see the light -- and the screen before them is illuminated by an abstract landscape of desert and sky -- and the ritual begins again.

This is much more than a movie review; it's a borderline sociological examination of a nearly extinct breed of filmgoing experience (something to think about as Apple tries to convince you that watching movies on an iPod is the wave of the future). And when Hoberman writes that David Lynch's Eraserhead is "too arty for 42nd Street," he's saying just as much about where the movie is being shown as he is about the film itself.

If you're shaking your head in disgust at how much bank is being raked in by summertime sequels, if you're the type of person who gets a mad glint in their eye when you hear that Criterion might be releasing Rainer Werner Fassbinder's fifteen-and-a-half-hour-long Berlin Alexanderplatz on DVD, or, if you've any serious interest in film criticism that isn't Hollywood-centric, check out The Village Voice Film Guide and clear out your Netflix queue.

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