The newest book from critic J. Hoberman, Film After Film, comes at a fascinating time, as digital technology threatens film (as celluloid loses popularity) and film criticism faces threats of its own (signified by Hoberman’s own unceremonious canning from The Village Voice in early 2012). Film After Film aims to account for the former problem by making sense of how exactly cinema has changed in the first decade of the 21st century. In the process, it correspondingly makes an impassioned case for the value of professionals like Hoberman.
Film After Film is divided into three sections, each of which roughly accounts for the past decade or so in world cinema through a different critical approach. Part I, “A Post-Photographic Cinema,” picks at the changing ontology of motion pictures. “With the advent of CGI,” Hoberman proposes, “the history of motion pictures was now, in effect, the history of animation.”
Advances in digital technology mean that what an audience sees onscreen need not exist in real life, fundamentally jeopardizing assumptions of the nature of cinema established by critic-theorists like André Bazin. Now, sets, lights, and characters are no longer a necessity of the medium. The privileged relationship cinema had with the world has been supplanted by digital cinema, which “inherently strives to remake the world.” Hoberman writes that cinema in the 21st century expresses side effects of this digital anxiety. Across its different modes, contemporary cinema copes differently, whether in the blockbusters’ game of immersive digital one-upmanship (culminating in Avatar), or international arts films’ vital reactions against it, such as Pedro Costa or Jia Zhangke’s stylized documentary aesthetics, Lisandro Alonso or Albert Serra’s minimalism, or Guy Maddin’s “neo-retro primitivism.”
Part II, “A Chronicle Of The Bush Years,” is just that. Further proving the inseparability of good criticism and through historical research—which greatly animated Hoberman’s last book, the superb Cold War cinema text An Army Of Phantoms—Hoberman explores the cultural climate of post-9/11 cinema. Using mostly American examples, from blockbusters (Collateral Damage, Minority Report, The Sum Of All Fears) to indies (United 93, Donnie Darko, Redacted), he masterfully parses the attitudes of satire, paranoia, and foreboding that coursed through the cinema of George W. Bush’s America. Synthesizing criticism and history, Hoberman works at the peak of his formidable talents, resulting in some of his most memorable prose. (“A great brooding thundercloud of a movie,” he calls Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.)
The final section, “Notes Toward A Syllabus,” is devised as a filmography for a theoretical class on 21st-century cinema. It offers 21 (fittingly) chronologically ordered short essays on films of the past decade, from Jean-Luc Godard’s In Praise Of Love to Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon A Time In Anatolia. Hoberman offers a broad range, accounting for avant-garde selections (Michael Snow’s *Corpus Callosum), American oddities (Joe Swanberg’s LOL, Richard Kelly’s extravagant clusterfuck Southland Tales), and a number of the decade’s extolled international masterpieces (Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark, Cristi Puiu’s The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu). In his unofficial canon of 21st-century cinema, Hoberman pinpoints films that uniquely capture the technologies and cultural anxieties of this young century, illuminating them with lucid care.
Hoberman is tremendously insightful as he integrates his concerns with cinema’s political, historical, and aesthetic past and his visions of its future. For cinephiles of any stripe, it’s a rare book. He soundly articulates the ideological transformations, digital facelifts, and aesthetic insurrections that have tugged at cinema since the turn of the millennium—ones that have made the medium seem simultaneously stagnant and livelier than ever.