The days when the New York Times was the stodgy Gray Lady and the Village Voice the feisty upstart are well in the past; it’s hard to imagine Vincent Canby or Janet Maslin warming to the pre-millennial equivalent of Spring Breakers, which ended up on both A.O. Scott‘s and Manohla Dargis‘ year-end lists. But in his first Home Video column for the Times, J. Hoberman shows some of the edge he honed in the years when alt-weeklies really were an alternative.
The subject is Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia, out on a new Blu-ray from Kino Classics. But not far under the surface, it’s also a study of how once-marginalized directors become accepted canon. (All seven of his features appear in the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? list of the Top 1,000 Films; Nostalghia, at 352, is the lowest-ranked.) With a slap at the late Times critic Vincent Canby, Hoberman writes:
Tarkovsky’s movies are not for the impatient. He advised viewers to watch Nostalghia “as if it were the window in a train traveling through your life.” In The New York Times, the critic Vincent Canby allowed that while Tarkovsky might be a “film poet,” he was one with a limited vocabulary. “The same, eventually boring images keep recurring in film after film — shots of damp landscapes, marshes, hills in fog and abandoned buildings with roofs that leak,” Canby wrote when Nostalghia was screened at the 1983 New York Film Festival. “The meaning of water in his films isn’t as interesting to me as the question of how his actors keep their feet reasonably dry.”
Of course, Canby was to an extent engaging in what nowadays we’d call trolling, perhaps especially at young, self-serious writers like the then-Voice critic J. Hoberman, who placed Nostalghia eighth on his Top Ten list the following year. But rather than long-delayed revenge, Hoberman’s invocation of Canby, who died in 2000, serves as a pointed reminder that times change, and the guardians of culture change with them. Who knows what once-young critic will invoke Hoberman as a stand-in for the fuddy-duddy old guard 30 years hence?