The first thing I was invited to write for The
Village Voice was a 250-word review of a low-budget
biographical film about Jeff Buckley. It was opening at a small
theatre in Manhattan where very few people were likely to see
it. I liked the performances, from a television actor in the
lead role in particular, and I asked my editor if I might have
a little more room to express some praise. He doubled my word
count and put the review on the front page of the film
I learned then what a lot of older, better writers knew
already about The Village Voice: that it took its duty
as cultural custodian seriously, and was uniquely committed to
informing its savvy readers in New York about whatever its
writers felt the city ought to know.
Now The Voice is dead, shuttered ignominiously
by the billionaire who acquired it with aspirations toward
rejuvenation only three years ago. Though it’s a quirk of the
famed alt-weekly that its admirers have been declaring it in
terminal decline for the better part of its 63-year history —
like The Simpsons or
Saturday Night Live, The
Voice is an enduring mainstay with a nebulous Golden Age
somewhere in the past, often conveniently located near the
youth of the one doing the remembering.
Most stalwart New York cognoscenti tend to reminisce
about the paper’s centrality to the cultural happenings of the
city in the ’70s and ’80s. It taught people about bands and
bars, about playwrights and politics. As The Times
reflected when the print edition was terminated and it went
online-only last year, The Voice “was where many New
Yorkers learned to be New Yorkers.”
The Voice is an enduring mainstay with
a nebulous Golden Age somewhere in the past.
By the time I started contributing regularly to The
Voice, in 2013, the paper had already passed so far out of
fashion that the only times I heard it mentioned at all were
when it was being viciously disparaged. The paper’s chief film
critic at the time, Scott Foundas, had just quit to move to
Variety, less than four months after he came aboard;
his predecessor, the great J. Hoberman, had been fired by new
management in early 2012, one of several high-profile exits
that inspired a number of long-time Voice writers to
voluntarily and noisily abandon ship.
At that point, The Voice’s credibility seemed
irrevocably desecrated. This was the former home of Andrew
Sarris, Jonas Mekas, Gary Indiana and Molly Haskell. How far
had they fallen that they were now housing me?
But even in so-called weakened form, The Voice
was producing something valuable. As late as the final months
of its publication, The Voice’s film section spanned
upwards of six pages each week in print. They reviewed
everything. If a neorealist coming-of-age drama from Georgia
was opening in the East Village, The Voice would
bestow it an attentive few paragraphs the interested might
peruse; if a crackpot naturalist rented out a cinema to show
his self-funded documentary about the restorative powers of
sleeping in the dirt, The Voice would do it the
courtesy of lambasting it, giving it the same amount of column
inches as a Marvel movie.
One week in a reputable theatre was all you needed to
secure a review. This exhaustive mandate was the source of much
misery for the critics obliged to suffer the dreck. But it
reflected a noble desire to do right by art, and to live up to
posterity. Everything had its opportunity to impress and be
praised. No film left behind.
With The Voice gone, the number of publications
(and working critics) in New York who might reasonably be
expected to write about a tiny independent film opening at
Cinema Village or the Quad is startlingly few. The New York
Times has likewise elected to no longer review every
theatrical release in the city, for similar reasons of economy
and glut. Sharp sites like Screen Slate and
Slant are diligent about repertory offerings, but have
small budgets. It’s a significant loss.
Without criticism, films may languish undiscussed and
unnoticed; moviegoers might not discover their would-be
favourite films of the year; critics will have to write about
major Hollywood blockbusters exclusively, if they can find work
at all. But something else is lost in all of this,
too. Alt-weeklies such as The
Voice fostered developing talent in the writers they
encouraged to experiment and grow, in the later years as much
as in the golden age.
Everything had its opportunity to
impress and be praised. No film left behind.
It was the virtue of The Voice that its writers
always had their own space. “There is, there must be, some
wavering zone of consciousness where more than one of us can,
at least for a moment, be in the same place at the same time,”
Gary Indiana wrote in the introduction to his collection of
cultural criticism and reportage, Let It Bleed.
Indiana is an artist and novelist, but in the ’80s and ’90s,
installed as a staff critic at The Voice, he wrote
about everything: Bill Clinton, the AIDS crisis, Eurodisney,
the Kennedy assassination, Rodney King.
The Voice gave him the latitude to demonstrate
the range of his brilliance. How can a journalist hope to find
that shared zone of consciousness if they don’t have the
freedom to create it themselves? That was the dream of the
alt-weekly. A city reading The Voice could be in the
same place at the same time.
The Voice clued readers into restaurants and
turned them onto punk bands, in the influential glory of print
and more lately online. It promoted conversations — about
everything from jazz clubs to poetry readings to mayoral
candidates and beyond. The archives are teeming with wonderful
journalism and arts writing from some of the strongest critics
and reporters to grace any pages anywhere.
Maybe the best testament to how good The Voice
was at starting conversations was how often, even at the end,
people seemed to be talking about The Voice itself. In
my circle of friends, The Village Voice was read and
discussed more than almost any other publication — and my
circle of friends do not live in New York.
Of course, the dissolution of The Voice has
implications for the world of journalism and criticism that
extend outside of the city where the paper was born. The
Voice was the first major alternative newsweekly, and was
always the most important. For a long time it seemed like the
only alt-weekly that could not be defeated by the vicissitudes
of the turbulent business. It survived so many of the local
alt-weeklies its legacy inspired, including Toronto’s Eye
Weekly and The Grid, Montreal’s
Mirror and Ottawa’s
XPress — all shut down over the
last couple of years.
It’s not hard to fear that if The Voice has
ended, the other holdouts soon will too — the disappearance
of Now Magazine feels like it
could happen any moment. We will feel the full effect of these
absences over time. The Voice is dead, and one can
only conclude that with it, the alt-weekly as a whole is not
too far behind.