My Greenberg Problem—and Yours

13 Aug 2014 | 03:40

    Greenberg, the big-budget mumblecore movie by Noah Baumbach, should enter the language as Woody Allen’s Zelig did—a title that goes beyond ethnic specificity to stand for a particular social disorder: the tendency toward vanity, suppression and censorship. Those meanings attached to the movie from the moment a [Greenberg publicist phoned this journalist to disinvite ]him from the film’s press screening, claiming the disinvitation was at the request of Baumbach, his producer Scott Rudin and executive publicist Leslee Dart. That’s the truth—anything else you’ll likely read in Page Six or elsewhere has been slander. The Indian-giver discourtesy is reflected in the film itself, in which Ben Stiller portrays Roger Greenberg, a self-absorbed L.A. nerd recovering from a nervous breakdown (“I’m doing nothing deliberately”), who inflicts his peremptory ego on everyone around him. This Greenberg jerk is Noah Baumbach’s stock in trade; that he represents an authentic social ilk was proven after news of the disinvitation was made public and Village Voice film critic Jim Hoberman joined the crackdown, exhibiting his own case of Greenberg syndrome.

    Hoberman ignored the terrible precedent of a journalist being prohibited from the standard performance of his work; Hoberman broke rank with professional ethics and used the injunction to launch a personal attack against a fellow scribe. Dusting off a 12-year-old review I wrote of Baumbach’s Mr. Jealousy, Hoberman sent it to his minions in the Internet world with the warped instruction that the review callously demanded Baumbach’s abortion. This was Greenberg Syndrome at its tertiary stage—from Baumbach to his publicists to Hoberman, the repeated excuse for imposing a ban has been that I “called for Baumbach’s abortion.” The calumny is absolutely untrue, as the actual Mr. Jealousy clipping proves. Yet Hoberman deliberately mischaracterized the review and sided with censorship.

    As a movie, Greenberg lacks drama and appeal (it is the least enjoyable film of Ben Stiller’s career), but its story of a destructive narcissist and his compulsive antagonism mirrors the petty jealousies and incestuous dynamics behind Baumbach and Hoberman’s hatred. Greenberg’s publicist/critic debacle cracks open the hidden practices and prejudices rampant in today’s film culture and arts journalism. Publicists always want to control the media but Hoberman’s viciousness typifies how the media has gone off the rails. His only solidarity is not with the critical profession but with publicists—the seat of power that rules the way movies are brought to market and traditionally consumed.

    By deliberately misleading his readers and followers, Hoberman has demonstrated the unhealthy alliance between the film industry and journalism that threatens journalistic independence and prevents criticism from being trustworthy. No wonder critics have lost touch with the public and become expendable even to editors and publishers. Given this crisis, I can no longer keep silent about the conspiracy afoot in film criticism or the personal brickbats thrown my way. My Greenberg problem is yours, too.

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    The moment Baumbach’s publicists acted to prevent a review of Greenberg was the moment I became obligated to write about it. It’s an issue of integrity. To clear away the lies: Only through the help of a critical colleague (whose identity must be protected) was I able to RSVP to a Greenberg screening. It was that unsolicited RSVP that prompted the rescinding phone call. Although I’m usually informed of Focus Features’ screening notices (their releases [Coraline] and [A Serious Man](http://www.nypress.com/article-20412-the-humor-in-gloom.html) made my [year’s best list](http://www.nypress.com/article-20783-better-than-list-2009.html), so there should be no “enmity” in that respect), I was never invited to a Greenberg screening until their ban was made public. My unanswered previous inquiry suggests the ban was always in effect, despite Leslee Dart’s contention that I would be invited later.

    This matters because the public needs to know the strange symbiosis that exists between publicists and journalists: They Promote, We Write—and with no further obligation to write positively or negatively. This is basic journalistic independence, if we care to preserve such a thing. It was an honorable, cordial system until—after the mid-’80s rise of entertainment media—studios and their publicists exerted greater control over media access to films, insuring favorable/biased coverage. Publicists’ power increased as the media gave itself over to non-inquisitive, low-integrity forms of celebrity news and gossip.

    Dart’s rebuff was not a principled stance but a self-serving one. Thankfully, she’s given away the game: Many publicists don’t respect critics; they exploit them. Finally, that reality is revealed to every naive, deluded person out there. Dart demonstrates her disregard for the truth and her preference for gossip over bylined criticism. She defends her ban decision by referring to illegitimate, unauthorized blog items, that I allegedly impugned Baumbach as “an asshole” and dredged-up the Internet myth that I wished he’d been aborted. And Hoberman supported Dart’s slander by repeating the slur. With his sneaky behind-the-scenes influence, pulling the strings of his myriad media puppets, Hoberman misguided his partisans as to the review’s content.

    Fact: The following lines, from a June 3, 1998, review of Mr. Jealousy that appeared in New York Press, do not constitute a call for abortion:

    “I won’t comment on Baumbach’s deliberate, onscreen references to his former film-reviewer mother [Georgia Brown] except to note how her colleagues now shamelessly bestow reviews as belated nursery presents. To others, Mr. Jealousy might suggest retroactive abortion.”

    The last line is not Oscar Wilde but it’s also not a death warrant; its impact is in your inference. It clearly points out the clubhouse aspect of Baumbach’s raves, then contrasts natal congratulations with their demurral. No more than that. The abortion quip is easily understood unless your goal is to besmirch another critic and wage a personal attack. This was not sourcing Internet myth nor fact-checking, but spreading hateful, damaging rumors as per our degraded, gossip-obsessed media. Hoberman hasn’t stooped this low since questioning Pauline Kael’s ethnicity and ethnic loyalty simply for not liking the movie Shoah. By resurrecting the corpse of Georgia Brown’s undistinguished, forgotten movie-reviewing career—defending his former underling and buddy—Hoberman once again found an underhanded way of praising himself. In short, it was a Greenberg tantrum.

    While Allen’s Zelig poked fun at the absurdity of class and race envy, the mania to assimilate and fit in, Greenberg sentimentalizes the particular elitism of the moneyed and empowered class. Baumbach’s usual privileged settings (this time West Coast Hollywood-style) aren’t documented so much as preferred; just as Roger Greenberg’s bad manners and selfishness are coddled. Baumbach indulges rather than critiques Roger’s cruelty, revealing the same coterie inclination as Dart and Hoberman. Baumbach’s family drama differs from the upper-class comedies of Philip Barry or Whit Stillman through the desperately naked, social-climbing anxiety of its over-educated, morally shallow protagonist. They don’t have the class (in the old-fashioned sense) to show compassion toward others. That’s why Greenberg heroizes Roger’s arrogant bad behavior—Baumbach’s media friends surely recognize and enjoy the ugliness.

    “It’s morally reprehensible what you did!” an old friend (Mark Duplass) chides Greenberg over an adolescent slight. The accusation applies to Dart and Hoberman’s lack of professionalism. They fabricated my moral error, trying to make my quip inflammatory. (They also deliberately ignored my 2007 “Smugness” essay that first outlined the secret relationships between Baumbach and his media friends). So what if I said something rude? What they share is a desperate anxiety to staunch free speech. A publicist should express no moral opinion in her own dubious work but a critic becomes specious when his moral claims are inconsistent. If Dart and Hoberman’s recriminations weren’t so offensive they would be hilarious. This needs to be noted in order to understand the deterioration of ethical standards in journalism and film culture. First, Dart’s objection to the perfectly apt “asshole” as a Baumbach description is laughable, considering she works in industries as famously, jovially vulgar as publicity and Hollywood. How else would one tag Stiller’s Greenberg, who personifies Baumbach’s own smug connoisseurship of pop culture (“You have to look past the kitsch”) and his insensitivity toward Florence (Greta Gerwig), the callow but sexually careless doormat he torments?

    The abortion uproar seems more serious, but it’s easily dismissed as a mere nit-picking gripe. Even if I had advised abortion (which I did not), fact is, abortion remains a hallmark of the privileged class that extols Baumbach. In fact, the casual acceptance of abortion is part of Greenberg’s plot. It’s practically an article of faith for these “liberals.” Can Hoberman and Dart’s objections to the very mention of abortion mean that they are, in fact, Pro-Life? (I remember Hoberman railing against Juno for choosing life while praising the Romanian abortion thriller 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days.) Can’t wait to see Hoberman and Dart defend their Pro-Life position on the Glenn Beck show.

    By going against one critic’s independence while protecting Baumbach’s petulant, supercilious filmmaking, Hoberman and Dart reveal their roles in the contemporary power structure (represented by casting Ben Stiller as an icon of the gentry). They want to normalize the arrogance of class privilege. Baumbach is not just their darling scion; he’s their unaborted poster-child. Baumbach’s movies pave the way for the elite to pass advantages on to their own progeny, to maintain the status quo.

    Hoberman’s film culture dominance exemplifies the nepotism and personal favors that rule the critical network in New York, if not across the country. Like some nefarious, shadowy dictator in a Fritz Lang silent, Hoberman’s influence (as NYU instructor to the Times’ Manohla Dargis and innumerable Internet clones) stretches from coast to coast, institution to institution. He’s the scoundrel-czar of contemporary film criticism. The way Hoberman misreads my “abortion” pun suggests that his literacy is as poor as his cinema-literacy. Such non-thinking contributes to the hostility now common in Internet-era media. The snarkiest people have the thinnest skins, yet are only protective of friends and themselves. Dart and Hoberman would prefer a film culture that caters to cronyism, always promoting “one of ours”—as when Baumbach’s post-grad employer The New Yorker allowed Bruce Dione, Baumbach’s former boss, to write the magazine’s positive review of Kicking and Screaming. That same dispensation happened with the media’s treatment of Mr. Jealousy, [The Squid and the Whale] and [Margot at the Wedding](http://www.nypress.com/article-17550-self-punishment.html).

    Stepping into this Greenberg controversy, Hoberman holds onto his pathetic, unexamined anger. It exposes the hidden conspiracy by him and his backward children (you know who you are) to control film discourse. They give Baumbach the acclaim and attention withheld from less well-connected indie filmmakers. Their defense of Baumbach disguises their reluctance to engage this writer in a forthright discussion of aesthetics; it’s basically a witch hunt.

    Well, not with me you don’t! As Chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle, I must rise above it. Hoberman’s despotic behavior blurs the line between criticism and gossip—as when disparaging Kael, relentlessly attacking Spielberg for opposing his own ethnic shibboleths or more recently giving traitorous praise to the movie Green Zone for encouraging insurrection in the American military. The pile-on and redaction by his acolytes concerning “L’Affaire Greenberg” (per Salon.com) is exactly what Communist cells do to anyone they disfavor. Hoberman and his (Georgia) brown shirts want to maintain the status quo. This is how fascists operate, attempting to besmirch opponents and write them out of history.

    It’s unfortunate to have to point out that it is also a racist lynching by white critics of a black critic. Fact: Year after year, Hoberman never even deigns to review movies with black subjects, and he passes this racist contempt on to his epigones. That’s hegemony. He’s also a force behind racist snobbery in the film festival circuit (which led to such cultural disasters as Precious, a New York Film Festival “Centerpiece Event” and critical favorite). To the unbiased, I am known as a critic who speaks truth to power; it will test our film culture’s commitment to democracy if I suffer reprisals for the freedom of speech expressed in this article.

    Capsule review: Greenberg is a mite less obnoxious than Baumbauch’s other films (better photographed, too: I liked Harris Savides’ image of Stiller barely swimming across a pool—possibly an homage to my joke that Baumbach was the rat at the bottom of Margot at the Wedding’s pool). Co-conceived with Baumbach’s talented wife Jennifer Jason Leigh, Greenberg continues Leigh’s filmography of masochistic females encountering sadistic males. It’s interesting to watch Greta Gerwig spar JJL-style with Stiller’s Baumbachian prick. I’ll probably be attacked for stating the obvious—that Greenberg seems to dramatize Leigh-Baumbach’s curious relationship—but that’s the film’s only point of interest. Its imitation of mumblecore’s boho nonchalance just seems more proof that Baumbach lacks inspiration and has made yet another vanity project.

    This Greenberg problem has had the unexpected effect of unleashing Hoberman’s small-minded vanity. He has such enmity for me he’d rather embarrass his profession than defend it. From his inherited hipster perch at the Village Voice, Hoberman sets a corrupt agenda for the blogosphere’s wannabes. It seems not to matter to these backward children that Hoberman lied and distorted, creating his own WMD. He resents that I am a challenge to his authority; the Hobermanbots fear lively critical dialogue; they all want control. But aspiring critics and mainstreamers won’t make a worthwhile contribution to film culture until they learn to think (and read and see and feel) for themselves.

    Don’t get it twisted: This Greenberg squabble is not about me, it’s about the contempt that the Leslee Darts of this world show toward critics and that Hoberman displays to competition. If they can do this to me, they can do it to you.