The VillageVoice was the thing to read in the nineteen-seventies for anyone devoted to informed and passionately elbows-out arts criticism and relentless, uncowed local political reporting. Film criticism was the thing to do for an aspiring filmmaker, which I was—especially for one whose prime reference was the French New Wave, a group of directors who’d started out as precociously flamboyant critics. The Daily Princetonian was a good serious newspaper, where criticism (I wrote a little of it there) was held to the same tone of authoritative earnestness as, I’d have said, the New York Timesenforced; I found it an uneasy fit for the movies I loved and the way that I loved them.
One day around exam time in the spring of 1979, as I was paying for a book at the U-Store, the guy on line ahead of me introduced himself. His name was Robert Faggen ‘82; he mentioned that he was starting a weekly newspaper in the vein of the Voice—a blend of investigative reporting and arts journalism—and asked if I’d like to edit the movies section. I instantly, heedlessly, but admiringly agreed, and then didn’t hear from him again. . .
. . .until, arriving on campus that fall for my senior year, hanging around socially during Freshman Week, I got a call from Bob saying that there’d be a meeting on Sunday night. A meeting? Of what? He reminded me what I’d agreed to do. I curiously and somewhat dubiously went, and I was instantly awed by the student-journalistic sophistication that filled the room—mostly Press Club members, who actually got published in the Timesand other papers of national note. The roster of my colleagues in the founding group of editors and writers at the Nassau Weekly is a historic generation of journalists and writers about to emerge, including David Remnick ‘81, Marc Fisher ‘80, Alex Wolff ‘79, Lisa Belkin ‘82, Robert Wright ‘79, and Todd Purdum ‘82, all brought together by Bob’s preternaturally clear-eyed ambitions. I was deeply impressed—and wondered what in the world I could contribute to what they’d be doing there.
There I was, a movie nut with little journalistic experience but a sense that—at least when it came to criticism—the conventions of journalism itself were a hidebound inhibition to inventive critical expression on the same level as the art that it addressed. Brashly bursting with the new French criticism that, then making early inroads into the Comp Lit department, was busy killing off the author in order to let the critic take its place—and that brought the heavy weaponry of Marx, Freud, and Heidegger to the fight—I figured that the Nassau Weekly, with its collectively wide-open curiosity and spirit of self-motivated discovery, would be an apt vanguard of critical experimentation. To my great delight, my colleagues were game; to my retrospective shame, I indulged these and other critical caprices shamelessly. My own activity (unlike the impressively, responsibly substantial work that other Nassau Weekly writers and editors were doing) was a model of what not to do, a cautionary example of a perfect storm of academic misconstrual and performative passion.
If my enthusiastic experiments were failures, others (I’m thinking, for instance, of David Remnick’s full-page exegesis of the life and work of Bob Dylan, and of Robert Wright’s advice column, under the name of “Uncle Bob”) were resounding successes. (Another bit of exotica that I recall was a collaboration with Cynthia Tougas ‘83 on a two-page, collage-like batch of riffs and images on “The Death of Disco,” eighteen years ahead of Whit Stillman’s great film “The Last Days of Disco.”) The Nassau Weekly survived and thrived despite such playfulness thanks to the wisdom and acumen of the more experienced student journalists and the courageously devoted staff on the business side who kept one eye idealistically on the long haul and the other closely focused on the needs of the day.
My admiration for my colleagues went together with some strong and enduring new friendships and some related exploits, which (resisting the temptation to name names) included Sunday-evening strategizing over freshly-baked calzones at Victor’s on Nassau Street, first puffs of cigarettes when we found a pack left behind on a table, a jaunt to Hunter College in January, 1980, for a viewing of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s seven-hour-long film “Our Hitler.” Nassau Weekly, launched by Bob Faggen’s extraordinary foresight and sure yet easy management, was held together by a sense of shared purpose, an ideal of journalism as an open field of possibilities in which personal discovery and social progress went hand-in-hand. The adventures of its creation in that first year were reflected in the energies and emotions in its pages; it set for me a prime model of the meaning of a labor of love.