Viewing Conditions: On Jonathan Rosenbaum
Not long ago, I received a package from a person I have never met. Inside I found no message—only the initials “JLG” scrawled on a DVD-R, and though I’m no die-hard Godardian, I recognized the object as a totem designed to set my small-town cinephile’s heart aflutter. Jean-Luc Godard’s newest polyglot provocation, Film Socialisme, had recently premiered at the Cannes Film Festival with what the director called “Navajo subtitling”: the French, Spanish, Afrikaans, German, Russian and Hebrew dialogue wasn’t so much translated as chiseled into emphatic bullet points and invented compound words. Convinced that the potentially final feature from the late twentieth century’s most influential auteur deserved a more lucid presentation, one film critic in Berlin sweated out a more scrupulous set of English subtitles, and another in Texas worked to preserve the stereo separation on Godard’s typically layered soundtrack. Responding to a bulletin on a social networking site announcing the availability on DVD of their improved version of Film Socialisme, I sent out an e-mail, and in lieu of a reply I received a FedEx. I’m not the only beneficiary: at some point I’m supposed to forward the disc to a guy in Nebraska. Like I said, film socialism.
This low-stakes conspiracy of shared passion shouldn’t ruffle Godard, an artist so opposed in spirit to the idea of intellectual property that he recently donated 1,000 euros toward the defense of an accused Internet pirate. (His French distributor uploaded an unsubtitled version of Film Socialisme online earlier this year.) Presumably each of my faceless co-conspirators would have shelled out $20 to see the movie projected at the New York Film Festival, had we not been trapped in the hinterlands by the exigencies of fate. This is all to say that Susan Sontag, consummate Manhattanite, had it wrong in her 1996 essay “The Decay of Cinema”: “Perhaps it is not cinema that has ended but only cinephilia.” If the ardor of film culture were dead, movie piracy wouldn’t matter. I imagine that if Sontag had been exiled to Peoria after developing a taste for Bela Tarr, she would have found a way back to Satantango through sheer force of will, some well-connected friends or a high-speed wireless setup.
Sontag’s high-cultural lament wasn’t just imprecise but exactly backward. As Jonathan Rosenbaum argues, without undue nostalgia, in Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia—a scattershot, free-associational collection of position papers, eulogies, knocks at the Bush administration and reconsiderations of noncanonical films, all previously published elsewhere—the most obvious reason why the golden age of filmgoing feels long past is that no one can quite agree what film means anymore. “It’s a central aspect of our alienated relation to language that when someone says ‘I just saw a film,’ we don’t know whether this person saw something on a large screen with hundreds of other people or alone on a laptop—or whether what he or she saw was on film, video, or DVD, regardless of where and how it was seen.”
This is not a groundbreaking or sophisticated argument. The question “Qu’est-ce que le cinéma?” has troubled every chin-stroking film theorist since Andre Bazin, and a vocal legion of mostly young Internet-based cinephiles have pragmatically asserted that laptops will serve as the twenty-first-century equivalent of the Cinémathèque Française. In this case, what emboldens this inquiry is not the message but the messenger. The 67-year-old Rosenbaum, recently retired after twenty years as the weekly critic at the Chicago Reader, was during that same period the most discriminating, confrontational, iconoclastic and respected American film reviewer writing under a weekly deadline for a mainstream readership. He’s a trusted voice and an elder statesman, and I can’t think of a more judicious arbiter of what young movie obsessives should be able to sacrifice in the name of cinephilia.
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With limited editorial interference at the Reader, Rosenbaum seized an opportunity to subvert crass commercialism by simply devoting more attention to alternative fare than to the week’s prepackaged “important” movies. But in Rosenbaum’s dialectic, alternative doesn’t necessarily mean independent, and polemic takes precedence over literary style. The week Saving Private Ryan opened, Rosenbaum denounced its apparent patriotic warmongering and devoted most of his review to a four-star consecration of Joe Dante’s Small Soldiers, “a trenchant satire masquerading as a summer kids’ movie that’s rude enough to suggest that the emotions and fancies underlying the make-believe war games boys like to play are not so different from the sentiments and fabrications underlying real wars.” Counterpoint is Rosenbaum’s métier; his personal film canons, as compiled and developed in his books Movie Wars and Essential Cinema, were first drafted in opposition to the American Film Institute’s staid and parochial “100 Years…100 Movies” list. It was no surprise that upon Ingmar Bergman’s death, the New York Times turned to Rosenbaum for an unsentimental dissenting opinion on the auteur’s body of work.
Ever focused on the materiality of the medium and the vagaries of the marketplace, Rosenbaum is not merely a leftist but a globalist: if names like Abbas Kiarostami, Jia Zhangke or Ousmane Sembene mean anything to you, it’s likely you have Rosenbaum to thank. His interest in the economics of distribution and the xenophobia of the “media-industrial complex,” not to mention his well-argued distaste for the work of Woody Allen, likely derives from his vantage point as a Second City critic; while the best films of the international festival crop used to be guaranteed weeklong runs in New York City, those films migrate to the proverbial “other markets” only if they can turn a profit. Chicago isn’t Peoria, but it isn’t far away.
An emphasis on viewing conditions and historicity is evident in Rosenbaum’s earliest writings: “Subjectivity in critical writing is never something to be avoided—to try to do so is merely to make one’s self the passive victim of its complex operations—but always something to be defined and accounted for.” Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia obliges with an ambitious essay about the effects of marijuana on the movies, an update of an earlier piece published in 1985 in High Times. Yes, dope invigorated the brain waves of certain late-’60s auteurs, and revolutionized criticism as well; many remember Andrew Sarris’s initial dismissal of 2001: A Space Odyssey as “a thoroughly uninteresting failure” and his subsequent, comparably rapturous revisiting of the film “under the influence of a smoked substance…somewhat stronger and more authentic than oregano.” But for Rosenbaum the sociological inquiry leads elsewhere. He tracks “The Movie as Trip” from a tribally shared collective pastime—exemplified by the 1968 release of Yellow Submarine—to the “more private and individualized experience in the eighties and early nineties…as grass smoking gradually returned to the living room, bedroom, and bathroom.” The stoner movies became more insulated and insular. “Compare 2010 to 2001, The Cotton Club to Singin’ in the Rain, Dune to Forbidden Planet, Gimme Shelter to Woodstock: in each case the social context becomes narrower while the individual head-trip looms larger.”
Though his marijuana research sounds unempirical, Rosenbaum is an absolute historical materialist. While championing a low-budget film, he’s as likely to emphasize the advertising budget of a contemporaneous mainstream movie as to single out the qualities of an actor’s performance. Economics forms an element of style, and in Rosenbaum reviews such considerations regularly stray from what’s on the screen. Every film critic is the target of studio advertising, and Rosenbaum (who never hesitates to judge the complacency of “most critics”) regularly acknowledges its corrosive effect. Responding to an aggressive and tasteless ad campaign for the morbid jigsaw puzzle 21 Grams (2003), he wrote: “I assume that if Focus Features were also capable of determining and then inserting the exact moments of our own deaths inside an inflated, transparent plastic bag, complete with a tie-in to the title of their film, they’d be sending that along to us members of the press as well, and probably gift-wrapping it in the bargain.” Paradoxically, he’s a movie formalist who doesn’t worship cinema as an independent entity; film, history, politics and commerce are impossible to separate, and film criticism ideally finds ways to enumerate the links. “I can’t see much purpose,” he wrote, “in commemorating movies whose prime aim seems to be to make me forget the world outside the theater.” He turned a week-of-release review of The Flintstones (1994) into a wide-ranging disquisition on “the moral and philosophical chaos lying at the heart of such light entertainment,” beginning with the Société Film d’Art in 1908 France. He treats no piece of outside information as irrelevant. Just because I haven’t found a Rosenbaum review in which he lays out for the reader, in scrupulous detail, how much money he makes and how he spends it does not mean such a review does not exist.
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There’s an element of intellectual biography to everything Rosenbaum writes. (A bona fide autobiography, Moving Places, was published in 1980 and is out of print.) Born into cinephilia as the son and grandson of Jewish film exhibitors in northwestern Alabama, he saw a half-dozen movies per week until leaving for boarding school in Vermont in 1959. Ten years later, after a short stint in graduate school, he moved to Paris, surrendered to a heady swirl of kino-lust and Marxism and began contributing pieces to The Village Voice and Film Comment. (The young man’s take on Gravity’s Rainbow can be found somewhere in the Voice archives.) An apprentice with unusually discerning tastes, the kid got around. He worked as an assistant to Jacques Tati, appeared as an extra for Robert Bresson and adapted a J.G. Ballard novel into a screenplay that he unsuccessfully shopped to Susan Sontag.
It’s Rosenbaum’s Southern childhood as much as his Gallic sophistication that informs his career-long critique of American exceptionalism, and accounts for much of his best writing. His understanding of John Ford’s early masterpiece The Sun Shines Bright (1953) is bound up in his own region-specific memory. Judge Priest’s patronizing courtroom treatment of U.S. Grant Woodford, a young black banjo player wrongly accused of raping a white girl, reminds Rosenbaum of the way “my grandfather once cussed out a black male servant who worked for him when he discovered that he’d been duped by a loan shark—treating him in the most demeaning way possible, as if he were a stupid child, and then calling up the loan shark with threats and more abuse in order to extricate the servant from his highly exploitative debts.” Rosenbaum digs even deeper into the memory trove when reviewing a film he hates; his evisceration of the simple-minded and revisionist civil rights fantasy Mississippi Burning (1988) is a master class in the employment of personal rage and historical consciousness in popular criticism.
Rosenbaum’s sense of place is intact, even if he has a new home. “I live on the internet,” he has said elsewhere. In his book he explains that “Part of our problem in assessing our new conditions is a bad habit of often assuming by reflex that they’re either bad or good—which is about as futile as arriving at such a simplistic conclusion about globalization.” He’s not an evangelist, in other words, for the Internet’s modes of exchange, but he seems perfectly willing to engage with the experiment. For one thing, he freely admits to downloading undistributed (and out-of-print) movies. His no-frills personal website serves as a repository for old reviews and occasional notes, and though he hasn’t migrated to blogging like some of his estimable peers, Rosenbaum periodically posts comments on other blogs, lending the format some legitimacy by his mere presence. Rosenbaum is so unpretentious a participant in the web’s tribal community that, until recently, one could find brand-new Rosenbaum columns on something called DVDBeaver.com. He also indulges the web’s appetite for full disclosure: he now admits that a fawning review of his Moving Places, published in Film Comment by an unknown hack named Nancy Rothstein, was his handiwork, written with “mercenary, or at least self-promotional” motives. (A common practice, he assures us, that had his editor’s full support.)
The final pages of Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia discuss Cal Arts professor Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself, a superlative three-hour essay film that seems to have internalized all of Rosenbaum’s political and formal concerns. Because Andersen’s movie, a class-conscious social history of Southern California as well as a radical act of cinephilia, is composed almost entirely of unlicensed clips from hundreds of movies that use the city as a backdrop, it can never be officially released on DVD. I was born and raised in Los Angeles—no one who sits through Andersen’s documentary can ever call it “LA” again—and this breathtaking “city symphony in reverse” upset so many of my own faulty sociological assumptions, uncovered so many neglected and marginalized spaces, that a hand seemed to be reaching out beyond the screen to tear the veil from my eyes. The international marketplace will continue to trivialize what movies (and criticism) can do, but Rosenbaum and Andersen recognize that any screen, no matter the size, has the potential to sharpen our focus. “By changing our relationship to both his title city and the movies filmed there, Andersen alters our options both as moviegoers and Americans,” Rosenbaum writes. “The very fact that he dares to see a relation between these two identities may be his boldest step of all.”