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.