Goodbye, Cinema: On Jonathan Rosenbaum
By John LinganApril 17, 2013
GERALD PEARY’S DOCUMENTARY For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism is a lament for a supposedly endangered craft, but you wouldn’t know that from the large and opinionated crowd that gathered in March 2011 for its Washington, DC premiere. The National Gallery of Art hosted the event, with Peary, a longtime critic for the Boston Phoenix, in attendance for a post-screening Q&A. One of his guests was David Sterritt, late of The Christian Science Monitor and current chairman of the National Society of Film Critics, whom I’d met at a few Baltimore screenings during my lone stint as a beat movie reviewer in 2008 and 2009. But truly I was there to see the third speaker, the writer whose work I read most hungrily during that brief stretch of professional movie going.
Jonathan Rosenbaum had just published his 10th essay collection, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia, which, like most of his previous books, is largely filled with pieces that first appeared in the Chicago Reader, where he served as the weekly movie critic from 1987 to 2008. Prior to that he wrote hundreds of reviews and festival reports for journals and magazines in the US, France, and England. Like his fellow white-haired white men Peary and Sterritt, Rosenbaum was a relic on the East Building auditorium stage that day: born in the 1940s, writing professionally on movies since the hothouse days when Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris convinced Americans that film was something worth arguing about. When the lights came up and the three took their seats in front of the empty screen, they were clearly meant to perform a howl of pain.
It could be no other way. For the Love of Movies is a grim tale of extinction, in which Peary guides the audience through the marquee names in American movie writing from Frank E. Woods to Harry Knowles before asking us to mourn the dozens of critics who have lost their jobs since the recession began. Throughout the film, headshots of former critics flash like a succession of milk carton children. And in a final gesture that no other audience member seemed to find as comically melodramatic as I did, the final credits rolled over a contemporary rendition of Stephen Foster’s Civil War–era ballad for the downtrodden, “Hard Times Come Again No More.”
Ten minutes into the Q&A, Rosenbaum pushed back against Peary’s negativity, as I expected he might. When the moderator suggested that nonprofessional film bloggers lack a proper appreciation for the history of cinema, Rosenbaum declared, “To be quite frank, the whole time I’ve been involved in film criticism, I’ve never understood what the difference is between professionalism and amateurs. There are people in positions of great authority who know very little about film, and people who are considered amateurs who know a great deal.”
Rosenbaum’s career has been marked by this disregard for accepted hierarchies. In London in the early 1970s, he reviewed everything from the British Film Institute’s revivals to soft-core porn movies. At the Reader, he paid equal attention to the multiplex, art houses, and museum programming. And, in response to the American Film Institute’s 1998 list of the “100 Greatest American Movies,” Rosenbaum published his own top 100, which included experimental works and documentaries alongside lush Hollywood moneymakers like An Affair to Remember. “If these lists have any purpose at all from our standpoint (as opposed to the interests of the merchandisers),” he argued:
this is surely to rouse us out of our boredom and stupor, not to ratify our already foreshortened definitions and perspectives. Above all, the impulse to provide another list is to defend the breadth, richness, and intelligence of the American cinema against its self-appointed custodians, who seem to want to lock us into an eternity of Oscar nights.
Addressing Peary on the National Gallery stage, Rosenbaum said, “My biggest problem with [For the Love of Movies] is you focused too much on American film criticism,” eliciting a mild gasp from the crowd for spoiling the heretofore united front. Peary made the reasonable defense that his limited budget and running time didn’t allow him the luxury of a global view, but Rosenbaum had mounted one of his favorite hobbyhorses and wasn’t about to dismount.
“The great possibility of the Internet is its internationalism,” he continued. Few critics Rosenbaum’s age have embraced this “great possibility” so forcefully. He spoke admiringly of the young, unpaid writers and unprofitable web magazines that, in the liveliness of their thought and content, often eclipse even hallowed print journals like Film Comment or Sight & Sound.
Like most movie critics, including Peary and Sterritt, Rosenbaum publishes a personal website. Jonathanrosenbaum.com launched as part of his retirement package in May 2008, when Rosenbaum was 65, and he’s spent the last five years steadily archiving his old work there. To his own surprise, he’s amassed a small but loyal and far-flung following by simply digitizing his own archives. Rosenbaum estimates he’s published “well over 8,300 items since the late ’60s,” and he continues to write. So three to five times a week, a “new” piece appears online, featuring Rosenbaum’s characteristically enormous paragraphs in small type on a brown background. Most of the essays are illustrated by stills that Rosenbaum finds by scouring the web. (He graciously includes female nudity whenever possible.) This homemade HTML affair is one of the great film sites on the Internet: a regularly updated, nonchronological tour through a four-decade career and one of the most movie-soaked brains in existence.
Rosenbaum’s current popularity isn’t only a matter of his personal style or his newfound ability to reach more readers than at a paper alt-weekly. For decades he’s criticized the collusion of big business and film criticism, and proselytized for multi-region DVD players so that viewers can see the wealth of films that remain out of print in America. Rosenbaum is one of our keenest observers of contemporary “film culture,” and has written about the experience of contemporary moviegoing better than anyone I know. In a 2007 essay, “Film Writing on the Web: Some Personal Reflection,” he noted:
[W]e’re living in a transitional period where enormous paradigmatic shifts should be engendering new concepts, new terms, and new kinds of analysis, evaluation, and measurement, not to mention new kinds of political and social formations […] But in most cases they aren’t doing any of those things. We’re stuck with vocabularies and patterns of thinking that are still tied to the ways we were watching movies half a century ago.
Today, “when someone says, ‘I just saw a film,’” he explains, “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.” While other critics refer to the sanctity of old-fashioned movie reviewing, Rosenbaum recognizes that film as a concept is shifting. He may be retired and celebrating his 70th birthday this year, but in many ways, film culture has finally caught up with Jonathan Rosenbaum.
Early in the Q&A at the National Gallery, Rosenbaum pulled a scrap of paper from his pocket and enumerated his website’s traffic statistics for the previous month: 59,475 page views from 43,816 visitors who speak 107 languages and live in 155 different countries and territories. While the vast majority of his readers are American, Rosenbaum was clearly elated and humbled by his own reach. He once wrote that he feels like “someone who […] lives on the Internet more than he lives in Chicago,” and onstage he echoed that sentiment. “It’s a stateless community I live in,” he said. He sounded relieved, as if he’d been searching for such a community all his life.
At the time, Rosenbaum was in the middle of a yearlong teaching post at Virginia Commonwealth University, the result of an invitation from independent filmmaker and VCU faculty member Rob Tregenza, whose movies Rosenbaum had championed in the Reader. I traveled to Richmond on a Tuesday afternoon to attend his class, “Art History 474: World Cinema of the ’60s,” which, in true Rosenbaum fashion, included a handful of American movies. “America is part of the world, after all,” he explained.
The film that week was 1966’s Red Angel. A mid-career work by the prolific but critically unexplored Japanese director Yasuzo Masumura, it was a characteristic choice for Rosenbaum, whose critical identity, more than any aesthetic criteria, rests on his breadth of interest. Introducing the film to the dozen-odd sleepy-looking undergraduates who dotted the tiny lecture hall, Rosenbaum forewent a detailed analysis of the movie and instead recounted the considerable effort he’d made to see 40 of Masumura’s 58 features, most of which are unavailable in the US. It was a fanatical pursuit involving unsubtitled foreign DVDs, a Japanese-speaking friend who translated many films in real time, and a grant to study Masumura at the University of Tokyo. In “Discovering Yasuzo Masumura: Reflections on Work in Progress,” an essay he wrote about this continued obsession, Rosenbaum says, “A belief that I encounter frequently nowadays — tied to the more general myth that the cinema is dead — is the melancholy conviction that all the important discoveries in film history have already been made.” Masumura’s neglected and varied career proved otherwise, and Rosenbaum responded with glee.
Red Angel is an epically bleak film, the story of a war nurse stationed in a filthy battlefront hospital where her job consists of divvying out painkillers and easing soldiers into a much-longed-for death. She mercifully masturbates one quadriplegic patient and develops an intense relationship with him, all while carrying on a miserable affair with her commander. It’s not the kind of thing that shows up in most film survey courses, but it wasn’t Rosenbaum’s mission to give students a sampler of the most well known films of a certain era; instead he wanted to air his obsessions out a little, and hopefully convey the pleasure of traveling down a rabbit hole.
Rosenbaum narrated his story while standing midway up the hall’s steps. His reedy, insistent voice retained no trace of his Southern upbringing. He also didn’t bother to make regular eye contact with any of his students, instead staring forward at nothing in particular, his head angled just slightly upwards. Eventually I realized it was the same position as the audience in a movie theater.
He’s known that pose his whole life. Rosenbaum grew up in Florence, Alabama, where his grandfather opened one of the region’s first movie theaters in 1915. By the time “Jonny” was born, the single theater had become a chain, and his literature-loving father had taken over the family business. Rosenbaum spent thousands of hours in the family theaters, not only watching films from the seats, but catching bits and pieces of them as he dipped in and out of the theaters with his dad during the nighttime business rounds. He prowled the catwalks, back rooms, and offices with his three brothers, seeing most films multiple times.
Rosenbaum claims to have seen nearly every commercially released movie of the 1950s, perhaps the most varied and gee-whiz decade in Hollywood history but also the one when foreign films achieved their first toehold in the States. It was a decade of VistaVision and CinemaScope, melodramas and musicals, as well as the first Oscar for Best Foreign Film (awarded to Federico Fellini’s La Strada). That variety seems to have marked Rosenbaum for life. His only other course that semester at VCU was “World Cinema of the ’50s,” where some of his most beloved American directors (Tashlin, Ford, Minnelli, Ray) were featured alongside Carl Theodor Dreyer, Alain Resnais, Fellini, and Jean Cocteau.
Rosenbaum has written often about his formative family business, particularly in his first book, Moving Places, which was for many years — until his friend Roger Ebert’s 2011 book Life Itself — the only proper memoir ever written by an American film critic. Moving Places is also the most literarily ambitious work of nominal film criticism I’ve ever read; in structure and prose style it’s more in the tradition of Dos Passos or Faulkner than André Bazin. Throughout his life story Rosenbaum weaves an extended argument for film criticism not as a place to establish a lasting pantheon, but as a mutable art unto itself:
Why regard the work as a duty, an obstacle, a target to attack? How can my subject be solid when half of it is me, the other half an external object, and memory has intervened to confuse any firm notion of barriers in between us? How can the movie and I be regarded as discrete entities — the implied presumption of most criticism — when each of us is undergoing constant fluctuations, perceptual shifts of mood and tone and focus, both individually and collectively, with each unreeling?
Reflecting later on Moving Places, Rosenbaum wrote that
where and when one is viewing a movie has an inextricable relation to what that movie means, and that consequently no meanings should ever be regarded as universal or eternal. To put it more simply, [writing the memoir] forced me to realize that moviegoing — and therefore film criticism — is a social act.
I’d asked Rosenbaum for an interview during my visit, so after his students shuffled out he gathered his laptop and DVDs and said he knew the perfect place. It was warm outside, and VCU was about to play in its first-ever Final Four game, so the main campus was filled with triumphant T-shirts and hand-painted signs. I joked that he brought good luck to campus with him.
“It reminds me of Chicago,” he said. “That’s one of my favorite things about a real sports town: since I couldn’t care less that means I get more work done.”
He led the way to a corner diner where the server smiled at him familiarly. We sat in a booth by the window, and he ordered a huge burger with fries that he proceeded to drown in mayonnaise. I asked what it was like to teach long-term again, something he hadn’t done for years.
Though he was dismayed to see a Starbucks in the library, he’d found the film majors “much more impressive” than in his earlier teaching stints. “But I’m sometimes shocked at the naïveté of some of the students,” he said. “They expect that they won’t have to read. The quality of American education has always been low, but I think it’s getting worse.”
I was curious about his own education, specifically his initial intention to be a literary writer rather than a film critic.
“Well, when I was very young I assumed I would go into the family business,” he explained, and I tried for a minute to think of this proudly global-minded aesthete crunching numbers for a chain business near Muscle Shoals. The image isn’t far from the one he draws of his own father in Moving Places. The elder Rosenbaum seemed to take the eventual bankruptcy of the theaters as a gift, and went back to teaching college literature courses. Rosenbaum himself wrote three novels. The first two were “versions of the same book” — a multigenerational family saga based on his own father and grandfather. The third was an experimental novel about the advertising industry — “not something I harbor a lot of affection for,” he told me.
“When I wrote Moving Places,” he continued, “I was naïve enough to think, ‘This is my detox journal. From now on I’m going to be a literary writer.’ But I couldn’t make a living outside of film criticism. I spent a decade in the wilderness. That was 1977 to ’87. It was a mad scramble, finding whatever I could.”
The Reader was his third regular reviewing job, and the first to offer him the chance to indulge the critical-personal notions he’d put forth in the memoir. After a few years he was granted unlimited space and encouraged to write personally. “Most editors don’t like you to say ‘I’ all the time,” he explained. “But everything people do is always subjective. It’s just whether they acknowledge that or not.”
It wasn’t until the Reader put all of his reviews online that Rosenbaum felt he achieved a reputation as a writer. “I went from being a lesser-known, obscure figure to being a slightly better-known one. I feel like I have a constituency now.”
I knew from his autobiographical writing that Rosenbaum’s family had its share of dramas and difficulties — his mother was committed to a mental institution for a time — but for the most part he had a comfortable, loving childhood. He in fact grew up in the Rosenbaum House, one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s signature works, built on commission for the movie king of Florence himself, Grandpa Stanley. “I was way too sheltered growing up,” he said, swirling his fries in mayo. “People came from all over the world to visit our house. My grandfather was well-to-do, but my father worked all his life. We were middle class but uneasy. My father didn’t feel secure. It was very traumatic when I left.”
He attended the prestigious Putney School in Vermont, where his friends included Wallace Shawn. It was eye-opening to live up north, but not in the way he’d expected. “This was the late ’50s, and I wanted to go to a big civil rights demonstration in Brattleboro. But my teachers wouldn’t bring me along because of my accent. I suffered much more being a white Southerner than I ever did being Jewish.” He paused. “Because in Alabama, I was protected.”
Next Rosenbaum attended Bard College, where he occasionally played jazz piano with his classmates Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, the future founders of Steely Dan. He attempted grad school at SUNY at Stony Brook, “mainly for draft-dodging,” but left for Europe before finishing. In London, then in Paris, he reviewed films and wrote festival reports, and also enjoyed his first extended time in world-class movie cultures. In the French capital he fell into a short, unfruitful professional partnership with one of his favorite filmmakers, Jacques Tati.
“He hired me to be a script consultant for a project called Confusion,” Rosenbaum said, though the job mainly required sitting in Tati’s office while the peerless physical comedian riffed on different social conventions. “I worked for him about a week, and nothing got done.”
It was the early 1970s and Tati was still reeling from the infamous box office failure of his 1967 masterpiece, Playtime, which Rosenbaum has repeatedly called his favorite movie. In fact Playtime might be the key to understanding his entire worldview. Tati is one of cinema’s greatest and most poetic utopians. His six films are all farcical, nearly wordless comedies where the jokes are all gestural and behavioral. To film Playtime, Tati built a mini-Paris on the real city’s outskirts, and brought in a cast of hundreds to act out some of the most extravagantly choreographed scenes ever shot. The film is a satire of humanity’s persistent desire to enclose itself in ever more “modern” systems — high-tech buildings, needlessly complex social rituals, overwrought luxury experiences — as well as a celebration of our capacity to break through those barriers and connect more organically.
Rosenbaum first saw Playtime “in ideal circumstances — as an American tourist in Paris” in 1968, a year of student protests and a general workers’ strike. The film’s 40-minute climactic scene, involving the gradual and cathartic destruction of a stuffy restaurant, was a powerful prophecy for the Paris riots of that year, though perhaps too whimsical and slapstick to play as a political rallying cry. “Even after all these years the film still teaches me how to live in cities — specifically, how to read disconnected visual and aural signals in clusters that are counterbalanced and comically orchestrated,” Rosenbaum has written. “In this alienating landscape everyone is a tourist, but Tati suggests that once we can find one another, we all belong.”
I recently sent Rosenbaum an email asking why he, like most critics, invariably rendered the title Playtime, one word, despite its clear spelling as two in the main credits. Serendipitously, he was at work on a series of essays for a forthcoming book about Tati, and this exact discussion had been taking place with his editors. The official word from Tati’s estate had come back not long ago: the movie was to be referred to as PlayTime, a spelling I’d never seen. At least it’s a compromise, I wrote.
“I don’t consider it a compromise of any sort,” he replied, pointed as ever. “What arguably makes it better than either Playtime or Play Time is that it clarifies the fact that it isn’t an English title but one in franglais, which, as Tati clarified in interviews, was part of his point — a point that gets completely lost if you simply assume that it’s an English title, as most Americans do.”
There are now more movies available to viewers in their living rooms than even the most cinema-obsessed Londoner or Parisian could have seen in the 1960s and ’70s. And critical opinion is no less voluminous, an endless feed of blogs, Twitter accounts, databases, reviews, stars, thumbs, and tomatoes to guide us through this incomparably vast film universe.
If there is a purpose to film criticism in this new landscape, it is foremost a literary and intellectual one. At their best, critics can use film to evince a multifaceted observation of the kind Rosenbaum makes in his essay “Scopophilia,” from 1988. In this ostensible review of the little-seen Kon Ichikawa masterpiece An Actor’s Revenge (spurred, as these things were once required to be, by the appearance of that film in a Chicago revival house), he notes that Japanese directors’ expressiveness with the widescreen CinemaScope format mirrors the country’s preference for horizontal architecture. “I have often traced much of my own love for the ’Scope frame,” he pivots:
back to the fact that I was fortunate enough to have grown up in a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Alabama that is very horizontal and Japanese-influenced. In the same connection, it is worth noting that the most accomplished ’Scope director in Hollywood during the 50s was Nicholas Ray, a former student of Wright who often spoke about this “horizontal” influence.
I love this web of references and comparisons, the way this paragraph flies us from Tokyo to Florence and from building facades to movie screens. While I might never read all of Rosenbaum’s work, his sensibility and learnedness are inspiring, regardless of what I find myself writing about. I can’t think of many writers who have written so prolifically across so many areas of knowledge during my lifetime (or who were as unabashedly, unhysterically liberal even at the height of post-9/11 vengeance-lust).
The man remains busy. In the first half of this year he’s headed to Mexico, Berlin, and Sarajevo for teaching and festival engagements, including a class at a new filmmaking school run by Hungarian director Béla Tarr. Jonathan Rosenbaum simply goes wherever serious movies are being discussed, and remains a Chicagoan for sheer convenience, a Jew by ethnic technicality, and a Southerner by accident of birth. But in many ways he’s still that sheltered theater-owner’s son, stealing from screen to screen in search of the world.
John Lingan’s writing has appeared in The Morning News, The Point, 7Stops, The Quarterly Conversation, and many other venues. He’s working on a memoir about becoming a father during college.
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