Interview with Matthew Asprey Gear

 Published in Contrappasso, coedited by Matthew Asprey Gear and Noel King, in 2015. — J.R.

CONTRAPPASSO

AN INTERVIEW WITH

JONATHAN ROSENBAUM

Matthew Asprey Gear

JONATHAN ROSENBAUM is one of the most respected film critics in the United States. His many books include Moving Places: A Life in the Movies (1980/1995), Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (1995), Movies as Politics (1997), Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films You See (2000), Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons (2004), and Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinéphilia: Film Culture in Transition (2010).

Rosenbaum has also been a lifelong champion of Orson Welles. Many of his writings on Welles are collected in Discovering Orson Welles (2007). He also edited and annotated This Is Orson Welles (1992/1998), an assembly of the legendary Peter Bogdanovich-Orson Welles interviews.

This brief conversation for Contrappasso, an update on Rosenbaum’s recent activities, was conducted by email in early 2015.

 

ASPREY GEAR: Jonathan, you retired from your position as film critic at the Chicago Reader in 2008. You now teach, write as a freelancer, and republish your voluminous archive at www.jonathanrosenbaum.net. How have your priorities changed since 2008?

ROSENBAUM: I’m no longer a regular reviewer, and therefore I no longer have to keep up with current releases and see films that I don’t want to see (the majority of what I was seeing at the Reader). So I can spend more of my time seeing or reseeing older films. Otherwise, my priorities are more or less the same.

ASPREY GEAR: Your regular column for Cinema-Scope is called ‘Global Discoveries on DVD’. It’s a broad survey of releases in disc formats, many of which escape notice in the US or are (ineffectually) blocked by regional coding. It’s clearly a great time to be a cinéphile. I speak as somebody whose burgeoning cinéphilia in mid-90s Australia was frustrated by an almost total blackout on non-English language cinema. One of our few sources of foreign language cinema was the then-great public broadcaster SBS, itself only accessible with a UHF antenna. How antiquated! Now we live in a mediascape of subscription streaming services (and VPNs to circumvent geoblocking), illegal bit torrents, YouTube. We’ve gone from scarcity to overabundance. You seem to keep up with nearly everything. Can you comment on these technological changes and its impact on film viewing? And can you tell me what have been your major discoveries of recent years? In other words, what should we be watching?

ROSENBAUM: I couldn’t and wouldn’t ever dare to claim I was able to keep up with “nearly everything”; the most I can ever hope to do is expand the radar a little, according to my own research and tips. And the only way I could recount my major discoveries would be to refer readers to my “Global Discoveries” columns [1] and to my web site, where hopefully they can make their own discoveries and not simply recapitulate mine.

ASPREY GEAR: What kind of communication do you receive from readers of your blog and columns, and how does the conversation differ from the letters and emails you received at the Reader?

ROSENBAUM: Mostly it’s more specialized. I get lots of queries on a daily basis, only some of which I can answer.

ASPREY GEAR: David Cronenberg recently denounced the increasing importance of bloggers and other self-appointed film critics, and that this phenomenon has “diluted” the role of the “legitimate critic.” He speaks as a filmmaker. How do you respond to this comment as a professional critic?

ROSENBAUM: It all depends on what one means by “legitimate”. My own experience tells me that institutional power has little relation to what I regard as legitimacy. If Cronenberg is saying that being appointed by the New Yorker or the New York Times is more legitimate than being self-appointed, one has to ask, “Legitimate for whom and for what?” Of course there are lots of ill-informed bloggers around, but there are also arguably just as many ill-informed staff reviewers, even if they’re more apt to know how to compose a sentence. For instance, Jeannette Catsoulis’s irresponsible and ill-informed review of Chuck Workman’s Magician [2], probably the best documentary about Welles that I’ve seen, is in all respects inferior to Dustin Chang’s review of the same film  on Twitchfilm [3], and I’m not only referring to evaluation here but to some intelligent grasp of the issues posed by the film. This is just one more or less random example of what I mean, but it would be easy to find many others.

ASPREY GEAR: I look forward to Workman’s documentary. Simplifications and outright errors have plagued most discussion of Orson Welles’ career in the mainstream American media. You’ve been a stalwart champion of facts over myth. What will be your role in the much trumpeted construction and release of Orson Welles’ long-lost and unfinished Other Side of the Wind?

ROSENBAUM: I’ve been asked to serve as a consultant on this project. So far this work has consisted only of a few exchanges with Filip Jan Rymsza, one of the producers, mostly involving discussion about several scripts and treatments; eventually it should involve seeing a rough cut. There are many voices and individuals involved in this work, and I see a major part of my role as representing and defending the viewpoint of Oja Kodar, as coauthor and lead actress. (Even the film’s title is hers, and, as I discovered a few years ago, on the basis on my own deductions, and then confirmed with Oja, she even directed one major sequence, but she’s been largely kept out of the loop, for a variety of reasons.)

ASPREY GEAR: Do you have anything to say about on the recent Sony Pictures hacking scandal and the studio’s prevarication on the release of Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen’s The Interview?

ROSENBAUM: Seeing the trailer of The Interview was enough for me; I had absolutely no interest in seeing the film. As an issue of free speech, I find the determination of many Americans to exalt in their ignorance about the rest of the world (as exemplified also by Argo) far less compelling than the determination of well-informed bloggers around the world to express themselves. The behavior of the studios is predictable and even less interesting  to me.

ASPREY GEAR: Can you tell me about your recent teaching activities? What are your objectives as a film educator?

ROSENBAUM: My most rewarding recent experiences as a teacher have been my three two-week sessions at Béla Tarr’s FilmFactory in Sarajevo, thanks to a wonderful community of students and filmmakers that’s exceptionally vibrant, creative, and noncompetitive, where my activity has been simply to show and discuss films—an extension of my work as a critic. [January 2017 footnote: I'm sorry to say that FilmFactory recently had to close in December 2016 due to financial problems, but there are plans afoot to reopen it elsewhere, most likely in Lisbon.] I also recently concluded a course open to the public at the School of the Art Institute and the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, a sort of abbreviated version of my month-long film series in Vienna a few years ago, “The Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S.,” where I had the advantage of being able to show 35mm prints and the disadvantage of having many more and less focused students. I was less happy teaching for a year at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, despite the exceptional energy and intelligence of Rob Tregenza in running their film program, because most of the students there were convinced that they could learn without reading anything.

 ASPREY GEAR: What transgressive comedies are on the program for ‘The Unquiet American’?

ROSENBAUM: Once again, you’re asking me to recapitulate and/or summarize my own work. I can only recommend that you either purchase the book or at least go to: www.jonathanrosenbaum.net/2009/10/introduction-some-noises-from-an-unquiet-american/

ASPREY GEAR: In 2014 you collaborated with Kevin B. Lee on Out 1: Solitaire, a video essay on Jacques Rivette’s 1971 serial—a very important film to you. How did that come about? What are your thoughts on the video essay as a form of film criticism, and will you will pursue that in the future?

ROSENBAUM: I can’t remember all the precise steps that led to Out 1: Solitaire, but the main factors included my friendships with Kevin and with Michelle Carey, director of the Melbourne International Film Festival, who launched and commissioned a series of video essays on Out 1. I’ve previously collaborated with Kevin on video essays on The Sun Shines Bright and Gertrud (released in two parts) and Satantango, both available on the Internet, and we plan to collaborate on others at some point. This is a very rich and burgeoning area in film criticism at the moment; Kevin has already produced a vast quantity of such essays, many of which are really fine, and Catherine Grant [4], among others, has done an excellent job of tracking this sort of activity, and Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin have recently been specializing in this sort of work. Godard and Marker are of course two of the major pioneers.



[1]  http://cinema-scope.com/author/jonathan-rosenbaum/

[2]  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/10/movies/magician-an-orson-welles-retrospective-by-chuck-workman.html

[3]  http://twitchfilm.com/2014/12/review-magician-a-massive-collage-tribute-to-orson-welles.html

[4] at http://filmstudiesforfree.blogspot.com/

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