From Kevin Lee’s web site, posted circa 2004. — J.R.
The following questions for Jonathan Rosenbaum were compiled by myself and esteemed colleagues at the IMDb Classic Film Board. They were e-mailed to Rosenbaum on the occasion of the release of his book ESSENTIAL CINEMA. His responses appear after each question.
Q- I was actually quite surprised when I saw that your book argued for the necessity of canons, given your previous criticism of the AFI’s top 100 lists and how it institutionalizes popular taste in much the same way as any canon does. Also, you testify to the profound affect that the Sight and Sound top 10 list had on you during your college years (as was the case for me) — but couldn’t one say that this, or any list, may be as limiting in its own way (in the perspective it espouses) as the AFI list? If the goal is to encourage people to see as many things as possible, I wonder if any canon or list alone is up to that task. Would you agree to that the problem is not in these canons or lists but in our attitudes towards them (for example, I don’t think it was the virtue of the Sight and Sound list in itself, but your attitude towards it, that made it worthwhile)? Or is there something else that warrants our consideration?
A – I’m certainly not arguing that one list is as good (or as limited) as another list or that every canon or list necessarily institutionalizes. (I also am not arguing that it’s invariably good to see as many movies as possible.) The criteria used for choosing participants in polls is very important. Sight and Sound knew how to get a representative sample of international critical thought in the 50s, 60s, and 70s; more recently, I think the same magazine has shown a less certain grasp of what’s going on in criticism — although they obviously pay a lot more attention to business and market issues. The AFI seemed (and seems) concerned almost exclusively with market issues, not with criticism at all–which is partly what made their list so unsatisfying to me.
Q – A general question about the state of movie watching in the 21st century. I think we can agree that more films (not to mention information and opinions on films) are available than ever to the lay-viewer thanks to the Internet and DVD technology. However, your book MOVIE WARS argues that certain forces are conspiring to limit what people can see. Some of us have trouble reconciling your argument with the reality they experience (hundreds of previously unavailable movies that they can order from Amazon, Netflix, etc.) — if anything there seem to be too many interesting films out there to watch. How would you respond to their misgivings about your thesis? Do the presence of arthouse satellite channels and dvd accessibility of international films merely serve to push world cinema into a minority niche market, instead of being more readily available for a wider potential audience?
A – What I’m mainly addressing in MOVIE WARS is ideology — specifically, market forces that are wrongly perceived as “natural” reflections of what most people want. I don’t believe that anyone knows what most people want, including most people, because to speak about such a thing without any consideration of what the actual choices are is being disingenuous. The wider availability of films on DVD is certainly a major development, and this has become much more evident since I wrote the book in the late 1990s. But this doesn’t count for much if people don’t have a good understanding of what’s out there and/or what’s interesting or important about it.
Q – Those of us who admire and endorse you appreciate how you have challenged us to develop new relationships and appreciations for movies. On the other hand, others who are skeptical describe your writing as having “an air of superiority.” I wonder if it is possible to challenge an audience to broaden its tastes in film, art, life, etc. without being perceived and attacked as a snob. What are your thoughts on this particular challenge, the “terms of engagement”, if you will?
A – If my writing exudes an air of superiority to the kind of bullshit promo that passes for criticism in most outlets, then I’m glad and I don’t think I have anything to apologize for. Is my enthusiasm for Chaplin, Jerry Lewis, Marilyn Monroe, or a recent commercial movie like Down with Love “snobbish”? Or is it my contempt for some stupid commercial movies that some other people like that deserves that adjective? American culture is passionately anti-intellectual, and if coming across as an intellectual means being perceived as a snob, then I guess I have no choice in the matter….Couldn’t one also argue that those Americans who refuse to acknowledge that Jerry Lewis in the 50s was more beloved in the U.S. than he ever was (or could have been) in France are snobs, and ill-informed snobs at that? And what about all those Americans who pretend that Chaplin and Monroe were mindless?…If it’s elitist of me to like certain kinds of art that are difficult, then I guess I’m an elitist. But in a democracy, I’d like to think that it’s permissible to like all sorts of things, including some works that are difficult.
Q – There’s been debate about your writing style, which may be characterized as free-associational, or just plain digressive, depending on who you ask, and how it makes references to a litany of other films and filmmakers, not to mention other background info — cultural, socio-political, historical, personal, etc. Some of us appreciate this expansive approach to writing about a film, others find it alienating and pedantic. Do you have a particular reader in mind when you write your reviews and books? Do you assume in your readership a certain kind of knowledge or attitude towards films?
A – The attitude that I address in readers is one that assumes that film is an integral part of life and the world, not an alternative to life or the world, and therefore is relevant to all sorts of things–the kinds of things I like to discuss in addition to film as film. For whatever it’s worth, some readers don’t consider me either digressive or free-associational but someone who’s trying to talk about why films matter. The issue of being digressive may not be as simple as some people think. Are Proust, Faulkner, and Pynchon all digressive writers? I guess they are, and I bring this up because I’m sure all three have had some impact on my writing. For me, even when they appear to digress they’re ultimately getting at the core of their subject by peeling away separate layers. So maybe this is just a kind of style that I favor.
Q – Some of us have problems with criticisms you have made of other critics over the years, such as Kael, Ebert, Siskel, and especially David Denby and The New Yorker, because it strikes them as being mean-spirited. On the other hand, in the course of these attacks you’ve raised some provocative points about their respective aesthetic values in contrast to your own, and what implications they have on the shaping of our collective aesthetic tastes. What do you have in mind when you single out one of your peers for criticism? Do you ever regret making these criticisms of your peers, or do you feel the ends justify the means?
A – I suppose every critic who writes regularly and often winds up having some regrets at one time or another. But what I have in mind by criticizing some of my colleagues is precisely what I say — nothing more and nothing less. If you think some of your colleagues are both wrong and influential and want to counter or challenge what they’re saying, what’s wrong with doing this? When I was a teenager in Alabama and used to criticize George Wallace, some of my classmates used to tell me, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Is this the sort of complaint that’s being made about me quarreling with other critics?It’s not as though I’m threatening the livelihoods of any of these people. Aren’t critics supposed to criticize? Or is the problem simply that I’m only supposed to criticize bad movies, not bad critics or bad criticism? Personally, I believe that when Denby slanders every French person who’s alive or anyone who assumes that Stanley Kubrick is an artist, it’s he who’s being mean-spirited and abusive. As for Roger Ebert, I’m rather surprised that you bring him up; he’s a friend, even if we often disagree with one another. And, for whatever it’s worth, I’ve sometimes agreed in print with Kael and Denby as well as Ebert and even written about liking Denby’s prose style.
Q – Recommend a recent book of film criticsm to us (other than yours, ha!)
A – Here are several I’d recommend: MORE THAN NIGHT: FILM NOIR IN ITS CONTEXTS by James Naremore; Chris Fujiwara’s book on Jacques Tourneur; Tom Gunning’s book on Fritz Lang; Nicole Brenez’s book on Abel Ferrara (not yet out — I read it in manuscript, in French, before it was recently translated into English by Adrian Martin; it should be out by 2005); Bill Krohn’s HITCHCOCK AT WORK; Manny Farber’s NEGATIVE SPACE (expanded edition); J. Hoberman’s THE DREAM LIFE. Much more modestly, I found myself engrossed in the very recent SONTAG & KAEL: OPPOSITES ATTRACT ME by Craig Seligman.
OK, on to the fun stuff — lists — namely, yours!
Q – Your list of 1,000 favorite movies was met with both enthusiasm and frustration by my group — enthusiasm because there were so many unexpected titles that piqued our interest; frustration because a) many of them are unavailable to us, at least on video, but more importantly b) they weren’t accompanied by an account for why you selected them (a couple of sentences on each would have been very helpful — in fact I’ve had to cite your Reader capsule reviews in several instances when others wondered aloud “why the hell did he choose THAT?”). The thing that’s always frustrated me about lists (from AFI to Sight and Sound) is that there’s no contextual information to explicate their merits to those uninitiated with the films in question. Without such an account, how are we to approach your list?
A – You can approach my list however you like. But writing two sentences each on 1000 films would have been not only a grinding chore for me but a way of making the whole exercise superficial and sound-bitey. It’s a list of personal favorites — nothing more. (If I said that chocolate was my favorite flavor of ice cream, would you require two sentences of explanation about that?)
Q – You mention at the start of your list that there are movies you haven’t caught up with yet, and this adds to our conjecturing of why certain titles are excluded from the list. To relieve this confusion just a little bit, are there any particular titles that you consider particularly conspicuous on your to-see list? Also, are there any films that could be classified as bona fide classics that you really dislike?
There are loads of so-called classics that I dislike or am relatively indifferent to. One prominent film that I haven’t yet seen is Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander.
Q – Those of us who suspect you are biased against mass-appeal favorites could forgive the exclusion of Gone with the Wind or Star Wars, but Casablanca??? Is Casablanca missing from the list because you consider it too status-quo? How would you account for why many movie fans love it? Do you consider love for Casablanca to be an example of herd mentality, or is its non-inclusion on the list simply an example of your being provocative and iconoclastic? Or is it we who are reading too much into this? (you have to understand that your writings about how mass taste is shaped by various influences makes us sensitive to this issue) Same question about King Kong.
A – I do like Casablanca – if its status is part of some herd mentality, then I’m part of that herd. It just isn’t one of my 1000 favorite films. I actually like Gone with the Wind even more than Casablanca, and King Kong more than Gone with the Wind. In fact, King Kong was originally on my list, and I can no longer remember now why I bumped it. I must have thought of some other film I liked more….I’ve always detested Star Wars and this was never in the running.
Q – Some of us have a problem with your choices and exclusions concerning animated films. Why do Lumiere movies make the list, but no early animation breakthroughs like the animated shorts of Stanislas Starewicz and Winsor McKay? Is it because animation appeals less to you than live action, or does is animation less artistically important? The current list makes it look like there was practically no worthwhile animation (one Fleischer short) until the advent of Tex Avery. Does he consider Avery to be that much more important than Starewicz, McKay, Reininger, Disney, Fleischer, Clampett, Freleng, Jones, and Hanna and Barbera? Or is this just an extreme personal preference for one particular artist’s style? (And what’s The Three Caballeros doing on this list?) What about Japanese anime, which has its own legacy and landmarks (Miyazaki, Grave of the Fireflies, Ghost in the Shell, etc)?
A – We’re talking about personal favorites, nothing else — and I’d never pretend or presume to be an animation expert who could speak about what was most important. I find The Three Caballeros a joy to watch. (Does that make me a snob?) I also get a lot of pleasure from Foghorn Leghorn cartoons, many of them by Clampett, but couldn’t come up with a single title. In the case of Fleischer, by the way, at least half of Stoopnocracy is live-action.
Q – One person thinks that despite the many foreign entries, there’s an underrepresentation of Northern, Eastern and Southern European films, countries such as Norway, Sweden (apart from Bergman — how about Victor Sjostrom?), Greece (Angelopolous?), Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia (pre-1990), Holland, Romania, Spain, Hungary or Poland? Is it because there seems to be a lack of auteurs in the area? But what about such masters like Lucian Pintilie or Juraj Jakubisko?
A – I didn”t say anything about a lack of auteurs anywhere. I’m talking about films that matter a lot to me personally — which include at least a few things by Chytilova (Czech), Makavejev (Yugoslav), Jancso, and Tarr (Hungarian). But sorry, but I don’t have any particular geographical quotas when it comes to selecting favorites.