Chicago Reader Blog post and some responses about OPERA JAWA and its review in the New York Times (January 16-21, 2008)

The following blog post provoked 68 comments, 16 of which I’ve elected to retain here. — J.R.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008
The New York Times returns to its philistine roots
Posted by Jonathan Rosenbaum on Wed, Jan 16, 2008 at 4:11 PM

I’ve been reflecting lately that the film coverage these days in the New York Times — thanks to the lively prose of Manohla Dargis, the literary intelligence (if not the film background) of A.O. Scott, and the critical and scholarly chops of Dave Kehr — may be better than it’s ever been before. But then I read the ugly, xenophobic, tossed-off review of Opera Jawa by Jeannette Catsoulis in today’s paper, and I realize that in some ways we might as well be back in the 60s, when a barbarian like Bosley Crowther was smugly ruling the roost.

I saw the world premiere of this audacious, undeniably challenging, in fact downright mind-boggling avant-garde masterpiece by Indonesian filmmaker Garin Nugroho at the Venice International Film Festival in 2006, along with my esteemed colleague and friend Olaf Möller, a critic based in Cologne who writes columns for both Film Comment and Cinema Scope. (I’m sorry to say that Olaf’s review of the film for the former isn’t available online, but he aptly called it an “honest-to-God masterpiece of mad invention.”) If memory serves, Olaf has seen most or all of Nugroho’s previous features and understandably regards him as a master, so he had much more context for this film than  I did. I simply regarded it as a dazzling bolt from the blue — something to see and savor again. The film is part of New Crowned Hope, an ambitious and fascinating series of films commissioned from the third world as part of an international celebration of Mozart’s 250th birthday; others in the series have included Tsai Ming-liang’s I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century — but of course Catsoulis can’t be bothered to mention any of this.

Back in the days of Crowther, you could treat a knock of his as a recommendation — at least that’s what I often did when I was a freshman at NYU, and the gamble usually paid off. It would be nice to think that some readers today use Catsoulis the same way, but frankly I doubt that many will rush off to the Museum of Modern Art to see Opera Jawa after reading her short review, buried at the bottom of the fifth page of the arts section. And I’m even more depressed when I think that the odds of this film making it to Chicago may be reduced because it’s now possible for a potential programmer to shrug and say, “The Times says it stinks.”

“One of the extraordinary advantages of growing up French,” David Denby wrote in the New Yorker almost a decade ago, “is that you can be absurd without ever quite knowing it” — a flip way of insulting about 58 million people. Catsoulis is slightly less direct about insulting almost 235 million Indonesians, but the implication that what she perceives as their quaint customs are all pretty hilarious seems to hover over her review. In both cases, the assumption appears to be that if you’re fortunate enough to be a New Yorker, no further education or level of sophistication is necessary; if you’re unfortunate enough not to be, the farther away you are, the likelier you are to be ridiculed with impunity.

Comments:

I admire your work, JR, and am proud to have published an interview with you on my blog. But you’re about as far off-based on this topic as you could possibly be. The review in question is not negative by a long shot; quite the contrary, it is designed to use 200 words to intrigue people who might not otherwise be inclined to seek out a film like this one. Brief as it is, the review makes the film sound like a challenge to adventurous moviegoers who feel like spending their money on something other than the Hollywood usual. Beyond that, I’m very sorry to say that this blog entry is written from a position of ignorance of how newspapers other than the Chicago Reader work. At the Times, as well as other dailies, the lead critics (in this case, A.O. Scott and Manohla) make first choice of what’s out there, followed by Holden, then the freelancers — me, then Catsoulis, then the rest of the pool. (I’ve been taking a couple of weeks off from the Times to work on a personal project, so I wasn’t in the lineup the week this one was handed out — otherwise I might have picked it, and been the object of your ire. Dodged that bullet!) At the Times, freelancers are rarely allowed to write longer than 200 words on a movie. If Catsoulis had included the information you chastised her for omitting from her capsule review, and explained it at a level of detail sufficient to satisfy you, she would have lost about half of her word count. I was going to say that this entry should have been a classic Jonathan Rosenbaum rant against the system that would relegate a movie like this to a non-mainstream theater in New York, and coverage of the movie to a daily newspaper’s back pages — but that would have required you to come at this subject from a position of knowledge that you apparently lack. You’ve traditionally been one of the few critics consistently hammering on Hollywood movies for adopting the “one bad apple” approach to drama, wherein larger systemic ills are pinned on a single bad guy. I’m sad to see you do that very thing here.
Posted by Matt Zoller Seitz on January 17, 2008 at 12:00 PM

Dear Matt, I’m not at all in ignorance of how reviews get assigned at the Times. For all my frustration about taking the film more seriously than the Times review implies that we can or should, my real objection is the review’s xenophobia, which you don’t address — unless your implication is that the only way to “sell” an Indonesian film in the Times is to ridicule it. Maybe this is what’s sometimes called “good-natured” ridicule, but I find it snotty none the less.
Posted by Jonathan R. on January 17, 2008 at 1:31 PM

Matt, I’m a big fan of your writing and The House Next Door. But how can you claim “[the review in question] is designed to use 200 words to intrigue people who might not otherwise be inclined to seek out a film like this one” when Jeanette’s lede is “Opera Jawa is guaranteed to test the fortitude of all but the most adventurous viewer”?! That hardly sounds like an open invitation meant to “intrigue” the uninitiated, especially given how few NYT readers would even make the effort to read a page five review of a hybrid Indonesian musical. “Not negative by a long shot”? In such a Times-centered NY art-house filmgoing culture — where, as you well know, Matt, reviews from the paper of record literally make or break small movies — I’d say that first line all but destroys the film’s chances of attracting any kind of audience, which in turn ruins its chances of playing in other markets across the country. And 200 words or 2000, the failure to contextualize Opera Jawa as part of the “New Crowned Hope” series is just inexcusable; it’s as important to understanding this movie as any plot synopsis. (But apparently not as important as the fact that Eko Supriyanto was on Madonna’s Drowned World Tour.) 200 words aren’t a lot, obviously, but you have to make them count.
Posted by wells on January 17, 2008 at 2:49 PM

I’ve been reading J. Rosenbaum’s writings for quite a while, and find myself disagreeing with him as often as agreeing, but on this one I’m totally with him. Keeping in mind space restrictions, the original review is still snide and dismissive, while not really giving much of an idea of what the film (which I haven’t seen) might be like. I don’t mind the lack of context or references to New Crowned Hope (though “wells” is right — that’d be much more important than namedropping Madonna) but I do take exception to the condescending way the review treats the film, while not writing about it aesthetically in any way. There’s an undercurrent of snickering throughout the review. On the plus side, this little controversy has made me really want to see the film. — Ed Only The Cinema
Posted by Ed Howard on January 17, 2008 at 3:00 PM

Ed, I was thinking the same thing. There was a piece in the NYT recently about a revival of Last Year at Marienbad. I don’t mean to be facetious when I say that describing a film as “guaranteed to test the fortitude of all but the most adventurous viewer” (or “audacious, undeniably challenging, in fact downright mind-boggling avant-garde” — masterpiece or no) may appeal directly to potential viewers most likely to be interested (and receptive to) it: i.e., those who appreciate feeling adventurous and challenged. Surely there are enough of them in NY to fill up some seats at MOMA, which isn’t exactly hard to get to. Those who already know about the New Crowned Hope series should already be up for it, so I hope the screening goes well. I also hope that the days when Bosley Crowther or Vincent Canby could kill the distribution prospects of a film with a negative review are over. To look on the bright side: For an avant-garde musical like this, Nathan Lee’s rave in the Voice may be the best publicity possible.
Posted by jim emerson on January 17, 2008 at 3:48 PM

Wells: Politically incorrect as it may be to admit such a thing, the fact that Eko Supriyanto was on Madonna’s Drowned World Tour will put more butts in seats than any of the contextualization we’re demanding here. Using the exact wording JR employs in his contextualization portion would reduce JC’s word count from 200 words to 169. JR: I can’t disagree that your own attitude toward the film in this blog entry reveals you as inclined to seek out a film such as Opera Jawa, and JC’s Times review does not. That said, you describe the movie as “audacious, undeniably challenging, in fact downright mind-boggling avant-garde masterpiece,” and “a dazzling bolt from the blue.” These may be words that prompt filmgoers with eclectic taste to rush to their laptops or phones and order their tickets in advance; but read through the eyes of moviegoers who consider Juno a daring independent film, they are no different in meaning from “guaranteed to test the fortitude of all but the most adventurous viewer” — and I suspect that phrase would be counterbalanced in such a hypothetical viewer’s mind while reading Catsoulis’ capsule by her phrase, “A colorful and confounding head trip,” which makes it sound like a midnight movie that’s loads of fun. Furthermore, the description, “Dancing seductively on a tabletop, wearing a jaunty fedora and red cummerbund, he generates a magnetism breaching cultural boundaries” — however “condescending” it may seem to JR and to commentors here — is a pull-quote that any advertiser would be happy to have. Am I being hypersensitive to an attack on a colleague because of the thought, “What if it had been me?” Almost certainly. But I do think there’s an ignorance of how the system works (journalism and movie distribution) that comes through in this blog post. JR, I’ll counter with another question: if you know full well how movies are assigned at the Times, why did you tar my colleague by extended, false comparisons to Bosley Crowther, the Times‘ lead film critic and uncontested cultural power for over a generation? Why did you not mention that she’s a freelancer with no control over word count or placement in the paper’s arts section? For an example of a somewhat similar controversy accusing a Times freelance film critic of being dismissive and not contextualizing a movie within a capsule review, see Caveh Zahedi’s back-and-forth with Nathan Lee, here: http://blogs.indiewire.com/caveh/archive/007799.html
Posted by Matt Zoller Seitz on January 17, 2008 at 3:52 PM

Jim, I do film publicity at an art-house movie theater in New York. Based on the box office grosses of our titles over the last few years, I’m sad to report that an indie film’s commercial prospects in this city (and thus, the rest of the country) are still, by and large, predicated primarily on Times reviews and coverage. Obviously there are exceptions, but Jeannette’s piece still unforunately wields a lot more power than whatever ecstatic and copious praise the Voice has to offer. It’s a sad state of affairs when a review from anyone at The New York Times means more for box office revenue than one attributed to J. Hoberman. Matt, thanks for linking to that Zahedi/Lee discussion; it’s an essential dialogue between a filmmaker and critic, something I’d like to see a lot more.
Posted by wells on January 17, 2008 at 5:18 PM

With all due respect, Matt, my original post was and is mainly about ideology and ideological bias — a place where you and I and Jeannette Catsoulis and Bosley Crowther can all be discussed in the same breath. It wasn’t about the relative freedom and power of first stringers versus freelancers or word lengths or even criticism as promotion (though the welcome comment from “wells” about the Times does seem important. Having been lambasted by many for my Op Ed piece about Bergman a few months back, I’m sure that much of it had to do with its having appeared in the Times, and it would be churlish of me not to admit that I’m often susceptible to the same sort of kneejerk reaction.)
Posted by Jonathan R. on January 17, 2008 at 5:46 PM

It’s the capsule of a fashion reviewer watching a music video.
Posted by HarryTuttle on January 17, 2008 at 6:45 PM

I would have to agree with Mr. Rosenbaum. The Catsoulis piece is not only quite shallow but takes the position of being fascinated by a culture’s quaintness. I found this remark particularly ignorant and potentially xenophobic: “Suffering from neither is Siti’s would-be lover, a besotted butcher named Ludiro (the Javanese dancer and choreographer Eko Supriyanto), whose excessive attachment to his mother would nevertheless give any girl pause.” Hmm, so for Catsoulis close family relations in Indonesian culture is strange and emasculating? No one wants a mama’s boy, right? Well, here in Southeast Asia, women prefer men who have a healthy relationship with their mothers, because they know these men know how to treat women. But oh no, this is just too… weird! This capsule is by far more interested in clever turns-of-phrase than in generating any sort of insight. All I get from Catsoulis’s writing: those Indonesians [insert foreign cultural group here], they ARE inscrutable!
Posted by Dottie on January 18, 2008 at 9:16 AM

Catsoulis’s “guaranteed to test the fortitude of all but the most adventurous viewer” did seem to recall Crowther’s (actually more favorable) 1958 review of Pather Panchali: “one of those rare exotic items […] that should offer some subtle compensations to anyone who has the patience to sit through its almost two hours.” But then I even found the lead of Dargis’ (otherwise great) rave review of Still Life today slightly insulting … “Jia Zhang-ke is among the most strikingly gifted filmmakers working today whom you have probably never heard of”!
Posted by j. amortell on January 18, 2008 at 6:35 PM

Just walking in on this and looking at the Times review, well, it does seem snotty. That said, I’d love to see the film — his Leaf on a Pillow I wasn’t a big fan of, but I thought A Poet was tremendous filmmaking.
Posted by Noel Vera on January 20, 2008 at 12:20 AM

You know, it seems like a constant resentment of Rosenbaum’s is about New York being the perceived capital of the U.S. intelligentsia and everything that goes with that — movies premiere there before they usually do in the “boondocks” as he sarcastically refers to Chicago — meaning that’s how he thinks said “intelligentsia” considers a city like Chicago -, and not terribly fascinating critics like Lane and Denby are considered authorities without considering the middlebrow apolitical “cocktail party quips” kind of prose they usually churn out. I’m not saying simply that Rosenbaum is jealous per se and thus feels a constant need to gripe about the superiority complex of New York and how that can breed arrogance like the review in question — I actually basically agree with him about this — as would most Chicago cinephiles frustrated by all the attention showered on the coasts especially when we have one of the few truly important critics that I know of in Rosenbaum — sadly, not anymore. But I wonder if it would be such a big deal if that review had ran in an Ohio paper for instance. What I’m saying is — and maybe this has already been discussed in the 35 posts this topic has generated — but how much is this really about cultural sensitivity and how much is just simply about the smarmy condescension of New York critics and how we love to hate it to some extent.
Posted by Matt on January 20, 2008 at 1:14 PM | Report this comment

Dearest Jonathan, So there I was, curled up in bed with the ‘flu and enjoying my umpteenth viewing of Team America: World Police, when the phone calls started coming. And while normally nothing could tear me away from this true-blue masterpiece, your outburst is just too delicious. It’s not every day one can savor the experience of upsetting Jonathan Rosenbaum, but to be compared to Bosley Crowther! I confess I’m quite giddy with the honor; and though darling Bosley is even now gazing down from his portrait above my bed with that cautionary glint in his eye, I am inclined to bask in the glow of your attention, however rude and contemptuous. And besides, it seems rather cowardly to allow my colleague Matt to do all the heavy lifting for me, however eloquently. Having watched this fracas unfold with no small amount of disbelief, I have to ask: dear Lord, man, are you serious? Are you so out of touch with average moviegoers that you can’t see that most of them would need to be marched at gunpoint into this film? Or that I’m twisting myself in knots to provoke their curiosity? I’m not posting here to unload a sob story about editing or word counts — I stand by every single word of that review — but your outrage is symptomatic of a critical orthodoxy that reviles the use of humor to talk about any filmmaker anointed as a sacred cow. In other words, make fun of Michael Bay all you want, but joke about Kiarostami and the Wrath of Rosenbaum will manifest. The stultifying humorlessness of much of our film discourse is not only stifling to criticism but insulting to readers. This is exactly the kind of thinking that labels reviews like my own “condescending” and “tossed off”, glibly dismissing them without addressing their possible utility in reaching audiences who lack the time or interest to wade through your own dense, erudite paragraphs. My aim with this review — which I believe I achieved — was to convey a) the film’s baffling narrative, b) its exoticism, and c) its unbridled sense of fun. The dialogue alone, while no doubt suffering in translation, is an absolute hoot. (Proving at least the director has a sense of humor, even if some of his champions do not.) Quoting one of the funniest lines, therefore, was not intended to be snide or snotty or insulting, but exemplary: I believe most viewers will find the singing about sperm and pig livers as riotous as I do. As for my admiration for Mr. Supriyanto, I apologize to no-one for noting the aesthetic and erotic pleasure given by a man — foreign or homegrown  — who knows how to move his body. As a healthy, hetero woman (who may or may not be white, to address some not-so-veiled assumptions going on in this forum), I find him a delight to watch and his pop-culture credentials (as Matt points out) a possible access point for audiences who might otherwise feel disinclined to see the film. As a longtime reader and admirer of your work, I am less surprised by your attack than saddened by your knee-jerk bellicosity. My knowledge of Indonesian cinema may be rudimentary –- that’s one of the reasons we all read you — but to accuse me of xenophobia on the grounds of a single, 200-word piece is quite a stretch. (My recent review of Bahman Ghobadi’s  Half Moon is only one of many pieces of counter-evidence — and one in which, incidentally, I took care to mention the New Crowned Hope festival. Don’t I at least get a gold star for that?) If you knew me even slightly, you would know that while my defects of character are indeed many and varied, xenophobia is not among them. (And, while we’re addressing assumptions, I don’t live in New York City and I am not American). And if I might respond to the commenter named Dottie: any man who has “a healthy relationship” with his mother is indeed a wondrous specimen, but one who begs for permission to crawl back into her womb could be a problem. I’m just saying, Dottie, I’m just saying. What’s sad about all this is that I don’t think our opinions of the film are all that different. You just seem to think that there’s an “acceptable” way to write about a movie like Opera Jawa while I constitutionally resist such orthodoxies. I set out to write a lively, cheeky review of a lively, cheeky film — no more, no less. That it should precipitate such a response says much more about you than it does about me. Peace, Jeannette
Posted by Jeannette Catsoulis on January 21, 2008 at 7:41 PM

Dear Jeannette, If one of your reasons for reading me is to attain any knowledge of Indonesian cinema, I’m afraid you’re wasting your time and that I’m the last person you should be reading for that purpose. But I’d be every bit as misguided if I presumed to review you or your personality or your nationality or your home base, none of which I know anything about. All I was commenting on was one review and the assumptions I rightly or wrongly found in it — that is to say, in your prose and your implied readership. I certainly wasn’t claiming and wouldn’t ever claim that there’s any acceptable way to write about any film, including Opera Jawa. And we’re all free to disagree about what we like and don’t like. I thought I was implying only that there are objectionable and unobjectionable ways of writing about human beings. If I misled you or anyone else about this, my apologies. Peace, Jonathan
Posted by Jonathan R. on January 21, 2008 at 10:15 PM

Dear Jonathan, I appreciate your response; we are all capable of making assumptions, and I would be a poor sort of writer if I did not use this exchange as an opportunity for self-examination as well as self-defense. I have been reading you — and, despite your modesty, learning from you — for more years than I care to count, and I look forward to many more. Peace, Jeannette
Posted by Jeannette Catsoulis on January 21, 2008 at 11:20 PM

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