I will be reprinting the entirety of my first and most ambitious book (Moving Places: A Life at the Movies, New York: Harper & Row, 1980) in its second edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) on this site in eleven installments. This is the first.
For specific, invaluable, and diverse forms of assistance to me in preparing this book, I owe particular thanks to Lizzie Borden, Meredith Brody, W. L. and Diane Butler, Ian Christie, David Ehrenstein, Aston and Mae Murray Elkins, Manny Farber, Carolyn Fireside, Sandy Flitterman, Vicki Hiatt, Penelope Houston, Allan Kronzek, Lorenzo Mans, David Meeker, Cynthia Merman, Patricia Patterson, Carrie Rickey, Paul Schmidt, Allan Sekula, Wally Shawn, Charles Silver, David Sobelman, Bobby Stewart, Beulah Sutton, Amos Vogel, and Bibi Wein;
the staffs of the Florence Public Library, Florence, Alabama; the Information Department at the British Film Institute in London; the Film Study Center at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the Motion Picture Division of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.;
and National Endowment for the Arts, for an Art Critics Fellowship Grant which permitted me to launch this project in 1977.
Looking Back at Moving Places
This book marks one of the last gasps of an era of moviegoing and movie theaters that ended with the widespread use of VCRs. In fact, I’m not even sure it would have been written if video had been at my disposal in 1977, back when it was still a tributary of film rather than the other way around. Although Moving Places was written partly out of a sense of personal necessity—a need to connect my early adulthood as a film critic in the 1970s with my movie-drenched childhood and family life in the 1940s and 1950s, which came from my family running a small chain of theaters in Alabama — it was defined, in large measure, by its research tools. And these consisted of TVs, audiocassettes, libraries, film archives, and — no less important — subjective recollections from a few contemporaries about the same movies I was writing about.
VCRs were certainly around at the time, as were certain forms of video projection; see, for instance, the references to Advent screens in the last three chapters, which already sound a little dated. I was even writing about video as a journalist to support my writing of Moving Places. Among the articles I wrote for American Film in order to pay the rent was a little piece of spite for that magazine’s new section “The Video Scene” in the November 1979 issue. My polemic was mockingly flanked on both sides by advertisements for “classic films” on video and it said in part,
I can’t yet afford any of these exciting gadgets, so I might be affected just a little by sour grapes. As a practicing film critic, I can’t help but envy those who can examine and study the films I write about at a closer range than I have available to me. Even if, by my reckoning, none of my favorite films qualify exactly as “films” on videotape (I’d sooner regard them as ghosts of movies I once knew, or as snapshots of friends I’ll hopefully meet again), these hybrid reproductions could assist my work in countless ways.
No doubt they could — and in fact did after I bought a VCR about five years later. But if I’d had this luxury in the late 1970s, this book would have had a different historical address — and, I suspect, a less valuable one. For the mindset I was working from was one closely allied to what film theorist Raymond Bellour was calling, in an article of the same title published in the Autumn 1975 Screen, “the unattainable text.” This was what still gave movies much of their magic and pungency — the slim likelihood in most cases that one would ever see them again — and what made Moving Places for me a sort of romantic quest.
Like many other romantic quests of the 1970s, mine was essentially rebellious and countercultural in spirit. To rediscover the 1950s, I was consciously adopting and emulating many attitudes associated with the 1960s: a sensual curiosity looking for adventure and willing to take risks; an open and skeptical mind; a taste for hallucinogens combined with other hedonistic impulses; a political agenda behind my explorations that could be summed up by a line from Yeats (also used as the title of a beautiful Delmore Schwartz story set in a movie theater), “In dreams begin responsibilities”; a utopian feeling for community; and, perhaps most countercultural of all, a passion for recovering vestiges of my lost innocence. Michael Herr’s powerful book about Vietnam, Dispatches, came out in paperback while I was writing Moving Places, and became one of my reference points—an exemplary way of making a head trip out of a contemporary subject.[*]
The methodology I followed in preparing Moving Places consisted of several procedures, most of them carried out concurrently: (a ) poring over the movie advertisements from about 1947 through 1959 in my hometown paper and copying down titles, dates, theaters, and other information about everything I could remember seeing and whatever else that seemed potentially interesting (sometimes looking through the rest of the paper to see what else was going on at the same time, a method most obviously followed in relation to my treatment of Bird Of Paradise); (b ) going through family scrapbooks and other surviving records (diaries, appointment books, letters, etc.) to pin down other memories and dates; (c ) seeking out former employees of the theaters for extended conversations (leading to photographs of the theaters that I had despaired of ever finding by other means); and (d ) looking for opportunities to re-see movies I hadn’t seen since my childhood, most often as a technique for bringing back and thus clarifying my original responses.
Operating instinctively, and not even sure where all this activity was taking me, I regarded this research as a safety net in relation to the actual writing of the book. As someone steeped in modern jazz, I tried to improvise my writing over these factual backdrops the way a jazz musician solos over fixed chord changes, and if I wound up overfetishizing certain dates and place-names, as some readers would later claim, this is because they represented for me guarantees of a certain kind of bedrock truth — the very kind that made speculation and analysis possible.
For the reader, of course, they may tend at times toward distracting clutter. But I’d prefer to think that collectively they function like thumbtacks, holding the text against something more solid, like shared history. For as writer Paul Schmidt pointed out while Moving Places was still being written, the book proceeds from the premise that when we see a movie, the place in time and space and the moment in our age and consciousness determine, to a great extent, what the movie means to us. If reading a book is a private process that catches us up in a flow of imaginary time, “reading” a film, at least in the public space of a theater, is something much closer to a social act. It’s a social act, moreover, that, as Paul put it in a burst of Bazinian insight, “moves us through imaginary spaces filled with real people and things.” Or at least it did before morphing—a technique involving video pixels, first employed in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) — came into use and put all us Bazinians out of business. (The moment you can substitute one pixel for another within a single take, the whole notion of camera reality — including “real people and things” — goes out the window.)
As to how this project initially took formation, two crucial factors were a sympathetic editor, Cynthia Merman, met during a previous project, and a $5,000 grant. The previous project was André Bazin’s Orson Welles: A Critical View, which I translated and edited for Harper & Row while I was living in London during the mid-1970s. By the time the book went to press and Cynthia took over the project from a departing colleague, I was living in San Diego. After two quarters there in a film-teaching slot (my first), I wasn’t rehired and needed to find something else to do with my life. I was advised that certain National Endowment in the Arts art criticism grants were available to film critics and submitted a proposal in which I sketched a plan for a relatively conventional book combining material about my family’s background in film exhibition with a more contemporary look at American moviegoing.
On the happy day I discovered I’d be getting the grant, something closer to the book as it now exists — a more personal and experimental project, involving a reencounter with American life after many years abroad — suddenly swam into view.
Six months later, after I had finished drafts of the first two chapters, Cynthia seemed the most logical person to show them to. Her encouraging response, combined with two favorable reader’s reports, eventually led to a contract. I should stress that this succession of events added up to the most gratifying vote of confidence I have ever received as a writer. It even did more for me than my NEA grant in one crucial respect: for the first and only time in my career, I was being professionally authorized to produce literature.
When I embarked on Moving Places, I had been writing film criticism with some regularity for about six years, although not yet as a weekly reviewer for any publication. In fact, the nature of my project wasn’t so much metacritical as anticritical — not just because the movies commanding most of my attention had no critical status of any kind but also because the aspects of them that preoccupied me were precisely those that criticism ignored or repressed. As Raymond Durgnat noted in his review of the book for Wide Angle (vol. 4, no. 4, 1981, p. 76), “High film culture quickly disowns the child. Rosenbaum writes for him.” Part of this “high film culture” consisted of recent theoretical writing about film: ideological, historical, formal, “structural,” and psychoanalytical studies that were appearing in the quarterly Screen when I was living in London. This material undoubtedly formed a sort of backdrop to my experiments even if I was refusing to play by most of its academic rules — indeed, flouting its puritanical resistances to pleasure and its institutional avoidances of the personal.
Still more influential was my former activity as a fiction writer for a good two-thirds of my life. More precisely, a good bit of the book was built on unholy alliances between literary and cinematic references, starting with William Faulkner and Carl Dreyer (and Faulkner and Walt Disney) in the “Prelude,” which entailed a parody of Light in August in my first two paragraphs, and ending with Plato and Fritz Lang in the last chapter. (In between — specifically in “If Looks Could Kill” — one could also postulate a transition from the J. D. Salinger of “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” to the Sherwood Anderson of Winesburg, Ohio by way of James Dean.) Quite unabashedly, and more in keeping with the aspirations of a novelist than with those of a critic, I wanted somehow to “do” everything, rather in the manner of such models of literary crossbreeding as James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work, William Gass’s On Being Blue, and Viktor Shklovsky’s Zoo or Letters Not About Love; and the everything I wanted to do wasn’t merely on the page, but in life as well. This was asking for trouble, to be sure — especially in relation to an American critical community that habitually insists that art and life, not to mention art and politics, remain incompatible — but I found the challenge exhilarating.
This challenge sent me off on a journey of discovery about what movies had done to me, and for all the self-absorption this entailed, it was also both an extended autocritique and an invitation to others to make their own explorations. The absence of such quests from the kind of cinéphilia one usually encounters today can’t be blamed only on the relative availability of VCRs. I would ascribe it as well to a lack of curiosity about what exists in the world apart from what corporations choose to tell us about and make available, which in other respects is a tribute to the overall success of media monopolies in monitoring the desires, behaviors, and even memories of spectators — a success that may make this book more radical now than it was in 1980. But it’s important to stress that, then as well as now, the canon of movies one is able to see always remains under the control of arbitrary business interests. One example of a missing piece of Hollywood history that had direct bearing on my work is Annie Get Your Gun — a gender-bending MGM musical of 1950 that was my favorite movie at age seven, and which I would have re-seen and explored at length for Moving Places if the demands of Irving Berlin and his estate hadn’t made it inaccessible for decades. But in all other respects, I was thankfully free as a bird.
The only real boundary lines I had, apart from considerations of length and time, were Cynthia’s taste and my own. Cynthia went along with most of my ideas — even the ruse of using double or triple columns in three separate places, which she had serious doubts about because she suspected most readers would skip over them. The only substantial point where we differed and where I didn’t get my way was my desire to make the book more pluralistic in terms of authorship by including two short stories and two essays by other writers. The texts I had in mind were Delmore Schwartz’s “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” Thomas Pynchon’s “The Secret Integration,” Elliott Stein’s “My Life with Kong” (from the February 24, 1977, issue of Rolling Stone ), and Charles Eckert’s “The Carole Lombard in Macy’s Window” (from the Winter 1978 Quarterly Review of Film Studies ). Cynthia read all this material and argued that because the book was mine, the other pieces didn’t belong there. My position, no doubt influenced by the collectivist imprint of two and a half years in London (1974–1977), was that multiple voices would help to clarify that the book was about more than just myself. (On one other matter, Cynthia and I were both overruled by others at Harper & Row: the book had to have a subtitle. The one finally selected was hers.)
Although my ambitions were mainly literary — a bias happily shared by Cynthia, who was far from being a film buff—the book was shelved not in the front of bookstores, as I had hoped, but in the film books section in the back. Now that Moving Places is being re-issued by an academic press, I expect it will still be found in the film books section. In fact, although no one has told me this in so many words, I suspect that one reason I have been asked to write a new introduction is to explain why Moving Places belongs in the film books section. I am trying to oblige, but I must admit that I think it also relevant to American history and cultural studies — and that my own academic career, encompassing eight and a half years, was in English and American literature, not in film. Within my purview at the time, academic film study as it exists today wasn’t yet an option.
Since 1980, a few books have appeared which combine certain aspects of film criticism and fiction, including David Thomson’s Suspects (1985), Theodore Roszak’s Flicker (1991), and Geoffrey O’Brien’s The Phantom Empire (1993). The relative status of fiction over nonfiction in the literary world may explain, in part, why these have had somewhat better luck in being received as literary works. But it’s also why, when a friend and fellow writer once quite sensibly labeled my project “New Journalism,” I felt irrationally insulted. Just as my writer’s career was initially motivated by my desire to “make up for” my father’s unfulfilled dreams in that department, Moving Places was — and I suppose still is — supposed to make up for my unfulfilled ambitions as a fiction writer. (Indeed, there are a few recycled passages from my fiction in it.)
I was even more disappointed by the responses of some people whose literary tastes had exerted enormous influence on my own, and who were put off or offended by the very idea of the book. One famous writer whom I’d known since the 1960s informed me point-blank that I was too young (at 37) to have written an autobiography. (For her the point was categorical and nonnegotiable; I had simply wasted the past three years by pursuing such a project.) Another older writer — in this case a first cousin, a very prestigious journalist who during my teens had introduced me to James Joyce and James Baldwin in a single weekend and had gotten me to read Light in August soon afterward — graciously accepted an inscribed copy from me, but a few years later, when I asked him what he thought, prided himself on his complete lack of interest in reading it. (To be fair, he had read a draft of the first chapter some years earlier, enough presumably to keep him away from the rest, family history and all.)[**]
A sense that I had committed an act of gross self-indulgence undoubtedly lay behind such responses, and although it seemed appropriate that a book as subjective as this one should draw highly subjective responses, it was small comfort to me that the most violent rejections tended to come from mainstream publications. This doesn’t mean that Moving Places was universally scorned — even if the only bookstore in Florence, Alabama, declined my request for a copy-signing session after they examined it, no explanation offered. In fact, the book was received widely, warmly, and quite perceptively among film professionals. I was especially gratified by Todd McCarthy’s review in Variety (March 18, 1981) and Ernest Callenbach’s in Film Quarterly (Fall 1981). When the late Stephen Harvey wrote a considered pan in the Village Voice (April 25–May 5, 1981), my fellow movie reviewer at the Soho News, Veronica Geng, generously responded with a comic rebuttal the following week. In American Film (October 1980, pp. 84–85), Michael Wood, whom I’ve never met, found the book “attractive but rambling and rather unequally written,” in turn “insulated” and “engaging,” “arrogant” and “evocative.” (”One person, even with a head full of movies, doesn’t make a community,” he cautioned in his closing sentence.) “Difficult to review a book by an old friend,” wrote Tom Milne in Sight and Sound (Summer 1981, pp. 201–202), “especially when the book in question contains a flattering reference to oneself. Difficult, that is, to claim impartiality, to be seen to be exercising Olympian detachment.” From there he happily took off from my subjectivity into his own, acknowledging along the way his embarrassment about my “name-dropping pretensions” on the book’s second page, when I alluded to “my lunch with Orson Welles,” then noting his discovery 176 pages later that this “‘casual’ reference to Welles is revealed to be a very studied one, designed to indicate the ways in which, by picking up on and deploying ‘inside’ information, Jonny Rosenbaum of Florence, Alabama, was learning to become Jonathan Rosenbaum, international film critic.”
If I were reviewing this book today, I would have to point out that some of the family details are probably too elliptical to mean much to outsiders, even though in many cases I still think that these gaps can be defended as structuring absences. I would also note that the consideration of my family’s former theater chain is far from exhaustive, and many pertinent aspects of it are skimped. I have never had much of a head (or heart or stomach) for business — another thing that alienates me from the U.S. media today, where attention to such subjects as the Holocaust, John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and the war in Vietnam is deemed acceptable only if configured as a movie tie-in and thus as an occasion for multicorporate profit — and this lack led me to leapfrog on page 12 over the Supreme Court’s 1948 divestiture order that made my family’s business reluctantly independent during its last four years of operation.[***]
One final demurral: The Conquistador, my personification of narrative illusionism, doesn’t perform all the functions in this book I hoped he would, and the passages devoted to him tend to be rather arch. Like much else in the text, he grew out of the writing like a spontaneous weed, and once he reared his ungainly head, I was never quite sure what to do with him. The index traces him back to Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God, but I suspect my reading of Roland Barthes’ The Pleasure of the Text was equally, if perhaps less obviously, inspirational.
There are certain wrong (that is, relatively unfruitful or misleading) ways of reading this book. One of the most common of these is regarding it as criticism in any conventional sense — a misunderstanding I helped to foster by opening the book with the quasi-critical “Prelude” and including excerpts from my published criticism in the last chapter, not to mention the other passages based directly on critical assumptions (such as my “sexual” — actually sexist — encounters with favorite films on pages 181–184, perhaps the least defensible section in the book). Thanks to this misunderstanding, a fair number of readers have assumed that a viewing of Bird of Paradise and/or On Moonlight Bay would offer some sort of useful preparation for what the book has to offer, which couldn’t be further from the truth. My hope is that readers of Moving Places will be spurred to find their own equivalents of those films rather than linger on my own examples — not only because my own key exhibits were pretty arbitrarily chosen but also because I wanted their typicality to stand out as much as their specificity.
Another potentially wrong way of approaching this book is to read it nonconsecutively — either by way of the index or by sampling various sections at random. The problem with doing this is that the book depends on a developing narrative and on cumulative reference points for its meanings, which is why I have come to harbor certain misgivings about the pretensions and implied proposals of “Directions for Use” — an index that should be encountered only after everything preceding it has been read.
Apart from a few sentences about Godard’s film criticism and a couple of sentences about a family trip to New York in 1953, I don’t believe any material from Moving Places is repeated verbatim in Placing Movies, although there are a number of deliberate echoes and rhyme effects. I should add that virtually all the new material in Placing Movies was written before I knew that the University of California Press would reprint Moving Places, despite the fact that I viewed that critical collection from the outset as a companion volume. Together I hope that the two books will offer a useful dialectic about the placement of movies, in life as well as in art.
* I sent Herr a set of galleys prior to the book’s publication in fall 1980, a couple of months before Reagan was elected President for the first time. When I met Herr years later, I was pleased to discover that, thanks in part to relatives of his own who ran movie theaters, he had felt a rapport with my book as well.
** March 2011 postscript: It no longer seems necessary to be coy about the identity of these two people. The first was Susan Sontag; the second was Joseph Lelyveld, who later revised his position and even told me liked Moving Places, after he wound up writing and publishing a confessional memoir of his own, Omaha Blues: A Memory Loop (Picador, 2006).
*** For a more helpful — if still attenuated — discussion of what this ruling meant to such independent-theater fare as foreign films and midnight movies until Reagan came along, see my discussion with J. Hoberman in our Midnight Movies (2d ed., Da Capo, 1991, p. 328).
To the memory of Louis Rosenbaum (1885-1961)